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Update No: 016 - (26/08/04)

Summer tempests
August in Korea, as elsewhere, is a time of heat and sudden storms. That applied also to politics last month. No date was set for the next six-party nuclear talks; North Korea said it saw no point in talking to a hostile US. Angry too with South Korea over a big airlift of DPRK refugees from Vietnam, Pyongyang cancelled several bilateral events. But with even China losing patience, Kim Jong-il is unlikely to let defiance spiral out of control.

Six-party talks: what's the point?
The third round of six-party talks - both Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia - on the nuclear issue, held in Beijing in June, set a deadline of end-September to meet again. Before that, working-level talks were due in August. But none were held; meanwhile, various truculent statements from Pyongyang questioned the entire process. China, as the host, was swift to insist that the talks were still on track, even if no dates were yet fixed.

All this was par for the course. North Korean rhetoric is typically overblown. On August 22 the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) called George W Bush "a political imbecile bereft of even elementary morality as a human being and a bad guy" and "a tyrant that puts Hitler into the shade." This was a riposte to Bush describing Kim Jong-il as a tyrant while campaigning in Wisconsin. Pyongyang meets insults with insults.

By contrast, an earlier foreign ministry statement on August 16 was relatively mild, even reasoned, in setting out North Korea's position. Citing not only Washington's alleged "reneging on all the agreements and shared understanding reached at the last talks," but also its insistence that "human rights, missile, conventional armed forces, religious and all other issues should be solved if the DPRK-U.S. relations are to normalize after the settlement of the nuclear issue," Pyongyang declared: "What is this if it is not a hostile policy?" So "it is clear that there would be nothing to expect even if the DPRK sits at the negotiating table with the U.S. under the present situation … such talks for … form's sake would be helpful to no one." All in all, "The present development stuns and disappoints the DPRK ... The U.S. has destroyed itself [sic] the foundation for the talks, making it impossible for the DPRK to go to the forthcoming meeting of the working group."

Praying for Kerry
By Pyongyang standards the tone here is more in sorrow than anger. Note that nothing is said about pulling out of the main talks or the whole process, only the working groups. Kim Jong-il cannot afford to incur Beijing's wrath by torpedoing a forum in which China has invested so much face. Instead he is playing for time. Despite denying as "rubbish…. a sheer rumour that the DPRK is delaying the talks in anticipation of the results of the US presidential election," that is clearly the case. Indeed, Pyongyang is not the sole Korean capital where they are praying for a Kerry victory. Preferences aside, there is scant sense in planning - much less yielding - now, when in a few months parameters may change. Kerry has said he will open bilateral talks with North Korea beside the six-party track. He will also review the global troop redeployment announced by George W Bush on August 16; which includes slashing US forces in South Korea by 12,500, one-third of the total.

So we may still see a fourth round of six-party talks in September, with working groups just before as in June. But the whole exercise will be pro forma. A fifth round before the year-end is possible if Bush wins a second term, but otherwise would have little purpose until Kerry is inaugurated. Either way progress on the issues will remain slow, while the North can continue to forge ahead unrestrained on its two suspected nuclear programmes. 

New missiles, too?
Nor are nukes the only threat. Pyongyang's arsenal also includes missiles to carry them. On August 4 the usually authoritative Jane's Defence Weekly reported that North Korea is developing at least two new ballistic missile systems: based on former Soviet designs, launchable from land or submarine with a range up to 4,000 km. Similar reports surfaced in the Seoul press in May. Moscow predictably denied all knowledge, but rogue scientists cannot be ruled out. The Clinton administration, having (it thought) defused the nuclear crisis, in its final months was negotiating a missile deal, but time ran out; Bush chose not to pursue this. Washington seemed unruffled: a spokesman noted that North Korea had no submarines with which any such missile could strike the continental United States.

Australia seeks to mediate
While the six-party talks are already a crowded forum, their travails prompted others to try to mediate. Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, visited Pyongyang on August 17-18 for what he called very useful talks, though he did not meet Kim Jong-il. His emphasis on the diplomatic and material gains for North Korea if it came in from the cold contrasted with the Bush line (until slightly softened of late) that the DPRK should not be rewarded for stopping doing things it should not have done in the first place.

Before his trip, Downer drew fire for claiming that DPRK missiles could hit Sydney: a distance of over 8,000 km, well beyond the range of any known North Korean projectile. Other would-be mediators include Indonesia and the European Union. All mean well, and may do some good; but Kim Jong-il goes his own way, and will move when it suits him.

High dudgeon with Seoul over refugee airlift
North Korea used to excoriate the South along with the US. Nowadays Seoul tends to get off more lightly - until now. Pyongyang is furious at the airlift in late July of 468 DPRK refugees from Vietnam: the largest single group of North Koreans ever to reach Seoul. It cut no ice that, seeking to be sensitive, the South did not name Vietnam and shrouded the whole operation in secrecy. North Korea reacted by boycotting regular ministerial talks - which would have been the 15th since the June 2004 Pyongyang summit - scheduled for August 3-6 in Seoul, as well as several other meetings. It was already angry at the South for not letting pro-North radicals visit Pyongyang to celebrate August 15: a holiday in all of Korea, marking its liberation from Japan in 1945. Still, athletes from both Koreas did march together for the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games on August 13, as they had done in Sydney in 2000 (although they competed separately on each occasion.)

North Korean anger, like an August storm, often soon dies down. Not this time. In late August KCNA was still denouncing the airlift as "this thrice-cursed crime … a blatant challenge and an unpardonable hostile act intended to bring down the political system in the DPRK." Calling the South Korean government "cat burglars" and "wicked terrorists", it accused them of kidnapping North Koreans on holiday. The latter were urged to come home "to the republic you love and to the warm home that you miss," with a pledge that "we in no way see you as having committed a crime to the fatherland or to the nation." 

So strident was the rhetoric that on August 16, most unusually nowadays, South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) warned of a possible terrorist threat from the North. Pyongyang also lambasted Vietnam as "involved in the plot…. self-exposed that it can stoop to any perfidious action, discarding elementary sense of obligation and morality." For good measure, Pyongyang attacked all this as a US conspiracy: postulating a link to two bills before the US Congress which seek to pressurize it over human rights. 

In fact there is no such connection. South Korea only acted in this case because Vietnam reportedly threatened to deport this accumulation of refugees, who had made a hazardous covert journey the whole length of China. Seoul soon reverted to form, blaming its own human rights groups for egging defectors on (yet saying it will still accept all who reach the South). But if the North flies off the handle anyway, one can only wonder what is the point of this softly softly approach - which leaves thousands of DPRK refugees in China vulnerable to repatriation, exploitation, and general misery. This issue will not go away. 

Might China pull the plug?
The refugee issue is of obvious concern to China too. Beijing is harsh to them, yet knows the source of the problem: the dear leader cannot feed his people because he prioritizes guns over butter. What Chinese say privately about their tiresome comrade has at last surfaced publicly. Strategy and Management, a journal published in Tianjin, has carried an article criticizing China's unconditional support for an unappreciative North Korea. Pulling no punches, the academic authors denounced Pyongyang not only for troubling Beijing on international matters (not just the nuclear issue), but also for its hereditary succession, "extreme-leftist policies and extensive political oppression of its population." 

No riposte from Pyongyang has yet been noted to this lèse-majesté. Like last year's brief suspension of oil flows, officially blamed on technical problems, this is a clear signal that China's patience has limits. Bilious bluster against the US or South Korea is one thing, but with Beijing Kim Jong-il had better think twice. Despite the proud boasts of "juche" (self-reliance), a North Korea truly wholly home alone would be even more wretched and vulnerable than it already is. So far the dear leader has eked out a skilled balancing game; but he had better not forget when, and to whom, even he must make nice now and then.

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