Books on North Korea
22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)
North Korean won (KPW)
Update No: 041 - (02/10/06)
How to break the stalemate?
As a humid and squally summer eased towards autumn, Korea's most beautiful
season, the political climate on the peninsula avoided fresh storms - but the
underlying weather got no better. In September the reverberations from North
Korea's missile tests in July continued to echo, and to prevent progress.
Meanwhile, some claimed to detect distant rumblings - or maybe not so distant -
of a potential nuclear test, whose political fallout would be far more serious.
Despite rumours, there were few signs that any concerned party had much idea, or
even an active will, as to how this uneasy stalemate might be broken and
More likely than not?
Richard Armitage, who served as under-secretary of state to Colin Powell in
the first Bush administration, told the Financial Times on September 24 that it
was "more likely than not" that Pyongyang will test a nuclear weapon
this year; adding that "in their thought-process it's the next logical
escalation." But as ever with North Korea, analysts are divided and hard
facts few. On this reasoning, having defied even his sustainers in China and
South Korea by testing missiles, yet having failed thus to jolt the US or anyone
else into being nicer to him (although how could he have imagined those means
would achieve that end?), Kim Jong-il might conclude that he needs a bigger bang
to really get the world's attention and respect.
The counter-view is that the dear leader is not actually that dumb, or reckless.
With Seoul and perhaps also Beijing cutting aid since the missiles, Kim can ill
afford to precipitate a further escalation. He may also pause to take stock of
Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe: very much a hawk hitherto on North
Korea, especially over the abductee issue, but already seeking to mend fences
with China and South Korea. Thus Armitage may be too pessimistic, at least in
his timing. But next year, if nothing has moved, the risk will grow.
More rods to fuel controversy
Another American, Selig Harrison of Washington's Center for International
Policy, visits Pyongyang regularly and is used by its leaders as a conduit for
their views. His latest trip brought typically mixed messages. The bad news was
that within three months they plan to unload the fuel rods from the nuclear
reactor at Yongbyon: mothballed under Bill Clinton's 1994 US-DPRK Agreed
Framework (AF), but restarted in early 2003 as the second North Korean nuclear
crisis mushroomed. This would generate more spent fuel for conversion to
plutonium. Pyongyang may already possess enough fissile material for some 10
Yet Harrison also reported that North Korea hopes for US help in joining the
World Bank. Given the present stand-off over US financial sanctions as well as
the nuclear knot, it is hard to give this prospect much credence. Pyongyang has
never evinced any serious interest in the Bretton Woods institutions, despite
several overtures from them in recent years.
A new approach?
Meanwhile the search for a way out of the present impasse continues. The
usual talking up of prospects - the latest an as yet unspecified new
"common and broad" approach, said to have been agreed when George Bush
and Roh Moo-hyun met in Washington on September 14 - may just be whistling to
keep spirits up. Although the US and South Korean presidents papered over the
cracks, their respective preferences for stick and carrot are well known.
Yet something might be afoot. Roh, loose-tongued as ever, said on September 28
that the new approach was put to North Korea before he discussed it with Bush. A
day later China's top delegate to the six-party talks, Wu Dawei, said in Seoul
that Beijing supports it. What no one can or will yet say is what this magic
formula consists of. That is not necessarily a bad sign. A certain public
vagueness may mean the nitty gritty is being argued behind the scenes: a better
bet than publicly parading specific non-negotiable incompatible demands, as has
too often occurred in the past. Just possibly, all parties realize they have
collectively dug themselves into a hole that benefits no one, and are ready to
compromise. But how?
Further straws in the wind include hints from the US envoy in Seoul, Alexander
Vershbow, hitherto seen as a hardliner, that bilateral US-DPRK talks might be
possible (albeit within the 6-party format). Vershbow also said that his
predecessor Christopher Hill, well liked in his brief sojourn in Seoul before he
was promoted to assistant secretary of state to head the US delegation to the
6-party talks, could be willing to visit Pyongyang. Despite the Bush
administration's consistent if baffling refusal of bilateral dialogue for many
years, Hill is believed to have recently offered to make such a trip - only to
New Chinese ambassador is US expert
Also intriguing is China's new ambassador in Pyongyang. Liu Xiaoming
presented his credentials on September 11 to Kim Yong-nam: the long-serving
ex-foreign minister and no. 3 in the power structure, who as president of the
Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) is technically North Korea's
head of state. (Kim Jong-il's executive post is as chairman of the National
Defence Commission, so he spares himself such formalities.) Two days later Liu
was at the airport with his Russian and Cuban counterparts to wave Kim Yong-nam
off on his lengthy flight to the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana.
Liu Xiaoming is the first Chinese ambassador to North Korea born after the
Korean War, so the old rhetoric of friendship sealed in blood (a million Chinese
died saving Kim Il-sung's hide) is but history to him. Moreover, he has no prior
East Asian postings or experience - but a great deal in the US, where he spent a
decade in study and work. Evidently Beijing's top priority for now is to try to
educate minds in Pyongyang on how Washington works.
Meanwhile Han Song-ryol, North Korea's long-serving deputy envoy to the UN in
New York - a key if intermittent point of contact with Washington - is to be
replaced after five years by Kim Myong-kil, currently a senior researcher with
the DPRK foreign ministry's thinktank on arms control. Perhaps these personnel
changes will encourage fresh thinking.
Tokyo tightens the screw
As the Koizumi era drew to a close, on September 19 Japan joined Australia
in announcing fresh pressure on Pyongyang. Tokyo said it will inspect 270
financial institutions - many linked to Chongryun (Chosensoren), which
represents pro-DPRK ethnic Koreans in Japan - to ensure remittances do not
breach regulations, including the limited sanctions prescribed in July 15's UN
Security Council resolution condemning the missile launches. Beyond this, the
joint steps with Canberra are a copycat of earlier US sanctions, targeting a
dozen DPRK companies - and one Swiss one, Kohas AG, whose president Jakob
Steiger strenuously denies any role in helping Pyongyang proliferate weapons of
mass destruction (WMD).
Seoul suspends Kaesong applications
South Korea, by contrast, remains reluctant to paint the North into a
corner. But it is still struggling to find an effective response to the missile
tests. On September 21, unification minister Lee Jong-seok said Seoul is
suspending applications from local SMEs to set up in the Kaesong industrial
zone, just across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) inside North Korea. Yet he
insisted that "the general development of the Kaesong complex is
continuing", and that the applications process will resume "when
market conditions are most appropriate."
Market conditions hardly seem the point. While only 15 ROK firms are operating
in the zone so far, interest had hitherto been keen; but the fear was that the
missile tests would scare off applicants. Yet the Bush administration dislikes
Kaesong, and is firmly resisting Seoul's vigorous efforts to have its products
included in the bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) which the two nations are
currently seeking to negotiate - in any case a long shot politically, given
strong public opposition in South Korea. In view of its timing, a week after Roh
Moo-hyun met Bush, this suspension looks like a gesture to please Washington.
Missiles raise famine risk
July's missile launches have not helped the UN World Food Programme (WFP)'s
already fraught efforts to keep famine at bay in North Korea. John Powell, WFP's
deputy executive director, told the Financial Times on September 26 that no
donations at all have come in since July. This year's DPRK appeal is so far only
8% funded, despite being much smaller (at Pyongyang's insistence) than in the
recent past; it was once WFP's biggest operation on the planet. With 37% of
North Korean children still malnourished (down from 62% in 998), Powell warned
that "we are at real risk of losing all the gains made in nutritional
The regime's curtailment of WFP, with its strict monitoring rules, was based on
expectation that less onerous bilateral food aid from China and South Korea
would suffice. But Powell said Beijing has slashed its grain shipments from
300,000 tonnes in 2005 to 100,000 tonnes this year, whether for commercial or
political reasons. After the missiles Seoul suspended its usual half million
tonnes of rice, though it has since sent 100,000 tonnes as flood relief.
Moreover, this autumn's DPRK harvest is expected to fall short of 2005's 4
million tonnes. South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-moon - a front-runner to
succeed Kofi Annan as UN secretary-general - has said that the North faces a 1.5
million tonne grain deficit this year.
Chosun buys Daedong
Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are more typical of South Korea's busy
capitalism than the North's crusty communism. Yet early September brought
consolidation among the few foreign financial investors in Pyongyang, as Chosun
Fund bought Daedong Credit Bank (DCB). Chosun, an embryonic if ambitious
London-based fund, aims to raise $100 million to invest in North Korean mines
and other assets. DCB, by contrast, is already a decade old. Originally a joint
venture by the now collapsed Hong Kong-based Peregrine group, it was bought out
by its British management - who will stay on - and has offered basic banking
services with a staff of five from a Pyongyang hotel suite, mainly to foreign
But for the past year DCB has seen most ($6 million) of its $10 million assets
frozen: a victim of the blunt instrument of US financial sanctions against the
Macau-based Banco Delta Asia (BDA). $3 million reportedly belongs to British
American Tobacco (BAT), whose unpublicized ownership of a cigarette factory in
Pyongyang was revealed last year. Chosun, whose advisers include a senior ex-US
State Department negotiator with North Korea, says it will challenge Washington
and prove that DCB at least is squeaky-clean.
A Chinese satellite?
All analysis of North Korea, as anywhere, needs to contemplate the longer
term as well as immediacies. The cover story in October's issue of the US
magazine Atlantic Monthly was a long article by Robert Kaplan, provocatively
titled "When North Korea Falls". If rather one-sidedly reflecting the
view from US forces in Korea (USFK), this performed a service in thinking the
unthinkable on several fronts. Most striking was his suggestion that
"China's infrastructure investments are already laying the groundwork for a
Tibet-like buffer state in much of North Korea, to be ruled indirectly through
Beijing's Korean cronies once the KFR [Kim family regime] unravels." Kaplan
suggests that the US and even South Korea might go along with this, if only
because the alternative of either of them trying to run a post-Kim North Korea
(vide Iraq) threatens to be riskier and costlier than letting China carry the
A royal niece takes her life in Paris
Mid-September brought a rare and tragic fresh glimpse of North Korea's royal
family, with reports that Kim Jong-il's niece had killed herself in Paris in
August. Jang Keum-song, 29, was the sole birth child of Kim Jong-il's
brother-in-law and confidant Jang Song-thaek, a first vice director in the
ruling Workers Party of Korea (WPK), and the dear leader's only sister Kim
Kyong-hui, herself director of the WPK's light industry department.
Said to be tall and beautiful (and not to have told her friends she was North
Korean), Ms Jang was studying in Paris, evidently in some style; her body was
found in her villa by her maid and chauffeur. She had taken an overdose of
sleeping pills. Press speculation - none of this has been announced or
confirmed, needless to say - is that she had been ordered to return to
Pyongyang, where she had a suitor whom her parents rejected because of his bad
ideological background. In North Korea's contorted demonology, that means some
of his family members may have been landlords, Christians, victims of successive
purges, living in South Korea, returnees from Japan, or a long litany of similar
supposed sins. (South Korean parents can be equally picky, but there the social
snobbery is more straightforward.)
Echoes and repetitions
If true, this is ironic in that North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-sung
opposed Jang Song-thaek's marriage to his daughter on similar grounds. Jang was
exiled for a while to the east coast city of Wonsan, before the great leader
relented and permitted them to wed in 1972. (Rumour has it that they are now
separated, and that Kim Kyong-hui has a drink problem.)
This also echoed a parallel recent tragedy for South Korea's quasi-royalty. Last
November Lee Yoon-hyung, 26, youngest daughter of Lee Kun-hee - chairman of the
Samsung group, Korea's biggest conglomerate, and the country's richest man -
hanged herself in New York where she was studying. Here again the cause was said
to be parental opposition to the man she loved: Shin Soo-bin, who found her
body. Public sympathy was strained by Samsung's initial clumsy attempts to hush
up the suicide and claim she had died in a car accident.
While Jang Keum-song's death has no known direct political overtones, in
Pyongyang the personal is political. Her father, long the dear leader's
right-hand man, fell from grace in 2003 and was not seen for two years before
re-emerging early this year in what appeared a slightly lower rank - soon belied
by his following his brother-in-law in making a high-level but low-profile visit
to China in March. One alleged reason for Jang Song-taek's purge was his pushing
his adopted son Kim Jang-hyun - in fact a natural son of Kim Il-sung with one of
his nurses - as a potential successor to Kim Jong-il. In North Korea's
neo-patriarchy, princesses seem to have no claim; even though the dear leader's
daughter Kim Sol-song is reportedly an able economist who accompanies her father
on some of his workplace visits.
France: formal froideur belies real ties
By all accounts the French authorities cooperated in secretly repatriating
Ms Jang's body - just as they had done in August 2004 with Kim Jong-il's
consort, Ko Yong-hee, mother of his two younger sons, who died in Paris where
she was being treated for breast cancer. That France is the last EU country
(with Estonia) to deny the DPRK full diplomatic relations - it has also
prevented the European Commission from opening an office in Pyongyang - belies a
long history of de facto contacts. North Korea has had a presence in Paris since
the 1960s: initially a trade office, joined in the 1970s by a mission to Unesco.
In 1980 the then French president Francois Mitterand infuriated South Korea by
upgrading the North's mission to a "general legation": a status shared
with Palestine and Quebec. Things are not as they seem.
All is revealed
North Korea's obsessive secretiveness is indefensible in more than one
sense; it is no match for spy satellites. No longer restricted to the
professional intelligence community, detailed views of everything from Kim
Jong-il's palaces to his prison camps, not to mention missile batteries and
nuclear sites, are now available - free, at present - to anyone with broadband
internet access, courtesy of Google Earth (earth.google.com). Writing on August
29, Sonni Efron of the Los Angeles' Times commented that this was far more
revealing than anything she was ever allowed to see as a visiting reporter.
Already viewers are debating landmarks of interest. One has identified no fewer
than 332 mainly military sites, including artillery along the Demilitarized Zone
and the vast network of air defences ringing Pyongyang.
Efron also noted a stark visual contrast: "Click on down into South Korea
and the barren, deforested mountaintops give way to lush forests, the dusty
valleys to emerald rice fields, the surface-to-air missiles to factories, houses
and cars…. Kim may rule in secret and hide nuclear secrets underground, but
the shameful nature of his regime is on global display."
Two lighter moments
Other than the regime's endlessly risible self-presentation, humour on North
Korea tends to be in short supply. Last month was lightened by two exceptions.
On September 25 Seoul dailies headlined a claim by Kang Song-ju, North Korea's
senior vice foreign minister and long-time chief nuclear negotiator, that
Pyongyang has at least five nuclear weapons. Their source was an article on the
Nautilus.org website, a key forum of debate on North Korea, by Robert Carlin, a
former chief of the Northeast Asia section in the US State Department.
Carlin's title, "Wabbit in Free Fall", plus sundry other clues, made
it abundantly clear that what purported to be a speech by Kang was in fact a
spoof; indeed, a clever and poignant lament for those on both sides who spent
years building bridges between Washington and Pyongyang, only to see all their
efforts ruined by hardline colleagues. (It follows a similar exercise by Erich
Weingartner of the Canadian clipping service CanKor, imagining how a senior
North Korean aid official might strive to make sense of the famine and the ups
and downs of his government's dealings with an outside world that it barely
Six hours passed before the South Korean media twigged, issuing red-faced
retractions and apologies. Soul-searching and self-criticism followed, for not
only literal-mindedness but sheer laziness and haste in simply reproducing the
story without checking it out first.
Wordplay as a weapon
North Koreans themselves have precious little to laugh about. While
communism elsewhere - especially in eastern Europe - generated a rich vein of
wry humour, North Koreans are often deemed too cowed or brainwashed to do
likewise. Yet a recent issue (no 38) of North Korea Today - a well-informed
newsletter from the South Korean Buddhist NGO Good Friends - reports some ironic
punning on who really does what in North Korea. Wordplay has the Democratic
Women's Union (DWU) as 'Running', the Socialist Working Youth League (SWYL)
'Standing', and the ruling Workers Party of Korea (WPK) 'Sitting'. That is, the
party just sits around, young male officials of the SWYL stand and out bark
orders - and the women do all the work. Good Friends adds that "it is no
exaggeration to say that the North Korean economy is run by women." It is
good to know they have the last laugh.