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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.

Summit’s up
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 nuclear facilities.

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 this.

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 September.

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 actual numbers. 

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?

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