North Korea

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North Korea




Area (

22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)


North Korean won (KPW)

Kim Jong-il

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Following World War II, Korea was split with the northern half coming under Communist domination and the southern portion becoming Western oriented. KIM Jong-il has ruled North Korea since his father and the country's founder, president KIM Il-song, died in 1994. After decades of mismanagement, the North relies heavily on international food aid to feed its population, while continuing to expend resources to maintain an army of about 1 million. North Korea's long-range missile development and research into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. 
Korea is in fact one of the world's older nations. Most of the peninsula was unified in 668CE, when the southern kingdom of Shilla conquered its northern rival, Koguryo. Despite owing much of its civilisation to China, to which it was long a formal vassal, Korea is ethnically and lingusitically quite distinct and was in practice self-governing.
Few countries have known a more painful passage to modernity. The imperialist age found the last Chosun dynasty in decay. Its efforts to keep out the wider world earned it the sobriquet 'hermit kingdom'; but its stubborn refusal to reform made it a "shrimp among whales": prey to whichever power achieved regional dominance. That turned out to be Meiji Japan, which trounced the fading Chinese and Russian empires to rule Korea brutally during 1905-45. This brought some development; yet the scars - such as 'comfort women' (sex slaves) - still poison ties between Japan and today's Koreas.

Those scars include Korea's almost accidental, yet fateful, partition: a 'temporary' US idea in 1945, to stop the Red Army occupying the whole peninsula. Predictably, US and Soviet zones hardened into separate regimes, proclaimed in 1948: the Republic of Korea (ROK) south of the 38th Parallel, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the north. In 1950 the north's ex-guerilla leader, Kim Il-sung, invaded the south, but was beaten back by a US-led UN force. The 1953 Armistice - there is still no peace treaty - left both states in place, but terribly ravaged. Four million died. The sealed border, now ironically called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), hardly budged.
Thereafter the two Koreas competed economically and diplomatically. The DPRK led at first: its GNP was ahead of the ROK's until the 1970s, giving it clout in the Non-Aligned Movement. But the south's alliance with the US and export-oriented model proved a more lasting formula for success, even before the USSR's demise in 1991 both alarmed the now ageing Kim Il-sung and removed his main source of subsidy.

JUCHE - a myth
That blow exposed the 'Great Leader''s vaunted self-reliance (Juche) as a myth. As in Cuba, North Korea's economy went into free fall. Unlike Cuba, the regime's refusal to adapt led to catastrophe. In a uniquely tragic trajectory, a once industrial economy took a great leap backwards. In 1996-98, famine killed at least one million out of 23m people: some estimates run as high as 3m. The country now relies on food aid, which is falling as needs arise elsewhere (Afghanistan, Iraq) and donors grow exasperated. 
Their fustration is threefold. Economically, the DPRK malgre tout still resists market reforms. In July 2002 it imposed drastic wage and price rises; but without supply-side measure to match, these produced little except inflation. Politically, the extreme cult of personality around Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, passed to his son Kim Jong-il in a system, which in the C21 remains Stalinist, ossified, opaque, bizarre, and cruel. Yet even its foes must admit the DPRK's staying power, defying forecasts of its collapse.
Thirdly, rather than reform, North Korea's response to adversity was to rearm. In a policy of militant mendicancy, the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), real or suspected, has been used to parlay resources. Thus after the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, when the Clinton administration considered bombing the Yongbyon nuclear site, the 1994 Agreed Framework (AF) with the US shut Yongbyon - in exchange for fuel oil and two new light water reactors (LWRs), to be built and paid for mainly by the ROK via a consortium, KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization).
Hopes of the AF as a model rose when Kim Dae-jung became ROK president in 1998. His 'sunshine' policy of outreach led to the first ever North-South summit, held in the DPRK capital Pyongyang in June 2000, for which Kim won that year's Nobel Peace Prize. But progress proved fitful, as the US under George W Bush took a harder line: naming North Korea in 2002, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an "axis of evil".

The nuclear crisis
Last October the US accused the DPRK of having a new covert nuclear programme - and says it admitted it. This sparked a new nuclear crisis. KEDO cut off oil supplies; North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors, restarted its Yongbyon reactor, and became the first of 170 signatory states ever to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Provocations continued, in a bid to gain the attention of a US busy with Iraq. North Korea tested two short-range missiles - one spoilt the inauguration of a new ROK president, Roh Moo-hyun, despite his pro-sunshine bent - and buzzed a US spy plane. 
A shift to dialogue came when an anxious China brokered talks between North Korea and the US in April. Wider six-party talks followed in August, bringing South Korea, Japan and Russia to the table too. Neither session made substantive progress; at both North Korea hinted that it has nuclear weapons, and might sell or test them. This may be bluff; nor is it clear if any nuclear arsenal is negotiable, or whether Kim Jong-il has concluded after Iraq that only a nuclear deterrent can save him from sharing the fate of Saddam Hussein. The six-party talks are expected to reconvene in November, although as of late September no further meetings had formally agreed.
If and when talks resume, the next hurdle will be to agree an agenda. North Korea's two nuclear programmes are just the start. On the security front, other worries include its missiles, suspected chemical and biological weapons (CBW), the million-strong Korean People's Army (KPA), and more. Further concerns include kidnaps (a major issue for Japan), counterfeiting, drug trafficking, refugees fleeing hunger into China, and human rights. With different interlocutors having varied priorities, it is very hard to see what kind of deal the DPRK can accept that would resolve much or all of this.
Thus Korea now has odd echoes of two older eras. Again a hermit strategy has failed; and again south has trumped north, at least economically. The gap is so wide that the two no longer fit on the same graph. South Korea exports more in two days than the North in a year, and throws away more food than the North eats. The Korean question today is thus not just about nukes, but how this widening chasm can ever be bridged.
Four scenarios are possible. A 'soft landing', with Kim Jong-il gradually embracing peace and reform, is still feasible and devoutly to be hoped and worked for. Secondly, the alarums may continue, and North Korea limps on as is - but surely not indefinitely. Collapse and absorption is a third possibility: sure to be even more expensive than in Germany, but unlikely to be as peaceful. Finally, a second Korean War would inflict vast casualties (again), and cost trillions of dollars to rebuild South as well as North. 

High stakes
Even a world awash in turmoil has few unfolding dramas with stakes as high as this. The chapter in Korea's long history that began in 1945 is coming to a close. Can the DPRK leopard change its spots, and if so how and with what result? As a sub-plot, but of major import: a growing US-ROK rift, with some Koreans seeing Bush as raising tensions, may yet push South Korea into the arms of a waiting China, already its main trade partner. Unlike most of China's neighbours, Koreans feel comfortable with this; so here again history may repeat itself, and shift East Asia's security tectonic plates. The only certainty is that developments in Korea will demand our utmost vigilance.

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Update No: 005 - (03/10/03)

While September in North Korea brought no one big event to match the importance of the six-party nuclear talks at the end of August, it did see interesting developments on several fronts. Post-mortems on the six-way talks themselves varied in tone, including contradictory verdicts from Pyongyang. Having first dismissed the talks as "a stage show", later DPRK statements affirmed continued commitment to dialogue. There are hopes of a second round in November, but as of late September nothing was yet fixed.

As ever, it is not only North Korea whose policy stance is hard to pin down. After the talks, US State Department comment implied that a step by step process was possible, rather than the unrealistic demand that the DPRK undertake full nuclear disarmament before anything else. This was seen as a victory for the pro-engagement Secretary of State, Colin Powell, over hawks in the Pentagon. Yet a naval exercise off Australia, as part of the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), suggested that interdiction also remains very much part of the US agenda. The struggle for Bush's ear continues. 

Meanwhile, Jack Pritchard - until August the administration's point man on North Korea, now at Brookings - confirmed suspicions that he quit in frustration by warning that the six-party talks were too cumbersome (48 interpreters, for a start!), and that a sustained bilateral US-DPRK dialogue was essential to resolving the nuclear issue.

Chinese troop movements: a warning?
China too, which after years of passivity is now active as a mediator (as in its hosting of the six-party talks), is sending strong but mixed signals. One comment blamed the US for the talks' lack of progress: Beijing is frustrated that Washington did not offer Pyongyang more tangible incentives. Yet other signs suggest that China's real worry, like everyone else's, is its maverick erstwhile ally. In a striking and unprecedented move, up to 150,000 troops have been redeployed in the north-east, taking over border duties from the former border guard force. While the explanation from Beijing is that this is a long-planned move to bring this frontier's arrangements into line with others, the timing and visibility of this operation suggest that China is preparing for the worst - and sending a strong signal to Kim Jong-il that it will not tolerate a nuclear DPRK. 

A more immediate explanation is that recently some North Koreans have crossed the border to rob and kill, rather than seeking work and food. In similar vein, the DPRK's first known bank robbery has been reported. According to a Seoul daily, in August three men stole $40,000 from the Foreign Trade Bank in broad daylight; Kim Jong-il is said to be personally on the case. While hardly headline news elsewhere, for North Korea this signals (if true) that hitherto tight social discipline may be breaking down.

On the nuclear front, fears of further North Korean provocations have eased, at least for now. Rumours that the DPRK's 55th anniversary on September 9 would be marked by either a nuclear test, or the display of a new long-range missile, proved unfounded. In the event, the obligatory parade included no heavy weaponry. With no international controls in place, North Korea is presumed to be pressing ahead with its two nuclear and several missile programmes. Intelligence reports that the Yongbyon site, where plutonium is produced, seems to have shut, inspired varied interpretations: a goodwill gesture, technical difficulties, or transfer of operations to another unknown location?

A new premier sparks hopes of reform
Politically, meanwhile, North Korea has a new parliament. Five-yearly elections to the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) were held on schedule on August 3. (The last ones, in 1998, had been three years late, as politics in Pyongyang in effect shut down after the death of the DPRK's founding 'Great Leader', Kim Il-sung, in July 1994.)

These are 'elections'with a difference. As always, a 99.9% turnout was claimed, with fully 100% endorsing a single list of candidates (including Kim Jong-il, representing a military constituency). 50% of the new MPs are fresh faces, raising hopes of younger and more reform-minded cadres gaining power; although the SPA is a rubber-stamp body which rarely meets. When it convened on September 3, a cabinet reshuffle saw the prime minister and several economic ministers replaced. The new premier is Pak Pong-ju, a technocrat who was formerly minister for the chemicals industry. Little is known of him, but last November he was on a delegation which toured South Korean firms and factories. His hosts found him well-briefed, and an assiduous note-taker.

Then again, the confirmation of all senior party and military figures in their state posts suggests continuity rather than change. Hopes of technocrat-led reform in Pyongyang go back 20 years, with little to show. Yet the fact that since June, markets are at long last fully acknowledged, raises some hopes of real change. However, given the nuclear stand-off, this will only be in the context of an avowed military-first policy, which not only imposes severe resource constraints but militates ideologically against reform.

Inter-Korean ties remain on track
Meanwhile the nuclear issue has not impeded varied inter-Korean contacts. An eighth round of separated family reunions was held in late September at the North's Mount Kumgang resort. The 200 elderly Southern participants travelled on a newly reopened cross-border road, rather than by sea which has been the usual (if cumbersome) route. The by now familiar heart-rending scenes of kin separated for over half a century are more widely painful, in that there is no sign that North Korea is prepared to move on from these one-off brief reunions to any more large-scale or sustained programme. Of some 120,000 South Korean applicants originally, around 20,000 have already died. At this rate, the same fate awaits most of the rest before ever seeing their relatives.

Hitherto Mt Kumgang has also been the only part of North Korea open to Southern tourists; since 1998 half a million have taken tours organized by the Hyundai group. Hyundai, whose multi-billion payments to Pyongyang (both above-board and under the table, as revealed by the 'cash for peace' investigations in Seoul) have drained its finances such that it is no longer Korea's biggest conglomerate, must look askance at a rival breakthrough. On September 15, 114 South Korean tourists flew directly from Seoul to Pyongyang on a DPRK Air Koryo jet for a five-day visit; further groups are set to follow. Pyonghwa Agency, the organizer, is a venture of the Unification Church ('Moonies'), which despite its northern-born founder's staunch anti-communism has for a decade cultivated the DPRK. An affiliate, Pyonghwa Motors, assembles Fiats in the port city of Nampo, and has just got permission for Pyongyang's first ever non-political hoardings to advertise these. This involved delicate negotiations with several ads rejected because "they looked too much like we were trying to sell something." 

Whether or not Pyonghwa's "Whistle" model starts to hum in quantity along North Korea's empty and bumpy highways, cross-border communications are progressing. On September 17, inter-Korean military talks at Panmunjom agreed to start using the roadbeds of two new roads in cross-border corridors, rather than old temporary tracks alongside these, and to open a hotline on the eastern Donghae route. Railway links in both corridors are also scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

While these corridors at least initially may be little used, any breach in what remains the worlds most heavily armed frontier, virtually sealed for the past half-century, has to be progress. Drawing North Korea towards openness and reform is the best way to erode the militancy, which underlies its nuclear defiance. The fear is that if the nuclear crisis worsens, moves to sanction the DPRK would cut off such new shoots; although the US should be wary of worsening already uneasy relations with its South Korean ally. Kim Jong-il can be expected to play upon such divisions. What remains unclear so far is whether he is truly ready, given the right guarantees, to lead his country away from the cul-de-sac (or the abyss) towards a genuine embrace of peace and reform

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