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Update:  - (26/11/12)

This is NewNations’ first update on Korea since July, so instead of a month there is almost half a year to catch up on. As a new year approaches, the third with Kim Jong-un at the helm, it is also apposite to ask what 2014 may bring. So we shall look forward, but first backward.

Overall, the second half of 2013 was quieter than the first. The lurid threats which peaked in March and April died down thereafter – until now: see our concluding paragraph. It remains hard to see what Pyongyang thought to gain from such extreme sabre-rattling, or why – God forbid – it might be tempted to try it on again. All interlocutors, China included, are utterly fed up with this rebarbative, recalcitrant, recidivist regime. Those who support engagement – as many still do, faute de mieux – now do so warily and wearily, rather than with enthusiasm or real optimism. Everyone has had their hopes dashed and fingers burned too many times.

Top brass musical chairs
Domestic politics remain as opaque as ever. Yet behind the theatrical mask of mass parades and endless celebrations of unity and loyalty, some difficulties cannot be hidden. The most visible problem is the extraordinary churn at the top of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).

In October the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed that the KPA had a new Chief of the General Staff (CGS): Ri Yong-gil, a little-known general who only recently gained his fourth star. This had been suspected since August, since Ri was newly prominent in Kim Jong-un’s entourage whereas the man he replaced, Kim Kyok-sik, suddenly vanished - he was last seen on August 3. Kim had only been CGS since May, though this was the second time he had held the post. Ri is thus the fourth CGS in 15 months: an extraordinary turnover. Likewise when Jang Jong-nam – a still more obscure but fast-rising general, who got his third star only in 2011 – was appointed as Minister of People’s Armed Forces (MPAF, ie defence minister) in May, he was already Kim Jong-un’s third appointee to that position. So North Korea has also had four different defence ministers in just over a year.

This is not normal. Under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, defence ministers and chiefs of staff served for years at a stretch. Over 60 years after the regime’s foundation in 1948 the DPRK had just seven defence ministers, but in four years since 2009 it has had four – three of them since April 2012. Rather than generational change, which would be more stable than this, the likeliest hypotheses are two. Either Kim Jong-un has yet to find generals whose loyalty he can fully trust, or he is deliberately circulating them so that none has the chance to stay in one post and build up a power-base – which also suggests deep underlying mistrust.

Few fences yet mended
North Korea’s international relations in the second half of 2013 were uneventful. No progress was made on the nuclear issue or towards reviving the long-comatose Six Party Talks (6PT, last held in 2008), despite various comings and goings – including ‘track two’ meetings with assorted former US officials in Berlin in late September and London in early October.

China as host is keen to resurrect the 6PT, and North Korea says it is ready for talks “without preconditions”. That reasonable-sounding stance is deceptive: it appears to mean not being bound by any earlier commitments agreed during the long hard 6PT slog from 2003-08. With Pyongyang also declaring its nuclear weapons to be non-negotiable, understandably the US, South Korea and Japan are demanding some tangible sign that the DPRK is serious before talking again. They refuse to resume the old game, which at best involved interminable ‘salami-slicing’ – breaking down the disarmament process into tiny steps, for each of which Pyongyang demanded immediate rewards – and at worst, in the former US defence secretary Robert Gates’ memorable phrase, ended up with the allies “buying the same horse twice”. It is very hard to see how this impasse can be broken, unless somebody backs down.

Bilaterally, in late July China sent its Vice President, Li Yuanchao, for the 60th anniversary of what North Korea celebrates as Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War; everyone else marks this, more sombrely and honestly, as the 1953 Armistice. A month earlier China’s new President Xi Jinping welcomed a new Korean leader to Beijing: not Kim Jong-un, who still awaits his invitation, but Park Geun-hye of South Korea. Recurrent rumours that Kim is to make his first official visit to China – supposedly this autumn, but the latest suggestion is before Chinese New Year (31 January) – have so far proved unfounded. It will happen sooner or later, but neither side wishes to risk a fiasco when it does. China may also be demanding concessions on the nuclear issue, or it may regard young Kim as not up to par for the task, yet or…..

Mongolia steppes out
In late October Mongolia’s President, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, became the first foreign leader to visit Pyongyang in the Kim Jong-un era. Mongolia is friendly with both Koreas, and all seemed cordial. But in a speech at Kim Il-sung University the visitor roundly declared that “No tyranny lives for ever” and emphasised Mongolia’s own transition in the past 20 years to a market economy, abolishing capital punishment and more. (More questionably, he insisted further that “the Great Mongol Empire never waged wars without a justifiable reason.” [1])

Elbegdorj did not get to meet Kim Jong-un but only the titular head of state, Kim Yong-nam. It is variously canvassed that either host or guest was angry: the former at such impertinent lèse-majesté, or alternatively that the latter spoke out as revenge for not being allowed to meet ‘the Kim who matters’. All this is speculation. Nor should we assume that Kim Jong-un is either rude or too green to do the honours, for this is how it was in Kim Jong-il’s early years in office as well. The dear leader initially cultivated an air of mystery, only emerging to greet important foreign visitors in 2000 and thereafter. Perhaps his son is similarly biding his time.

The Rodman delusion
Then again, one foreign guest Kim Jong-un is happy to hang out with is the eccentric former basketball star Dennis Rodman. After a week-long second visit in September, mainly spent on Kim’s private island and yacht, Rodman was widely quoted on his host’s “seven-star” luxury lifestyle and partying. A seemingly unembarrassed KCNA gave this a positive spin:

“Rodman is trying hard to make the reality of the DPRK properly known to the world. His visit to the DPRK helped the world know a lot of new things about Kim Jong Un. This gave a big blow at the U.S. and bourgeois media which have hurled mud at the DPRK so far. (KCNA 13 October 2013) [2]”

Can they be serious? The last sentence in particular betrays a terrible lack of judgment as to how the “reptile press” actually works, and the real impact of having Rodman as a publicist. It does not make North Korea or Kim Jong-un seem any nicer, or more normal; quite the reverse.

Kaesong limps back
On the peninsula, relations with South Korea have yet to recover from the body-blow, and – for North Korea – own goal of sabotaging the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last remaining inter-Korean joint venture. Idle for five months after the North abruptly pulled its workers out in April, the KIC partially reopened in September; but all is far from well. Many of the 123 small Southern firms (SMEs) invested there are in dire financial straits, despite bailouts from Seoul which they say are inadequate. Half a year’s shutdown has cost them not only lost production but also reputation: not a few of their former trade partners are unwilling to risk a similar non-fulfilment of orders in future. Whether North Korea has learnt any lesson is far from clear, for it is still dragging its feet on allowing mobile phones and the Internet at Kaesong. Does Kim Jong-un not grasp how basic such facilities are in the 21st century, and how hobbled the KIC will be compared to its foreign competitors if it remains without them?

Spokes, unspoken
Perhaps not. Under Kim Jong-il the North Korean system was compared to a spider’s web, or rather a bicycle wheel whose spokes do not touch each other but only the hub. So every unit reports upwards, without a sideways glance at or even any knowledge of what other units are doing. Western management-speak calls this a silo problem, and in Pyongyang it is extreme: lateral co-ordination is not only not structurally missing but actively dangerous. (A foreigner with three separate lines of business in North Korea reports that if he is there for purpose A and happen to run into a Korean associate from business B or C, they blank each other.)

Only such rigid compartmentalisation can explain how North Korea could simultaneously, with no apparent awareness of contradiction, seek more foreign investment and even create new special economic zones (SEZs) while sabotaging the main SEZ it actually has. Maybe Kim Jong-un files the KIC under inter-Korean ties, and hence politics rather than business. But potential investors won’t do that. If not already deterred by UN sanctions – which while not formally banning all trade and investment, serve as a wider blanket discouragement to anyone fearful of incurring Washington’s displeasure – they will surely hesitate to entrust their money to a country which behaves so arbitrarily, high-handedly and self-defeatingly.

China- and Russia?
At all events, we shall soon see. Having passed a new Law on Economic Development Zones (EDZs) targeting foreign investors back in May, just a month after it had closed the KIC, on 21 November North Korea announced its first 13 EDZs. Spread throughout the country, their specialisations vary: general economic development (4), industry (3), agriculture (2), tourism (2) and export processing (2). The latter two, significantly, are almost adjacent on the west coast at the mouth of the Taedong river, facing the east coast of China – which for both geographic and political reasons is the only likely source of FDI in present circumstances.

What about Russia? In September 2012, when Moscow at last gave up trying to get its money back and cancelled US$11 billion of accumulated Soviet-era debt, it earmarked US$1 bn for potential aid and investments. With still no sign of the much-mooted trans-Korea gas pipeline from Siberia to South Korea, so far the only fresh Russian investment in North Korea is in railways. 22 September, five years late, finally saw the opening of the upgraded (now dual-gauge) tracks from Khasan on the Russo-DPRK border to Rajin, 54 km inside North Korea; connecting Asia’s most northerly year-round ice-free port to the Trans-Siberian railway and hence to Europe. This US$340 million project also involves modernising facilities at Rajin.

In an intriguing twist, when Putin visited the other Korea in November it was announced that three South Korean companies have an MOU to buy up to half of Russia’s 70% stake in this project (the DPRK holds 30%). Despite official denials, this seems to breach the South’s ban, imposed in 2010, on investing in the North outside Kaesong. As with the pipeline initially, no one seems to have consulted North Korea: an omission at once impolite and impolitic.

Sea of fire, again
That brings us back to inter-Korean relations, where the flickering Kaesong zone is currently the sole ray of hope. Hopes in the summer that reopening the KIC would lead to a wider thaw in North-South ties were dashed in on 21 September, when the North abruptly and callously cancelled reunions of separated families due to begin just four days later at Mount Kumgang. Readers may recall that name as a further sad piece of inter-Korean wreckage: a resort visited by 1.9 million South Koreans after 1998, but left largely to rot, since one such tourist was shot dead there in July 2008 and the North refused entry to Southern investigators. The North is keen to resume tours, so it cancelled the family reunions in pique at the South’s insistence on taking matters one step at a time: reunions first, then – maybe – tourism talks. Earlier in the summer President Park Geun-hye’s administration had seemed prepared to countenance a simultaneous package deal, so the North might rightly be puzzled at this change of stance.

But that is no excuse for the note on which we must regrettably conclude. Three years ago Northern artillery shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong island, killing four; two were civilians. Rejoicing in this anniversary, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published several unpleasant commentaries. These, especially a 22 November statement issued by the “Command of the Korean People's Army [KPA] in the southwestern sector of the front” (where the shelling occurred), merit reading in full for sheer nastiness; the KPA document is at Sample extracts follow (emphases added in italics; the North also romanises the island’s name differently):

Thunderous shelling rocked the earth, pounding the enemies who mounted preemptive attacks [not true – NN] with just showering of shells in the hotspot area in the southwestern sector of the front on November 23 three years ago. ..... The prompt counterattack ... turned Yonphyong Island into the sea of fire. This praiseworthy event proved that the DPRK will never tolerate anyone who provokes it and that the provokers will be made to pay a very dear price. ... This was also an eruption of the pent-up grudge of the army and people of the DPRK ...The deep-running hatred toward the enemies resulted in the shower of shells and the mounting resentment turned the island into the heap of ashes. ... The scene on the Island ... was quite spectacular. Not only inhabitants but service personnel of the puppet army tried to escape from the island to get rid of horror. The sea route leading to Inchon was blocked as they fled in disarray. ... Last year traitor Lee Myung Bak with just "2MB" of IQ held the farce [of commemorating the shelling]. This year Park Geun Hye and her group is behaving just as same as Lee. ... Park and her group should draw a bitter lesson from the shameful defeat they sustained from the Yonphyong island shelling. It is the fixed will and determination of the army and people of the DPRK ... not to miss an opportunity should the puppet forces make provocation again. Three years ago the retaliatory blow was confined to the Yonphyong island only but this time Chongwadae [the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office and residence] and other bases of the puppet forces will be put within the striking range. [Reinforcing coastal islands] is as foolish an act as trying to evade the shower of shelling with an ordinary umbrella. They should clearly bear in mind that everything will turn into stick of taffy by the unprecedentedly powerful military strike of the KPA.

They should never forget that the recurrence of the reckless provocation will reduce Chongwadae into the sea of fire leading it [sic] to the reunification.

With North Korea led by a young man partly educated in Switzerland, that longtime bastion of peaceful neutrality, while the South has a new leader offering “trustpolitik”, it is deeply depressing and unconscionable that Pyongyang still, with no provocation whatever, spews out foul diatribes like this. Two thirds of a century after the peninsula was divided, sadly it is impossible to welcome a new year with any optimism that it will be better than the old one.


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