Books on North Korea
Update No: 045 - (25/01/07)
New year, old and new issues
In the endless ups and downs of sentiment over the on-off six-party nuclear
talks, as of late January the mood seemed relatively optimistic - even though
the actual talks, when they reconvened in December after a hiatus of over a
year, got nowhere. But in January, an unexpected bilateral US-DPRK meeting in
Berlin reportedly went well. If and when the full six-party talks resume in
February, we shall see if a way forward has been found on the nuclear and other
cruxes, including US financial sanctions.
Bilateral in all but name
The absurdity on all counts of the Bush administration's abjuring purely
bilateral talks with the DPRK was never clearer than in mid-January, when it
emerged that the US (while denying it) was doing precisely that - and to good
effect. Christopher Hill, the US assistant secretary of state and chief delegate
to the six-party talks, met in Berlin over three days (January 16-18) with his
North Korean opposite number, vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan. Both sounded
upbeat. Indeed the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) even quoted the
DPRK foreign ministry as saying "a certain agreement was reached" and
praising the talks' "positive and sincere atmosphere".
Such rare public praise from KCNA is a two-edged sword for Hill; it will not
please Washington's hawks. Still, this is a positive turn. No details were
revealed, but press reports in Seoul said the two sides came close to agreeing
to refreeze North Korea's nuclear reactor under international monitoring, in
exchange for an aid package.
If true, that is far more progress than seemed possible when what was
technically (if rather absurdly) regarded as the recessed fifth round of the
six-party nuclear talks, at last reconvened in Beijing on December 18, after a
gap (some recess!) of over a year. After less than a week the meeting recessed
again, sine die, with nothing resolved.
Six-party talks reconvene, but without result
While no one expected an instant breakthrough, especially in the new
situation since the nuclear test, the complete lack of progress disappointed -
and also surprised, since much effort had gone into preparations so that these
talks would be more than a mere formality. In particular, the ever energetic
Christopher Hill hinted in advance that a way had been found to resolve the
financial sanctions issue, the main roadblock.
North Korea is unyielding
In the event the financial issue was indeed discussed in a separate channel,
but there was no progress. Contrary to earlier speculation that North Korea
would admit to counterfeiting US currency in the same way as it did to
kidnapping Japanese, i.e. by blaming rogue elements, Kim Kye-gwan took a
maximalist stance: not merely denying counterfeiting, but demanding that all
financial sanctions be lifted upfront before anything nuclear could be
discussed. As Kim Jong-il must know this is unacceptable to the US (and indeed
other parties), some feared that, at least for now, the dear leader has no
interest in negotiating away his nuclear deterrent. But then the Berlin talks
suggest a chink of light and movement behind the scenes. We shall see.
On past form mid-February should be marked by celebrations across North
Korea for Kim Jong-il's birthday on February 16. 5- and 10-year dates are
especially auspicious, and this year the dear leader officially turns 65 -
although he may really be 66.
For most people that would be retiring age, but Kim is reported to have said
recently that he can and will carry on till he is 90. He has also reportedly
banned all discussion of the succession; even though with none in place, North
Korea's long-term future - or indeed immediate, were he to drop dead tomorrow -
is very much open to question.
This is in sharp contrast to his own 20-year grooming as crown prince to his
father, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. As noted
here before, a tangled marital history leaves Kim Jong-il facing invidious
choices between at least three sons, plus other contenders. Yet doing nothing
and putting the subject off limits, will not make the problem go away.
In this context, there are rumours that Kim has ordered that his birthday should
not be celebrated this year. That would indeed mark a change, if the hundreds of
Kimjongilia flowers (begonias) being expensively reared with precious winter
fuel in greenhouses across the land were for once not to go on display. North
Korea could always join the South and China in marking the oriental New Year,
which falls around the same time.
Kim Jong-il must also ponder as mortality's relentless march thins the ranks
of his top cadres. Latest to go was foreign minister Paek Nam-sun, who died of
lung cancer on Jauary 2. In post since 1998, his role was mainly but not wholly
ceremonial: a week-long visit to China last June looked substantive. Paek's
Warholian 15 minutes of fame came in August 2002, when he took coffee at the
ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Brunei with his rather better known US opposite
number at the time, Colin Powell.
For serious business, however, two of his nominal deputies did the honours: Kang
Sok-ju, who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with the US; and Kim Kye-gwan,
chief delegate to the six-party nuclear talks. In that sense Paek's death is not
as untimely as might be feared, since he was not in the policy loop at the
highest level; whereas both Kang and Kim are said to report directly to Kim
What's in a name?
Earlier, Paek had been active in the first inter-Korean talks which began in
the 1970s. He was then known as Paek Nam-jun. Several North Korean figures have
thus subtly altered their names during their careers; no one seems quite sure
what this signifies.
Barely a month earlier, on November 23, lung cancer also took Kye Ung-tae: a
full Politburo member of the nominally ruling Worker's Party of Korea (WPK), who
as party secretary for national security had far more clout than Paek. Kye was
81, and unusually KCNA described him as having retired. Normally Pyongyang
elites only leave office feet first. With no fresh blood since Kim Il-sung died,
the Politburo - which the dear leader ignores in any case - is down to just six
full members. One, the anti-Japanese guerilla veteran and honorary vice
president Pak Song-chol, passed 93 last September. Three others are over 80, and
Kim Yong-nam, who as Presidium chair
of the Supreme People's Assembly is North Korea's titular head of state, turns
79 on February 4. So in this company, at 65 Kim Jong-il is a mere lad by
UNDP allegedly lax
A new row in January threw a rare spotlight on the UN Development Programme
and its activities in North Korea. The US deputy ambassador to the UN, Mark
Wallace, alleged that UNDP's aid programme in the DPRK had been run for years
"in blatant violation of UN rules", allowing Pyongyang to siphon off
funds for "its own illicit purposes." He specifically claimed that
UNDP local staff are dominated by DPRK officials, who run the agency's operation
and finances in ways that break UNDP rules.
Violations alleged include the government's insistence that UNDP pay cash to
North Korean government suppliers, and UNDP's failure to oversee projects it
funds in the country or to audit its programmes. UNDP denied this, claiming it
is "doing its best in very difficult circumstances", and welcomed an
external audit announced on January 22 by the new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,
himself from South Korea.
A hostile flag
UNDP was the first UN agency to open an office in Pyongyang, circa 1980. At
first it was not allowed to fly the UN flag, under which during the 1950-53
Korean War a US-led international force had repelled Kim Il-sung's invasion of
South Korea - and briefly occupied much of the North. Neither Korean state
formally joined the UN until 1991: the North bizarrely insisted they should
occupy a single seat, and could still rely then on the USSR and China to veto
South Korea's joining. But from the 1970s both Koreas had begun to participate
in specialized UN agencies, like WHO and Unesco.
UNDP's activities in North Korea have always been modest. In the past decade
it has spent some US$3 million annually, plus US$600,000 for office costs. By
definition then its projects are small-scale, focusing on farming and food
production, the environment and economic management. In the past it has
organized English and French language training - the former in Denmark, since
the UK did not then recognize the DPRK - and technical assistance to North
Korea's then fledgling computer industry; although at least one head of mission
tried to persuade the DPRK, long before its dire famine in the mid 1990s, to
focus mainly on agricultural rehabilitation and improvement.
Political storm in a teacup?
As an aid agency by definition, UNDP is in the business of giving money to
the DPRK - where everything is government-run, and working conditions are very
tough. So any financial looseness will at worst be small beer: hardly on a scale
to fund Kim Jong-il's nuclear arsenal, as some press accounts implied.
As with US targeting of DPRK finances in Macau's Banco Delta Asia (BDA) since
September 2005, one can only wonder at Washington's timing and coordination. The
BDA intervention looked suspiciously like a bid by hawks to sink the six-party
talks; just when at last they were getting somewhere, this gave Pyongyang an
excuse to take its bat home for over a year. Is history now repeating itself?
One can only hope not.
KEDO wants its money back
It was reported on January 16 that the Korean Peninsula Energy Development
Organization (KEDO) consortium is claiming compensation of US$1.9 billion for
its now defunct programme to build two light water reactors (LWRs) in North
Korea. Set up under the October 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework (AF), for almost a
decade KEDO seemed a model of how multilateral cooperation with Pyongyang could
work; even though its core board members - the US, South Korea and Japan - were
all the DPRK's traditional enemies, so at first there was much suspicion and
But from late 2002 a second, ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis undercut its
work. The $4.6 billion LWR project was officially scrapped last year, with
construction well advanced. $1.56 billion had been spent, mostly by South Korea.
Needless to say there is zero chance of Pyongyang paying up, or even releasing
the considerable amount of construction equipment left behind at the LWR site at
Kumho on the northeast coast.
Indeed North Korea for its part has demanded compensation from KEDO for failing
to deliver. Each side claims the other broke the AF. This is a sad end to what
once looked a promising way forward. KEDO itself may be formally wound up ere
The South's unification ministry keeps score
On January 5 South Korea's unification ministry (MOU) published its annual
tally of North-South visits, trade and the like. In 2006 inter-Korean visits
(excluding tourists to the North's Mount Kumgang resort) passed 100,000 for the
first time; reaching 101,708, up 15% from 2005. MOU credited most of this to
economic cooperation. Daily and weekly commuting by Southern managers from Seoul
across the once impenetrable Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to the Kaesong industrial
park, where about 15 Southern firms (so far) employ 11,000 North Korean workers
to make export goods worth $6 million monthly, doubtless bumped up the figures.
Yet as MOU noted, this flow remains highly unbalanced: a mere 870 or less
than 1% were North Koreans coming South. Over a million person-journeys were
made using the two relinked cross-border roads, the vast majority being tourists
to Kumgang. By contrast the parallel railway lines still languish unused, with
no sign of progress even before the North's missile and nuclear tests cast their
pall in the latter half of 2006.
Inter-Korean trade rises 28%, and more is real trade
Despite the tests inter-Korean trade also had a record year, rising 28% to
US$1.35bn. While in the past much so-called trade has really been Southern aid,
MOU noted that in 2006 the truly commercial proportion rose by over a third
(34.6%) to US$928m.
Is Northen poverty really the problem?
On inter-Korean relations the new year brought contrasting assessments. On
January 2 South Korea's dovish new unification minister Lee Jae-joung, an
ordained Anglican priest, called for more aid to the North if it abandons its
nuclear ambitions; saying that "unless we fundamentally solve the problem
of poverty in North Korea, security on the Korean Peninsula will always be in
danger." The conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) riposted
that the problem is nuclear weapons, not poverty, and accused president Roh Moo-hyun
of "begging" for a second inter-Korean summit. On present form the
GNP, which the North detests, looks set to take power next year.
North calls for the South to unite - behind Kim Jong-il
For its part, North Korea in its usual new year joint editorial of three
daily papers - those of the party, army and youth - called on all Koreans, north
and south, to unite for independent reunification. It added that they should
"staunchly support Songun [military-first] politics", i.e. Kim
Jong-il's policy line: so their idea of unity is for South Koreans to march to a
Northern drum. Just sometimes North Korea is crystal clear - even if they seem
to neither know nor care how this will go down in the South.
Samsung's Lee is gloomy
Meanwhile a top Southern tycoon sounded a gloomy note. Samsung group
chairman Lee Kun-hee, cautiously re-entering the limelight after a bad patch in
which Korea's biggest business and brand had been mired in scandal, in his new
year message cited the North Korean nuclear issue as one of three reasons - the
others being high oil prices and the appreciating won - why "this year, the
future for us isn't that bright."
The North's nuclear deterrent deters the chaebol too
Like every other chaebol bar Hyundai, Samsung has shown almost no interest
in a North Korea which it deems not yet seriously open for business. (The
contrast with Taiwanese firms' rush into China is telling.) Neither Kim
Jong-il's mistreatment of Hyundai nor his nuclear defiance are encouraging.
Indeed his nuclear deterrent is just that: a deterrent to investment and
prosperity as much as to peace on the peninsula. Perhaps the next six-party
talks will show that the penny has finally dropped on this connection in
Pyongyang, but on past form optimism would be premature.