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Update No: 018 - (02/11/04)

Gunboats, refugees, and sprigs of hope

No new nuclear talks, unsurprisingly
In the immediate run-up to the US presidential election on November 2, there was no expectation of any fresh movement on the nuclear crisis, now two years old. On October 23 North Korea's foreign ministry set three conditions for resuming six-party talks - the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan, and Russia - which have not reconvened since their third session in Beijing in late June, despite setting a date to meet again by September. It demanded that the US drop its hostile policies, and compensate Pyongyang if it freezes its nuclear programmes. Also, South Korea must fully disclose its past nuclear activities.

The first of these is indeterminately vague. North Korea is always free to interpret any US action as hostile, and there are usually plenty to choose from. The second is a double non-starter, at least under George W Bush: the US will neither settle for a mere freeze, nor offer compensation. As for South Korea's recently disclosed nuclear peccadilloes, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has accepted Seoul's explanation that these were the work of rogue scientists rather than a covert ongoing programme; but naturally the North will extract maximum mileage from this. All in all, fresh talks any time soon do not look likely; but China will exert pressure to try to reconvene them early in 2005. 

Yet there must now be growing doubt whether the DPRK will ever really wholly abandon its nuclear programme. Shannon Kile, a nuclear specialist at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said after a recent visit to Pyongyang that: "As far as getting North Korea to give up, to freeze, I think that ship has already sailed." The only hope left now is "containment and robust deterrence," to ensure that "North Korea does not try to sell weapons-useable fissile material or even weapons themselves."

Colin Powell's puzzling visit 
One unexpected initiative was a hastily arranged visit to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul in late October by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell. It was unclear what this sudden trip - China's embassy in Washington had to rush to process visas, we hear - so soon before the elections, might signify. Clearly it was mainly about North Korea, which chose this opportunity to announce the above three conditions: in effect rebuffing any olive branch.

Not that there was one. In stronger language than normal for him, Powell branded North Korea a "terrorist state" which shows "no respect whatsoever for human rights." He was talking to Japanese reporters a propos past kidnaps of several Japanese by North Korea, an issue which remains top of Tokyo's agenda with Pyongyang: nothing else, including large-scale potential aid, will move forward until Kim Jong-il comes fully clean on this. 

What counts as terrorism?
So this may have been a warning that these abductions could be cited - as they have not been hitherto - to keep North Korea on the State Department's list of nations suspected of supporting terrorism. One perverse result of this is that the US is pledged to oppose any bid by listed nations to join bodies such as the World Bank and IMF. The DPRK's current listing is not due to anything recent, but for harbouring four Japanese Red Army Faction terrorists who hijacked a plane to Pyongyang in 1970. Not for the first time, there are reports that these ageing fugitives want to come home; in which case, North Korea could find itself off the hook - unless another excuse to keep it on the list can be found.

If Powell's trip was meant to present a united front and shore up regional support for a tough stance on North Korea, it failed utterly. Even in the US's increasingly estranged ally South Korea, foreign minister Ban Ki-moon called for the US and others to make "a creative and realistic proposal" to lure North Korea back to the table. (His interpreter tactfully failed to translate that part; told later, an irritated Powell warned against having "a negotiation with ourselves at press conferences.") Earlier, China had more forthrightly expressed a similar view. Japan too, while closest to the Bush administration's hard line, would like to see a more flexible US stance. Tokyo's own carefully calibrated balance of sticks and carrots has included two visits to Pyongyang by the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi - but also explicitly threatens sanctions if Kim Jong-il fails to cooperate fully.

Sending a gunboat
On October 26, as Colin Powell ended his visit to the region, his under-secretary of state for disarmament, John Bolton, was also in the region - and all at sea. With evident gusto, the hawkish Bolton - tipped as a possible national security adviser if Bush wins a second term - oversaw a naval drill of the US-led Proliferation Security Inititiative (PSI) off the coast of Japan. This was the 12th drill held under the PSI, a loose grouping of around 60 countries; but the first to be held near North Korea, its manifest target. With 15 nations represented - not including South Korea, or China - nine warships took part from the US, Japan, Australia and France, plus helicopters and speedboats. Mr Bolton, PSI's 'onlie begetter,' called North Korea "the pre-eminent proliferator of ballistic missile technology … the currency it earns from weapons and drug sales internationally goes to financing their nuclear weapons programme." The exercise, he added, "sends a signal to everybody who wants to traffic weapons of mass destruction that we have zero tolerance for that." PSI "is more than just … rhetoric. It's operational, it's active, and it's very professional."

Pyongyang, naturally, complained. It is also furious at the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA), which George W Bush signed into law on October 18 after it passed both houses of Congress nem. con. This mandates the US to help refugees, increase broadcasts to North Korea, and generally prioritize human rights issues. It authorizes, but does not appropriate, US$24m annually to these ends. Signing it, the President explicitly rejected any directive as to how he should conduct diplomacy; meaning that in practice the US may ignore the Act's stipulation to raise human rights at every juncture, e.g. even when discussing nuclear matters. Whether this rider will mollify DPRK suspicions is unclear.

More refugee raids in China
The DPRK will also smell a rat at a recent rash of North Korean asylum seekers in China, hard on the heels of the 468 who were airlifted from Vietnam to Seoul in July. Following a group of 29 who sought sanctuary in a Japanese school in Beijing on September 1 and a further 44 who got into the Canadian embassy on September 29, on October 15 another group of 20 entered the South Korean consulate, while a week later 29 more broke into a South Korean school in Beijing (whose extra-territorial status is unclear). Not for the first time the ROK consulate has temporarily suspended normal operations; it currently houses some 130 North Koreans, awaiting clearance to travel on to Seoul. Further such bids were foiled on October 26, when Chinese police arrested 63 North Koreans plus two South Korean activists in pre-dawn raids on two apartments in Beijing's Tongzhou district; their fate is unclear at the time of writing. Chinese media, usually silent on such matters, gave this much publicity: an apparent warning to others. They may not be deterred, as the only alternative is a long onward trek to seek sanctuary in either Mongolia or southeast Asia.

Despite all the obstacles, the trickle of North Koreans who reach the South - to a cool welcome: after an initial grant and brief training, many find it hard to adapt or get a job - is growing fast. 1,511 arrived in the first three quarters of 2004, up 72% from last year. Two-thirds of this year's arrivals are female. Although cumulative arrivals in the half-century since the Korean War ended in 1953 remain under 6,000, this year's total alone looks set to exceed 2,000; a recent ROK parliamentary report predicts that in a few years annual arrivals may soon top 10,000. Both Korean governments, and China, fear that the trickle may become a flood; hence none is keen on the US NKHRA. On the other hand, activist NGOs who assist refugees accuse all three states of perpetrating, or condoning, human rights abuses against victims who are already weak, vulnerable and traumatized.

Daily shuttle bus breaches the DMZ
On a happier note, while North Korea is still boycotting most meetings with the South, it knows where its interest lies and is making an exception of the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ), gradually rising just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). A first pilot phase, involving 15 small Southern firms in various fields, is due to launch in November; with Livingart, a cookware manufacturer, expected to be first off the mark. The hope is that in time Kaesong will become to Seoul as Shenzhen is vis-à-vis Hong Kong: serving both to strengthen cross-border linkages, and as a growth pole energizing its own hinterland.

The mechanics are predictably complex. US pressure to ensure that no strategic or dual-use technologies go North - South Korea is a signatory to the Wassenaar Arrangement, which mandates this - is resented in both Korean capitals. On October 29 the South said it will provide 15,000 kilowatts of electric power and 100 telephone lines to Kaesong; but who will install and operate the latter is not yet agreed. Already since September Hyundai Asan - which is co-developing the zone along with Korea Land, a Southern parastatal - has run a daily shuttle bus from Seoul to the KIZ, crossing the once impenetrable DMZ. 

This uses a temporary track. Full road and rail links in both western and eastern corridors are ready to go on the Southern side, while North Korea is still delaying. Nor can it resist stupid games. On September 21 a ceremony to open the Kaesong Complex Management Committee (KCMC) office was called off, when Pyongyang barred 11 MPs of the ROK's conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) from the 259-strong Southern guest-list. It relented three days later; the rescheduled opening was held on October 20. It is baffling what the North thought to gain by thus causing gratuitous delay and ill-will. 

As of October 28, 30 Southern officials were due to start work at the KCMC. Their tasks include issuing ID cards for other ROK workers in the zone, and managing electricity and communication facilities. Legally the KCMC is a DPRK corporate body, but in practice it is the first ever Southern liaison office to be located in the North. Bleak or stagnant as the macro security picture on the peninsula may look, with nuclear and other concerns, on the ground at micro economic level the first shoots of a reunified Korea are starting to grow.

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