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Update No: 115 - (26/02/13)

Nuclear rain on Park's parade
February was not a good month for North Korea. Its rulers take a different view. Ever since the DPRK’s third and most powerful nuclear test yet on February 12, Northern media have been in bombast mode. On February 25 – even as in Seoul a new president, Park Geun-hye, took office and reiterated her commitment malgré tout to build what she calls ‘Trustpolitik’ with the North – the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) was reporting pledges to “embody Kim Jong Il's patriotism and rapidly develop the nuclear technology of the country by raising the hot wind of pushing back the frontiers of latest science and technology so as to further glorify the country as a matchless nuclear weapons state.”

Nuclear watchdogs
Those promising thus were “scientists, technicians, workers, soldier-builders and officials who contributed to the successful third underground nuclear test.” Like their comrades who worked on December’s satellite launch, they were feted by being brought to Pyongyang – a rare treat for those working in remote rocket and nuclear test sites – to be given tours of the sites and showered with praise, medals – and wristwatches. According to KCNA:

“59 were awarded wrist watches bearing the august name of President Kim Il Sung, and 19 the wrist watches bearing the august name of leader Kim Jong Il, and 74 citations of the dear respected Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, and 22 the citations of Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the Korean People's Army.”

One feels sorry for those who missed out on the timepieces and had to make do with mere citations, but intrigued as to why the young Marshal seems to have divided himself amoeba-like for this purpose. Presumably the 74 were civilians and the 22 soldiers. At all events, even for a nuclear test, the resurgent Party is given priority over an army which all signs suggest that Kim Jong-un and the Party are reining in – even as the regime behaves more militantly than ever. This is the paradox and challenge confronting the DPRK’s exasperated interlocutors.

The world’s media has spilt much ink (as we used to say) wringing its hands since February 12. The penny has finally dropped that Pyongyang means what it says and has no intention of ever giving up its nuclear deterrent. This is a dismaying prospect on many fronts. Direct threats include two risks: nuclear proliferation, and fear that Pyongyang may soon be able to mount one of its bombs as a warhead on one of its missiles. (KCNA called the latest device “a smaller and light A-bomb unlike the previous ones”, but this cannot be confirmed.)

No respect
This kick in the teeth for global opinion also casts into question all the years, nay decades, of diplomacy which failed to stop North Korea going nuclear. Perhaps there were wrong turns and missed opportunities, but clearly the DPRK lied through its teeth throughout: in initially claiming its nuclear plans were peaceful, or denying that it had a second nuclear programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). The snail’s-pace six party talks process (6PT) that ran from 2003-2008 now looks to have been based on bad faith, even though at a couple of points the US thought it had a deal. (Or at least its energetic chief negotiator Christopher Hill did; he has since recanted.) Yet as Brian Myers recounts in his invaluable book The Cleanest Race (page 139), internal DPRK propaganda cheerfully admits that they only joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in order to “use” and then “scorn” it (those are their own words).

Similarly, Pyongyang showed its utter disrespect for international law by brushing off UN Security Council censure – twice in short order, over the rocket launch and missile test – and dismissing the UNSC as a tool of the US. Yet the condemnation was unanimous, including by China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow must both feel insulted when KCNA claims that “‘Resolution’ 2087 cooked up by the U.S. and its allies, is nothing but a product of its vicious hostile policy towards the DPRK and a fraudulent document devoid of any legality”. Even more rudely, North Korea’s National Defence Commission (NDC) – the top executive body, above the Cabinet – on January 24 criticised “big countries, which [should] take the lead in building a fair world order” for “abandoning without hesitation even elementary principle.”

Resolution and irresolution
Speaking of resolutions, if also of irresolution: UNSC 2087, which so annoyed KCNA, came on January 23 in response to December 12’s satellite launch. While the UNSC was swift to censure the nuclear test, a delay is again likely before condemnation is cemented in a further resolution and yet more sanctions. The reasons are familiar. Despite much Western wishful thinking that Beijing may finally lose patience with its pesky neighbour, neither China nor Russia is set to change the stance which divides them from the US, EU and Japan: trying not to paint Kim Jong-un into a corner for fear of exacerbating tensions even further. Russia’s deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov expressed Moscow’s position on February 20 thus:

“We will be against the sanction measures that would touch upon the normal trade and economic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As we understand, our Chinese partners take a similar position. We consider everything that goes beyond the non-proliferation decisions as going beyond the objectives of the reaction that must be developed within the UN Security Council.”

With three UN resolutions and associated sanctions already in force – UNSC 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009), passed after the DPRK’s first and second nuclear tests, preceded 2087 – it will be hard to find anything left to sanction, using so narrowly constrained a definition.

Trustpolitik stillborn?
North Korea is a headache to everyone, but especially so at this time for its Southern sibling – now under fresh leadership. The Kim regime’s antennae are more nuanced than its day-glo propaganda. Kim Jong-un knows that in 2002 Park Geun-hye visited Pyongyang and was his late father’s dinner guest. Since 2011 Park has urged ‘trustpolitik’ with the North, signalling her intention to break with the then ROK president Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line approach.

One might think this would be music to Northern ears. Though far from sentimental, at least they could stand down some of the troops and cynically get the begging bowl out again. Yet just as in 2009 Barack Obama’s pledge to shake any hand that unclenched its fist, elicited missile and nuclear tests from Kim Jong-il, his son has now delivered the same rude double whammy to Park Geun-hye. Gamely, her inauguration speech reiterated this commitment:

“Through a trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula I intend to lay the groundwork for an era of harmonious unification where all Koreans can lead more prosperous and freer lives and where their dreams can come true. I will move forward step-by-step on the basis of credible deterrence to build trust between the South and the North. Trust can be built through dialogue and by honouring promises that have already been made. It is my hope that North Korea will abide by international norms and make the right choice so that the trust-building process ... can move forward.”

Right now that looks a forlorn hope. The North’s nuclear test will force Park to emphasise deterrence over detente, at least for a while. Seeming to ignore the fact and opportunity of a fresh leader entering the Blue House, on February 19 a DPRK diplomat in Geneva – at a UN conference on disarmament, of all places – threatened South Korea with “final destruction.”

Why do they do this? A favourite Pyongyang cliché is that “a new-born puppy knows no fear of a tiger.” Jon Yong Ryong, that rude diplomat in Geneva, said this of South Korea – but he should look in the mirror. Like a young Mafia boss inheriting the family firm on the death of a fearsome father, whippersnapper Kim Jong-un has to prove he is no pushover at home and abroad – lest sceptical KPA generals or foes in Washington and Seoul are tempted to think him weak and seek to take advantage. With the nuclear test one may hope he has now made his point and feels able to relax. (Talk of further nuclear tests is implausible: there is no gain.)

Yet in a vicious circle of which experienced DPRK negotiators such as first deputy foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan are well aware, missile and nuclear tests only make it tougher for those interlocutors who in principle wish to engage Pyongyang, to expend scarce political capital in convincing sceptical colleagues that it is worth the trouble. Initial signs suggest that Park Geun-hye is anything but bold, so trustpolitik may yet prove stillborn. But North Korea is a master of surprise, so a few months’ hence the picture might look different.

A piercing encounter
Meanwhile the month’s end brought much-needed light relief. It is hard to think of anyone on the face of it more antithetical to North Korea’s grey collectivist conformism than Dennis Rodman: the flamboyant much-pierced and heavily tattooed infamous bad boy of basketball, now retired. Yet on February 26 he and some current players with the Harlem Globetrotters flew into Pyongyang thanks to another unlikely visitor: Shane Smith, founder of Vice Media.

Unless the DPRK has a blind (or soft?) spot for gonzo journalism, the maker of the hilarious Vice Guide to North Korea ( can hardly have expected to get asked back. Yet here he was, filming an HBO series and preaching the virtues of what he called “untraditional ... channels of cultural communication ... Finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.”

Nothing seems to work with North Korea, so the sight of Mr Rodman’s facial piercings may at least blow some minds in Pyongyang – even if he behaves himself, for a change. As with January’s visit by Google’s Eric Schmidt discussed in our last Update, and pace a frowning US State Department, a little creativity and informal diplomacy can surely do no harm. But equally, there is no guarantee that they will do any good.


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