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Update No: 025 - (31/05/05)

Allies at odds
As ever, mixed signals make it hard to assess progress in North Korea's fraught relations with the wider world. While a resumption of inter-Korean meetings looks hopeful, it is unclear whether this will prove substantive or merely symbolic. Yet meanwhile the US is tightening the screws on Pyongyang - and so further straining its relations with Seoul.

Pyongyang deigns to talk to Seoul
For almost a year, and no good reason, the DPRK had boycotted most of the inter-Korean channels set up after the first ever North-South summit, held in Pyongyang in June 2000 between the Northern leader Kim Jong-il and the South's then president Kim Dae-jung. With the North having said for months that it plans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of that breakthrough, one reason to reopen dialogue now is that otherwise there would be precious little to celebrate. A second, separate reason is seasonal. Its boycott did not stop Pyongyang coolly demanding half a million tons of fertilizer, more than double the usual amount. For once Seoul, which normally (and bafflingly) eschews leverage and gives aid unconditionally, took a stand: not refusing, but insisting that the North must first return to the table. Time was of the essence, with the planting season already getting under way.
Vice-ministerial talks were accordingly held during May 16-19 in the DPRK border city of Kaesong; whose industrial zone for ROK firms (on which more below) is one project which the North had not frozen, doubtless due to the revenues it brings in. The South's delegation commuted daily from Seoul across the once impassable Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), like the dozens of Southern managers or technicians who now work at Kaesong.

First port calls for 21 years
On fertilizer, they settled for the usual 200,000 tons. Delivery began right away: 50 ROK trucks shipped the first batch on May 20, and two days later the first of three DPRK ships docked in Ulsan to start loading the rest. These were the first North Korean vessels seen in Southern harbours since 1984, when (unlikely as it sounds, now) it was the North that offered aid to South Korea after floods there. Seoul accepted, ushering in a year of talks before Pyongyang pulled the plug. This now almost forgotten episode is a reminder that 'sunshine' did not begin with Kim Dae-jung; there were several earlier false starts.
The Kaesong talks were not confined to fertilizer, but also agreed to revive at least some of the stalled channels of inter-Korean dialogue. A 15th round (since 2000) of ministerial talks, the first since May last year (they are meant to be quarterly), will be held in Seoul during June 21-24. South Korea also pressed to resume economic meetings and family reunions, both also on ice for the past year. But as of May 29 nothing had yet been fixed, and may not be now until the next ministerial talks. That is bad news for the elderly who hope to meet relatives lost for half a century before they die; for them, every day counts.

A big bash in Pyongyang
But first, the South will send a high-level delegation, led by a minister, for the summit anniversary in Pyongyang. It had already agreed to let NGOs go: the level at which such events are generally handled. But on May 28 the two sides agreed to make it official this time, with each Korea fielding a 20-strong government team plus 50 support staff. Add in 615 civilians, including 200 overseas Koreans, and this will be the largest joint event ever held in Pyongyang. Unification minister Chung Dong-young is expected to lead the ROK delegation, on his first visit to the Northern capital. His likely DPRK counterpart is Kwon Ho-ung, described rather opaquely as a senior Cabinet councillor. In his 40s, youthful by North Korea's gerontocratic standards, Kwon is thought to be a pragmatist. What clout he wields is another matter. Also unclear is what time there will be for serious talking at this brief and mainly ceremonial occasion; that may have to wait until a week later in Seoul.

Symbol or substance?
A related question is what if any substance underlies such symbolic meetings. Five years after the 2000 summit, what exactly is there to celebrate? Inter-Korean dialogue has been institutionalized, but only when Pyongyang feels like it. Its recent year-long boycott was not the first; it took its bat home for much of 2001 and 2002 too. Little has been achieved, especially on the security front. But Seoul, looking as ever on the bright side - this seems to be what the 'sunshine' policy means nowadays - takes heart from other developments. 
North Korea has agreed to a joint concert at its Mt. Kumgang resort on June 8 to mark the one-millionth Southern tourist brought in by Hyundai. It will also allow foreign buyers to visit Kaesong, aiding the zone's export prospects. And on May 28 Kaesong saw a fashion show, complete with catwalk, plunging necklines and rock music; when Shinwon, one of four ROK firms operating in the zone so far, marked its official opening (several months after the fact) by showcasing its spring collection, some made locally. While 500 South Koreans crossed the DMZ to see the show, none of Shinwon's 280 Northern workers watched it. Affecting a lack of interest, and saying the outfits were too revealing, they countered the thumping beat from upstairs with music extolling the virtues of socialism.

Washington looks askance
But if South Korea is in party mood, its nominal US ally looks to be moving in a different direction. In Washington there is increasing exasperation not only at Pyongyang's refusal to return to the six-party nuclear talks, now stalled for almost a year; but also at what the Bush administration regards as Beijing's and Seoul's refusal to put any serious pressure on North Korea to come back to the table. There is little doubt that the US looks askance at Seoul's holding a joint junket in Pyongyang with a regime still in full nuclear defiance; unless the South can use this to persuade the North to resume talks, which seems unlikely since the latter has consistently refused even to discuss the nuclear issue with Seoul.
While the veneer of US-ROK unity has not yet cracked, a proxy straw in the wind was a fierce row with an easier target, Japan. On May 25 a South Korean opposition lawmaker, Park Jin, said that Japan's vice foreign minister, Shotaro Yachi, had told him and other visiting ROK MPs a fortnight earlier that Japan is cautious in sharing intelligence on North Korea which it gets from the US, since Washington does not fully trust Seoul. He added that said the six-party talks were failing because Seoul seemed to be siding more with Pyongyang. A furious South Korea demanded a reprimand; it got an expression of regret, but rejected this as inadequate. Kim Jong-il will have enjoyed watching all this.

Hints from Hill
The US' own mask almost slipped when Christopher Hill - whose promotion from newly arrived ambassador in the ROK to replace James Kelly as assistant secretary of state for East Asia was so swift that his children are still in school in Seoul - was reported by the New York Times as looking annoyed at mention of President Roh Moo-hyun's implicitly neutralist idea that South Korea can act as a "balancer" in the region. Without directly criticizing this, Hill said that in an historically violent region, "If I were a South Korean looking into the future, I would … want a special relationship with a distant power." This has all the more weight since Hill, a career diplomat, is by no means regarded as a hawk.
On May 28, at his first hearing in his new post before the House International Relations subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Hill warned that North Korea shows no interest in learning from China's successful reforms, Pyongyang's self-imposed isolation, he added, was "a real problem .. that will ultimately be their undoing." This led to such headlines as "Top US official warns of possible system collapse in North Korea" - which will not go down well in a Pyongyang which, as a puzzled Hill also noted, prefers to seize on "small issues" like the odd pejorative comment from Washington (usually repaid in kind tenfold) rather than seriously address such "monumental" matters as nuclear disarmament. 

The US tightens the screws
While these are the musings of a moderate at State, the Pentagon's hawks prefer deeds to words. At the same hearing Richard Lawless, the deputy under-secretary of defence, said that plans were being made in case North Korea does not return to six-party talks. That too led to lurid headlines, inaptly: it would be imprudent not to plan for any contingency.
More worrying are a series of US actions as May ended, which at least as seen in Seoul, look like a bid to tighten the screws on Kim Jong-il. On the rhetoric front President Bush, (whose earlier return to personalized attacks on the dear leader as a tyrant, undercut careful soothing phrases from his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice that the US recognized the DPRK's sovereignty), on May 27 told a Naval Academy commencement ceremony that "in this era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation" (as in Iraq, presumably).

Stealth deployment; searches suspended
A day earlier, the US Air Force deployed 15 F-117 stealth fighters to South Korea for at least four months. While this was explained as a planned rotation of forces in the Pacific, there is little doubt how it will be read in Pyongyang - not least because the Pentagon has also just brusquely ended its sole direct link to the Korean People's Army (KPA), namely their joint searches for remains of the 8,000 US soldiers missing in action (MIA) from the Korean War. Ongoing since 1996, this little-known programme has retrieved some 220 remains, although only 25 have been identified. It was summarily suspended by order of Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld on May 25, just a day after the latest US team returned from the first of several searches planned for this year. The reason given, namely communications problems, looks like an excuse. Rumsfeld no doubt resents paying cash to Pyongyang, and this is one of the few direct levers that the US has. Coincidentally or not, on May 26 North Korean TV for the first time categorically denied US press reports of recent weeks that it is preparing either a nuclear or a missile test as "fabrications."
Two days earlier, the US refused to renew the contract of Charles Kartman as executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) consortium, which he had headed since 2001. Since the second North Korean nuclear crisis broke in late 2002, both KEDO's fuel oil supplies and work on building its light water reactors in North Korea have been suspended. While the consortium may be moribund, terminating Kartman - a US career diplomat and holdover from the Clinton administration, strongly in favour of engaging Pyongyang: it will be interesting if he now feels free to speak out - at this point reinforces the impression that the US is trying to ratchet up the pressure.

Still hungry
What Washington had not yet decided at the time of writing was whether to end food aid: always claimed to be a humanitarian issue with no political overtones, though the timing of donations suggests otherwise. While under Bush North Korea is no longer, as it once was (ironically), the main recipient of US food aid in Asia, some flows had continued: the US gave 50,000 tonnes of grain last year. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned on May 27 that a slump in donations means it will have to halt distribution to all but a handful of its 3.8 million recipients in North Korea in August, unless fresh pledges are received soon. WFP had appealed for $202 million to buy 504,000 tonnes this year, but has so far secured only 230,000 tonnes, nearly all now consumed. While diplomats mull the merits of stick versus carrot, it is North Korea's powerless people who continue to suffer, whilst party members and the military will certainly get priority for whatever food is available.

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