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Update No: 092 - (24/12/10)

North Korea: Unhappy New Year
2010 was a bad year for the Korean peninsula. Back in January South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, told the BBC: “I think I can meet (Kim Jong-il) within this year.” That seemed a long shot even then, and Lee hedged it with caveats. As of mid-December such a summit looks as likely as the proverbial flying pig, after one contentious and another straightforward act of aggression by North Korea against the South have raised inter-Korean tensions to their worst pitch for over a decade.

If some in Seoul and elsewhere – notably Beijing – still doubt that a Korean People’s Army torpedo sank the ROKN corvette Cheonan on March 28 off Baengnyeong island in the West (Yellow) sea, then the KPA’s admitted shelling of Yeonpyeong – another Southern island near the Northern coast – almost eight months later on November 23 was as unambiguous as Pyongyang’s excuses were feeble. (See last month’s Update for a more detailed account.)

A sea change, for the worse
The net result is scant chance of a happy New Year in Korea. In the South the shelling has hardened public opinion against the North. Southern political sentiment is often volatile, but we may be seeing a sea change. For many young South Koreans in particular, who hitherto tended to be apolitical or feel vaguely sorry for the North, Yeonpyeong was a rude wake-up call; suggesting that Pyongyang cannot be trusted, and may yet wreak more harm.

What the North will do next is anyone’s guess. Surprise and unpredictability are important weapons in the DPRK’s arsenal, to wrongfoot its foes. Not all its surprises are nasty; indeed, a good cop/bad cop alternation is one possibility. The usual New Year joint editorial of the North’s three main daily newspapers – those of the Party, armed forces, and youth league – will as ever be scrutinised for any policy clues, even if in recent years their stale and dreary rhetoric has yielded little of interest – or of relevance to Pyongyang’s subsequent actions.

Within North Korea, the past year’s main event was of course the long-awaited emergence and anointment in late autumn of Kim Jong-il’s third son Kim Jong-eun as his successor in all but name. This delicate debut was successfully stage-managed, at least in public, as part of a significant and overdue wider replenishment of the upper echelons of the nominally ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which under Kim Jong-il had lost ground politically to the KPA. At long last the WPK has a full Politburo and Central Committee (CC) again.

Kim Jong-eun, reformer?
Yet the autumn’s events were only the first act. 2011 will be a testing year for the “young general”. Kim Jong-eun must show he has got what it takes; the more so if his father’s health worsens. The fear is that he – or others, acting on his behalf – may conceive this in terms of further provocations. The hope is that he might instead – or as well, however contradictory this may seem – choose to make his mark as an economic reformer; or revitaliser, since the R-word may remain taboo in Pyongyang. If – but only if – Kim grasps that nettle, China stands ready with the deep pockets necessary to make this work. Otherwise Beijing will continue to keep the DPRK on life-support so that it does not collapse, but no more.

If Kim Jong-eun can think straight, fixing the economy is a better bet than brinkmanship for securing his own and his regime’s long-term future. But November’s second North Korean shock – showing a leading US nuclear scientist a new uranium enrichment facility, far more advanced than had been suspected – suggests that Pyongyang has not given up its old game of militant mendicancy. While this unwelcome surprise has pushed the DPRK higher up the long list of headaches confronting Barack Obama, it is unclear whether this will suffice to lure the US back into negotiations – and if so, in what format. The six-party talks (6PT), begun in 2003 but stalled since late 2008, may prove hard to resurrect.

Party and army: seamless, or rivals?
Personalised though politics is in Pyongyang both actually and symbolically, the Kim clan is not the whole story. Institutions matter too. In that regard, the area to watch is whether the renewed WPK will take a bigger role in 2011. Will the new Politburo or Central Committee actually meet for a change, and be announced as meeting? If so, might the Party rival or even supplant the National Defence Commision (NDC): formally the DPRK’s top executive body, outranking the merely civilian Cabinet and dominated by the military? Or even if this is all part of a seamless web, power struggles and policy disputes cannot be ruled out.

Pyongyang-watchers have long debated how far North Korean state behaviour is rational. As usual there is no consensus. Few believe Kim Jong-il is simply crazy, or that the DPRK’s actions are random; on the contrary they seem carefully calculated and calibrated. But to what end? Militant mendicancy – the beggar-mugger posture – has procured a few dollops of fuel and other aid over the years. Yet on any rational economic calculation, the yield from such a policy was never large, and diminishing returns have long since set in. If North Korea is serious in its avowed aim to build a “strong and prosperous nation” (Kangsong taeguk) by 2012, the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, then more of the ‘same old same old’ will not cut it. It has to do different, or in Pyongyang’s own jargon make a “bold switchover.”

Otherwise the outlook is grim, especially for North Korea’s long-suffering people. A decade ago the UN World Food Programme (WFP)’s operation in the DPRK was its largest in the world. Needs have hardly abated since then, but funding and sympathy have all but dried up. On December 12 the Financial Times reported Kenro Oshidari, WFP’s regional director for Asia, as saying: “We are seriously suffering a lack of donor funding.” In particular, a project to provide essential nutritional supplements for children is 80% unfunded owing to disputes over monitoring restrictions. Oshidari warned starkly: “We can keep going for another six months, maximum. If no further contribution comes in the next six months then there is a realistic possibility that we will have no food and no reason to be there.”

Seoul sounds an ominous new note
One would wish to bring gladder tidings at this season, but peace and goodwill are in short supply in Korea right now. From Seoul an ominous new note begins to be heard. On a visit to Malaysia on December 9, President Lee Myung-bak declared: “I can feel that unification is drawing nearer.” North Koreans have “begun to understand that South Korea is prosperous. This is an important change and no one can stop this. What we must pay attention to is the North Korean people’s change, not the change of the North Korean leadership.” If he means it, this strongly suggests that Lee has given up on the Kims and is calling for regime change.

As he must have known it would, this roused Pyongyang to paroxysms of fury. The ever-irascible (despite its name) Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) on December 14 tore into “traitor Lee Myung-bak” for “letting loose vituperation against the DPRK … daring take issue with [our] leadership and system … a string of insulting remarks … impudently ballyhooing about ‘basic right’ and ‘right to happiness’” and so on. It warned him against “getting on the nerves of the other side, strutting about here and there without being careful about his tongue-lashing unsuitable to his position”, before concluding: “If Lee does not wish to see the inter-Korean relations reach an uncontrollable catastrophe, he had better stop dishonest remarks causing trouble and properly wag his tongue.” (sic)

One may laugh at the overblown rhetoric. But as the year turns, Korea is not looking funny.

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