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Update No: 086 - (01/07/10)

North Korea: Unhealthy hiatus
Compared to an event-packed June, July in and around North Korea had passed fairly quietly – until almost the month’s end. On July 24 Pyongyang once again made waves and headlines worldwide, threatening a sacred nuclear war. The cause of this outburst was large scale joint naval exercises by the US and South Korea, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington, which began on July 25. These in turn were a rather delayed riposte to the North’s sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives, as much discussed in several previous NewNations Updates.

A bull’s-eye for Kim Jong-il
Unjust as this may be, almost four months after the Cheonan was torpedoed it increasingly looks as if Kim Jong-il – or whoever ordered this carefully calibrated attack: an important question – has got away with it. His nemesis, South Korea’s president Lee Myung-bak, has been left weakened and looking impotent. Even on his home turf, a quarter of (especially younger) South Koreans doubt the official line that a DPRK torpedo sank the Cheonan. An unexpected swing against Lee’s conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP) in local elections on June 2 – suggests although domestic issues were also in play –that many blame Lee for making tensions worse by what initially sounded like a fierce riposte in late May.

In fact Lee’s bark was worse than his bite, and a series of retreats followed. A so-called ban on North-South trade exempts the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ), accounting for over half of inter-Korean commerce. A declared plan to resume propaganda broadcasts across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) has not been carried out, after the Korean People’s Army (KPA) threatened to blow up the loudspeakers. And a joint US-ROK anti-submarine naval exercise was first postponed and then moved to seas east of the peninsula, rather than west where the Cheonan went down, after not only North Korea but also China protested.

These wise but inglorious steps back from the brink are galling to Southern conservatives. Some seethe that it is impossible to strike back at the North. The military is smarting after a withering report by the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) published on June 10 revealed a chaotic initial response on March 26. BAI recommended reprimands for 25 commanders, and that 12 be court-martialled. Lee Sang-eui, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) who resigned amid charges that he was absent drunk on the night of the sinking, as a parting shot on July 5 criticised “one-sided findings by a group of non-experts in military affairs.”

Given South Korea’s past history of rule by military dictators during 1961-87, some found that ominous. Defence ministry (MND) sources complain that BAI should have blamed naval top brass rather than the JCS. All this will be aired when courts-martial begin shortly. None of it will make South Koreans feel good about their armed forces, or their president. Against this backcloth eight by-elections due on July 28 may go no better for the GNP than June’s local elections, although the ruling party’s parliamentary majority is not at risk.

Sceptics remain unconvinced
Abroad, Lee Myung-bak has fared no better. Despite May’s report by an investigative team including military experts from five Western nations, which declared there was no doubt that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan, Russia and China still profess to regard the case as unproven. Hence on July 9 when the UN Security Council (UNSC) finally got around to pronouncing on the matter, its presidential statement (not a full resolution) used convoluted wording which avoided blaming North Korea directly. Pyongyang’s ambassador to the UN, Sin Son-ho, promptly hailed “a diplomatic victory of the DPRK.” It was hard to disagree, even though brave faces were put on this in Seoul and Washington.

South Korea had no better luck at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) held in Hanoi on July 23. Despite earlier reports that Seoul had learnt a lesson from the UNSC and would change tack by not pressing the ARF to condemn the North outright, in the event there was the usual fierce lobbying and to the same scant effect. The ARF’s closing statement was even more weakly phrased as regards the Cheonan than UNSC’s had been.

In understandable but undiplomatic frustration, the ROK foreign minister Yu Myung-hwan, commenting on the residual scepticism even at home over how the Cheonan sank, angrily told a press conference that if some young South Koreans like the North so much, why don’t they go and live there. This outburst brought calls for him to be reprimanded or even resign.

US and South Korea: tail wags dog?
Faced with such a lukewarm response on the global stage, South Korea and its founding ally the US have closed ranks. The US-ROK naval manoeuvres which provoked Pyongyang to such paroxysms of wrath followed an unusual meeting on July 21. For the first time the US secretaries of both State (Hillary Clinton) and Defence (Robert Gates) visited Seoul together, holding what were billed as ‘2 + 2’ talks with South Korea’s foreign and defence ministers. They also paid the de rigueur visit to Panmunjom on the border in the ironically named Demilitarised Zone (DMZ): still the world’s most heavily armed frontier. It was noted that this was the closest that any US cabinet ministers had got to North Korea since Clinton’s predecessor Madeleine Albright was Kim Jong-il’s guest in Pyongyang in happier times, (almost a decade ago in October 2000.)

This show of solidarity may conceal friction behind the scenes. The former CNN journalist Mike Chinoy, whose moustache many TV viewers will recall, suggested on July 22 in the newish website 38North – a very useful resource, if more thickly populated with doves than hawks – that Seoul had bounced Washington into sending an aircraft carrier by announcing the decision before it had actually been agreed. Be that as it may, in public all was amity.

New US sanctions: will they work
In Seoul Clinton also announced new US sanctions against the DPRK. Details were sparse, but she emphasised that the aim is to target the leadership, not the North Korean people. This may not be just rhetoric. During the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) affair in 2005-07 when the US froze North Korean accounts worth US$25 million in a small Macau bank, and more quietly since, the US Treasury Department has been active, and become knowledgeable, about some of the precise financial channels used to maintain Kim Jong-il’s patronage network.

In 2007 Kim got his money back, since the State Department overruled Treasury in pursuit of a nuclear accord. Today, with the Six Party Talks (6PT) looking dead in the water despite hopeful chirping by China – they have not met since 2008, and the US, ROK and Japan will not return unless the Cheonan is resolved – no such inhibitions apply. The BDA sanctions, small as the sum was, touched a nerve or maybe a windpipe in Pyongyang, so it will be interesting to see what happens now. One might still query the strategy: a regime that feels cornered may lash out again. Sueing for peace, tail between legs, is not North Korea’s style.

In an example of what the US is looking for, and a lucky break, the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo claimed recently that a whistleblower tipped the wink to Washington about an East Asian communist ruler who had suddenly and without explanation deposited US$5 million in a bank in Lichtenstein. All such information will no doubt be gratefully received.

Waiting for September
On a broader canvas, little progress can be expected on any front until North Korea holds the rare Party meeting in early September which it announced in June. If this sees Kim Jong-il’s third son Kim Jong-eun formally designated as his successor, this may bring greater clarity and stability as to who is actually running North Korea now, and what they want. Or it is just as possible that the transition will remain delicate, with further provocations on the cards.

These are grim and tense times in Korea. Seoul press reports that President Lee still cannot decide how hard-line to be towards the North confirm fears of a worrying policy vacuum and lack of overall strategy, which predates the Cheonan. The ‘sunshine’ era (1998-2007) which Lee jettisoned, for all its one-sidedness, kept the peace better than this. Sooner or later it will be necessary to move on from the sinking and find a way to try to re-engage North Korea. But there seems precious little will to do so at the moment: understandably, yet ominously.


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