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Update No: 055 - (30/11/07)

North Korea: Down to details
After October's two landmark agreements at the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang , and further steps towards nuclear disarmament at the Six Party Talks (6PT) the hope was that November would see both accords start to be implemented. And so it proved, especially on the North-South front. The DPRK premier, Kim Yong-il no kin to his master, Kim Jong-il visited Seoul as agreed, signing a detailed document to expedite business cooperation. A separate meeting of defence ministers, later in the month, did not reach full agreement.

The 6PT/nuclear front was less dramatic, but this too saw movement and some interesting encounters with the US . At home, meanwhile, the dear leader may be grooming his once-purged brother-in-law as at least a caretaker successor. 

Premiers meet
In mid-November (14-16) Kim Yong-il, fresh or tired from a business-oriented trip to Indochina and Malaysia , visited Seoul for the first North-South prime ministers meeting in 15 years. During 1990-92 there had been eight such meetings, and in 1991 a comprehensive agreement was signed but never implemented, as the nuclear issue clouded detente.

Better luck this time. The accord inked on November 16 by Kim and his ROK counterpart Han Duck-soo, a fellow-technocrat, is unprecedented in its dense specificity: 2,500 words, 8 chapters, 45 clauses, and (crucially) over 20 deadlines to meet again on specific aspects. Space forbids a detailed account, but the full text can be found on the ROK unification ministry's website at http://unikorea.go.kr/english/EPA/EPA0101R.jsp?main_uid=2201

The unification train is rolling
An early highlight comes on December 11, when the first regular cross-border trains in over half a century will roll. Not far, initially: just 20 km across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from Munsan, north of Seoul, to Bongdong, serving the joint-venture Kaesong industrial complex, where over 20 ROK firms employ pay some 20,000 DPRK workers to produce export goods. For these Southern SMEs, the new rail link is expected to halve logistical costs compared to the road transport used hitherto.

The date is no accident: just a week before South Korea's presidential election, which Kim Jong-il may still hope (against all the polls) to swing towards his partners in sunshine, the centre-left United New Democratic Party (UNDP). Despite the calculated timing, this peace train is genuinely important, not least in leading on to bigger things. The North has agreed to make a swift start as well on joint work to upgrade its bumpy motorway from Kaesong to Pyongyang, and to modernize the entire west coast railway all the way up to Sinuiju on the Chinese border. After surveys this year, work will begin in earnest in 2008. 

Two freight routes to Europe
Rebuilding the DPRK's decrepit infrastructure will be a long and costly haul, but the prize is reintegration of transport networks: not only on the peninsula but in the wider northeast Asian region, with North Korea at its hub. And indeed beyond: the iron silk road dreamed of by Kim Dae-jung, linking Pusan to Paris via Siberia, is no longer a fantasy. Separately, the DPRKs official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on November 22 that Russia will invest US$100 million to upgrade its own cross-border rail track: 55 km from the border post at Khasan to Rason (Rajin-Sonbong) special zone in the DPRK's north-east. It will also build a container freight station in Rajin port, to take cargo from South Korea to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway. That sea and rail route to Europe may come into use before South Korea has time to modernize North Korea's own railways: be it to Sinuiju and across China , or the tougher terrain of the DPRK's mountainous northeast coast.

Besides trains, Pyongyang has agreed to a raft of other projects. Two joint shipyards will be built, one on each coast at Nampo and Anbyon, starting next year. That should help South Korea's shipbuilding industry, the global number one, fend off competition from China . Joint mining will start at Tanchon and elsewhere, amid concern in Seoul that North Korea is selling off its ample mineral reserves to China much too cheaply. Other planned cooperation includes farming (especially seeds), pharmaceuticals, and reforestation.

Kaesong to expand; Haeju, too
The Kaesong zone, whose cumulative output so far is worth a modest $200 million, is set to expand. The North will ease red tape, and finally allow mobile phones and the Internet though both remain banned elsewhere in the DPRK. Though late starting, the precedent and model here is Shenzhen, China's now thriving special zone which abuts Hong Kong .

Indeed, in what sounds like an expansion of the enclave principle, the two Koreas further agreed to create a special economic zone based on the southwestern port city of Haeju , in effect extending Kaesong . This will include a shared fishing zone in the West (Yellow) sea, joint excavation of sand and gravel from the Han river estuary, and direct sea lanes between Haeju and Inchone. All this however requires military approval, on which more below.

Triple tourism triumph for Hyundai
Tourism too will expand. The eponymous and nearby Kaesong city, an ancient capital, will be open from December 5 to Southern tourists for day trips. From next May direct flights will link Seoul to Mt Paekdu: the peninsula's highest peak on the border with China , sacred in myth as Korea's legendary birthplace (and claimed just as mythicallyy for Kim Jong-il). 2009 may see Southern tourism extended to Pyongyang . Hyundai Asan, which will run all these ventures on top of its almost decade-old Mt Kumgang concession, is evidently back in favour. Its chairperson, Hyun Jeong-eun, signed a new tourism agreement in Pyongyang on November 3; the previous night she was Kim Jong-il's dinner guest. It has not always been so smooth. At one point the North offered the Kaesong tours concession to a rival, Lotte, and only last January KCNA fulminated against "the high fliers and tricksters of Hyundai Asan who stoop to any infamy to meet their business interests". 

Reunions remain limited
Yet other planned North-South projects include broader cooperation in education, culture, sport, science and technology, family reunions, and more. On the latter, the two sides' Red-Crosses held their ninth meeting at Mt Kumgang on November 28-30. Early indications were that Seoul would not achieve either of the breakthroughs it keeps hoping for. One is to have far more frequent reunions than the poignantly brief one-off meetings allowed so far, permitting this ageing cohort to meet as often as they wish at a newly built reunion centre, soon to open at Kumgang. The other issue is to get past the North's flat denial that it still holds about a thousand South Koreans: (over 500 old PoWs from the 1950-53 Korean War, and over 400 (mainly fishermen) abducted since). Neither will be easy, and rather than fight on this front the South prefers to leave it be and let other areas of cooperation grow first.

To run all this new activity, an upgraded joint committee will hold its first meeting in Seoul on December 4-6. The premiers too will meet twice a year, to oversee the process.

Defence ministers disagree
Less than a fortnight after the two Korean premiers met in Seoul , their defence ministers did the same in Pyongyang on November 27-29, for only the second time ever. This went less smoothly, in that they failed to agree on where to site the proposed joint fishing area. The South thinks it should comprise equal portions of each of their waters on either side of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto post-Korean War sea border. But North Korea has never officially recognized the NLL, and wants the whole zone to lie south of it.

This dispute is of long standing. But encouragingly, it did not hold up progress elsewhere. A seven-point agreement was reached on other matters, including security guarantees for crossborder economic projects. A new joint military committee, headed by deputy defence ministers, will look at ways of reducing tensions. Ministerial talks will be institutionalized, with another round to be held next year. All this is positive, especially since Pyongyang had long been reluctant to talk with Seoul in this area â€" regarding the US as its proper dialogue partner in matters military. 

Yongbyon is being disabled
Disablement work at Yongbyon, North Korea's only known nuclear site, is well under way under US supervision. A 10-strong team of experts and officials from the other five nations in the 6PT : China, the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia visited the site on November 28 and pronounced themselves satisfied with both progress achieved and DPRK attitudes to the process. Disablement is due for completion by the year-end when Pyongyang must also declare all its other nuclear activities with full dismantlement to follow in 2008.

So far, so good. Potential pitfalls lie ahead, including whether Kim Jong-il has actually had, or will own up to a separate covert programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). There may also be tough questions on alleged nuclear cooperation with Damascus , a propos of a mystery facility in eastern Syria bombed by Israel on September 6. At an informal track-two meeting in New York on November 16, DPRK diplomats to the UN were reportedly taken aback at how vehemently they were pressed on Syria by Henry Kissinger, among others. The dear leader must surely grasp that however eager George W Bush now is to cut a deal, nuclear proliferation to the Middle East is the reddest of red lines for Washington .

On November 26 the Sankei Shimbun, a right-wing Japanese daily, partial to tall tales about North Korea , claimed it is collaborating with Syria on how to fit chemical warheads onto ballistic missiles. True or not, this is a salutary reminder that fixation on the nuclear issue alone elides many other concerns which also need to be addressed, including non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) such as chemical and biological warfare (CBW).

Learning curve
The above-mentioned informal meeting in New York , which went on for four hours, also discussed financial issues. Another heavy hitter present was Paul Volcker, ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve. Days later on November 19-20 an official bilateral meeting followed, also in New York and apparently at the DPRK's request. Billed as being to inform North Korea about how the global financial system operates, this was a continuation of earlier talks with the US Treasury Department arising from the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) affair. 

Although Treasury never published its evidence against BDA, and was forced to back off so that State could cut a nuclear deal, strong evidence links North Korea with smuggling, drug trafficking and even counterfeiting US dollars. Given that background, educating in this context doubtless involves not only the real complexities of international finance, but also a clear warning that criminal financial activities must henceforth stop, period.

Off the list?
Still another potential problem is how soon North Korea will get off the State Department's list of nations suspected of sponsoring terrorism. In Washington on November 16, Yasuo Fukuda, Japan's newish and more dove-ish prime minister, sought assurances that delisting would depend on the DPRK coming fully clean about past abductions from Japan. While mindful of its ally's concerns in fact, Bush will hardly let this single issue be a deal-breaker if North Korea plays ball on denuclearization.

Pirates ahoy
The idea of US forces boarding a North Korean ship would till recently have sounded like an act of war, or at least a hostile search under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Not so on October 30, when the US navy boarded a DPRK merchant ship off Somalia at its own request, to help the crew regain control from pirates. Pyongyang officially thanked the US, saying that this shows they are on the same side in fighting terrorism. While the North Koreans were all for casting the pirates adrift on the high seas, the US insisted they be brought to land and justice, or what passes for it in Mogadishu .

Rights and wrongs
On November 20, for the fifth year running, the UN general assembly committee on human rights passed a resolution condemning the DPRK's very serious human rights violations, including torture and public executions plus all-pervasive and severe restrictions on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association. Sponsored by the EU and Japan , the vote was 97-23 with 60 abstentions. The latter included South Korea, which had abstained similarly three times in 2003-05 but voted aye last year, in a switch seen as linked to Ban Ki-moon's election as secretary-general. 

Reversion to abstention this time was personally ordered by President Roh Moo-hyun, in consideration of inter-Korean relations. It was denounced by human rights activists, who cut little ice in Seoul even over the ROK's own thousands of abductees held in the North for decades in stark contrast to Tokyo . All of Kim Jong-il's interlocutors have to set their own priorities, which involves dismal choices. The US too has become less vocal on North Korean human rights since its U-turn to engagement on the nuclear issue earlier this year.

Jang Song-taek returns
Octobers North-South summit confirmed the return to prominence in Pyongyang of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, who was listed as present at a farewell lunch for the visiting South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun. Jang had been the dear leader's right-hand man, constantly at his side, until suddenly purged for unclear reasons in mid-2003. He reappeared early in 2006, seemingly in a more junior position as first vice director of a department in the central committee of the ruling Workers Party of Korea (WPK).

Sources in Seoul claim that Jang's vague title covers responsibility for internal security. It is unclear what the evidence is for that, or for the Financial Times excited assurance that his return is a fillip for reform: two claims which are in any case implicitly contradictory. When he visited Seoul in 2002 as part of an economic inspection group, it was Pak Pong-ju then chemical industry minister, later promoted premier, only to be sacked this year who came across as a modernizer, eagerly noting as much as he could. Jang by contrast was a brooding and somewhat indolent imperial presence, who scared his own side so much that when one day he overslept none of them dared wake him; a Southerner had to do it.

Jang may have been purged for building his own faction (also now said to be back), and for pushing his adopted son Kim Jang-hyun, in fact a bastard of the late Kim Il-sung, by one of his nurses as a potential successor. His return now means that Kim Jong-il needs him, perhaps even as a transitional successor. The late Kim Il-sung used his own brother Kim Yong-chu in that role, while Kim Jong-il was being groomed as dauphin. 

On the succession as such, the DPRK remains tight-lipped. Kim Jong-il's eldest son Kim Jong-nam, reportedly back in favour and in Pyongyang , was recently spotted in Paris by a Japanese TV crew. He said he had been to the dentist, before slipping into a limousine.

Busy schedules
November ended with a flurry of actual or impending visits. As South Korea's defence minister and his party flew back to Seoul on November 29, a surprise visitor to Seoul the same day was Kim Yang-gon, whose job as director of the United Front Department in the WPK makes him North Koreas de facto head of intelligence. Kim was the only DPRK official present when Kim Jong-il met face-to-face with Roh, who by contrast had several ministers with him. His sudden three-day trip is said to be about implementing the summit agreement, although some in Seoul suspect a political agenda. The team with him includes his deputy director, Choi Seung-chol, said to be a leading policymaker on unification issues and as such to have played a key role hammering out the summit agreements. 

A third arrival in Seoul the very same day was Christopher Hill, who as assistant secretary of state heads the US delegation to the 6PT. Ever ebullient, Hill told a business audience that "we look forward to receiving in the next few days, certainly within the next week, a comprehensive list from the North Koreans on all their nuclear programmes, materials and facilities." Since he was due to fly on to Pyongyang for his second visit there and his first to Yongbyon on December 3, presumably he expects to pick it up there.

Coincidence or not, all this coming and going, invited much speculation on who might meet whom: overtly or covertly, in Seoul and/or Pyongyang . The peninsula, especially the North, is unused to so much activity. The next round of the 6PT was expected in early December, with some sources specifying December 4-6. The hope must be that quantity begets quality, and that this flurry of consultations denotes a serious will by all parties to produce results. We shall see at the year end, if indeed North Korea fulfils its pledges to disable Yongbyon and fully declare its nuclear inventory. If it does, then indeed Korea can look forward to a happier and peaceful 2008. 

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