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Update No: 058 - (29/02/08)

Making music 
With North Korea, occasional bursts of diplomatic activity often alternate with long bouts of marking time. February saw the peninsula in the latter mode, as Pyongyang’s partners in the Six Party Talks (6PT) waited – in vain, at this writing – for the DPRK to produce its promised nuclear inventory, overdue since December 31; or at least make some gesture in that direction. 

The two main events, each gesturing in a different direction, came at the month’s end. On February 26 a leading US orchestra played an unprecedented concert in Pyongyang: a remarkable event, whether or not it marks a political turning point. The day before, South Korea saw the inauguration of a new president – with every indication that Lee Myung-bak, a moderate conservative, will take a harder line than the North has grown used to over the past decade of kindly liberals in charge in Seoul.

Waiting for Kim 
Shuttle diplomacy on the nuclear issue continued. Christopher Hill, the tireless US envoy and assistant secretary of state for East Asia, met his North Korean counterpart, vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan, in Beijing on February 19. One major obstacle remains the suspicion that the DPRK has, or had, a second covert nuclear programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). Ever frank, Hill – by now in Seoul, and about to head for Tokyo – told reporters where matters stood: 

“They [the North Koreans] continue to take what they call a principled position that they have not engaged in any uranium enrichment activity … They have purchased some equipment and have been trying to show to us that this equipment is not being used for uranium enrichment … We cannot pretend that activities don't exist when we know that the activities have existed.” He added that the 6PT were in a rough patch, but by no means a dead end; and that North Korea remained committed to the process: “Mr. Kim Kye-gwan was very careful not to describe this as any kind of stalemate.” 

US team visits Yongbyon 
Cynics might see this as clutching at straws, but other activity suggests Hill is not just whistling to keep his spirits up. Days earlier, another US delegation visited Pyongyang and the North’s main known nuclear site at Yongbyon, now closed and supposed to have been disabled (put beyond use) by end-2007, though that deadline has also slipped. 

The US visitors included Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory; and Joel Wit, who in the Clinton era was a leading negotiator of the 1994 Agreed Framework (AF) which saw Yongbyon mothballed the first time, before it was fatefully restarted in 2003. Both are North Korea veterans. Wit visited 13 times while at the State Department and often since, while Hecker famously on an earlier trip in 2004 was handed what appeared to be a lump of plutonium by his hosts, then keen to warn Washington that North Korean nuclear ambitions should be taken seriously. 

According to this pair, Pyongyang blames the US for the 6PT delay, and will not offer a nuclear list until it is removed from State’s list of nations seen as sponsoring terrorism. They also confirmed that the DPRK has slowed disablement of Yongbyon, claiming other parties are late with their quid pro quo deliveries of heavy fuel oil (HFO). On the other hand they found good cooperation – the best in a decade, said Wit – between the US scientists supervising disablement and North Korean scientists. They also found Pyongyang receptive to the idea of a programme similar to that which helped former Soviet republics destroy their nuclear weapons and find alternative work for scientists: “a big deal” according to Hecker, since the 6PT formally has yet to discuss such ideas. 

Music as pingpong?
Though Hecker and Wit have no official status now, in effect this is “track two” quasi-diplomacy: keeping communication channels open and principals in touch. The same could be said of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO)’s remarkable concert in Pyongyang on February 26. This was an invitation by the DPRK, interestingly. Maybe someone in Pyongyang spotted a window between the orchestra’s scheduled concerts in Beijing and Seoul in their Asia tour. The US media debated the pros and cons. Critics predictably included the Wall Street Journal: a fine paper which covers Korea well, but whose editorials seem uniformly to come from the proverbial right of Genghis Khan. 

A vast posse of 80 western reporters were part of the 300-strong entourage that flew in by (South Korean) special plane, somewhat overwhelming their minders. The press had far better access than usual: fast broadband without firewalls, even, and the BBC did its first ever live video feed from Pyongyang. So this event was widely and well covered, with most comment broadly positive – albeit with few illusions about the real nature of the DPRK. But this was showbiz, and even in dire financial straits Pyongyang can still put on a show – and knows how to respond to one. 

And what a show it was. Both countries’ flags adorned the stage. The audience, sporting statutory Kim Il-sung badges, stood in respectful silence for the Star-Spangled Banner and the DPRK anthem. Initial applause to Dvorak’s New World Symphony (probably known to some) was polite, but Gershwin’s An American in Paris – definitely a first – thrilled the crowd. After two encores, the final standing ovation was spontaneous and long. The Korean saying I shim chon shim – spark from heart to heart – applied that night. (In a further exotic twist, the whole event was funded by the wealthy Japanese widow of an Italian count: Lady Yoko Nagae Ceschina, herself a former harpist.) 

The concert was broadcast live across North Korea – and around the world – thanks to technical aid from the South’s MBC TV, who drove an 18-vehicle convoy (including power generators and a petrol tanker, just in case) to Pyongyang via the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Such cooperation would have been unimaginable until recently. 

No show 
Despite advance rumours, neither Kim Jong-il nor Condoleezza Rice – who was in the region, having attended Lee Myung-bak’s inauguration – showed up. If she had, then surely so would he. This may be a chance missed; yet with the 6PT stalled it was judged politically premature. Besides, the dear leader has been known to bowl googlies. The last (and first) US secretary of state to visit North Korea, Madeleine Albright, got flak at home after Kim hosted her at a mass propaganda display, where she had no control over what she was about to watch – including jolly scenes of mighty DPRK missiles. 

Still, the US party included William Perry, Bill Clinton’s first secretary of defence – in 1994, when war was a real risk – and later adviser on North Korea policy. Despite in 2006 out-hawking the neocons by advocating pre-emptive strikes on DPRK long-range missiles, Perry was an honoured guest: seated by Ri Gun, North Korea’s deputy nuclear negotiator. Afterwards he waxed lyrical about how music reaches where politics cannot. 

With him were two other elite US visitors. All had the rare chance to enter North Korea via the DMZ from Seoul, having attended Lee MB’s inauguration. Evans Revere is a former deputy assistant secretary of state, while Donald Gregg was a career CIA officer who served George Bush senior as national security adviser and ambassador in Seoul. Gregg had been highly critical of Bush junior for refusing to engage with North Korea. 

Our tunes are best 
Lest anyone get too excited, the official Korean Central News Agency for February 23, which led with brief news of the NYPO’s visit, devoted rather more space to a leaden piece from the party daily Rodong Sinmun. This emphasized “thoroughly subordinating Western music and musical instruments to the Korean music, with the main stress put on the national music and musical instruments.” Parsing Pyongyang is always a puzzle. This could just be for balance – or, more interestingly, an implicit critique. 

Next, Eric Clapton? 
The NYPO’s visit may not be a one-off, nor one way. A British businessman, David Heather, who last year organized the first commerical exhibition of North Korean art in London – in Pall Mall, indeed – now plans to bring a DPRK orchestra to tour the UK. 

North Korea’s own tastes are widening – at least at the top. The DPRK confirmed on February 26 that it has invited Eric Clapton to play Pyongyang, possibly next year. While western classical music (strictly pre-1900) is not unknown in North Korea as the NY Phil found, genres like rock, jazz and blues have hitherto been strictly off-limits – although the DPRK’s Pochonbo band serves up patriotic themes to Euro-disco beats. 

But the royal family knows better. Kim Jong-il’s Swiss-educated second son Kim Jong-chol, a potential heir, is a Clapton fan. In the summer of 2006 he was spotted at four of his hero’s gigs in Germany, complete with leather jacket, girlfriend – and minders. So if Clapton plays Pyongyang, this may mean less that North Korea is changing than that a favourite son is being indulged. Nonetheless the mind boggles somewhat. 

One concert, or even two, does not make a Prague spring. But Kim Jong-il took a risk in inviting the NYPO, and a fortiori Eric Clapton. Conceivably he is gearing up for even bigger gambles – like giving up nuclear weapons. 

Mobile phones: switched on again? 
Last year Egypt’s Orascom group bought North Korea’s most modern cement works, at Sangwon near Pyongyang. German-built, Sangwon is now French-owned: in January Orascom sold all its cement interests to Lafarge, the global #1. But as one door closes, another opens. On January 30 Orascom’s telecoms division said that it had been granted what it called the DPRK’s first mobile telephony licence: for 25 years, in a 75:25 joint venture with Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KP&TC). It will invest US$400 million in network infrastructure, with plans to have Pyongyang and most other major cities covered within a year. Orascom’s CEO, Naguib Sawiris, described this as a “greenfield licence … providing the first mobile telephony services [in North Korea]”. 

This claim skates lightly over a tangled prior history. In 1995 the Thai conglomerate Loxley established a 70:30 JV, North East Asia Telephone & Telecommunication, with the very same North Korean partner, KP&TC, and a 30-year ‘exclusive’ concession. At first they focused on building a mainly fixed network in Rason (Rajin-Sonbong) special economic zone in the northeast. In 2003 Loxley rolled out mobile service in Pyongyang, using the GSM standard; only to see this banned after a mere six months in May 2004, soon after a huge rail explosion ravaged the northwestern town of Ryongchon – hours after Kim Jong-il’s train had passed through, from China. Officially an accident, one rumour is that this was an assassination attempt triggered by a mobile phone. 

The ban still remains, though separate reports suggest it might soon be lifted. North Korea had seemed hostile to telecoms more generally: confiscating mobile phones from foreign visitors on arrival, and coming down hard on bold souls along the northern border who have illicit phones using Chinese networks. Last October, by one account reaching Seoul, a factory manager who made international calls from 13 lines installed in his basement was reportedly executed in a stadium in front of 150,000 people. 

If Orascom’s contract suggests a welcome change of heart in Pyongyang, this history also counsels caution. Loxley might reasonably feel usurped, unless North Korea plans to run both GSM and CDMA networks – which there can hardly be a market for. Also worth recalling is another abortive precursor. In 2002 a consortium of several South Korean firms had plans to build a CDMA network in Pyongyang. This foundered when the US made it clear it would not let Qualcomm sell its proprietary technology – since it did not fancy US forces facing a KPA equipped with the latest hi-tech cellphones. 

Birthday begonias 
Lee Myung-bak marked his 66th birthday, last December 19, by being elected South Korea’s next president. Days before Lee took office, his Northern equivalent and near-contemporary, Kim Jong-il, also turned 66 – officially; some claim he is really 67 – in rather different but all too characteristic style. February 16 is a public holiday in North Korea, but like most things in Pyongyang it is hard work for the masses.

Though a depressing waste of time, anyone unfamiliar with how North Korea is still run in 2008 should visit the official Korean Central News Agency – hosted, unexpectedly, in Japan: www.kcna.co.jp – to get the flavour of mind-numbing enforced adulation. A cheeky and more useful unofficial alternative is www.nk-news.net, with graphics from Team America World Police and a search engine (which KCNA lacks) named Stalin. 

Kimjongilia, for instance, boasts 327 entries over the past ten years. Kim Il-sung had his own flower, an orchid, so naturally his son must have one too. Kimjongilia is a begonia, first bred 20 years ago by a Japanese admirer and now allegedly world-famous: “Today the immortal flower is in bloom in 70-odd countries.” A scientific symposium was held to mark the flower’s 20th birthday. 

Then there is the annual Kimjongilia festival; this year’s was the twelfth. This displayed “tens of thousands of potted Kimjongilias contributed with sincerity” by over 100 units from all walks of life: ministries, schools, the army, et al. The best win prizes. Cloying feudalism aside, we have commented before on the resource implications here. In North Korea’s bitterly cold winter, amid chronic crippling power shortages, heating all those greenhouses around the clock – a luxury which few homes or offices are vouchsafed – must waste a prodigious amount of scarce electricity. 

A chillier South? 
Pyongyang has yet to comment on South Korea’s new president, over two months after his landslide election win on December 19. Similar in age if not background – a self-made man, Lee was born in poverty – Kim Jong-il and Lee Myung-bak are still sizing one another up, like dogs on first meeting: an image perhaps not to be pressed too far. 

How to handle North Korea is Lee Myung-bak’s biggest foreign policy dilemma. While keen to distance himself from Seoul’s one-sided ‘sunshine’ policy of the past decade, which gave much while asking little in return, in practice this is easier said than done. 

No Cold Warrior, Lee stands ready with all manner of projects (which may or may not appeal to Kim), like raising the North’s per capita income five-fold to $3,000 over a decade – if only the DPRK will surrender its nukes. While such nuclear conditionality is wholly reasonable, in realpolitik terms this risks leaving the field to a less scrupulous China to build up its influence and leverage in Pyongyang. Hence Lee may hesitate to reconsider economic projects begun by his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, such as mineral investments. No one in Seoul wants to see the North’s resources in Beijing’s pocket. 

Unification ministry survives, just 
So far Lee’s signals have tended towards the tough. The unification ministry (MOU) was one of five he wanted to close. It would have merged with the foreign ministry: to improve policy coordination, and implying North Korea is just another foreign country which can expect no special treatment. (In law, this is not true; even after a decade of sunshine, each Korea still claims to be the sole legitimate state on the peninsula.) 

But faced with a backlash, and not only from the left, Lee relented. MOU will survive, but in very different hands. His nominee for unification minister, Nam Joo-hong, is a conservative scholar. Author of a book called “There Is No Unification”, Nam has been sceptical of Pyongyang’s will to change – and in particular to disarm. Critics claim his expertise is on security rather than North Korea as such. He will certainly not be in the mould of his predecessors, whose Pollyanna-ish tone often grated. Still, one hopes he will not go to the other extreme. Lee could have appointed a more neutral figure. 

Abductees on the agenda? 
Meanwhile MOU’s bureaucrats are rapidly repositioning to serve their new masters. In policy advice to Lee’s transition team, the ministry suggested future aid could be linked: not only to nuclear concessions, but also to return of the thousand-odd South Koreans held by the North. Roughly half are PoWs (now elderly) from the 1950-53 Korean War, while the rest (mostly fishermen) were abducted subsequently. Hitherto Seoul had trod softly on this issue, for fear of annoying Pyongyang and jeopardizing sunshine. 

Thus far the North brazenly denies holding anyone, though their names are known and a few have escaped. If it gets real, one way could be for the South to pay to get its people back; much as West Germany used to buy the freedom of East German dissidents. 

The KPA bags food aid 
MOU may survive, but its clout will now be weaker than the defence ministry (MND). Under the sunshine policy, Seoul’s soldiers seethed to see the enemy – as their own training and mindset still, necessarily, views the North – let off the hook time and again. 

Not any more. On February 14 MND confirmed press reports that ROK troops along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) have seen their Northern counterparts of the Korean Peoples Army (KPA), just across the border, taking Southern rice aid (meant for civilians) for themselves. And not just once, but ten times since late 2006. The suspicion is that MOU suppressed these reports hitherto so as not to undermine support for the sunshine policy. 

There have long been allegations of food aid being diverted to the military. The issue is arguably a red herring. Any aid by defintition increases North Korea’s quantum of food, freeing up more for the KPA from domestic stocks even without directly diverting aid.(Actually there is evidence that Pyongyang used a surge in food aid from the mid-1990s – at one time FAO’s biggest operation in the world was feeding North Korea – to cut down on commercial grain imports: saving money at the cost of starving its people.) 

Still, it was brazen of the KPA to unload 400 marked sacks of ROK grain in full view of Southern binoculars. MOU admitted what critics have long alleged: that distribution of its aid in the North is far from transparent. Monitoring is perfunctory, unlike FAO’s: a fact which in 2006 led Pyongyang to cut FAO’s operation, seemingly assuming it could get all the grain it needed from a less intrusive Seoul and Beijing. That was a mistake. 

Since 1995 South Korea has given – in theory, loaned – the North a total of 2.6 million tonnes of rice. The annual norm is now 500,000 t. Though Lee Myung-bak has pledged to maintain humanitarian aid, this is no longer likely to be unconditional. 

Where’s the money? 
Similarly, Seoul wants to know what happened to $400,000 that it gave last year so the North could buy equipment for reunions of separated families by videolink. With no visible equipment and no answers from Pyongyang, it seems this was misappropriated. Unlike in the past, any stray cash may not necessarily have been grabbed by the regime. North Korea’s economy, unlike its polity, has grown more capitalist – and more corrupt. 

Separate reports suggest Pyongyang is probing irregularities in dealings with the South. On February 22 the Seoul press claimed that Jung Woon-op, who heads a committee in charge of inter-Korean business, and 80 other officials are under investigation after the seizure of a cool $20 million from Jung’s home. 

Gone fishing? 
A different worry, and among the first concrete Northern issues Lee Myung-bak may have to deal with, concerns a boatload of 22 North Koreans found in Southern waters on February 8. The official version in Seoul is that while fishing for oysters, they drifted South by mistake and asked to be sent home – as they duly were, after brief questioning by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Pyongyang had demanded their return. 

Yet the make-up of the group – 13 were from one family – suggests a defection attempt more than a fishing party. One alarming rumour is that all 22, including 14 women and three teenagers, were shot soon after their return. Pyongyang denies this, claiming on February 21 that “our people, who drifted due to high seas, flatly rejected an enticement that they would be guaranteed a wealthy livelihood if they defected to the South, and now live normal lives in their homes after returning.” Perhaps then it will produce them. Otherwise, the idea of firing squads rather detracts from the sound of music. 

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