Books on North Korea
Update No: 066 - (31/10/08)
North Korea: Delisted at last
Another month, another twist in the North Korean nuclear saga. As of
end-September, Kim Jong-il - or whoever is in charge in Pyongyang at the moment
- appeared headed down a path of nuclear defiance: expelling International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from the Yongbyon reactor site, and
threatening to reopen this in protest at the US refusal to take the DPRK off the
State Department's list of countries regarded as supporting terrorism. North
Korea had expected such delisting as the quid pro quo for its declaration of
nuclear facilities, delivered on June 26; but Washington unexpectedly insisted
that a verification protocol must be agreed before this would take effect. It
looked like stalemate, or worse.
Enter Chris Hill. The tireless assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and
as such the lead US negotiator in the Six Party Talks (6PT), visited Pyongyang
on October 1-3 (as well as other regional capitals) for crisis talks with his
DPRK equivalent, vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan. Usually loquacious and a
gift to the press, Hill was uncharacteristically silent for a week after his
return, suggesting that whatever deal he had brought back from Pyongyang was not
unanimously acceptable in Washington, or indeed elsewhere (read on).
Delisted, at last
And then, in an unusual weekend announcement and press conference on Saturday
October 11th, North Korea was finally taken off the terrorist list. Neither
President George W Bush nor (interestingly) Hill was present, but the State
Department insisted that it had gained robust and significant new North Korean
pledges on verification. The main ones are that:
1. All six parties may participate in verification activities, including experts
from non-nuclear states. The IAEA too will have an important consultative and
2. Experts will have access to all declared facilities, and undeclared sites by
mutual consent. Scientific procedures, including sampling and forensic
activities, were also agreed upon.
3. All measures in the verification protocol, and in the monitoring mechanism
already agreed, will apply not only to North Korea's admitted plutonium-based
programme but also to any uranium enrichment and proliferation activities (both
of which Pyongyang denies).
4. These understandings are codified in a bilateral document, which will form
the basis for a formal verification protocol to be finalized and adopted by all
six parties "in the near future".
Not everyone was happy. John Bolton, Bush's ex-ambassador to the UN and a stout
hawk on North Korea (and much else), characteristically denounced the deal.
Others too worried about the "mutual consent" clause. Previously the
US had sought the right to mount 'challenge' inspections at any place or time:
something few states undefeated in war could accept, let alone one as secretive
as North Korea. Yet now, anything beyond Yongbyon - the DPRK's only know nuclear
site, which it has clearly decided to sacrifice; it is old, and has done its job
- will remain off limits unless North Korea agrees: a prospect comparable to
that of flight by pigs.
The most vocal and pained objections were all the more striking since they came
from the leading US ally in the region, whose cultural norms tend famously to
understatement and a stiff upper lip. In rare public dissent and strong
language, Japan called the delisting "very disappointing" and
"extremely regrettable." A telephone call two days earlier between US
secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Japan's foreign minister, Hirofumi
Nakasone, was reportedly fierce: a shouting match, by some accounts. Japan's
wrath is twofold. A country within range of DPRK missiles and WMD, it was wary
of a weakened agreement. But above all, Tokyo opposed delisting while North
Korea's abduction of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s remains unresolved. Yet
this stance isolates Japan in the 6PT, and Washington had made it clear that it
would not let this single issue derail nuclear progress. Even so, it will be for
the next US administration to weigh whether the outside chance of clinching a
deal with a rogue state like North Korea was really worth damaging both public
and elite opinion in a core ally. Many Japanese now wonder aloud if they can
trust America to defend them.
Meanwhile back at Yongbyon, North Korea has kept its part of the bargain so far.
The IAEA is back on site, and disabling work has resumed. How far this will go,
and when a plenary 6PT meeting will next be held, remain to be seen.
Other 6PT participants welcomed the delisting, some more fulsomely than others.
In Seoul, reactions were mixed. Three leading conservative dailies, normally
supportive of President Lee Myung-bak, criticised the US for yielding too much.
But Lee's government hailed the deal, saying it hopes now to expand inter-Korean
contacts; something which, in a break with the sunshine policy of the past
decade, it had indeed linked to the North's denuclearisation.
Yet it takes two to tango. For now, back in Washington's good books, Kim Jong-il
has other partners and will let Lee stew in his own juice. Northern media
continue to insult the South's president almost daily. On October 16 - the same
dies horribilis when both the (ROK) Won and the Kospi fell by over 9% - Rodong
Sinmun, daily paper of the North's ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), iced
the cake of gloom in Seoul by threatening to sever all ties with the South. In
fact the North is unlikely to jeopardize the money it earns from the Kaesong
industrial complex; although on October 26 Southern SMEs with operations in
Kaesong warned that their business was being jeopardized by civic groups
launching anti-North leaflets by balloon across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
The other big crossborder project, the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, remains
inactive, with all visits suspended ever since the North's fatal shooting of a
Southern tourist there in July.
Gas, or hot air?
Yet still Lee does not get it. End-September (after New Nations went to press
last month) found him in Moscow, where on September 29 he agreed with Russia's
president Dmitry Medvedev to link the inter-Korean and trans-Siberian railways,
and build a gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea via North Korea. Both are
good ideas, which as Lee said would help South Korea cut its logistics costs.
The gas project - only a memorandum of understanding (MOU), at this stage,
between Kogas (the world's largest gas importer) and Gazprom - envisages Seoul
importing gas worth $3 billion annually over 30 years, starting in 2015.
There is just one small problem. It is not South Korea which has a border with
Russia. Lee airily told reporters that the benefits, especially from the
pipeline, will be too attractive for North Korea to ignore. This suggests, alas,
that he neither knows his history, nor has he yet learnt the lessons of the
failure of his approach to the North thus far.
The pipeline idea goes back two decades. The first to push for this was the late
Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai conglomerate, on his pioneering first
visit to North Korea in 1989. Yet not even the formidable Chung, well-connected
in all three capitals, could make this happen. In those days South Korea too had
cold feet - but basically the North Koreans were not interested, even in a
project which could have earned them a handsome rent as well as providing badly
needed energy, all at little cost or risk to their system.
Will it be different now? Kim Jong-il's regime may be in dire economic straits
but it still has its pride. Pyongyang's brusque rejection of Lee's patronizing
Vision 3000 plan - his offer to raise average Northern annual income per head to
$3,000 - should have told him how not to handle the North. It is the same
technocratic arrogance that has seen his popularity plummet at home, too. Lee
knows what is best for everyone, and expects them just to tag along. But
politics does not work like that anywhere, least of all with prickly North
Korea: not a regime that follows anyone, meekly or otherwise, nor much given to
picking the sensible business option. At this writing the North had yet to
comment on Lee's gas idea, so we shall see.
As for the railway, tracks are already being laid. On October 4 work began on a
$200 million project to upgrade the 54 km rail link from Russia to Rajin: an
ice-free port in the DPRK's northeast, which since 1991 has been one half of the
Rason special economic zone together with the adjacent town of Sonbong. Rason
has shown few signs of life hitherto; its biggest investment is a Hong
Kong-owned casino, targeted at Chinese punters, who however were banned for many
months after a local official blew a lot of government cash at the tables.
The new Russo-North Korean joint railway venture will also include a new
container port at Rajin, built with an eye to South Korean cargo. As ever the
Russian side waxed lyrical about eventual onward crossborder rail links to Seoul
and Busan too. Pointedly not echoing this, North Korea's new railways minister
Jon Kil-su said that he hoped the first trains will run in time for the
centenary of North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-sung in 2012. (Typically of
North Korea, this was the first mention of Jon's promotion; it was not announced
as such. A career transport official, he replaces Kim Yong-sam who had held the
post since 1998.)
This is Moscow's first big investment for 20 years in the DPRK, whose $8 billion
in unpaid debts to the old USSR remain a disincentive. Wheels turn slowly in
Pyongyang; negotiations over a mere 30 miles of track took seven years. With the
North's wider rail infrastructure falling to pieces - modernizing it will cost
at least $2 billion - no one should expect to catch a fast train from Seoul to
Scotland any time soon. Physically, the journey is already feasible; but
politically, despite all the excitement in Seoul last year over the relinking of
cross border railways (with much rhetoric about healing the nation's severed
arteries), in practice North Korea was markedly reluctant to let the new lines
actually be used - even to please the more sympathetic former Roh Moo-hyun
administration, much less the hated Lee Myung-bak.
A visit to Moscow in mid-October by North Korea's foreign minister, Park Ui-chun,
may herald a broader revival of economic as well as political ties. Although
Vladimir Putin, who has met Kim Jong-il three times, does not share the
political hostility of his predecessors Gorbachev and Yeltsin to a Stalinist
neighbour, lack of progress on those massive Soviet-era debts has hitherto
blocked fresh economic projects. A Russian spokesman said that "special
attention will be paid to bilateral trade." The former USSR was for decades
North Korea's chief trade partner, but this shrank to almost nothing in the
post-Soviet era. Last year's total was a modest $160 million, with DPRK imports
comprising almost 80% ($134 million).
Does Kim Jong-il want the IMF?
One key effect of delisting, in principle, is that the US will no longer
automatically oppose any bid by North Korea to join, and be helped by,
international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund (IMF). Even so, swift progress is unlikely. Despite exploratory
feelers over a number of years, Pyongyang has evinced no clear interest in
joining any international financial institutions (IFI) - except for the Asian
Development Bank (ADB), where a dominant Japan will remain cool. One reason for
this reluctance may be that membership of the Bretton Woods duo would entail
macroeconomic reorganisation and statistical openness, neither of which seems
palatable to Pyongyang. In any case, as the State Department did not fail to
emphasize, delisting still leaves several other bilateral and UN sanctions
against North Korea in force. Even certified as clean of terrorism, Kim
Jong-il's impoverished and recalcitrant regime holds few attractions for
investors as yet.
North Korea holds its first census in 15 years
Given the continuing general paucity of numbers emanating from Pyongyang, it is
rare good news that North Korea has just held its first national census for 15
years, on October 1-15. On September 28 the official Korean Central News Agency
(KCNA) reported the impending event with enthusiasm - and in a rare interview
with a section chief of the Central Statistics Bureau (CSB), Kim Kon-do.
KCNA noted that the CSB had piloted the census a year earlier in one township
and county from each province. Its content includes "scores of indices
including demographic index, educational level, working life and indices related
with the sectors of the national economy". If published in full, this like
its predecessor in 1993 will be a rare treasure trove of data on changes in
North Korea's wider economy and society, as well as on population per se.
As of late September questionaires had already been distributed, using families
as the unit. Kim Kon-do said that census taking officials would be
"directly meeting and investigating every people (sic) under the unified
command of the state." This massive task will involve "tens of
thousands" of officials and supervisors, most presumably pulled off
whatever their normal jobs are for the fortnight plus however long it takes to
analyse the results, which are expected in 2009. Newspapers and radio
(television was not mentioned) had been used to propagandise how important the
census is, so that "now all the people are fully ready to take part in the
census without exception for the eternal prosperity of the country and the
nation with a high degree of political and patriotic consciousness."
The 1993 census was North Korea's first, perhaps because so tightly controlling
a regime already had the data; enough, for instance, to classify the entire
population in the 1960s into loyal, wavering and hostile classes, with a
plethora of sub-groups. But since the famine of 1996-98, both society and
economy, if not the polity, have become more fluid, with a surge in market
activity and personal mobility. So for the first time North Korea, like other
states, may actually need this new census to find out where its people are and
what they are up to.
Whether all will be revealed remains to be seen. A leading expert, Nicholas
Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Insitute (AEI), reckons that the earlier
census omitted the 1m-strong Korean People's Army (KPA): a major lacuna, which
also distorts labour force data as the KPA is active in construction and
elsewhere. This time there could be embarrassing findings in areas such as
health and education, both of which have worsened in the past decade. On the
other hand, the government may obtain new data on the growth of markets which it
can use for good or ill: be it to encourage or suppress them, or at any rate tax
profits there from.
UN and Southern aid goes unmentioned
In typical Juche (self-reliance) style, KCNA said nothing about getting any help
with this. In fact the census was a joint effort with the United Nations
Population Fund (UNFPA), whose spokesman on September 20 further quantified the
endeavour: 35,200 census takers and 7,500 supervisors. The Seoul daily Korea
Times reported that, besides conducting training, UNFPA "has been
inspecting regional-level education"; which may mean that many of the
census-takers are local teachers and/or students. For the analysis stage, the
Hong Kong press reported last year that five North Korean researchers received a
month's training there. That does not sound many, or long.
KCNA was also silent on who paid the bills. Of the modest cost of $5.55 million
- perhaps the census-takers are doing it for patriotism rather than money - $4
million, or 72%, came from South Korea's unification ministry (MOU). Back in
January MOU claimed that Seoul will get the questionnaires and results of the
census from UNFPA on a priority basis. It is hard to see North Korea being keen
on that, given how bad inter-Korean ties have become.
On October 27 a UNFPA spokesman told Yonhap, South Korea's semi-official news
agency, that the census went smoothly, and the questionnaires collected are now
being reviewed for completeness and consistency. Omar Gharzeddine praised the
commitment of government and citizens alike, "compared to that in some
other countries." However, people appeared confused by unfamiliar terms
like industry, occupation, and head of household. Regarding the last,
"people tend to report as 'household head' the person who is registered as
such in the civil register, even if the person has already left the household or
will be away from home for an extended period of time …[so] enumerators were
instructed [to] ask the person they are interviewing to identify the head of the
household from among the current household members only." This is
interesting, hinting at a new degree of de facto mobility. In theory North
Koreans still need to get official permission to travel away from home.
Census enumerators no doubt did not venture into whichever palace currently
contains the sickbed, or just conceivably the corpse, of the dear leader. There
is still no confirmation of Kim Jong-il's state of health. Recent new official
photographs of him out and about were as ever undated, with suspiciously green
foliage suggesting high summer rather than autumn. Until and unless he
unambiguously appears, the world will go on wondering, and worrying.