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Korea is in fact one of the world's older nations. Most of the peninsula was unified in 668CE, when the southern kingdom of Shilla conquered its northern rival, Koguryo. Despite owing much of its civilisation to China, to which it was long a formal vassal, Korea is ethnically and linguistically quite distinct and was in practice self-governing.

Few countries have known a more painful passage to modernity. The imperialist age found the last Chosun dynasty in decay. Its efforts to keep out the wider world earned it the sobriquet 'hermit kingdom'; but its stubborn refusal to reform made it a "shrimp among whales": prey to whichever power achieved regional dominance. That turned out to be Meiji Japan, which trounced the fading Chinese and Russian empires to rule Korea brutally during 1905-45. This brought some development; yet the scars - such as 'comfort women' (sex slaves) - still poison ties between Japan and today's Koreas.

Those scars include Korea's almost accidental, yet fateful, partition: a 'temporary' US idea in 1945, to stop the Red Army occupying the whole peninsula. Predictably, US and Soviet zones hardened into separate regimes, proclaimed in 1948: the Republic of Korea (ROK) south of the 38th Parallel, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the north. In 1950 the north's ex-guerilla leader, Kim Il-sung, invaded the south, but was beaten back by a US-led UN force. The 1953 Armistice - there is still no peace treaty - left both states in place, but terribly ravaged. Four million died. The sealed border, now ironically called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), hardly budged.

Thereafter the two Koreas competed economically and diplomatically. The DPRK led at first: its GNP was ahead of the ROK's until the 1970s, giving it clout in the Non-Aligned Movement. But the south's alliance with the US and export-oriented model proved a more lasting formula for success, even before the USSR's demise in 1991 both alarmed the now ageing Kim Il-sung and removed his main source of subsidy.

That blow exposed the 'Great Leader''s vaunted self-reliance (Juche) as a myth. As in Cuba, North Korea's economy went into free fall. Unlike Cuba, the regime's refusal to adapt led to catastrophe. In a uniquely tragic trajectory, a once industrial economy took a great leap backwards. In 1996-98, famine killed at least one million out of 23m people: some estimates run as high as 3m. The country now relies on food aid, which is falling as needs arise elsewhere (Afghanistan, Iraq) and donors grow exasperated. 

Their frustration is threefold. Economically, until recently the DPRK resisted reform. In July 2002 it imposed drastic wage and price rises; but without supply-side steps to match, these produced little except inflation. In 2003, however, it became clear that wider, if cautious, market reforms were under way. Politically, the extreme cult of personality around Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, passed to his son Kim Jong-il in a system which in the C21 remains Stalinist, ossified, opaque, bizarre, and cruel. Yet even its foes must admit, and rue, the DPRK's staying power. Over a decade after the demise of the USSR, its battered Korean epigone is still alive and kicking.

Thirdly, rather than reform, North Korea's response to adversity was to rearm. In a policy of militant mendicancy, the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), real or suspected, has been used to parlay resources. Thus after the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, when the Clinton administration considered bombing the Yongbyon nuclear site, the 1994 Agreed Framework (AF) with the US shut Yongbyon - in exchange for fuel oil and two new light water reactors (LWRs), to be built and paid for mainly by the ROK via a consortium, KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization).

Hopes of the AF as a model rose when Kim Dae-jung became ROK president in 1998. His 'sunshine' policy of outreach led to the first ever North-South summit, held in the DPRK capital Pyongyang in June 2000, for which Kim won that year's Nobel Peace Prize. But progress proved fitful, as the US under George W Bush took a harder line: naming North Korea in 2002, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an "axis of evil".

In October 2002 the US accused the DPRK of having a new covert nuclear project, based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) - and says it admitted as much. (North Korea denies both.). This sparked a new nuclear crisis. KEDO cut off oil supplies; North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors, restarted its Yongbyon reactor, and became the first of 170 signatory states ever to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Provocations continued, in a bid to gain the attention of a US busy with Iraq. North Korea tested two short-range missiles - one spoilt the inauguration of a new ROK president, Roh Moo-hyun, despite his pro-sunshine bent - and buzzed a US spyplane. 

A shift to dialogue came when an anxious China brokered talks between North Korea and the US in April. Wider six-party talks followed in August, bringing South Korea, Japan and Russia to the table too. Neither round made substantive progress; at both Pyongyang hinted that it has nuclear weapons, and might sell or test them. This may be bluff; nor is it clear if any nuclear arsenal is negotiable, or whether Kim Jong-il has concluded after Iraq that only a nuclear deterrent can save him from sharing the fate of Saddam Hussein. With pressure from China, and some signs of a softer line by the US towards meeting North Korea's concerns, it was hoped that six-party talks would reconvene in 2003; but this deadline passed. In January an unofficial US delegation was shown what appeared to be plutonium at Yongbyon, whose reactor is up and running. The six finally met again in late February, but agreed only to hold a third round by June, preceded by working groups. The June meeting brought hints of movement: for the first time the US tabled a concrete proposal, with incentives. But wide gaps remain; a fourth round is due in September. Concrete obstacles include Pyongyang's continued blanket denial of any HEU activity.

Yet North Korea's two nuclear programmes are just the start. On the security front, other worries include its missiles, suspected chemical and biological weapons (CBW), the million-strong Korean People's Army (KPA), and more. Further concerns include abductions (a major issue for Japan), counterfeiting, drug trafficking, refugees fleeing into China, and human rights. With interlocutors having different priorities, it is very hard to see what kind of deal the DPRK can accept that would resolve much or all of this. However, a visit by Kim Jong-il to Beijing in late April, with an entourage consisting mainly of reformers, raised hopes that Pyongyang may prove more amenable in future; while soon after, a serious railway explosion which killed 161 people starkly emphasized the dire state of North Korea's infrastructure and its urgent need for new investment.

Thus Korea now has odd echoes of two older eras. Again a hermit strategy has failed; and again south has trumped north, at least economically. The gap is so wide that the two no longer fit on the same graph. South Korea exports more in two days than the North in a year, and throws away more food than the North eats. Southerners today are substantially taller and heavier than Northerners. The Korean question today is thus not just about nukes, but how these widening chasms can ever be bridged.

Four scenarios are possible. A 'soft landing', with Kim Jong-il gradually embracing peace and reform, is still feasible and devoutly to be hoped and worked for. Secondly, the alarums may continue, and North Korea limp on as is - but surely not indefinitely. Collapse and absorption is a third possibility: sure to be even more expensive than in Germany, but unlikely to be as peaceful. Finally, a second Korean War would inflict vast casualties (again), and cost trillions of dollars to rebuild South as well as North. 

Even a world awash in turmoil has few unfolding dramas with stakes as high as this. The chapter in Korea's long history that began in 1945 is coming to a close. Can the DPRK leopard change its spots, and if so how and with what result? As a sub-plot, but of major import: a growing US-ROK rift, with some Koreans seeing Bush as raising tensions, may yet push South Korea into the arms of a waiting China, already its main trade partner. Unlike most of China's neighbours, Koreans feel comfortable with this; so here again history may repeat itself, and shift East Asia's security tectonic plates. The only certainty is that developments in Korea will demand our utmost vigilance.

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Update No: 014 - (30/06/04)

Different strokes for different folks
Is there any progress on, and in, North Korea? It depends where you look. For those who prioritize the nuclear issue above all, the answer is no. A third round of six-nation talks came and went, making hardly more headway than previous sessions - despite early signs of hope. But elsewhere there was movement, especially between the two Koreas. On June 15, loudspeakers along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which for decades have blasted propaganda at the other side, fell silent. This gesture symbolizes the hopes for peace felt - rightly or wrongly - by many South Koreans, the nuclear impasse notwithstanding.

Here we go again: a third round of six-party nuclear talks
Formally at least, the main event in June regarding North Korea was a third round of six-party talks - the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan, and Russia - on the nuclear issue. As ever these were hosted by and in Beijing: after years of seeming passivity, China under Hu Jintao has emerged as an active broker of detente on the peninsula. This time working groups on May 12-15 and June 21-22 preceded the full-dress talks, held on June 23-26.

Based on the past snail's pace, expectations were low this time - wrongly, as it at first appeared. Our last update described the Bush administration's curious habit of selective leaking to the New York Times, scarcely an ideological soulmate. Sure enough, on June 23 the usual courier, the NYT's David Sanger, revealed that this time, for the first time, the US was offering Pyongyang concrete, detailed, step-by-step proposals upfront. Until now, Washington had unrealistically insisted that the DPRK accept 'CVID' - complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear facilities - before any incentives or details could be discussed. North Korea, naturally, declined such blanket disarmament.

A concrete US offer, at last
The new US proposal, seven pages long, has not been published. Reportedly, it demands that North Korea within three months list and freeze all its nuclear facilities, remove key weapons ingredients, and accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return the US would provisionally guarantee not to attack, start talks on lifting sanctions, and immediately let other countries supply much-needed oil and energy aid. This fairly brisk step-by-step approach bears some resemblance to the Libyan precedent.

The US line is that this is not a change, only a shift of emphasis from its final goal (still CVID) to the first steps. But it conceded that this reformulation was due to pressure from other interlocutors. Having hoped that a multilateral format would line up as five against one, Washington has been dismayed to find that it, as much as North Korea, was viewed as the obstacle and odd man out. Not only Russia and China, but its allies South Korea and Japan, urged a softer line; indeed, the new US plan is a reworking of one proffered by Seoul. The clincher was Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi: having met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in May, he told George W Bush at the G8 summit in Georgia in June that he believes the dear leader is serious about wanting to negotiate.

The hard-liners counter-attack
But is the US serious, or of one mind? In the Bush administration's persistent in-fighting on North Korea policy, this meant that at last the pro-engagement State Department had the upper hand, and Bush's ear. Their foes in the vice-president's office and the Pentagon who oppose any deal with Kim Jong-il could hardly take this lying down. Sure enough, next day a new headline soured the mood: "administration sources" claimed that the chief DPRK delegate, vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan, had threatened a nuclear test. 

In the event, this hawk spoiling manoeuvre failed. The US team in Beijing calmly glossed Kim's comment as typical tactics, made in passing, and hinting at disputes over policy (it takes one to know one!) in Pyongyang. Meanwhile North Korea tabled its own proposal. In return for freezing its plutonium site at Yongbyon, it demanded 2,000 megawatts of power annually: about a quarter of its total consumption, equivalent to some 2.7 million tonnes of fuel oil. Not coincidentally, this is also the generating capacity of the two light water reactors (LWRs) which were being built by KEDO: the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization consortium. This may be a hint that the DPRK tacitly accepts that this project - stalled since the current crisis broke in late 2002 - is now a dead letter, such that fulfilment of its urgent energy needs must be sought by other means.

Still far apart
Realistically, the US did not expect an instant response - much less assent - to a detailed plan which (at best) will require weeks of scrutiny back in Pyongyang, where mills grind slow. At least North Korea did not reject it out of hand. But the two remained far apart. Hence once again - at US insistence, reportedly - there was no agreed final communique, but merely an anodyne chairman's statement issued by China. This hoped for a fourth round by end-September, preceded by working groups "at the earliest possible date to define the scope, duration and verification [of]. first steps for denuclearization."

The main obstacle is that Pyongyang still refuses to concede that, as well as plutonium (which it admits both having, and for military intent), it has a second nuclear programme, based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). It was US accusations of HEU, which the US says North Korea then admitted (the DPRK denies this), that launched the current crisis in October 2002. Russia, for one, suggests starting with what the North is ready to admit and moving on from there; but for the US, HEU is crucial. In its initial response to the US plan, North Korea also jibbed at having the IAEA inspect and verify; and demanded that the US be among the countries giving energy aid (as it was under KEDO). The latter is feasible, but Washington will hardly budge on any sidelining of the IAEA's role. 

Waiting for Kerry
With both sides having at last tabled concrete proposals, in principle detailed negotiation could now start. Japan's chief delegate, Mitoji Yabunaka, called this "the first step, at the entrance." But if it has taken almost a year and three rounds of talks simply to get to the door, what guarantee is there that either protagonist seriously wants to walk through it?

Here the US electoral cycle comes in. For Bush, besides pressure from US allies, another reason for this belated switch to engagement is a fear that John Kerry may make political capital: by accusing him of doing nothing while Kim Jong-il forges ahead building more bombs. But Pyongyang too is counting on Kerry. Why yield now to a US administration whose commitment is suspect, if in a few months' time he may get a better deal? In fact that hope may be illusory: a recent online interview in the Washington Post with Robert Gallucci, who under Bill Clinton negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework which defused the first North Korean nuclear crisis, is a salutary reminder that Democrats are not the wimps of Republican caricature. Indeed, Clinton was prepared for a second Korean war to curb the proliferation risk, despite the appalling casualties which this would entail.

Peace in our time?
That prospect is all but unthinkable for South Koreans: understandably, since they would bear the brunt, While the six-party process marks time or inches forward, no nuclear fears inhibit Seoul in pursuing its own separate peace process with Pyongyang. The exact mix of symbolism and substance in this is arguable, but June saw two new developments.

As mentioned above, the two Koreas agreed to end decades of propaganda war across the DMZ. The loudspeakers fell silent on June 15; they are now being dismantled. Electronic and other signboards are also due to come down by August 15: a holiday in both Koreas, as the anniversary of liberation from Japan in 1945. This is one fruit of the South's long-sought goal of direct inter-Korean military talks, held in late May and early June. More importantly, the two also agreed on measures - shared radio frequencies, and a military hotline - to prevent conflict over the disputed maritime border west of the peninsula. In 1999 and again in 2002, incursions by DPRK crab fishing boats had led to firefights, with fatalities on both sides. The new agreement did not end fiery Pyongyang rhetoric against the ROK navy for alleged border violations, but so far the peace has held.

Might Kim Jong-il visit?
Noteworthy too was a rare visit to Seoul, for the fourth anniversary of the 2000 summit, by a high-level Northern emissary. Typically for Pyongyang, Ri Jong-hyok's obscure title - vice chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC) - belies his role as a key confidant of Kim Jong-il. Since the death last year of the APPC's chairman, the veteran diplomat Kim Yong-sun, Ri looks to have succeeded Kim as North Korea's point man on relations with the South. A former head of DPRK missions in Paris (Unesco) and Rome (FAO), fluent in French and German, Ri is one of the most effective and urbane North Korean ambassadors that NewNations has ever encountered in 35 years of contacts.

In Seoul Ri met president Roh Moo-hyun as well as Kim Dae-jung. He bore a personal message from Kim Jong-il, prompting speculation that the dear leader may at last fulfil his promised, but long-delayed, return visit to South Korea. What the US would think of that is unclear; but in the fag-end of a Bush administration which has mishandled Korea on many fronts, that may not bother Roh unduly. Whether South Korea's bonhomie is any more adequate to North Korean realities than the US cold shoulder (until recently), only time will tell. For now, Kim Jong-il is free to go his own way: a touch of economic reform here, but also full steam ahead on nuclear weapons, and with no let-up in at least the rhetoric of belligerence. In truth, no one can work out what to do about North Korea; and rightly or wrongly, it suits nobody at the moment to make this a strategic priority, let alone apply serious pressure. This is all rather strange; one hopes it is not cause for alarm.

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Brussels okays humanitarian aid for North Korea

The European Commission recently adopted a 9.1m Euro humanitarian aid plan to boost healthcare for up to 10m people in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The funding, to be allocated by the Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) under the supervision of Commissioner, Poul Nielson, will provide much-needed equipment and medicines, and help rehabilitate health centres, hospitals and specialist facilities, the Commission said in a statement, New Europe reported.
The programmes will be implemented by international agencies operating in the country and monitored by ECHO's support office in Pyongyang. Since 2001, ECHO has provided more than 38m Euro for humanitarian programmes in North Korea. Up to eight million people in the provinces of South Hamgyong, North Pyongan, South Pyongan, Changang and Kaesong will benefit from the provision of medical supplies. Specific actions envisaged include support for the Hamhung Orthopaedic Hospital and the Blood Transfusion Service, the supply of vital intravenous fluids, and measures to improve the health of elderly people living in residential homes.
14:54 30/06/04

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