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Update No: 031 - (28/11/05)

NORTH KOREA: Still a different drum

November brought no major new developments in North Korea. Yet a mixed bag of lesser events illustrates the range of challenges both posed by, and facing, Kim Jong-il's regime.

New nuclear round brings no progress
A fresh round of six-party talks - both Koreas, China, the US, Japan, and Russia - on the nuclear issue, held on November 9-11 in Beijing as usual, brought no progress but only puzzlement. After the marathon fourth round, lasting almost three weeks in two phases between July and September, one wonders what was the point of meeting again so soon for a mere three days, just before five of the sextet had to break for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Pusan, South Korea on November 15-19. North Korea is not a member of APEC, and feelers by the host nation to let it attend as an observer did not come to anything. For their part Northern media upset the South, as APEC's proud host, by not even mentioning this major global meeting; while roundly criticizing the US president George W. Bush's visit, they contrived not to say what he was actually in Korea for.

Formally, the three days in Beijing were dubbed the first phase of the fifth round of six-party talks. They are supposed to reconvene "at the earliest possible date", but none was set then or since. So brief a meeting allowed no chance to build on the statement of principles which had taken so long to hammer out in the last round; thus the only outcome was pious generalities. Yet for this a stream of top-level Chinese visitors, including President Hu Jintao, had headed for Pyongyang to make certain that North Korea would at least show up.

Two interpretations are possible. The pessimistic view is that US patience is wearing thin, and will soon snap unless the next meeting actually gets somewhere. An alternative reading is that Bush, with plenty on his plate in Iraq and elsewhere, has no real appetite for a fight with Kim Jong-il. The six-party talks are thus a charade which all can point to as a sign that matters are in hand; the unspoken assumption being that China and South Korea will keep the dear leader in line, to prevent any major Pyongyang provocations - a nuclear or missile test, or transfer of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or materiel to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda - that might constitute a red line where the US would feel forced to react sharply. 

October 24's upgrade by Fitch of Seoul's sovereign credit rating from A to A+, citing eased security concerns after the last 6-party round, suggests the markets share this sanguine view that after three years the North Korean nuclear 'crisis' is no longer a live risk. But argument continues about the pace of progress, if any. On November 24 the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, not for the first time, urged Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear programmes immediately, transparently and verifiably; while voicing concern at the lack of oversight since IAEA inspectors were expelled nearly three years ago. Yet in an interview with the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun published two days later Chung Dong-young - South Korea's unification minister, and a likely contender to succeed Roh Moo-hyun in 2007's presidential elections - said it could take about three years before the DPRK verifiably ends its nuclear programmes. That sounds too long for Washington to accept. Chung added that he does not expect the six-party talks to reconvene now before next year.

The UN condemns human rights abuses
The IAEA was not the only UN body to raise concerns over North Korea during November. Among the many issues posed by the DPRK, human rights have long loomed large. In each of the last three years the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva - UNCHR, not to be confused with UNHCR, the refugee body - has condemned North Korean human rights abuses. Given Pyongyang's complete recalcitrance - it refused entry to a special rapporteur appointed by UNCHR - on November 17 for the first time a similar resolution came before the General Assembly. Proposed as usual by European countries, this passed by 84-22; as ever the 62 abstentions included South Korea, keen not to provoke the North. The wording cited reports of "systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights"; it also voiced "deep concern at the precarious humanitarian situation", especially infant malnutrition.

Predictably attacking this as a US plot, Pyongyang took revenge on Europe by ordering out a dozen European aid NGOs; they were already under notice to quit in any case. It was just as cross when CNN on November 13 aired a documentary - already seen in UK in October on Channel 4, who made it - whose grim scenes included alleged public executions; hinting that the US broadcaster, which has hitherto had better access to Pyongyang than most, may not be welcome in future. A further cause for routine anger was the US State Department's seventh annual International Religious Freedom Report, published on November 8, which as usual cited North Korea as one of eight "countries of particular concern" on this score.

Such pressures will continue. North Korea's appalling abuses will again be highlighted in the second in a series of major conferences, organized by the US NGO Freedom House and funded by the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) which the US Congress passed unanimously in 2004, to be held in Seoul on December 8-11. Activists will criticize the ROK government for what they see as a supine and wrong-headed passivity on this issue.

Meanwhile, perhaps offering a chink of hope, on November 16-19 the DPRK invited UN treaty experts to hold a seminar in Pyongyang, with at least one UNHCR official present. Besides wider discussion of treaties, law and the environment, about half the agenda was on refugee issues: their definition and protection, asylum, and the principle of non-refoulement (repatriation). All this was discussed generally; the UN side, invited as a legal delegation, had no mandate to raise North Korea's own egregious record in this field. (Up to 300,000 DPRK fugitives are illegally in China, which refuses to recognize any as refugees, bans the UNHCR from its border areas, and sends any fugitives it catches back to an often cruel fate.) Yet the visitors found their hosts enthusiastic, and keen to hold more meetings next year. This may suggest a will to change - or, more cynically, a bid to understand what they are up against.

Curbing aid means people go hungry
Recent moves - discussed in NewNations' September Update - by the government to curb the activities of foreign aid agencies, ban staple grains from markets and reintroduce state rationing, are already having the effects that many feared. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned in its weekly report for November 25 that two months after the revival of the official Public Distribution System (PDS), its visits to distribution centres showed that many people are receiving much less than the supposed ration of 500 grams of cereal daily. 

Meanwhile WFP, already facing a supply shortfall due to donor fatigue even before DPRK authorities ordered it to wind down its own programme by the end of this year, said that in November it was unable to supply cereals to over half (3.6 million) of its 6.5 million target beneficiaries: North Korea's most vulnerable, including children, mothers and the elderly. It added that negotiations to find a way to stay on after next year, by repositioning its work as developmental rather than humanitarian - the former still acceptable to Pyongyang, the latter now rebuffed as unnecessary and contributing to dependency - were not going well.

Mothers told to raise bullets and bombs
Mass meetings of various occupations or social groups are familiar events in Pyongyang. Often held irregularly, these gatherings give some clue as to the regime's preoccupations. The past month featured two such gatherings. November 18 saw a national meeting of the judiciary: judges and prosecutors were urged to use the law to uphold the Songun (military- first) policy of King Jong-il and the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). Comment in Seoul noted that the DPRK's constitutional revision in 1998 had put prosecutors ahead of judges - in South Korea too they sometimes clash - which was seen as a bid to boost law and order amid fears of social breakdown during the 1996-98 famine. Needless to add, with all concerned instructed to do the Party and Leader's bidding, there is not the slightest hint of the emergence of an autonomous legal sphere of rights, free from political interference.

Kim Yong-nam, who as chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) is the titular head of state, was among senior officials in attendance. He also did the honours four days later at North Korea's third national meeting of mothers; the first was in 1961, the second not till 1998. The party daily Rodong Sinmun described women's "very important task [in] turning one of the wheels of revolution"; noting that the meeting would feature exemplary mothers "who gave birth to many babies or took care of many orphans as they would do their own children and brought up them as human bullets and bombs" (sic).

As this suggests, the regime has demographic concerns. At about 23 million, North Korea's population is under half the South's 48 million, and its birthrate of 1.97 children per mother is viewed as low. Yet this goal is literally negated by the following phrase about bullets and bombs: a distasteful slogan which persists despite assurances that the DPRK opposes global terrorism, and is surely not the career option most mothers would wish for their offspring. North Korea's economy may be changing; but meetings and jargon like this show that Kim Jong-il still wants his subjects to march politically to a different, strident, militarist drum.

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