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Update No: 114 - (26/01/13)

North Korea: Rocket fallout and a Google visit
NewNations’ holiday furlough at the turn of the year leaves two main recent events to report now: one from December, the other in January. They are, respectively, the successful launch of a long-range rocket on December 12, which for the first time succeeded in placing a space satellite in orbit; and then the visit to Pyongyang from January 7-10 of a US delegation, led by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and including the executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt. Both events were extensively covered by global media at the time, so here we shall mainly summarise and try to tease out their lasting impact and implications.

Rocketing to success
Unlike April’s damp squib, December’s rocket was a big win for Pyongyang and Kim Jong-un, on many levels. It was bold to try again only eight months after that earlier failure, and in the depth of North Korea’s icy winter: all past DPRK rocket launches had been in spring or summer. Another disaster would have been a severe blow, both at home and abroad. Perhaps for that reason, this time unlike in April, the regime did not announce the test in advance to its own people, though it gave due warning internationally as space regulations require. In a fine feint, having announced the launch window and then extended it till December 29 due to supposed technical problems – the Sohae launch site is visible to other nations’ spy satellites, as well as commercial ones – the actual launch on December 12 took the world by surprise.

Technically, although North Korea had twice before claimed to have put satellites in orbit, this was the first time that outside agencies, including the US, confirmed the fact. The satellite seems to have malfunctioned soon afterwards, but at least we now know that this was not a fake as some had alleged. It remains true, however, that launching a satellite is at the same time a cover for a long range missile test, since the Unha-3 rocket is all but identical to a Taepodong missile. This aspect is what concerns North Korea’s neighbours and the UN.

Politically, this success ticked many boxes. Domestically, it marked the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death (on December 17 2011) with a bang, while boosting Kim Jong-eun’s status as leader and successor. Official photos showed the young marshal looking very much in command, cigarette in hand (you wouldn’t see that at NASA). DPRK media trumpeted the success over and over, including a special festive tour of Pyongyang laid on as a reward for the scientists responsible. This went on until January 4, when 100,000 citizens of the capital lined the streets to see them off – presumably back to Sohae in the remote north-west.

Three pokes in the eye for Seoul
Abroad, the rocket was one in the eye for South Korea – or rather three in the eye. First, its success and the military threat it represents unsettled the South. Second, it was galling in that it puts the North ahead, a rare event nowadays. South Korea’s own space programme – aided by Russia, interestingly – after two failures, has yet to manage a successful rocket launch. Third, the timing neatly distracted attention away from South Korea’s presidential election, held a week later on December 19. Past Northern pre-election provocations have usually boosted the ROK right – self-defeatingly from Pyongyang’s viewpoint, one would think. This time the issues were mainly domestic, but the conservative candidate Park Geun-hye scored a narrow victory and will take office on February 25 as modern Korea’s first ever female leader. Although she is from the same Saenuri (New Frontier) party as the man whom she succeeds, Lee Myung-bak, there is no love lost: Park has pledged to end Lee’s hard line and build “trustpolitik” with the North. More of that in the months ahead, no doubt.

Further afield, North Korea takes satisfaction that its rocket rattled just about everyone, and is insouciant – with good reason – as to the consequences. The latter remain to be seen: at this writing, the UN Security Council (UNSC), after a swift initial condemnation, had yet to manage a full formal response. As usual, the delay was due to Beijing not wanting to press Pyongyang too hard. As of January 22 a resolution was said to be imminent, after the US and China had hammered out a mutually acceptable text which reportedly strengthens existing sanctions rather than imposing new ones. Since China is committed to a strategy of trying to change North Korea by boosting its economic growth through trade and investment links, its enforcement of sanctions will as ever be no more than lukewarm and pro forma.

A new nuclear test?
One thing that would seriously anger Beijing – albeit not enough to make it end its support – would be a new North Korean nuclear test: its third, after those in 2006 and 2009. January brought rumours of such an event, but as of January 22 nothing had happened. Pyongyang enjoys the element of surprise, so a fresh test cannot be ruled out. However, Kim Jong-eun may feel that his rocket and satellite have caused enough of a stir for the time being.

Meanwhile January’s big event was the visit by Google’s Eric Schmidt. For obvious reasons, the business world’s movers and shakers – as opposed to politicians – find little to interest them in North Korea. The few who have been to Pyongyang in recent years include CNN’s Ted Turner; Maurice ‘Hank’ Greenberg, formerly of the insurance giant AIG; and the head of the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis. Nothing came from any of those trips, it seems.

Schmidt’s motives are equally obscure, unless (as is likely) he was just curious. The overall purpose of the journey remains unclear. North Korea predictably misreported it as a Google delegation, which it was not. Bill Richardson is an experienced freelance negotiator with rogue states, including North Korea, who has several times rescued Americans in trouble. This time he sought the release of Kenneth Bae, a US-Korean tour operator arrested in Rason in November on charges as yet unspecified but thought to involve covert missionary activity. But the delegation came home without Bae, and with no public progress regarding his case.

Useful idiots?
The visit attracted much criticism. The State Department, which in the past has been known to use Richardson as an informal envoy-cum-troubleshooter, declared the timing unhelpful. From their viewpoint, in the unending Punch and Judy puppet show of sticks and carrots for North Korea, at this time sticks are needed to punish the rocket launch; so a prominent US delegation – albeit private – sends the wrong signal. Senator John McCain went so far as to brand them “useful idiots”, using Lenin’s notorious phrase for gullible Western visitors.

That comment seems harsh. There is nothing to suggest that Richardson, Schmidt, or others on the trip harboured any illusions about the DPRK. Of course Pyongyang media milked the visit, including footage of their guests looking appropriately solemn at the Kumsusan mausoleum – now expanded and recently reopened to display the corpse of Kim Jong-il as well as his father Kim Il-sung. The new section devoted to the ‘dear leader’ also exhibits where he worked and played, including his train and yacht. And on his desk: an Apple Mac. Schmidt’s daughter Sophie, aged 19 and also among the party, noted in an insightful and entertaining blogpost published on January 20: “I was delighted to learn that he and I shared a taste in laptops: 15" Macbook Pro.” Her lengthy and frank posting, headlined “It might not get weirder than this”, can be read at

As widely noted, the contrast between global Google and closed North Korea could hardly be greater. The idea of the former doing business in the latter seems unimaginable any time soon, and not only from the DPRK end: under the longstanding Trading With The Enemy Act, Washington too bans US firms from almost all commerce with North Korea.

And yet optimists who hoped that Schmidt’s presence might signal a change of direction, or at least rub off on his hosts by making them ponder what it really means in the 21st century to be modern and at the cutting edge of global science – which is how North Korea likes to see itself, however implausibly – may have a point. In late January it was confirmed that North Korea has ended its longstanding practice of confiscating visitors’ mobile phones on arrival. According to the Chinese newsagency Xinhua, this radical change took effect from January 7: the very day Schmidt and Richardson touched down. However, Sophie Schmidt quashed speculation that their group were the first to benefit from the change: “We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.” The first beneficiaries may thus have been a tourist group organised by Young Pioneer Tours, the newer of at least two apparently thriving travel companies run by Beijing-based Britons which specialise in the DPRK (the other being the well-established Koryo Tours), who broke the news on January 17 on their website: http://dprk.youngpiwed

How useful this new privilege is, remains to be seen. A normal foreign cellphone will not work on the DPRK system, and there are conflicting reports as to whether it is possible to rent a simcard to allow local connectivity – which in any case would only hook up to other foreigners, such as embassies and NGOs, whom the DPRK is careful to keep on a separate network from its own citizens. It is attitudes like that which Kim Jong-eun will have to dare to jettison, if North Korea is ever to enter the wired world which the rest of us now inhabit.


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