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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 deadline passed. In January an unofficial US delegation was shown what seemed to be plutonium at Yongbyon, whose reactor is up and running.
The six finally met again in late February. They agreed to hold a third round by June, preceded by working groups. Setting an agenda will be harder: 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 into China, and human rights. With interlocutors having different priorities, it is very hard to see what kind of deal the DPRK can accept that would resolve much or all of this. However, a visit by Kim Jong-il to Beijing in late April, with an entourage consisting mainly of reformers, raised hopes that Pyongyang may prove more amenable in future; while soon after, a serious railway explosion which killed a still unknown number of people starkly emphasized the dire state of North Korea's infrastructure and its urgent need for new investment.
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. Southerners today are substantially taller and heavier than Northerners. The Korean question today is thus not just about nukes, but how these widening chasms 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: 012 - (27/04/04)
Off the rails, or back on track?
The two most important events in North Korea in April both came towards the end of the month, provoking speculation that they might be connected. The first was Kim Jong-il's short visit to Beijing, initially secret, from April 19-21. The second was the massive railway explosion at Ryongchon, near the Chinese border, around noon on April 22: just hours after the dear leader's armoured train had passed by, en route home to Pyongyang.
A (not very) secret visit to China
This was Kim's fourth known visit to China - although like (and sometimes with) his late father, Kim Il-sung, he is thought to have made several other secret trips. His first public visit was back in 1983, when he was hosted by Deng Xiaoping and toured widely. After a pointedly long gap he next visited in May 2000 - just before June's inter-Korean summit, no doubt to brief Chinese leaders on this - and then again within months in January 2001, when he went mainly to Shanghai and focused on economic development. The same year and again in 2002, his special train - the dear leader does not fly - rolled into Russia for meetings with President Putin, who had earlier visited Pyongyang in July 2000.
Though widely rumoured in advance, this visit was nominally secret, as is Kim Jong-il's habit. But it is hard to hide a train, plus the closure of Beijing's main railway station, and two fleets of black limousines headed for Diaoyutai, the state guesthouse - a phone call to which confirmed the guest's identity. Still, Chinese spokesmen and media kept up the pretence, only breaking the official silence once Kim was safely headed for home.
Kim Jong-il's itinerary took in the city of Tianjin, and Zhongguancun technology park in northwestern Beijing, touted as China's Silicon Valley. He was also seen leaving a noted Peking duck restaurant. He did not join his premier, Pak Pong-ju, to visit a model farm on the capital's outskirts, as he was having talks with president Hu Jintao along with North Korea's chief of staff, Kim Yong-chun, and first vice foreign minister Kang Sok-ju (who in fact runs foreign policy). Naturally he met, and was - eventually - pictured fulsomely embracing, all China's top leaders: president Hu Jintao, premier Wen Jiabao, and former president Jiang Zemin, still powerful as head of the party Central Military Commission.
Whether Kim embraced his hosts' ideas is less clear. Nuclear matters were no doubt the main focus of this visit. In a rare bout of diplomatic activism, personally handled by Hu Jintao, China has invested much time and face in arranging and hosting six-party talks - the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan, and Russia - on the North Korean nuclear issue. The two rounds so far, in August 2003 and February 2004, made little progress. So China will have sought reassurance that Kim Jong-il is truly committed to this. It wants him to fulfil a pledge to meet again by June, with working groups before that. Above all, it needs North Korea to be more flexible on the issues next time than hitherto. Unofficial reports from Beijing suggest that Kim agreed to working groups meeting in mid-May, followed by a full-dress third round of six-party talks in late June. While this is hopeful, it does not necessarily guarantee substantive progress on the actual issues when the time comes.
Kim Jong-il will receive more Chinese aid
With North Korea, everything has a price tag. Kim Jong-il would not concede on any of this without some quid pro quo. Diplomatically, that will include pledges of continued Chinese support, including pressing the Bush administration to make concessions too and meet Pyongyang halfway. Economically, China will offer more aid; rarely quantified, this plays a key role in sustaining Pyongyang, if only on life support. A Beijing spokesman confirmed that China has offered "aid within our capability", but did not say how much.
The spokesman added that China made four specific suggestions to boost cooperation, which North Korea accepted. Namely: more high-level visits, deeper cooperation, closer consultation in international matters, and strengthening economic and trade cooperation. All are significant. High-level visits, frequent for decades, tailed off sharply after China recognized South Korea in 1992. Current exchanges are formalistic and lack substance. Consultation on foreign affairs mainly means the six-party process: China wants North Korea to do more of its strategic thinking in partnership, rather than paranoid isolation. China remains North Korea's largest trade partner; but volume is tiny (under US$1bn per year), with a large cumulative deficit (US$5bn since 1990) which China is forced to fund.
Beijing wants to bring North Korea to heel
All this is basically a bid to bring North Korea to heel. Lately Pyongyang had tilted more towards Russia; during 2000-02 Kim Jong-il met Vladimir Putin three times. There are echoes here of the long Sino-Soviet rivalry for North Korea's affections during the cold war era, which the late Kim Il-sung milked very effectively to maximize aid from both. For China and Russia alike, the question is whether any cooperation with North Korea can ever be truly mutual; or if not, whether aid translates into effective clout on policy.
China will also have urged North Korea to press on with reform - but, on past form, with little guarantee of being heeded. 20 years ago, this was already the late Deng Xiaoping's message to his guest, then North Korea's crown prince; but it fell on stony ground. More recently, hopes generated by Kim Jong-il's Shanghai visit have gone largely unfulfilled. Though that trip included visits to several joint ventures and the stock exchange, its only known direct inspiration is that North Korea has since sent architects abroad for training: to Germany, which offers scholarships, and to France, where they pay. This suggests a wilfully superficial reading of the shiny and soaring surfaces of the new Shanghai.
Kim's companions suggest reform may be for real
But maybe this time Kim has got the message. When Pyongyang media finally reported his visit, they did so in fulsome detail: even covering Hu Jintao's banquet speech at more length than Kim Jong-il's. At the very least, North Korea wants to make a great show of revived friendship with China. Whether this amounts to a genuine tilt towards Beijing, and a greater amenability on the nuclear issue, will become clearer in the weeks ahead.
Another ground for hope lies in who Kim took with him. The North Korean team was 40-strong, but Pyongyang reports highlighted just four names besides the dear leader. These were, in order: Kim Yong-chun, Korean People's Army (KPA) chief of staff; Pak Pong-ju, prime minister; Yon Hyong-muk, vice-chair of the National Defence Commission (NDC); and Kang Sok-ju, first deputy foreign minister. This is a striking quartet. Notably absent were the two men normally regarded as closest to the dear leader: his brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, and vice-marshal Jo Myong-rok, hitherto the top military figure. Jo is elderly and thought to be ill, so the chief of staff may have in effect replaced him.
North Korean prime ministers tend to be relatively lowly figures, so for Pak Pong-ju to be listed second is quite something. A known reformer, Pak was appointed last September. Japanese reports claim he clashed with - and worsted - none other than Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law and main confidant. Jang is said to have lost his senior post in the ruling Korean Workers Party (KWP), for complaining that to open up is to "invite unhealthy ideas from outside." By one account, he has been sent to an in-house education facility to study economics. Yon Hyong-muk too is a reformer and an ex-premier: a rare civilian on the NDC, which is North Korea's top organ of state, outranking the cabinet. Kang Sok-ju is Kim Jong-il's point man for serious foreign policy negotiations. In sum, this looks like a reform team that means business. But the fact that a military figure is still ranked first might signal that the generals still have power of veto on the reform process.
Ryongchon: was it an accident?
Yet if reformers are in the ascendant, hardliners who fear an outbreak of peace may want to nip them in the bud. On April 22, just as Kim Jong-il returned home, stories emerged of a serious railway explosion at Ryongchon, 20km south of the Chinese border. First reports from Seoul, citing Chinese sources, claimed that two fuel trains carrying oil and liquid petroleum gas collided, causing a massive explosion with up to 3,000 casualties. Confirmation was impossible, with telephone lines to the area apparently cut. Coming just nine hours after Kim Jong-il's train had passed through Ryongchon on his way home, there was inevitably speculation whether this could have been an assassination attempt.
Criticized for its initial news blackout, two days later North Korea had moved fast (by its usual standards, if not the wider world's) to offer information and access - and to ask the UN and others for aid, already on offer. A brief item in the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) - for outside consumption - said "the damage is very serious," and that investigation "is going on." Rather than a crash, this version blamed an "electrical contact caused carelessness during the shunting of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and tank wagons," and expressed appreciation of offers of aid. No casualty or damage figures were given. The first brief reports on domestic television came the same evening, two days after the event; again with no casualty figures given.
A small town sustains 161 dead and terrible damage
Also on April 24, the first on the spot journalist reports, from the Chinese newsagency Xinhua, quoted a senior DPRK rescue official as saying that at least 154 people had been killed (this later rose to 161), including 76 primary school pupils, with over 1,300 injured. The cause was further clarified as "due to a short circuit when an electrical pole nearby was knocked down after an oil tanker collided with two carriages loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer during the shunting of wagons", causing a fire which ignited the oil tanker and chemicals. The blast left "two huge pits . 8 to 10 metres in depth." Red Cross sources, citing North Korean officials, added that 1,850 apartments or houses had been destroyed, and 6,350 damaged. Ryongchon is a county town with a population of 27,000; the county has 123,000 people, and the whole area is a centre for chemicals, metalworking, light industry, shipbuilding, and other industrial sectors.
With aid teams already headed for Ryongchon, the official spokesman Jang Song-gun was quoted as saying that "steel, cement, glasses (sic), petroleum, diesel and all kinds of transportation tools were urgently needed." The more immediate matter of medical aid was not mentioned. Thanks to aid links forged since the famine of the late 1990s, North Korean hospitals are known to be often in parlous conditions: with skilled and dedicated staff but sometimes lacking even running water and electricity, let alone up-to-date drugs and modern equipment. Three hospitals in Dandong city, just across the Yalu river in China, were put on immediate standby and stayed up all night, but no casualties came.
At the very least this incident highlights the dire state of the DPRK's infrastructure. Rail and other facilities, while extensive, are old and decrepit; safety precautions are minimal. With over 80% of freight carried by rail - there is not even a proper trunk road up to the Chinese border - dangerous cargoes such as this are frequent. The power grid is in even worse shape: electric trains, slow at best, are often halted by brown-outs.
A Kim Jong-il connection may not mean foul play
Hence the fact that this happened just hours after Kim Jong-il passed through Ryongchon may be coincidental. Or if there is a link, this need not imply foul play. As both Russia and China know, the dear leader's train causes great disruption to scheduled timetables, since North Korea insists that the line must be cleared and stations closed: a fact which itself suggests a fear of assassination attempts. His passage thus may thus have caused a backlog on a busy freight route, clearing which could have led to corners being cut.
If North Korea suspected sabotage, it would hardly allow foreigners into the area, and so soon. Diplomats and aid workers visited Ryongchon two days after the blast, bringing the first pictures and giving graphic descriptions of the devastation. The blast crater, already being filled in, was said to be 50m deep. Everything within a half mile radius of the station was flattened, including a primary school: hence the high death toll of children. Up to 40% of Ryonchon was in ruins; according to the Red Cross, 129 public buildings were destroyed and 120 damaged, including an agricultural college and hospital. Yet remarkably, the main railway line had already reopened - the blast occurred in a siding - and international trains on this west coast mainline to Beijing resumed.
More open, but still not open enough
Evaluations of North Korea's openness differ. While Masood Hyder, UN humanitarian coordinator in Pyongyang, praised what he called "a very encouraging example of prompt and open access," a colleague noted that the inspection party were not allowed to carry mobile communications (which might well have worked on Chinese networks). No access was given to the injured, on the feeble pretext that paperwork had not been done to enter the border city of Sinuiju, a special economic zone, where 300 wounded were said to be hospitalized. Sinuiju's official regulations allow visa-free entry, so this is specious. The Red Cross, usually cautious in its comments, said on April 25 that it urgently needed more data on the situation of the victims, given that "the medical infrastructure in North Korea is very challenged"; it complained of "insufficient information on this front." For burns injuries, time is critical; so later access, even if it comes, may be too late for many.
It is too early yet to judge the wider implications. Optimists hope Pyongyang's response means tragedy can be turned into opportunity for more aid and opening. Yet this must be a nasty shock for Kim Jong-il: back in upbeat mood from Beijing, only to be reminded starkly of his system's fragilities. For the dear leader this was a shave far too close for comfort. Hopefully the conclusion he will draw is to press on with opening to a world which stands ready to help North Korea modernize - provided, of course, he forswears the nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction which threaten not just one small town, but the wider region and world, with a cataclysm far worse than that in Ryongchon.
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