Books on North Korea
Update No: 052 - (24/08/07)
North Korea: Summit flooded out
August was a busy news month for North Korea. For a change, not much of it
was nuclear. After months of rumours and denial, the two Koreas announced a
summit meeting between their two leaders in Pyongyang at the end of the month
– only to postpone it after the North was hit by its worst floods in 40 years,
with serious loss of life and damage to crops, homes and infrastructure.
Meanwhile working groups of the six-party talks met and reported some progress,
while Southern economists quantified the now huge gap between the two Koreas.
In over 60 years of mostly fierce hostility since the US and the then USSR
partitioned the peninsula ‘temporarily’ in 1945, there has only ever been
one summit meeting between the top leaders of North and South. That was in June
2000, when the long-time dissident Kim Dae-jung, having won South Korea’s
presidency at the fourth attempt in 1997, travelled to Pyongyang for talks with
Kim Jong-il. (The latter’s father, North Korea’s founding leader Kim
Il-sung, had been persuaded to meet DJ’s predecessor Kim Young-sam in July
1994 by ex-US president Jimmy Carter, who had flown to Pyongyang to defuse the
first North Korean nuclear crisis. But the ‘great leader’ died days before
the meeting was due: YS put ROK forces on alert, and inter-Korean relations
reverted to their then usual snarling.)
Kim Dae-jung’s sunshine policy, of which the summit was a key part, changed
all that. In the past decade contacts of all kinds between the two Koreas have
grown markedly, albeit still largely one-way. For the summit , the Southern Kim
– but not the Northern – won the Nobel peace prize. Yet it was tarnished by
later revelations that Seoul had secretly sent up to US$500 million to Pyongyang
just ahead of the meeting. That encapsulates the dilemma and debate about
‘sunshine’. Is it a long-term investment in peace, necessarily one-sided at
first to overcome decades of mistrust? Or is it a cynical exercise where the
South pays the North for good(ish) behaviour and the odd photo-opportunity,
whose real aim is to put off the nightmare of German-style reunification even if
this means propping up a vile tyranny? Nor is this either/or. The German
precedent suggests both may be true, with Ostpolitik at one level sustaining the
former East Germany while arguably ultimately undermining it.
Roh to go
The June 2000 inter-Korean summit was never intended to be a one-off. Kim
Jong-il was supposed to reciprocate by visiting Seoul: an unlikely prospect for
a security-obsessed dictator who rarely leaves his country. With a feeble
conditionality typical of sunshine, the South although disappointed (but were
they surprised?) never insisted on symmetry here.
Kim Dae-jung’s successor Roh Moo-hyun continued sunshine, now rebranded as a
“policy for peace and prosperity.” A mercurial lame duck, due to step down
next February – South Koreans will elect his successor on December 19 – Roh
had been rumoured since last year to be plotting a second summit, with several
otherwise unexplained visits to Pyongyang by key aides and others. But the Blue
House denied this – until August 8, when both Koreas announced that Roh would
go North on August 28-30 and meet Kim Jong-il.
Just for show?
Despite the rumours the actual news came as a surprise, as inter-Korean ties
had seemed in a sticky patch. On July 26 a Northern general swore and stormed
out of the latest round of military talks, held at Panmunjom in the
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Then on August 4 the North withdrew from the now
customary joint celebration of Liberation Day (from Japan in 1945) set for
August 15 in Pusan, as a protest against what are in fact routine US-ROK war
games. August 6 even saw a brief exchange of fire across the DMZ, the first in
over a year. Yet behind all this play-acting, evidently, the North was happy to
arrange a summit.
Sunshine’s supporters saw the summit as a move reinforcing not only bilateral
ties but also wider détente on the peninsula, as seen in recent progress at the
six party talks (6PT) on the North Korean nuclear issue. Yet the idea also had
severe critics. At home, the conservative main opposition Grand National Party
(GNP), along with most analysts, regarded this as an electoral gimmick, designed
to boost an unpopular and fragmenting centre-left amid polls which make the GNP
firm favourites to regain power next year.
In any case, the venue was wrong: why was Kim Jong-il not coming South? One
rumour was that indeed he would, with a swift return visit to the Southern
resort island of Cheju (safer than Seoul) in October; which again could be seen
as blatant electioneering. North Korea routinely denounces the GNP as pro-US
traitors and flunkeys, even though earlier this year the party shifted to a
pro-engagement stance on the North – but one that would, or will from next
year, demand more reciprocity than has been the case for the past decade.
Summit and 6PT: help or hindrance?
Publicly, the US, Japan and others welcomed the summit, despite not being
consulted about it in advance. (Much of the ROK government too was kept in the
dark; the plan was known only to a few persons in the Blue House and National
Intelligence Service (NIS)). Privately there were concerns that a summit could
undermine rather than reinforce the 6PT, if South Korea were tempted to offer
the North much more aid – investment of up to US$20 billion in infrastructure
was spoken of – before it fulfilled the next phase of nuclear disarmament:
permanently disabling its now shut reactor at Yongbyon, and declaring all
For South Korea, a key aim of the summit was to increase its own leverage in
Pyongyang. Seoul fears being marginalized within the 6PT, where the US and China
each wield more clout. A top-level bilateral meeting would remind the Dear
Leader who is paying the piper. Then again, there were fears that the wily Kim
Jong-il would run rings around a naïve Roh.
The risk in all this was seen when South Korea partially pulled out of the Ulchi
Focus Lens military exercises with the US, about which Pyongyang complains
predictably every year. Seoul said it would still participate in the main
computer-based exercise, while postponing the field component until after the
summit. In the event the full exercise went ahead once the summit was postponed
– but no doubt the Pentagon was not best pleased.
Worst floods in 40 years
Lively debate about the summit’s pros and cons was put on hold on August 18,
when the event itself was postponed to early October (2-4) after North Korea,
including Pyongyang, was hit by the worst floods in forty years. Suspicious
minds speculated whether this was a pretext, but for once there is no reason to
suspect Kim Jong-il – himself left stranded in the north-east of the country,
according to one report – of guile. The floods are real enough, as they have
been in all too many summers – with drought an occasional variant – since
1995, when North Korea for the first time ever appealed to the international
community for aid.
With in retrospect unfortunate timing, on July 26 the official Korean Central
News Agency (KCNA) had trumpeted the merits of a new forecast and control system
developed by the DPRK’s Hydrological Institute to help prevent flood damage.
Within days this was sorely tested, as from August 7 North Korea was hit by the
heaviest rain in 40 years – or in some cases since records began. Unusually,
DPRK media reported the damage swiftly and in detail, including TV pictures of
floods in Pyongyang itself (the first since 1967).
By all accounts this was a terrible body blow to an already suffering economy
and people. KCNA was coy on casualties, but aid agencies were told that almost
300 people are dead or missing; eleven bodies, more than ever before, floated
downriver into South Korea. Over 46,000 homes were destroyed, rendering 88,000
families or over 300,000 people homeless.
In a state already unable to feed itself, at least 11% (South Korea reckons 14%)
of all farm land, paddy and dry alike, was hit at a critical season, with both
rice and maize coming into ear. KCNA spelt out the harm to irrigation: “Over
200 pumping stations, more than 1,600 sections of waterway, upwards of 30
reservoirs, 450 agricultural structures and at least 800 sections of river and
stream bank were destroyed.” Nor was industry spared, as the floods knocked
out 400 factories, 60 coal mines and 500 electricity pylons. KCNA admitted that
rail transport – creaky at the best of times – was “paralyzed”:- tunnels
inundated, bridges destroyed, track buried by landslides, and 55,000 square
meters of road bed washed away.
Few areas of the country escaped. Upper and middle reaches of the Taedong river,
which flows through Pyongyang, had their highest ever rainfall with average
precipitation of 524 mm between August 7 and 11, exceeding the 472mm during the
severe floods of August 25-29 1967. The 378mm which deluged the capital itself
was more than double 1967’s 154mm. In a rare plaintive note, KCNA lamented
that “the beautiful parks in Panwol, Ssuk, Konyu and other islets and on the
sides of river were buried under silt beyond recognition.”
South Pyongan and North Hwanghae provinces, respectively north and south of the
capital, had nearly a year’s rainfall in just a week. The latter lost 37,000
hectares of fields flooded, buried or washed away. To the south, South Hwanghae
in the southwest, the main granary, lost 20,000 hectares of crops, while Kangwon
in the southeast bore the worst of the damage to housing with 27,700 homes
wrecked. Further north, North Pyongan in the northwest and South Hamgyong in the
northeast also suffered, with forestry hit there and in mountainous Jagang on
the border with China. Even Kim Jong-il was affected, reportedly stranded in the
Hamgyong area where he was making guidance visits. Reluctant to fly, his
inability to get back to Pyongyang was one probable reason to postpone the
planned inter-Korean summit.
As in 1995 and intermittently since, the DPRK appealed for international aid.
Both the UN and Red Cross promptly issued appeals, but immediate pledges seemed
far smaller than the scale of the problem required. The UN World Food Programme
(WFP), which once had its largest operation worldwide helping 6 million
vulnerable North Koreans, sprang into action despite being forced since last
year to drastically curtail its operations, having been told that humanitarian
(as opposed to development) aid was no longer needed. In truth North Korea
resents WFP’s insistence on monitoring delivery, and thought it could get by
on aid from a less intrusive China and South Korea. But Seoul withheld its usual
annual 400,000 tons of rice in 2006 in protest at the North’s missile and
nuclear tests. That was reinstated this year, and further emergency aid will no
doubt be forthcoming. Roh Moo-hyun sent a personal message of condolence to Kim
Jong-il, which KCNA – in a rare gesture: despite sunshine, the North still
often ignores or cold-shoulders the South – ran as its lead item on August 22.
6PT working groups meet
Meanwhile several of the specific working groups (WGs) set up under February
13’s 6PT accord held their second meetings, each hosted by a different
participant. On August 6-7 South Korea convened the WG on energy aid to North
Korea: not in Seoul but at the truce village of Panmunjom in the DMZ. Discussion
centred on how to supply the 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO) promised if
North Korea fulfils the next phase of denuclearization, given that it has
capacity only to store 200,000 tons a year. Other forms of energy could be
substituted for HFO, but Pyongyang has yet to make any known specific request on
On August 16-17 the key WG, on denuclearization, met in Shenyang in northeast
China to thrash out the details of North Korea’s required nuclear declaration
and disablement. The US (but not North Korea) sent its top man: assistant
secretary of state Christopher Hill, who heads its delegation to the plenary
6PT. Ever upbeat, Hill called the talks “very businesslike …very
specific”. He even said the DPRK was ready to solve the thorny issue of its
alleged covert second nuclear programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU),
which hitherto Pyongyang has denied having; but did not elaborate. It was a row
over HEU in 2002 which unleashed the second, ongoing North Korean nuclear
crisis, so this matter is critical.
Compared to this immediate nitty-gritty, there was less urgency to a third WG on
peace and security in northeast Asia which met in Moscow on August 20-21. The
chairman, Vladimir Rakhmanin, described it as “brainstorming”; participants
said the atmosphere was positive.
Still to hold their second rounds are two further WGs, whose agendas are
normalization of North Korea’s relations with the US and Japan respectively.
The former is expected to meet soon. One major crux is whether Washington is
ready to remove the DPRK from the State Department list of nations sponsoring
terrorism. To do so would anger Republican hawks like the former US envoy to the
UN John Bolton, who deplore the Bush administration’s shift towards engaging
Kim Jong-il. It would also not please Japan, which demands a full accounting for
several of its citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
The final WG, on normalizing relations with Japan, may prove hard to convene as
relations are acrimonious. Demanding more information on kidnap victims, Japan
has imposed tough sanctions. On August 3 the Tokyo city authorities impounded
the imposing headquarters of Chongryon, the organization of pro-North Koreans in
Japan, for non-repayment of debts owed by bailed-out credit unions affiliated to
Chongryon. This building, set in prime Tokyo real estate, would be North
Korea’s embassy if relations were ever established; in happier times it
already functioned as such, informally. Pyongyang is furious, and this row could
yet cause trouble if and when the plenary 6PT reconvene as expected in
Falling growth, widening gap
North Korea stopped publishing regular statistics in the 1960s, when its economy
first hit setbacks after very rapid initial postwar growth. Famously its annual
Budget reports to the seldom convened parliament, are uniquely given without
In recent years the Bank of Korea (BoK), South Korea’s central bank, has
attempted to shed sunlight on what the North would rather keep dark, with annual
efforts to estimate basic macro-economic data. While some have queried BoK’s
methodology, its consistency should at least help in detecting trends. After
missing a year in 2006 for unexplained reasons, to the alarm of
Pyongyang-watchers around the planet, BoK is back in the game, publishing its
latest estimates on August 16.
Worryingly, BoK reckons that after modest growth since 1999, hitting 3.8% in
2005, North Korean gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 1.1% last year to
US$22.8 billion. That is less than it had been at the end of the 1980s, before
the abrupt ending of aid from Moscow precipitated a decade of severe decline.
Bad weather saw farm sector output fall by 2.6% - which suggests that 2007 will
be even worse. Construction fell by 11.5%.
Comparing the numbers for South Korea, as BoK also does, is more than ever a
case of one country, two planets. Soon to be a trillion dollar economy –
measured at purchasing power parity (PPP) it already is – the ROK’s US$887
billion gross national income (GNI, another slightly different measure) dwarfs
the North’s US$25.6 billion by 34.7:1. Put another way, if South Korea’s
economy grows by 4.5% this year as forecast, it will add the equivalent of one
and a half North Koreas in extra output. True, the South has twice the
population, but even per capita the gap is 16.6:1 – meaning that South Koreans
earn more each month than Northerners do in a year. Other chasms are wider yet.
Last year South Korea’s exports of US$325 billion dwarfed the North’s
US$1.467 billion by a factor of 222; meaning that the South clocks up the
equivalent of the North’s entire annual exports every 40 hours.
“Over the mountains are mountains”, says a Korean proverb. As North Korea
and its these days fairly friendly foes sweat their way up Mount Flood and Mount
Nuclear, each tough enough in itself, they may sneak a glance at the terrifying
prospect on the far (but how far?) horizon: the vertical icy peak that is Mount
Reunification. How will that ever be scaled?