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Update No: 085 - (01/06/10)

North Korea: Peace torpedoed
There was no doubting the month’s two main events regarding North Korea. During May 3-7 Kim Jong-il paid a long-expected ‘unofficial’ visit to China, amid the usual rather farcical pretence of secrecy. He appears to have returned a day early, suggesting all did not go well.

Also keenly awaited was the report by a team of South Korean and foreign experts probing the mysterious sinking of the ROK navy corvette Cheonan on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives. As advance leaks had hinted, and as most (but not all) observers had surmised from the outset, this pointed the finger squarely at North Korea – which angrily denied responsibility. Seoul’s firm response, and Pyongyang’s even angrier ripostes to that, raised tensions and briefly roiled markets around the world. As May drew to a close the immediate fear seemed to be subsiding, but inter-Korean relations are at their worst for 20 years and risk remains.

Kim visits China, at last
A visit to China by North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il had been anticipated for some months. This was surely overdue, though the pattern over time here is strangely irregular. The dear leader’s first ever announced foreign visit was to China, way back in 1983 when his host was Deng Xiaoping and Kim was the DPRK’s leader in waiting. But then he did not return for 17 years, suggesting that he was unpersuaded by China’s then nascent turn towards the market.

After that lengthy gap, the new century saw two trips in quick succession: in May 2000, and again in January 2001. The first was just before the first inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, so presumably Kim Jong-il was briefing China’s leaders ahead of this momentous step. The second was mainly to Shanghai, where tours of joint ventures (and even the stock exchange) raised hopes that he might be changing his mind about reforms which had visibly brought fresh prosperity to China – while North Korea, by contrast, had undergone a terrible famine. But he seems not to have got the point; it is reported that having seen Shanghai’s striking new buildings, Kim ordered that the DPRK should train more – architects.

In September the same year China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, reciprocated with the first visit to North Korea by a top Chinese leader in over a decade. This delay bespeaks the gap that had already opened up between the two former allies from the 1950-53 Korean War (in which Mao Zedong lost a son), who in happier olden days of communist comradeship used to call their relations as close “as lips and teeth”. Nowadays, besides differing on how to run an economy, it took North Korea a long time to forgive China for recognizing South Korea in 1992 – even though Beijing handled this more tactfully than Moscow two years earlier, and continues to sustain the DPRK with vital food, energy and other aid. One photo from this visit showed Jiang at an ostrich farm near Pyongyang, looking less than enthralled.

Kim Jong-il did not return to China until a brief visit (just two nights) in April 2004: his first meeting with China’s new leader Hu Jintao. Hu in turn made his own first trip to Pyongyang as PRC president in October 2005. Surprisingly soon after that, in January 2006 Kim was back in China for a substantial nine-day tour. Besides Beijing, this took him to the massive Three Gorges Dam project – the kind of socialist construction familiar to North Korea, only bigger – but also the far more innovative de facto capitalism of China’s booming south-east. Kim visited Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Shenzhen. He had not been in China since, until now.

Not so secret
This is an odd pattern, but not so odd as the manner of these visits. All, including the latest, have been officially unofficial: nominally secret at the time, and only confirmed after the event. While any diplomacy may involve secrecy as required, this pattern appears unique. It is also rather ludicrous. An armoured train, long motorcades and the sudden closure of roads are all hard to hide, and in the Internet era word and photos soon spread. One wonders why Kim Jong-il insists on doing it this way, and why his hosts continue to humour him.

This time the supposed secrecy descended to farce. After at least one false sighting a month earlier, on May 3 the dear leader’s luxurious 17-coach private train – a stark contrast to the miseries of rail travel for most of his subjects, squeezed into slow grim decrepit carriages – crossed the Yalu river (Amnok in Korean) from Sinuiju to Dandong in China. Unusually, this time Kim did not just roll through northeast China – the former Manchuria, where his father Kim Il-sung fought the Japanese as a young guerrilla in the 1930s – but lingered there.

Leaving his train at Dandong, a motor convoy – the rail route is circuitous – sped him to the port city of Dalian, where he was spotted and photographed. Rather than the expected state guesthouse outside the city, Kim stayed downtown in the Furama, Dalian’s top hotel, which suspended bookings but did not close its lobby to visitors. The dear leader was seen coming and going three times, in a hard to hide 40-vehicle convoy (his was a Maybach limousine). It was remarked that he had a slight limp in the left leg, and his hair was thinning.

Dear engine driver
His itinerary in Dalian included Bingshan, China’s leading maker of refrigerators and air conditioners, among others. As China’s foreign ministry website put it, after the visit was over (note especially the final sentence):

During a visit to Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Company, [Kim] climbed on to a two-meter-high driver's cab and asked for details about the performance and control procedures of the locomotive. During a visit to Dalian Xuelong Industrial Group, he asked for a detailed briefing on the breeding and feeding cost of beef cattle. He also instructed his delegation to earnestly study China's practices and experiences of transforming old industrial bases in northeast China.

Kim’s train having caught up with him in Dalian, he went on via Shenyang to another port city, Tianjin. China’s MFA again: “In a visit to the bonded port in Tianjin, Kim was amazed by the construction speed and scale of the port.” This refers to Binhai, a booming new area developed since 2005 to match Shanghai’s Pudong economic zone. Already Binhai’s 2,270 square km host investments by 4,000 foreign corporations – including 100-odd from South Korea. Samsung alone has 13 factories there. These were not on the dear leader’s itinerary, which – among many similar inconveniences everywhere he went – closed the main road into Binhai during the morning rush-hour, making thousands of employees late for work.

Chinese bloggers aired such grievances. One tartly remarked that not content with destroying his own country, Kim had now come to mess up theirs. Reported official efforts to censor such abuse – including a Twitter campaign proclaiming “Kim Jong Il, get out of China!” – seemed ineffectual, unlike in the past. Or perhaps the authorities were not trying very hard.

From Tianjin the dear leader finally arrived in Beijing. Here again, a 40-vehicle motorcade (including two ambulances), which took ten minutes to enter the Diaoyutai state guesthouse, made nonsense of China’s claims to have no information on any visit by Kim. The convoy rolled out at one point to visit the Great Wall. As we now know – Chinese and DPRK media each published fullish reports from May 8, once Kim returned home – and as one would expect, Hu Jintao hosted a banquet for his guest. They held two meetings, on May 5 and 6. Hu also accompanied Kim on a visit to Boao, a biotech company in Beijing’s suburbs.

Did Kim leave early?
As always the official reports were fulsome, lavishly so on the North Korean side. A week later on May 15 Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) carried a headline: “DPRK Seething with News of Kim Jong Il's Visit to China” – a quaint concept of “news, ” in the era of 24-hour channels elsewhere – claiming that “documentary films about it have been telecasted repeatedly by the request of viewers.” The populace waxed poetical, too. Another KCNA item on May 20 featured congratulatory verses: “Poems titled ‘Our General, the Great Man of the Century’, ‘Though He Visited Quietly’, etc. make poetic depiction of the energetic foreign activities conducted by Kim Jong Il, highly praising him as the sun of Songun and the peerlessly great man revered by all people.”

What really transpired in Kim’s talks with Hu is another matter. KCNA spoke of a “frank exchange of views” – which usually means a quarrel – but also of a “consensus.” The former is likelier, given that the dear leader almost certainly went home a day early. The evidence is circumstantial but strong. KCNA reported on May 9 that “A performance of opera ‘A Dream of Red Mansions’ for guests of honor was given at the state grand theatre of Beijing TV on May 7.” DPRK ambassador Choe Pyong-gwan was there, but the only three Chinese guests cited as present were not at all senior. Nor was the company of “Korean artistes” performing this Chinese classic named, rather coyly. They were in fact the Phibada Opera Troupe, who arrived in China a day before Kim Jong-il. For May 7 the Chinese government had booked the entire theatre – only for the dear leader to pack his bags and leave that very day, missing what was surely planned as a gala evening of bonhomie to mark the end of his sojourn.

What miffed him? There are some obvious candidates. He may have demanded more aid, as usual, only to find that this time China’s chequebook stayed closed. If so, the reason may be the sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan, discussed below; although so far Beijing has yet to join in the chorus of condemnation of Pyongyang for this. A third possibility is that Hu pressed Kim to rejoin the nuclear Six Party Talks, though those look dead in the water now.

All of the foregoing was rapidly overshadowed by events later in the month. On May 20 the South Korean government published its long-awaited report, by Korean and foreign experts, into the sinking of the Cheonan with 46 lives lost on March 26. As discussed in previous Updates, initially Seoul played this cautiously and cool: evidently not wanting to risk scaring the markets, much less start a new Korean War. But in fact North Korean involvement was widely suspected from the outset. Baengnyeong island, where the Cheonan exploded and sank, though Southern-held is close to the Northern coast in the West (Yellow) Sea. Despite earlier efforts to damp down speculation, leaks consistently suggested a torpedo attack by a Korean People’s Army (KPA) submarine as the most likely hypothesis. On May 19 the South’s foreign minister Yu Myung-hwan jumped the gun, telling journalists that the culprit was “obvious.” His ministry had already briefed foreign diplomats in that sense.

The joint investigation group (JIG), besides local teams from both civilians and the military, included 24 experts from the US, UK, Australia, Canada and Sweden. Only the last is in any sense a neutral country, so the aim of ensuring that the eventual findings would be seen to be independent and non-partisan might have been better served by widening the net. Russia for one has since complained of not being asked to join in.

The report is unambiguous in its conclusion: “there is no other plausible explanation” except a North Korean submarine firing a torpedo. Other scenarios – grounding, fatigue failure, mines, collision or internal explosion – were considered but discarded, based on the precise nature of the observed damage to the hull. The key physical evidence, found only on May 15 by a fishing boat trawling the seabed, was a torpedo motor and parts of a steering mechanism – with Korean writing. They match a model exported by North Korea, as well as a torpedo washed up in Southern waters in 2003. Separately, intelligence confirmed that a few small submarines with a supporting mother ship had left North Korea’s Bipagot naval base not far away 2-3 days before the attack, returning a few days later.

At once the tone in Seoul changed. On May 21 ROK defence minister Kim Tae-young said that the South “will make sure North Korea pays dearly” for its “act of brutality”, and that it was consulting with other nations as regards “military and non-military countermeasures.” The same day President Lee Myung-bak called the attack “a perfect military ambush” and a “military provocation”, violating both the UN Charter and the 1953 Armistice. But he added that “we must be highly prudent”, with “not a single mistake” in how Seoul responds.

Oh no we didn’t
Within hours of the South’s report North Korea swiftly and angrily denied all responsibility; quite a contrast to its tardy first comment, three weeks after the sinking. Col. Pak In-ho of the KPA navy, who led the 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo – an interesting choice for a spokesman whose remit was to plead outraged innocence – told AP, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, that North Korea had no reason to sink the Cheonan. Accusing Seoul of faking the evidence, he warned that any retaliation would mean “all-out war.” The DPRK foreign ministry, National Defence Commission (NDC, the top executive organ), and other bodies all issued belligerently worded statements to the same effect. The NDC said it will dispatch its own inspection team to the South, warning “the group of traitors” that the evidence had better be convincing. Such insulting language does not suggest a serious proposal; Kim Tae-young likened this to a murderer wanting to revisit the scene of his crime.

Seoul’s allies were quick to offer it support. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was visiting the region for other reasons – a high-level dialogue with China – declared on May 21 that “we cannot allow this attack … to go unanswered by the international community … this will not be and cannot be business as usual.” Japan’s prime minister Yukio Hatoyama on May 20 said “North Korea's action is inexcusable,” while the new British foreign secretary, William Hague, called the sinking a “callous act.” Canada, Australia and many others voiced similar sentiments.

Others were more cautious or downright sceptical, including in South Korea. 23 years after democracy was won in 1987, an abiding legacy of decades of military rule is that many still do not trust a conservative government, with roots in dictatorships since revealed to have faked supposed Northern provocations for political gain. With local elections – of no great import in fact – due on June 2, conspiracy theories claiming friendly fire or even a deliberate plot designed to fan a “Northern wind” of anti-communism can be found on South Korea’s febrile Internet. Even some in the main centre-left opposition Democratic Party (DP) have flirted with this idea. Threats to prosecute rumour-mongers who deny the authorised version will not reassure those, including Amnesty International, who worry on various grounds that Lee Myung-bak’s administration is encroaching upon freedom of speech.

Some abroad are cautious as well. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who as an ex-ROK foreign minister has extra reason to sound circumspect at this stage, called the JIG findings “deeply troubling”. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov offered condolences for the “tragedy” and said that Moscow will thoroughly examine the results of Seoul’s inquiry, as well as “reports coming from other sources.” But his main message was to warn against any escalation of tensions on the peninsula. The latter was also China’s predictable mantra, to the annoyance of an ROK government already angry at Beijing’s having hosted Kim Jong-il at such a sensitive time. When Lee Myung-bak went to China for the opening of the Shanghai Expo on May 1, Hu Jintao is said to have refused even to confirm Kim’s imminent trip.

The pressure continued when China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, visited South Korea for previously arranged meetings, including a three-way summit on May 29 with Japan’s Yukio Hatoyama. It remains to be seen if Beijing will shift. But it is unlikely to veto a critical UN Security Council resolution; South Korea has said it will table one. Seoul may have to be content with a Chinese, and perhaps also a Russian, abstention. Some see the old Cold War line-up re-emerging on the peninsula, albeit in much-changed form now that South Korea has both diplomatic and thriving economic relations with both Beijing and Moscow.

South Korea retaliates
The JIG report came out on a Thursday. After the weekend, President Lee announced South Korea’s response first thing on Monday May 24. As expected, military retaliation was ruled out – though Lee warned that next time Seoul “will immediately exercise [its] right of self-defence.” The ROK would boost preparedness, including more anti-submarine joint drills – both solo and with US forces – and fuller participation in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which aims to interdict suspect shipments (e.g. related to weapons of mass destruction) on the high seas.

In what seemed to some a rather gratuitous gesture, the South also resumed propaganda broadcasts and leaflet launches across border at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The former had ended by mutual agreement in 2004, but defector NGOs and others have continued to send anti-Kim Jong-il leaflets northward by balloon, arousing Pyongyang’s wrath.

But the main measures are economic. North Korean merchant ships are now banned from Southern waters, which they had been allowed to use since 2004. This will entail detours, longer journeys and raised fuel costs. Inter-Korean trade and exchanges will be suspended, except the joint-venture Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) – where Southern firms employ Northern workers in manufacturing – and very limited humanitarian aid. This is significant. Although China is North Korea’s top trade partner overall, South Korea is its main export market, to the tune of $933 million last year; the KIZ accounts for just over half of this.

Bark and bite
An already cross North got angrier still, threatening war even more than it usually does. Markets were nervous, both locally and globally; on May 24 the won fell below 1,200 to the US dollar for the first time in nine months. The jitters continued on Tuesday May 25, but by Wednesday 26 they eased as it became clear that the peninsula was not on the brink of war.

Crucially, on closer inspection Pyongyang’s bark was worse than its bite. The touchstone was, and will be, the KIZ. Despite fears that the North would simply close it down and expel the South’s 110 SMEs – or worse, hold hostage the thousand-odd South Koreans who work there – so far at least only a few ROK government employees have been kicked out. As of May 29, several hundred managers and others are still commuting daily across the DMZ to the KIZ. To make this possible, North Korea’s military crossborder communications hotline is still functioning, despite Pyongyang’s threat to switch it off. Matters may yet escalate, of course, but at least for now we breathe again.

But it is hard to see a way forward, or even a way back to the decade of ‘sunshine’ which Lee Myung-bak has made it his business to torpedo. That tactless metaphor is not meant to equate the North’s vicious attack with the South’s arguably misguided policy. Sinking the Cheonan was naked aggression, but it was not uncaused. While debate rages on Pyongyang’s probably mixed motives for this nasty and negative act, surely high on the list is getting back at Lee for cold-shouldering the North and cutting aid.

We have been here before: in 1983 after the Rangoon bombing, in 1987 when KAL 007 was blown out of the sky, and more often in older times. To be back in the bad old days again in 2010 is deeply depressing. But Korea moved on then, and it will do so this time too. In the end there is no real alternative to diplomacy, though right now it is as hard to see either side agreeing to this, as to imagine what they might talk about, much less concede.

Yet moods can change. When the football World Cup final opens in South Africa in June, for the first time ever both Koreas will be represented. Millions of people around the world who rarely if ever think about Korea, will do so, at least briefly; and in a more positive light than the Cheonan tragedy and its aftermath. It will be a welcome respite after recent alarums.

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