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Update No: 088 - (31/08/10)

North Korea: Gearing up
August in North Korea was one of those annoying months – at least for those who produce monthly updates – where the biggest news suddenly happened right at the end. Thus at this writing (August 29) Kim Jong-il is still wandering around in what it is no longer politically correct to call Manchuria, having abruptly headed there less than four months after his last visit to China. This timing was the more surprising since it meant he missed Jimmy Carter. The former US president, now 85, arrived in Pyongyang on August 25 – the day Kim left – to secure the release of a US prisoner. It was Carter’s first trip to North Korea since 1994, when he defused a serious nuclear crisis and arguably prevented a second Korean War. His interlocutor then was Kim’s father Kim Il-sung, who died three weeks later. Carter did not get to meet Kim Jong-il – already long designated as his father’s successor – that time either.

Forgive us our trespasses
So the eternal question – what gives in Pyongyang? – has fresh urgency. Let us dispose of Carter first, almost as curtly as the dear leader did. His main mission, duly accomplished, was to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes: a 30 year old black Bostonian, who had taught English in South Korea and was arrested in January when he apparently walked into North Korea from China to preach the Gospel. For this act of trespass the DPRK Central Court sentenced him on April 6 to eight years’ hard labour and a fine of 70 million won (about US$490,000 at the official rate). In July Gomes had reportedly attempted suicide.

There is a double déjà vu here. Gomes has yet to tell his tale, but he seemed to be copying his friend and fellow Christian human rights activist Robert Park, a Korean-American who pulled the same stunt a month earlier on Christmas Day 2009; they attended the same church in Seoul. The DPRK unexpectedly released Park after only 43 days; he is now in hospital in Tucson after threatening suicide (his supporters allege he was tortured in his brief captivity). Whether or not Gomes is similarly sadly unhinged, his behaviour was rash in the extreme.

The other precedent, a high-profile release, echoes that of Laura Ling and Euna Lee: the two US journalists also jailed for illegally entering North Korea. Last August it was Bill Clinton who did the honours, in a trip clearly para-diplomatic in intent and outcome: he met Kim Jong-il, and it looked briefly as if US-DPRK relations might thaw. Carter had no such luck. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s snub – couldn’t he have waited for a day? – sends its own message.

Get Carter
There has to be a back story here. From Washington, the ever-useful Nelson Report offered different versions in successive issues. John Kerry (remember him?), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was keen to go get Gomes, who is also his constituent; but the State Department vetoed this lest it look too official and governmental. Alternatively, it was Kim Jong-il who on July 30 nixed both Kerry and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico – who has been on mercy missions to Pyongyang before. Kim wanted Jim. But in that case, why did he stand him up? Possibly because the Obama administration, concerned at Carter’s well-known penchant for freelance diplomacy, kept its distance from this trip – in contrast to the close liaison last year over Bill Clinton’s visit, though that too was nominally private.

Checking with China
But America is hardly the main thing on the dear leader’s mind just now. His sudden return to China is almost certainly related to the imminent, and rare, delegates’ meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Announced on June 26 as due in early September, no more has been heard of this; but sources in Seoul suggest it will be held on September 6-8. While all predictions about North Korea risk applying egg to the forecaster’s face, anticipation is strong that Kim’s third son and putative heir Kim Jong-eun will at last be revealed in public and perhaps take on some official post. His full designation as successor is not expected until 2012: Juche 100 in the DPRK calendar as the centenary of its founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.

What has this to do with China? One possible precedent occurred a decade ago. In May 2000 Kim Jong-il made a secret visit to Beijing, just a fortnight before he hosted Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang for the first ever inter-Korean summit. While so fiercely independent a regime – the core meaning of Juche is unbeholdenness – would bridle at any suggestion of needing to seek anyone’s permission for anything, nonetheless it was prudent to ensure that so radical a foreign policy initiative was acceptable to the DPRK’s main protector and aid donor.

Bread and circuses
The same applies now, only more so. A delicate succession process, a clapped-out economy and a slow-burn nuclear crisis add up to a major headache for all concerned. In better times Kim can ignore China; even in May he may have been cross enough to go home a day early. But this is a tense juncture. The dear leader needs Hu Jintao, whom he probably met on this trip in Changchun, to bless Kim Jong-eun’s succession – and not dally with potential rivals like number one son Kim Jong-nam, living in quasi-exile in Macau, whose unprepossessing appearance belies an openness to much-needed reform. Kim may also be desperate for more Chinese aid, reportedly withheld on his last visit, so that Kim Jong-eun’s anointment can be marked in best Roman emperor style with panem et circenses: bread and circuses.

The question is what Hu will have demanded in return. Above all Beijing fears instability in its wayward neighbour. Its purported scepticism over March’s sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan reaffirmed a refusal to paint the DPRK into a corner, no matter what. Yet China is fed up with Kim Jong-il, and will hardly miss a chance to bring him into line at a moment of weakness. This time the price of yet more political and financial aid may have been twofold: real economic reform, and showing more willing as regards the long-stalled nuclear issue.

Pak back
There is some evidence on both fronts. For a start, Pak Pong-ju is back after three years in the wilderness. As chemicals minister in 2002 Pak led an economic delegation to South Korea (it also included Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-taek). Pak’s zeal to learn impressed his hosts; visiting Samsung et al, he yearned for several extra pairs of eyes to take it all in. In 2003 Pak was promoted to prime minister; on his watch the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) got up and running. In 2007 he was sacked in a backlash against reform, and had not been seen since. He resurfaced in August as a WPK deputy director, said to be in light industry: long the bailiwick of Kim Kyong-hui, who is the dear leader’s sister and Mrs Jang.

Wu woos
As for the nuclear issue, China’s negotiator Wu Dawei has been shuttling from Pyongyang to Seoul peddling a new three-stage plan to kick-start the stalled, if not dead, Six Party Talks (6PT). A bilateral US-DPRK meeting would lead to an informal six-way gathering, and then the resumed 6PT proper. Wu got no joy in Seoul, whose foreign minister was away. Neither the ROK nor US will budge unless Pyongyang has something serious and substantial to say, both on the nuclear issue and the Cheonan. Such a hardline stance risks keeping them both out of the loop, at a time of ferment in Pyongyang. Yet Obama in particular has little choice at this juncture. Already assailed as he is by outrageous slings and arrows in an ever more toxic domestic political milieu, in the runup to mid-term Congressional elections the last thing he can afford – as he could have done 16 months ago, had the DPRK not fired off a rude rocket and a nuclear test – is the extra charge of being soft on Kim Jong-il.

Round the houses
Returning to Kim Jong-il’s Chinese jaunt – as ever nominally secret, though the special train and convoys are hard to hide – this took an unusual route. Rather than going northwest on the main line via Sinuiju and Dandong – both severely flooded since the Yalu river burst its banks a week earlier – Kim’s train headed north to Kanggye city in the mountainous border province of Jagang. Crossing the swollen Yalu from Manpo to Jian around 1 a.m. on August 26, it did not stop but sped on, reaching Jilin by 9 a.m. (‘sped’ is too kind; 400km in 8 hours is not exactly Chollima speed). There Kim visited Yuwen middle school, which his father attended during 1927-30, and other sites associated with Kim Il-sung. If Kim Jong-eun came too, this doubtless served to cement the idea – odd as it sounds – of revolutionary heredity.

On August 27 the Jilin-Changchun expressway was closed to other traffic so Kim’s convoy could make the 120 km journey in safety and solitude. There he probably met Hu Jintao, and introduced his son. Leaving Changchun on August 28, Kim was thought to be headed home; but by nightfall his train had not crossed the border. Instead, it was reported on Sunday that Yanji city, capital of Yanbian prefecture, was expecting a special guest. If true, this will be Kim Jong-il’s first known visit to China’s ethnic Korean community; time was when that would have been deemed politically risky. Looking at the map, Kim may then return home via Tumen and down the DPRK’s northeastern coast via Chongjin and Hamheung. This is the long way round, but perhaps it suits the dear leader and son to be out of town and miss the frantic last-minute preparations and machinations for the Big Day in early September. Yet such an absence does seem surprising. Are they ultra-confident, or running scared?

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