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Update No: 019 - (29/11/04)

Two items dominated North Korea news in November. As the month began, Kim Jong-il, like everyone else, had to come to terms with the (for him) deeply unpalatable prospect of George W Bush's re-election for a second presidential term, all the way through to 2009. Yet while the US will doubtless remain on the dear leader's back, one should not rush to assume that tensions will inevitably heighten; much less that war is on the cards.
Later in the month the focus shifted to Pyongyang. Reports that portraits of Kim Jong-il were no longer so ubiquitous as before prompted speculation that something is afoot: a coup against him, or (conversely) a deliberate bid by the dear leader to scale back his own cult. The latter could have several motives, including: political quasi-normalization, fear of retribution, or an attempt to plan ahead for his own succession.

Bush back: bad news?
Bush's re-election prompted widespread fears - or hopes, depending on one's persuasion - that the US will now tighten the screws on North Korea. "Tear Down This Tyranny" is the cry of Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) - a fine scholar on the DPRK economy, but also a stridently hawkish polemicist - in the Weekly Standard of November 29. Here and in another article in Time, Eberstadt called for regime change: at home in the State Department as well as Pyongyang, where "a better class of dictator" is needed who will be sincere about striking a nuclear deal. With the six-party talks so far "unburdened by performance measures," China must be pressed to take ownership of the North Korea problem. A "human rights offensive" should also be pursued. Eberstadt did not explicitly repeat a claim in an earlier interview that even with commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has sufficient high-tech naval and air force strength for military action in Korea - though, he hastily added, a diplomatic solution remains possible. 

Seoul is against pressing Pyongyang
With many in Seoul fearing just such a hawkish turn in the US, President Roh Moo-hyun was quick to get his retaliation in first, before meeting Bush at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Santiago, Chile. On November 13 Roh reiterated his opposition not only to any use of force, but even economic sanctions: an option which Japan, for one, is openly mulling if Pyongyang continues to stall in bilateral talks on past kidnappings. Roh even implied sympathy for North Korea's seeking nuclear self-defence. Teeth were ground in Washington, but at the summit a veneer of unity was maintained. That may prove harder in the months and years ahead.
Yet Roh is not alone. Indeed, as Bush was no doubt reminded at APEC, in seeking to put the squeeze on Kim Jong-il the US is on its own. Of the other parties to the six-way talks, both China and Russia share South Korea's appeasement approach. Even Japan, with its mix of stick and carrot, for now favours the latter. Bush may have invaded Iraq with few allies, but on North Korea he has none. Given that Iraq, Afghanistan and potentially Iran will keep the US busy in west Asia for years to come, any idea of opening a new front in Korea is hardly credible - as military and intelligence professionals will make clear. The Bush administration can shoot the messenger, as in its current disturbing cull of top CIA officers; but the stark strategic realities of political isolation and force overstretch remain.

Rice might even be nice
As for "regime change" at Foggy Bottom, this may not be so drastic. True, the departure - expected, but not so soon - of Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage removes the main, if not sole, advocates of actively engaging the DPRK in the administration. But for Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, North Korea is not a particular focus. As national security adviser, in Seoul last July she urged Kim Jong-il to emulate Libya's Colonel Muammar Qadhafi in giving up weapons of mass destruction (WMD); saying (twice) that "so much is possible" were he to do so. This suggests a measured approach. 
Much depends on who becomes her deputy. One candidate, John Bolton, currently under-secretary, is a hawk with Kim Jong-il very much in his sights; in a speech in Seoul last year he attacked him by name 41 times. At State they are praying instead to get Arnold Kanter, a moderate and a Korea specialist, who served under Bush senior a decade ago. But even if Bolton gets the job, his power to rock the boat will not be unlimited.

Human rights, diplomatic wrongs
As for human rights: when Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) into law last month he explicitly rejected the legislature's right to tell him how to conduct foreign policy. So if and when the six-party talks do resume, they should be able to focus on the nuclear issue without distraction. That is not to downplay the DPRK's dire abuses, but simply to note that all diplomacy must perforce prioritize. If loose nukes are the most immediate concern, and if Bush continues (at least initially) to seek a negotiated solution, then Kim Jong-il will need reassuring that his overthrow is not on Washington's agenda.
With its aid and funding for refugees, Radio Free Asia and more, the NKHRA is bound to stiffen fears in Pyongyang that the US' real aim is not negotiation, but regime change.
But might the dear leader also have foes closer to home? November has brought a spate of rumours about alleged ructions in Pyongyang. Claims that the dear leader's ubiquitous portrait is disappearing are being interpreted as a waning of his hitherto absolute power; or alternatively, a bid by Kim to normalize North Korea's negative political image. Strife in the DPRK's inner circles is said to have prompted leading generals to defect to China. Argument supposedly rages on two linked dilemmas: how far to open and reform, and whether to follow Libya in surrendering WMD - or risk US wrath. On the streets, anti-regime leaflets and even banners have allegedly been seen. None of this is confirmed.

Rumblings are plausible, in principle
A priori, the notion that something is up in Pyongyang is perfectly plausible. Fond hopes - especially in that "axis of carrot" troika, Beijing, Seoul and Moscow - of Kim Jong-il slowly but surely embracing peace and reform may be the optimal scenario to minimize risk and cost on the peninsula; but are frankly a long shot, given North Korea's extreme obstinacy both at home and abroad. Domestic reform is 20 years too late, while nuclear defiance rules out the investment needed to make reform work. It is hard to have faith in a regime now boycotting not only the six-party nuclear talks (just when the US had at last offered incentives) but also dialogue with a South whose 'sunshine' seems unconditional.
Gradualist hopes may thus be wishful thinking. The DPRK's neighbours should at least make contingency plans for bumpier landings: German-style collapse and absorption, at best, but with a risk of something far messier. In Japan, significantly, leading figures have for the first time been talking openly of the possibility of regime change. Countering this, in an unusual comment China's vice-foreign minister Wu Dawei insisted on November 24 that all is well: North Korean "politics are stable, [and] the economy is developing."

Kim Jong-il could be downsizing his own cult
But what is really happening inside North Korea? On the portrait front, both evidence and hypotheses conflict. While some aid workers detect no change outside Pyongyang, in the capital at least it does seem that Kim Jong-il's visage has become less visible - while that of his late father, North Korea's founding 'great leader,' and (still) eternal president, Kim Il-sung - remains prominent. The official press (there is no other kind) is also using fewer honorifics for the dear leader. He has not been seen for some time, but this is not unusual. Reports continue of his inspections of military units, but these are undated: again not rare.
If Kim Jong-il's cult is being toned down, this might be his own doing. In 2002 pro-North ethnic Koreans living in Japan were told by Pyongyang to remove portraits of Kim from their premises, in a bid to present a more normal image. Doing the same at home could be for this or several other reasons, not all mutually exclusive. In a palpably failing system, ubiquitous reminders of exactly who is responsible might be deemed politically unwise.

Sons set: a collective leadership after Kim?
One interesting theory is that this is meant to prepare for a shift to a collective leadership after Kim. To keep lauding father and son would imply continued hereditary succession, but that is risky. With a tangled marital history, the dear leader has three sons (daughters seem not to count) by two consorts, with no love lost. Kim Jong-nam, the eldest at 33, was embarrassingly caught entering Japan illegally in 2001. His half-brothers Jong-chol (23) and Jong-un (21) are themselves rivals, and too young. What seemed an incipient if abstruse cult of their mother Ko Young-hee, an ex-dancer, ended with her apparent death from cancer this summer. None of the above have ever been named in the official media. 
Ms Ko's passing is itself cited by some to explain why a grieving Kim Jong-il is avoiding the limelight, leaving policy seemingly on hold. In a further twist, his brother-in-law and right-hand man Chang Song-thaek is rumoured to be out of favour for opposing reform. 

At the grass roots, new opportunities
What about the workers? Life for ordinary North Koreans is changing fast. In a drastic recasting of the old social contract, money is displacing politics as the main determinant of life-chances. While this creates new inequalities, aid workers and other regular visitors - who travel beyond Pyongyang, crucially - report that most people seem to welcome the fresh opportunities, increased mobility, scope for business and personal ambition, and a slight easing of political control. (Other reports, as ever unconfirmed, claim that any overt protests - even minor - are still savagely suppressed, pour encourager les autres.) 
The reform process, if long overdue and cautious, is radical by local standards - and risky for the regime. Its consistency over more than two years now suggests a single hand still on the tiller in Pyongyang. Anomalous as North Korea is in the early 21st century, it has proved adept at surviving in a hostile world - while communism elsewhere has collapsed or mutated into something more sensible. Until defecting generals break cover or protests are confirmed, it is safest to assume that the dear leader remains in charge, portrait or no. 

Policy debate is visible
Being in charge is one thing, knowing what to do another. If waiting (in vain) for Kerry was one reason for North Korea's current temporizing, another may well be a clash over policy. While overt debate remains taboo in Pyongyang, two signed articles in November 23's Rodong Sinmun, the daily paper of the ruling Korean Workers' Party (KWP), offer hints. One, mild in its language, calls on the US to "opt to co-exist … in peace;" without which any talks "would result in exchange of verbal attacks and waste of time." The other insists that "the bloody lesson of the Iraqi situation" is the need for an "increase of self-defensive power" and the "right view on war [to] fight the enemy staunchly, not begging for peace by compromise and concession," since "it is a foolish and useless act to expect good will from the imperialists." Much hinges on which view Kim Jong-il finally adopts.

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Kim Jong Il Sends Message of Greetings to Syrian President

Kim Jong Il, general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army, recently sent a message of greetings to Bashar al-Assad, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Syria's Baath Arab Socialist Party and president of the Syrian Arab Republic, on the occasion of the 34th anniversary of the corrective movement in Syria. The message noted that the corrective movement marked a landmark occasion as it brought about an epochal turn in the efforts of the Syrian people to build developed and modern Syria under the wise leadership of their eternal leader Hafez al-Assad and the president. 
The message extended full support to the Syrian people in their just cause of meeting the pressure and challenge of foreign forces, defending the sovereignty of the country and the dignity of the nation and retaking the occupied Arab territories including Golan Heights. It wished the president good health and happiness and the friendly Syrian people greater progress and prosperity.

Gift to Kim Jong Il from Chinese Delegation

Leader Kim Jong Il was presented with a gift by a delegation of the China Association for International Friendly Contact on a visit to the DPRK. It was handed to an official concerned, by head of the delegation, Xing Yunming, vice-president of the China Association for International Friendly Contact.

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