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Area (sq.km)
120,540

Population

22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)

Capital
Pyongyang

Currency
North Korean won (KPW)

Leader
Kim Jong-il


Update No: 023 - (22/03/05)

Which way forward?
On the surface, the North Korea question saw little activity - much less progress - during March. Barring some sudden breakthrough, the nuclear stalemate looked no nearer to any resolution. The main event on this front was the visit by Condoleezza Rice - the first in her new role as US Secretary of State - to the three key countries in the region, spending barely a day and night in each. The order - Japan, South Korea, China; following equally brief trips to India, Afghanistan and Pakistan - was no accident: her hope being to build a unity of views with America's two allies in the region, which could then be used to press China to do more to get Kim Jong-il back to the six-party talks, stalled since last June.

No unity on how to handle North Korea
That hope was not fulfilled. For while Japan agrees with the US that dealing with North Korea may need sticks as well as carrots, South Korea in fact hews closer to China (and Russia) in advocating incentives alone, while opposing pressure on Pyongyang as liable to be counter-productive: as a cornered rat, with no exit, might lash out in desperation. Seoul's unification minister, Chung Dong-young - who also chairs the ROK National Security Council, and is the ruling centre-left Uri party's leading contender to succeed Roh Moo-hyun as South Korea's next president from 2008 - tried to square the circle by saying that while the US is an ally, North Korea is a brother. (Like Cain and Abel, was one sceptical response.) Although as ever both sides fulsomely endorsed the US-ROK alliance, and Ms Rice is more diplomatic than some of her colleagues, the gap is evident. South Korea's foreign minister Ban Ki-moon more or less openly urged the US to come up with a new offer and more creative diplomacy to bring North Korea back to the table.

Kim Jong-il will have observed such divisions with satisfaction, as weakening effective pressure on him. He will also be glad of a further distraction and new wedge, calculated to split any united front among his foes. A fresh row has suddenly flared between Japan and South Korea over an old but usually dormant issue: the disputed Tokto/Takeshima islets, claimed by both nations. Passions are running high in Seoul, as though this were a bigger threat than North Korea with its vaunted and uncontrolled nuclear weapons. This unexpected furore did not help Ms Rice to build the united front that she had hoped. 

Not guilty?
Naturally, North Korea backs its Southern brother to the hilt in this. Pyongyang has its own quarrel with Tokyo. Relations remain stalemated, and terrible, over allegations that abductee remains returned by the DPRK were false. A new twist in this macabre affair is the admission - relatively unpublicized - by a Japanese scientist involved that his DNA tests could be wrong, if the sample had become corrupted. As with the further revelation that US intelligence claims that North Korea had sold a uranium compound to Libya may have been flawed - it now seems this went to Pakistan, who sold it on - this is a salutary reminder that Pyongyang should not always be presumed guilty, nor its enemies innocent.

Here, as on the nuclear issue, it is impossible at the moment to see how a way forward can be found. Pyongyang's response to Ms Rice's tour was characteristic: on March 21 it claimed (again) to have boosted its nuclear arsenal, and to be ready to mobilize all its forces. The latter is boilerplate, as are North Korea's vociferous protests against what are in fact routine if large-scale joint US-ROK military exercises. Pyongyang may have been more alarmed at Ms Rice's visit to a hitherto secret underground command post south of Seoul. Then again, if listening carefully, her measured language - including describing the DPRK as a sovereign state; whereas, even in this sunshine era, South Korea in theory still claims to be the sole legitimate state on the peninsula - and repeated insistence that the US has no plans to attack North Korea, should have offered some reassurance to Kim Jong-il.

Premier visits China
But the secretary of state also warned that if Pyongyang did not return to talks soon, other options will be considered. In practice this presumably means taking the matter to the UN Security Council, which would put China and Russia on the spot. China will exert itself to avoid this - and had an immediate opportunity, with the arrival in Beijing on March 21 of North Korea's prime minister Pak Pong-ju for a six-day visit. In the DPRK the premier normally ranks lower than senior party officials: his job is chief steward of the economy, itself seen as less important than political or military affairs. Pak's itinerary indeed seems mainly business-oriented, including trips to a Nokia joint venture, a brewery, and the city of Shanghai. A former chemical industry minister, he once visited Seoul in that capacity on a study tour, impressing his hosts with his diligence and grasp of detail. A pragmatic technocrat, he is spearheading the (by its own standards) radical, if not yet very effective, market reforms which North Korea is pursuing - contradictorily - even while persisting in a nuclear defiance which can only scare away potential investors.

Perhaps because so much hinges on this reform drive, Pak appear closer to the heart of power in Pyongyang than his predecessors. He is often seen accompanying Kim Jong-il, including in military contexts. So he is well placed to communicate the views of China's president Hu Jintao directly to the dear leader. This perhaps offers some hope of fresh moves to break the nuclear logjam in April. Any announcement of a later return visit to Pyongyang by President Hu would also be an encouraging sign.

New rumours: a Japanese daughter, public executions
Meanwhile developments within North Korea remain opaque. At the top, the Monthly Chosun, a leading Seoul news magazine, continued its habit of Northern scoops - or rumours - with a report that Kim Jong-il has a daughter in Tokyo, by an ethnic Korean who caught his eye on a visit to Pyongyang with a dance troupe. (Kim's main consort, Ko Yong-hee, who died last year, was also a dancer born in Japan.) This daughter, named Mieko and in her late 20s, visits Pyongyang each February for her father's birthday. She is also said to be in email contact with her half-brother Kim Jong-nam, the dear leader's eldest son: himself reportedly the target of two murder plots linked to the succession issue. Japanese police keep an eye on Mieko and her mother, for their own safety.

At the grassroots, the latest in a series of illicit videos to emerge from North Korea had a grim subject: public executions. Broadcast by the Japanese television network NTV, this apparently shows the shooting by firing squad in Hoeryong, a border city close to China, of three people accused of helping defectors to leave the country. Human rights groups in Seoul believe that a fresh crackdown on defections and smuggling has seen up to 70 such executions of late. This practice, once common, had lapsed for the past two or three years - possibly to deflect international criticism. Its revival now suggests that the authorities are worried that illicit cross-border movement is getting out of hand. Whether such brutal methods will make this new clampdown successful remains to be seen.

Numbers, for once
In sharp contrast to the murk enveloping most things North Korean - be it nuclear claims, extramarital liaisons, or grainy video scenes - March also saw the rare publication of that most elusive of Pyongyang products: a mass of numbers. The DPRK's Central Bureau of Statistics and Institute of Child Nutrition jointly published a Nutrition Assessment Survey - the fourth of its kind - assisted by Unicef and the UN World Food Programme (WFP). 

It was WFP which released this report, at a press conference in Beijing on March 7. (It is in fact dated November 2004; the survey itself was carried out in October. The delay was not explained.) Again unlike the usual vague dreary bombast from Pyongyang, this is an impressive, highly professional report: over 100 pages, with 46 tables and 24 figures. The sample comprised 4,800 children aged up to six, plus 2,109 mothers of children under two: drawn evenly from seven of the DPRK's nine provinces and the capital, Pyongyang.

Hunger embodied
Moreover, the topic could hardly be more sensitive. For what this survey measures, with grim precision, is the toll that years of hunger have taken on the bodies of small children and their mothers in North Korea. WFP's press release tried to look on the bright side. Since the last survey in 2002, the proportion of young children chronically malnourished (stunted) is down from 42 to 37%. Acute malnutrition (wasting) eased from 9 to 7%. But those underweight rose from 21 to 23% - though for the under-twos, most at risk, this fell from 25% to 21%. 1 in 5 children had diarrhoea, and 1 in 8 showed symptoms of acute respiratory infection. But mothers have made no progress: a third (32%) were anaemic and malnourished, the same figure as two years ago. Vitamin A deficiency is common.

There are regional differences. Conditions are better in Pyongyang and the southwestern Hwanghae ricebowl region than in the bleak northeast. In Ryanggang province people eat meat, fish or eggs on average just once every three weeks. Another northern border area, Jagang province, was excluded as WFP was denied entry; this also means it got no food aid, since WFP will not supply areas where it cannot monitor. Access to parts of Jagang has since been renewed.

Too proud for aid?
Yet overall the regime is uneasy about such help. For 2005 it forbade UN agencies to launch their usual consolidated aid appeal. WFP is nonetheless seeking $202 million this year to buy 504,000 tonnes of food, mainly grains. It could hardly not, as in January the state cut its Public Distribution System (PDS) rations to starvation level: 250 grams of cereal per person per day, the lowest for five years. Such cutbacks do not usually happen until March, when last year's crop typically runs out. This is all the more strange, given that 2004's autumn harvest is thought to have been the best in years.

It is hard to see how Kim Jong-il thinks he can do without aid. Currently, as it has done for almost a decade, WFP is feeding a staggering 6.5 million North Koreans - nearly a third of the population. The main categories are 2.7 million children under 10, and 2.15 million people in food for work programs. Other beneficiaries include 900,000 elderly, 300,000 pregnant women and nursing mothers, and 350,000 in low-income households. These are a new category: victims of the post-2002 reforms which have seen inequalities widen, even as the state retreats ever further from providing any help to the millions of citizens that its disastrous past and half-baked present policies have starved and stunted.

With ironic timing, the very day that WFP released this survey, another study reported a different child nutrition problem from South Korea. In Seoul, 1 in 10 schoolchildren are overweight; obesity rates are growing fast. Come reunification, on top of all the myriad economic and political challenges this will bring, there will be a visible physical gap. Even as adults, the more than a third of today's North Korean under-6s who are stunted, and especially the 1 in 8 who are severely stunted, will be looked down on by their South Korean peers - in more ways than one. If today's immediate nuclear and other problems seem knotty enough, the long-term challenges of reunification will be no less formidable.

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