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Update No: 028 - (25/08/05)

Nuclear recess, while ties with South surge
August, a holiday month in much of the world, was a busy time in Korea. Six-party talks on the nuclear issue, having begun on July 26, unexpectedly dragged on for almost two weeks until August 7 - albeit without result. Rather than admit defeat, the meeting recessed, with a commitment to reconvene in Beijing at the end of the month. In contrast to this nuclear deadlock, inter-Korean relations, whose revival after a year on ice was discussed in June and July's New Nations Updates (see archives), continued to forge ahead. Importantly, this included not only symbolic gestures, like the joint celebrations in mid-month of the 60th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan, but also a host of practical agreements. Moreover, unlike in the past, these were not just on paper; in some cases implementation began right away.

Six parties, two weeks, no result
After a hiatus of 13 months, a fourth round of six-party talks (both Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia) on North Korea's nuclear programme finally convened in Beijing on July 26 - and broke up almost a fortnight later with no result, not even a joint statement. That might sound like a complete waste of time, and there was no denying the frustration of all concerned as what had begun promisingly, dragged on and on.

Yet despite the lack of concrete progress, this fourth round was so different from any of its predecessors (inconclusiveness apart) as to both be intriguing and raise hopes for the longer term. Its very length, with no end-date set in advance, contrasted with the 3-4 day duration of earlier meetings; which, in this rather unwieldy format, barely allowed time for anything more than a formal recitation of prepared position papers. By contrast, this fortnight in Beijing gave plenty of opportunity for the sextet to get to know each other: both personally - four of the six heads of delegation were new, i.e. all except for the DPRK's vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan and Russia's Alexander Alexeyev - as well as the nuances of their positions. The latter was further facilitated by breaking out into smaller groups as appropriate, including no fewer than eight meetings between Kim and his US equivalent: Christopher Hill, who replaced James Kelly as assistant secretary of state for east Asia after a brief but popular stint as ambassador in Seoul, where his family were still living.

It is not only in personnel that the US has altered. As noted in last month's Update, the fact that earlier Hill and Kim had a secret dinner in Beijing, after which the revival of the six-party process was announced, already indicated that Hill was, if not plenipotentiary, at any rate authorized to be far more flexible than the unfortunate Kelly - who had little leeway to stray from a script vetted by hawks in the Pentagon and the vice-president's office. Pro forma US insistence that policy has not changed fails to convince. All the signs are that the State Department is now firmly in charge; and that Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, despite her hardline reputation, wants at least to try to get somewhere with North Korea.

Several stumbling blocks
But as the fortnight in Beijing reconfirmed, that will be hard going. Even the limited aim of agreeing a set of principles proved elusive. As ever, there were several stumbling blocks. The immediate "deal-breaker" - as Christopher Hill put it: his pithy, mostly upbeat running commentary was another innovation, and a godsend to a bored press corps - was the North Korean demand to retain not only a civil nuclear power programme, but specifically the light water reactors (LWRs) promised in the October 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework (AF) which defused the first North Korean nuclear crisis (see Background for more detail).

Washington's stand is that as Pyongyang admits abusing its research reactor at Yongbyon to produce plutonium, it cannot be trusted. This contrasts with US acceptance that Iran has the right to nuclear power, and its recent approval of nuclear exports to India - which never signed the NPT. North Korea's sudden LWR demand also surprised South Korea, whose new role as an active mediator was both striking and skilful. Seoul's offer to send the North 2,000 megawatts of electricity annually - credited with luring Kim Jong-il back to the talks - was based on the LWR project being defunct and its budget transferring to this new plan. 

A US-ROK split?
During the recess, a split seemed to open up when ROK unification minister Chung Dong-young said that Seoul backed Pyongyang's right to peaceful nuclear energy. He clarified later, however, that South Korea regarded the LWR project as defunct. Foreign minister Ban Ki-moon was keener to have the US and South Korea visibly singing from the same hymn sheet. After talks in Washington with Condoleezza Rice, Ban professed confidence that "we reached sufficient consensus … I did not use such an expression before I came here." He also said that dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme may take two or three years: emphasizing that this meant physically removing it all, and not just freezing it.

The likely way to bridge any gap between the US and either Korea is to set a precondition that North Korea must rejoin the NPT and become fully IAEA-compliant to be allowed a civil nuclear programme. With Hill now hinting that what had been a deal-breaker was "not exactly a show-stopper," that is likely to be the offer when talks resume. Will Kim Jong-il accept? Here too the recess has been active, with at least three US-DPRK contacts via the New York channel (using North Korea's mission to the UN). The sense is that none of the six wants another marathon sans result; or conversely, each has an incentive not to be seen to be wilfully stalling, the odd man out preventing progress. (Plan B for the US is to ensure that, if there is such a laggard, the other five agree it is Pyongyang rather than Washington.)

Who moves first?
Another, familiar difference was over sequencing and rewards. Little was heard this time of the US demand for complete, verifiable, irreversible (nuclear) dismantling (CVID). While CVID remains Washington's and indeed everyone's goal - even North Korea accepts that the eventual goal is the peninsula's denuclearisation - critics, including South Korea and China, thought it unrealistic for the US in effect to insist on North Korea disarming right away. It is unclear whether at the fourth round the US actually got, at last, any formal reply from North Korea to the detailed, phased programme it had offered a year earlier. Certainly Pyongyang's latest demand to be compensated at least twice - first for freezing its admitted plutonium activities, and then again later if it definitively abandons them - looked cheekily unacceptable. But in general, this is one area where compromise is in principle attainable.

Little too was heard of another crux, the one that kicked off the current crisis almost three years: the US allegation that besides its now admitted plutonium activity, North Korea also has a second, covert nuclear programme, based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). It will be hard to keep HEU off the agenda. On August 24 Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, confirmed to Japan's Kyodo News what had long been suspected: that Dr A Q Khan, the disgraced nuclear scientist-entrepreneur, had supplied centrifuges (which enrich uranium) and designs to North Korea. Pyongyang's blanket denial of HEU - which includes denying US claims that in October 2002 it had admitted to having it - will now be harder to sustain.

What does Kim Jong-il want?
Still another, rather diffuse problem area is what North Korea requires of the US in return. In what is a general headache dealing with the DPRK, its demands tend to vary. Some are relatively straightforward; thus to come off the State Department's list of nations regarded as sponsoring terrorism, Pyongyang need only return some ageing Japanese hijackers. But with ties with Tokyo still tense over the fate of abductees from the 1970s and 1980s - the subject of a brief bilateral meeting in Beijing, Japan evidently having been restrained by the others from foregrounding this issue in the main talks - this may not be swiftly resolved.

Pyongyang's persistent cry is that the US must cease to threaten it. One does wonder what could ever fully reassure Kim Jong-il on that score, in a context of deep mutual mistrust. The DPRK demands the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from South Korea; puzzlingly, as George Bush senior did so over a decade ago. The US may not be keen for North Korea to inspect its bases, yet verification is presumably a two-way street. But neither Washington nor Seoul will accept that the latter be excluded from the former's wider nuclear umbrella, as Pyongyang has sometimes demanded.

On the eve of the talks, North Korea resurrected an old demand for a peace treaty with the US. In the past this had been a spoiling move to exclude South Korea, which never signed the 1953 Armistice that ended the Korean War but was never followed by a peace treaty. This time though, something more constructive may be in the works: the US has hinted that this can be discussed. Beyond formally wrapping up history's loose ends, this may open a path to extend the six-party talks' scope beyond the nuclear issue alone. While one has to start somewhere, North Korea raises many further concerns: chemical/biological weapons, missiles, human rights, refugees, counterfeiting, drug trafficking and more. An overarching grand package deal, though formidably hard to attain, seems preferable to an interminable series of ad hoc negotiations, one issue at a time. But this may be too much to expect yet.

North-South: ever warmer
Meantime, even while the six-party talks took a break, inter-Korean ties went from warm to warmer. In stark contrast to the freeze for almost a year until June, now hardly a day went by without some fresh inter-Korean contact. Here there is space only for the highlights.

August 15, this year marking the 60th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan (but also its simultaneous partition into north and south), saw a large 200-strong Northern delegation - both official and NGO - fly into Seoul. It was led by Kim Ki-nam: a senior secretary of the ruling Korean Workers Party (KWP) and a confidant of Kim Jong-il. Unprecedentedly, the DPRK team briefly paid their respects at the South's national cemetery, where its war dead are interred. Conservatives muttered that the North should first admit and apologize for starting the war, but most Southerners seemed glad of this gesture. In another first, Kim and his colleagues also visited the ROK national assembly. They met president Roh Moo-hyun as well as his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, who went north for the June 2000 summit. 

Football teams of both sexes also came south, and (genuinely) friendly matches were held. In return a noted Southern pop singer, Cho Yong-pil, wowed an initially reserved 7,000-strong audience at Pyongyang's Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium (named after the founder of Hyundai, who paid for it) with hits from both Koreas. The right-wing Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo, no fan of the North, gushed that "with a few melodies, Cho did in two hours what countless politicians and businessmen failed to do over a decade: he touched a nerve among ordinary North Korean people and sparked genuine interest and emotion."

New hot line and farm aid
There was also progress in security matters. In August 10 a new military hotline was tested, coming into use soon thereafter. This links liaison offices, the aim being to prevent border clashes at sea like those that led to fatal firefights in 1999 and 2002. There is also a similar separate new hotline for merchant shipping, related to the South's now allowing Northern vessels to pass between its mainland and the southwestern holiday island province of Cheju. Propaganda loudspeakers at the DMZ, switched off last year, are being dismantled. High-level military talks have been agreed - at an odd venue, Mt. Paekdu (Paekdu-san) on North Korea's border with China - but no date or agenda has yet been fixed.

On the economic front, a major step forward was the first meeting of a new committee, chaired by vice-ministers, on agricultural cooperation. Meeting in Kaesong on August 18-19, this reached an agreement which South Korea trumpeted as the start of joint farming, something it has long sought. From next year, a few Northern collective farms - number or location yet to be determined, and with no suggestion that decollectivization as in China or Vietnam is on the agenda - will receive the ministrations of Southern experts and inputs. It will be fascinating to see how this works out in practice. South Korea will also assist more widely with new seeds, pest control, fruit and vegetable cultivation, sericulture, and badly needed reforestation. All this is unambiguously positive, though it remains to be seen how far crop yields can be boosted in what is hardly optimal terrain for agriculture. (The US scholar Marcus Noland has provocatively suggested that it is not economically rational to grow food in any part of the mountainous and densely populated Korean peninsula: they should import it instead and pay for it with industrial exports, as the South largely does.)

More generally, inter-Korean trade in the first seven months of 2005 rose 55% over the same period last year to US$582 million. 90% of this was Northern exports, and over a third was inter-governmental rather than private business. Meanwhile, an expansion of Hyundai's tourism to two new destinations, Kaesong city and Mt. Paekdu, was postponed. No explanation was given, but Pyongyang was thought to be disquieted by power struggles in the Hyundai group, leading to the ouster of the executive who had pioneered ties with the North, Kim Yoon-kyu. Nonetheless, three pilot tours to Kaesong were later scheduled.

Waving but not touching
Family reunions too were revived and slightly expanded, thanks to a technical innovation. On August 15, 40 separated family members - some too frail to travel - saw each other for the first time in over half a century, thanks to a new videolink across the DMZ. They could wave and speak, but not embrace. Later an 11th round of regular reunions, where 100 from each side meet kin from the other for 2-3 days at the North's Kumgangsan resort, was due to begin on August 26 after a hiatus of over a year. At this rate, sadly, most of the relevant group will be dead before they get this one-off chance to meet (cruelly, no further contact is allowed by letter, telephone or email thereafter). Out of some 120,000 South Koreans who have applied to this programme since 2000, about 20,000 have since died. In the South the lucky few are chosen by lot; the North's method is unclear, but seems confined to the elite.

In a more contentious area, North Korea also agreed for the first time to discuss what was coyly termed those missing in the Korean War and thereafter: code for thousands of South Koreans abducted to the North, prisoners of war kept there after 1953 (a handful, old men now, have escaped in recent years), and others - mainly fishermen - seized since the war. The North had hitherto stoutly denied all of this, so it was unsurprising that these first talks, ongoing at this writing, did not seem headed for success. In contrast to Japan's absolute prioritization of its own far fewer kidnap cases, South Korea has gone to the other extreme: rather than rescue its own citizens, say critics, Seoul preferred to butter up their abductors. But it is now raising the cases of 542 POWs and 486 civilian abductees, mostly fishermen.

Rights and wrongs
It will be remarkable if the North does the decent thing here, as this could be the thin end of a large wedge. Officially South Korea claims all North Koreans too as citizens of the ROK, so there will be pressure to widen human rights concerns to the entire oppressed population. Meanwhile, on August 19 the US named Jay Lefkowitz, a former White House adviser, as its special envoy for North Korean human rights. This appointment, mandated by the North Korea Human Rights Act passed by Congress last year, had been long delayed. Its timing now may seem unfortunate, but its low-key manner - late on a Friday with minimal hoopla, and President Bush away on holiday - seemed calculated to try not to upset Pyongyang unduly. US concern over North Korean human rights abuses is likely to remain mainly rhetorical, or at least firmly subordinated to the nuclear issue and other security concerns.

Domestically, August began a season of celebrations of twin 60th anniversaries: liberation from Japan on August 15, to be followed by the ruling KWP's founding on September 8. For this, North Korea has revived from 2002 its largest ever mass games spectacular, called Arirang, which boasts 100,000 performers. (This runs till October, so for would-be visitors now is your chance.) The opening night on August 16 was graced with a rare appearance by Kim Jong-il, to thunderous applause but to the chagrin of foreign tourists who (unusually) were forbidden to bring in cameras or recorders, and faced airport-style security without knowing why; as ever, the royal presence was not announced in advance. Adored as we are endlessly told he is by all his loyal subjects, the dear leader is evidently taking no chances.

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