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Update No: 060 - (28/04/08)

Will Syria sink the 6PT?
After months in uneasy limbo, April finally saw movement on the North Korean nuclear issue – but not movement forward. Belated details of alleged DPRK proliferation to Syria looked set to throw a spanner in the works of the Six Party Talks (6PT); but exactly who was throwing the spanner, or why, or the ultimate impact, was not immediately clear. Inside North Korea, meanwhile, conditions grew no better, with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) warning of an imminent risk of a renewed food crisis.

Syria: the movie
As regular New Nations readers will recall, allegations of North Korean nuclear aid to Syria first surfaced back in September when Israel bombed a mysterious facility in that country’s eastern desert. Both Washington and Jerusalem were tight-lipped; but the persistent rumour was that Damascus was building something nasty and nuclear, with Pyongyang’s help.

This suspicion could not but feed into the 6PT. With the DPRK supposed to make a full declaration of all its nuclear activities by end-2007, the alleged Syrian connection became an extra headache. Like the long-running allegation that Pyongyang had been pursuing a separate secret second nuclear programme based on enriched uranium (UEP), the Syrian link – which both Damascus and Pyongyang of course indignantly denied – threatened to complicate and potentially derail the already difficult enough task in hand, namely getting Kim Jong-il to itemize his known plutonium-based programmes: all the plutonium and other fissile material, plus all the bombs.

Unsurprisingly the December 31 deadline came and went with no DPRK declaration. That stalled the 6PT, whose multilateral façade increasingly fell away as the US and North Korea openly pursued the bilateral talks which President George W Bush had long scorned. 
After meeting in Geneva in mid-March, Christopher Hill, the indefatigable US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and his DPRK counterpart vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan, got together again in Singapore on April 8. Nothing was said in public, but rumour had it that the strategy was to try to get the Syrian issue ‘off balance sheet’, so to say. 

One suggestion, with a precedent in the very early negotiations in the 1970s between the US and Mao’s China, was that Washington would declare its suspicions and Pyongyang, while not admitting them, would also not deny them. However, even some US supporters of engaging North Korea feared this was letting Kim Jong-il off the hook, and would not pass muster with Congress; while die-hard opponents like John Bolton, a former US envoy to the UN, went into fresh paroxysms of rage. Some began to fear that the remarkably long rope that Hill had been given to cut a deal with Pyongyang might become a lasso that could be used by his foes in Washington to trip or even hang him.

It was against that background that on April 24 selected members of Congress were shown a supposedly highly classified video – which was promptly leaked to the US TV networks. Scenes taken inside the former Syrian plant, named Al-Kibar for the nearest town, included one of what was claimed to be a DPRK nuclear official. The building, before Israeli jets flattened it – it has not been rebuilt, nor has Damascus allowed the IAEA access to the site – was said to be a dead ringer for North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which is now shut down and currently being slowly disabled under US supervision pursuant to the 6PT.

In whose interests?
What to make of all this? First suspicions, inevitably, were that the Bolton-Cheney axis of hawk had struck again at a delicate time: just when Sung Kim, a senior State Department official, was in Pyongyang – whither he had been allowed to drive from Seoul across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in his own car, a rare concession – fine-tuning the Singapore deal (if such it was) so that hopefully the 6PT proper could restart ere long.

Yet others argued the opposite: that the timing was designed to get the Syria issue out in the open at last. If no one could any longer complain that this was unknown, then hopefully the 6PT could get past it and move on. That sounds rather optimistic. Even if many suspicions remain about the US account – how ready was the building? Was it military? Where would Syria have got the fuel? – any suggestion of Syria-DPRK cooperation in this field is hardly helpful. Still, it is striking that even the CIA – fingers burnt from Iraq’s imagined WMD, no doubt, and determined not to let intelligence again be manipulated for political ends – said it had “low” confidence that Syria was developing the reactor to produce nuclear weapons.

And yet there is a parallel with the UEP issue. Whatever the details – and notwithstanding in either case the dubious motives of some in Washington who were and are seeking to derail US-DPRK engagement – neither the UEP-Pakistani nor the Syrian connections help to build confidence. Thus it is not good news that Kim Jong-il at a minimum did buy centrifuges potentially useful for UEP, from Pakistan’s former A Q Khan network. Nor can it be encouraging that the secret cooperation with Syria was ongoing at the same time as the 6PT. That the North Korean caught on camera at Al-Kabir turns out apparently to be a diplomat, Jung Tae-yang, who is involved in dealings with the US – rather than a nuclear expert, if that means a scientist, as Congress was told – may be some relief. But again it all leaves awkward questions about how committed Kim Jong-il really is to denuclearization.

Further speculation at this point would be premature; though there is plenty of it, not least the suggestion that all this is not so much about North Korea as some kind of power play in the imbroglio of Middle Eastern politics. One hypothesis is that US and Israeli hawks want to sabotage delicate secret talks with Syria, brokered by Turkey, where Israel might in some circumstances return the Golan Heights. If so, the parallel with the internecine policy war in Washington between hawks and doves over how to handle Kim Jong-il is striking.

Pyongyang won’t be pleased
For our purposes, the key unknown for now is how Pyongyang will react. It will hardly be happy, and on past form it rarely misses a chance to take its bat home in high dudgeon and play for time. Kim Jong-il is doing that anyway: he has little incentive to cut a deal with Bush, when in under a year he will face someone new in the White House who may offer better terms (he wishes) but who in any case will have different ideas and a new team.

Searching for Korea on Yahoo! News on April 26, the first two headlines said it all. AFP’s “US says it does not trust North Korea” highlighted some possibly ill-chosen words by the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. The full quote – “We are not yet to the trust part; we are still working on the verify part” – with its nod to Ronald Reagan’s famous watchword “Trust but verify”, is true enough; but that headline will not please Pyongyang.

Yet the next story, from Reuters, was “Nuclear talks with North Korea ‘productive’: US.” Unsurprisingly this came from Chris Hill, as ever putting the most upbeat spin he could on the latest talks – which for once did not involve him. Hill said that Sung Kim and his team had “very lengthy and I think productive discussions” in Pyongyang. This echoed North Korea’s own unusually fulsome verdict: the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the same day that “the negotiations proceeded in a sincere and constructive manner and progress was made.” One can only hope, with foreboding, that progress continues. Already the Washington rumour mill is suggesting that Hill may jump before somebody pushes him.

Budget blanks
Turning briefly to other matters, spring is the season when what passes for a parliament in North Korea, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), holds its annual meeting – for just a single day. That suffices to review last year’s budget and consider the new one. This year the SPA met on April 9, the same day as South Korea’s election for its own fully functional and often rumbustious National Assembly. The contrast could hardly be more glaring.

As ever, the SPA heard and approved a budget which contained not a single solid number; just percentages, on baselines themselves unknown. In past years New Nations has parsed even these carefully, but this time the charade hardly seems worth it. Interested readers can find further details at 

Kim Jong-il did not deign to show up; why waste his precious time? Nor was there any sign of the finance minister Mun Il-bong, last seen in late 2005 and thought to have been purged. This being North Korea, no one has bothered to replace him. So for a third year the budget speech was made by deputy premier Ro Tu-chol, a rising star; while as usual the premier, Kim Yong-il, gave the economic report. Everything was of course passed unanimously.

Having thus exerted themselves, the 655 SPA deputies were rewarded by an entertainment that same evening. They might as well have stayed put, since the Mansudae Assembly Hall, where the SPA convenes, itself resembles nothing so much as a theatre auditorium. Rows of comfortable armchairs, all facing forward, slope down towards a large gleaming white statue of the Great Leader and eternal President, Kim Il-sung. Each chair is equipped with an individual Siemens microphone, so that all in unison may say yes when so commanded. 

But in fact they trooped off to the freshly refurbished East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, the venue of February’s concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. For anyone still unfamiliar with how the DPRK chooses to present itself, here is KCNA’s account in full:

Deputies to SPA Enjoy Concert
Pyongyang, April 9 (KCNA) -- Deputies to the Supreme People's Assembly who are attending the 6th Session of the 11th SPA, appreciated a concert of the Mansudae Art Troupe at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre on Wednesday on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of General Secretary Kim Jong Il's election as chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission. 

Put on the stage of the concert, which began with female vocal solo and chorus "Song Devoted to Comrade Kim Jong Il", were such colorful numbers as male vocal solo "Thunder on Jong Il Peak", female folk solo "Longing for the General", female chorus "Song of Mangyongdae", violin solo "To the Road of Decisive Battle", mixed quintet "My Motherland under the Songun Policy" and chorus "General on a Galloping White Horse".

The performers ardently sang of the undying exploits of leader Kim Jong Il who has put the dignity and the strength of the DPRK on the highest level with his great Songun idea and guidance while ushering in the great heyday of prosperity unprecedented in the history of the nation. 

The audience deeply felt again great happiness of being the nation of the sun that has covered the road of victory and glory while being blessed with illustrious leaders generation after generation.

WFP warns of famine
A propos “the great heyday of prosperity unprecedented in the history of the nation”, just a week later on April 16 the UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned of an imminent risk of a fresh famine. WFP’s Asia regional director, Tony Banbury, said that “the food security situation [in the DPRK]… is clearly bad and getting worse … it is increasingly likely that external assistance will be urgently required to avert a serious tragedy.”

This grim news is hardly surprising. After last summer’s disastrous floods, which destroyed much rice and maize before it could be harvested, spiralling grain prices on global markets could hardly be worse timed. Nor this year did Pyongyang request the usual fertilizer (too late now) or rice aid from the new conservative government in Seoul. While the new ROK president Lee Myung-bak has said he will link future cooperation to nuclear fulfilment, he specifically exempted humanitarian aid; but thus far the North has been too proud to ask. In late March it broke a three months’ silence on the regime change in Seoul to denounce Lee in typically belligerent language, as a traitor and pro-US sycophant. That tone continued into April, leaving the future of inter-Korean engagement in some doubt. After a decade of Seoul’s ‘sunshine’ policy, the fear is of sunset – or at least a lengthy eclipse while the two Koreas struggle to rebalance their relationship.

Harsh talk is cheap, and so is human life in North Korea. WFP noted that food prices in North Korean markets have doubled in the past year, while state rations are dwindling – even in Pyongyang itself, unprecedentedly, according to some reports. WFP's country director in North Korea, Jean-Pierre de Margerie, said that DPRK officials were for the first time admitting that the Public Distribution System (PDS) is under strain – semi-collapsed would be more accurate – and added: “It's a bit of a perfect storm shaping up.” 

With North Korea thus facing both domestic and external challenges, as of late spring the future on both the nuclear and food fronts looked as unclear as ever. Not for the first time, one had to wonder how long all this can carry on – while remembering that the DPRK has weathered both famine and nuclear crisis before, albeit at such a cost in both global isolation and human suffering that no normal or accountable regime could possibly deem bearable.

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