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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 linguistically 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.
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 frustration is threefold. Economically, until recently the DPRK resisted reform. In July 2002 it imposed drastic wage and price rises; but without supply-side steps to match, these produced little except inflation. In 2003, however, it became clear that wider, if cautious, market reforms were under way. 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, and rue, the DPRK's staying power. Over a decade after the demise of the USSR, its battered Korean epigone is still alive and kicking.
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".
In October 2002 the US accused the DPRK of having a new covert nuclear project, based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) - and says it admitted as much. (North Korea denies both.). 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 spyplane.
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. With pressure from China, and some signs of a softer line by the US towards meeting North Korea's concerns, it was hoped that six-party talks would reconvene in 2003. Yet despite much diplomatic shuttling and exchanges of draft proposals, this deadlines passed. As of late January it seemed there would be no fresh talks until February at the earliest. Meanwhile an unofficial US delegation was shown what seemed to be plutonium at Yongbyon, whose reactor is working.
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 limp 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.
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.
Update No: 009 - (01/02/04)
Uncompromising New Year message
North Korea used to mark the new year - the western one; it does not celebrate the traditional Korean lunar new year, a major holiday in South Korea - with a speech by Kim Il-sung setting policy guidelines for the year ahead. In the decade since the Great Leader's death, this task has fallen to a joint editorial of three main dailies: Rodong Sinmun for the Party, plus the organs of the army and the youth movement (but not the government daily Minju Choson, for some reason).
Militant defiance goes with the territory in North Korea. This year's editorial shows no softening of tone, with a call to give "top priority to increasing military muscle." Military affairs take priority, the "primary strategic task" being to develop the defence industry. Retro is in: cadres are told to work "in the same style of . struggle as . in the 1970s when revolutionary enthusiasm surged high." Not least, they must "mount a strong counterattack on the imperialists in the ideological and cultural fields".
Recent reforms go unmentioned
Conversely, the market reforms of the past 18 months, which have raised hopes of a real and irreversible opening of North Korea, go wholly unmentioned. "Economy and science", as a third "front", comes firmly behind politics and ideology, in first place, and anti-imperialism and military affairs. Calls for "a leaping advance" show no sign of any grasp of, or commitment to, the steps that serious pursuit of such a goal would entail. As for many years, power, coal mines, metals and railways are prioritized - in theory; in practice, military priorities mean there is scant money for new investment - while the consumer goods sector is told to fend for itself. In farming, hopes are vested in the appliance of science - better seeds, double cropping - rather than incentives.
All this is depressing reading. Yet it contradicts the trend of events on the ground. In January, Pyongyang got its first non-political billboards: advertising Fiats assembled from kits in the port of Nampo by Pyonghwa Motors, an affiliate of the Unification Church. What to make of this cognitive dissonance? One hopes that Kim Jong-il is a cunning reformer by stealth: breathing fire and brimstone to keep the old guard happy, while quietly inching toward peace and reform. The alternative, more straightforward view is that North Korea means what it says. Arms really do come first, so any reform is the minimum possible to patch up the system, not the first steps of a transformation.
What the doctor saw
Keeping the world guessing is itself a practised Pyongyang ploy: seen par excellence in January in a visit by an unofficial but senior US delegation, including Sig Hecker, a former head of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory. Their itinerary took in Yongbyon: the nuclear site where a year ago North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors and restarted a reactor whose spent fuel can make plutonium for bombs. Curiously, the motive for this unprecedented access seemed precisely that: to flaunt it, in the apparent hope that this will arouse the US to greater eagerness to cut a deal to shut the programme down.
That surely misreads the psychology of George W Bush, in an election year. In any case, ambiguity persists. Dr Hecker confirmed the reactor as up and running, and that 8,000 old spent fuel rods are gone from their cooling pond, no doubt for reprocessing. But a new 50 megawatt reactor, notionally under construction, which if completed would greatly increase the rate at which plutonium can be produced, was in disrepair. Still sceptical, he was handed two lumps of something warm and radioactive, which appeared to be plutonium. What he did not see, as he told the Senate foreign relations committee on January 21, was any proof of weaponization or the capability thereof. Even so, in his view it would be "not smart" to rule that out as a distinct possibility.
The IISS urges prudence
Coincidentally, the same day saw publication of a detailed report on North Korea's nuclear and other weapons by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This reaches a similarly guarded conclusion: while nothing is known for sure, on all the evidence it would be "imprudent" from a policy standpoint to conclude that Kim Jong-il does not have the bomb. Others are less cautious. The IAEA director-general, Mohamed El-Baradei, told the World Economic Forum at Davos on January 22 that North Korea is "the most dangerous non-proliferation issue we are facing today." He added that "The stakes really are very high . we need all to bite the bullet and get a settlement as soon as we can." If not, "everybody will lose." At the same meeting the top UN envoy to North Korea, Maurice Strong, criticized both the US and DPRK for wrongly thinking time was on their side. In his view "the crunch will come this year."
Six-party talks: February, maybe?
Such urgings may fall on deaf ears in Washington, never mind Pyongyang. For nearly half a year even fixing a meeting, much less a deal, has seemed out of reach. Hopes of a second round of six-party talks in Beijing in February are thus no more certain than earlier forecasts of talks by the end of 2003. The good news is that this delay reflects a serious attempt, brokered by China, to agree at least a framework; so that an eventual meeting will get somewhere. The bad news is that even though the US and DPRK are not in fact unbridgeably far apart, at this point neither is prepared to budge on issues like who makes the first move, what can be traded for what (and when), and so on.
For the Bush administration, busy at the other end of Asia, North Korea has rightly or wrongly never been a top priority. In an election year this is not about to change. For his part, Kim Jong-il has little incentive to concede to George W Bush, if a year hence a Democrat in the White House might offer him better terms. China, South Korea and Russia are all committed to engaging Pyongyang, nuclear or not. Even Japan is easing its recent hardline stance, amid reports that North Korea may come cleaner on its past abductions of Japanese: an issue which has blocked all bilateral progress hitherto.
Neither breakthrough nor crisis
All in all, as the slow-burn North Korean nuclear crisis enters its second year, none of this looks propitious for any rapid breakthrough. But equally, there is little appetite in any quarter for confrontation. Barring unforeseen events - always possible in Korea - the status quo thus looks set to drag on. Six-party talks will resume in time, with some minimal agreement on how to proceed; but it will be a hard slog to gain any ground.
Meanwhile Seoul and Beijing will keep pressing Pyongyang to reform and open up; believing this is a safer way forward than painting Kim Jong-il into a nuclear corner - albeit one of his own making. Or was it? In a further twist, vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan firmly denied to the US visitors that North Korea has a separate nuclear programme based on highly enriched uranium. It was the DPRK's alleged admission of HEU activity, when confronted by the US in October 2002, which began the whole nuclear crisis. Charles "Jack" Pritchard - then the US point man on North Korea as a holdover from the Clinton era, before resigning to become a strong critic of the Bush administration's reluctance to engage the DPRK - for once agrees with the White House that North Korea did indeed confess to HEU: "I heard what I heard." Pritchard was a member of the group that was shown Yongbyon, where vice foreign minister Kim assured them: "We will not play games with you". One may beg to differ.
FOREIGN LOANS & AID
China Says Offered N.Korea Aid, But Not for Talks
China confirmed it had offered North Korea economic aid when a Communist Party leader visited Pyongyang in October, but rebuffed a report that the aid was tied to the North's participation in nuclear talks, Reuters reported.
China, which has played a key role in mediating in the current nuclear crisis, is North Korea's closest friend and biggest supplier of aid, although exact figures are kept secret.
The Foreign Ministry confirmed the aid offer earlier in a statement but did not specify an amount.
"When Chairman, Wu Bangguo, visited North Korea, he announced that China had decided to provide economic aid to North Korea. Currently, China and North Korea are in negotiations about the specifics," it said in a statement.
At the meeting he said that China, as friendly neighbour and a country with a traditional bilateral friendship, has always provided economic aid to North Korea within the scope of its ability.
Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States have been trying for months to arrange a second round of six-party talks with North Korea on the crisis after an initial round ended inconclusively in August.
A Japanese daily newspaper said China's help was likely to take the form of financial aid rather than fuel oil or food, but gave no details.
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