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Update No: 020 - (01/01/05)

NORTH KOREA: a gloomy and uncertain picture

As the first decade of the new century nears its mid-point, one might marvel that North Korea against all odds still survives, obdurate as ever. Yet if apocalyptic scenarios are on balance unlikely, neither looking back at 2004 nor forward to 2005 offers much comfort.

Pyongyang excoriates the US
The immediate situation as of late December is discouraging. Despite hopes that it might begin to come to terms with the reality (albeit unpalatable) of four more years of George W Bush, December 13 found the official Korean Central News Agency in fighting form. KCNA lambasted the US as "a party extremely disgusting and hateful" for "trying to shake the backbone of the DPRK, not content with hurling mud at it … the hatred of the army and people of the DPRK towards the US is rapidly mounting due to its escalation of the smear campaign to bring down the political system in the DPRK. Under this situation the DPRK is compelled to seriously reconsider its participation in the talks with the US."

The main matter getting their goat was that "recently the US let reptile media and riff-raff spread the sheer lie that portraits of leader Kim Jong-il are no longer displayed … the US false propaganda and psychological operation aimed to slander the DPRK and finally realise a regime change have gone beyond the tolerance limit." And yet, as was pointed out in last month's update, the "sheer lie" has been endorsed by North Koreans in Japan. People's Korea, their fortnightly newspaper, confirmed on November 27 that "It is fact that only Kim Il-sung's portrait is now hung on the wall of public buildings for foreigners in the DPRK." But PK added that "two portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are still hanging in every home and public institution". It explained the change as illustrating the dear leader's modesty, and his "boundless respect" for his late father Kim Il-sung.

Calculated histrionics
These discrepant accounts suggest that, not for the first time, Pyongyang's histrionics are calculated. The subtext is that a DPRK in high dudgeon has no intention of coming back to the six-party nuclear talks any time soon. The impending US presidential election had served as an excuse; but a new one is needed, now that the unwelcome prospect of four more years of George W Bush is a known quantity. If further excuse to prevaricate were needed, at the same time North Korea is continuing to milk revelations of South Korea's nuclear peccadilloes for all they are worth. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now accepts that these were just a few isolated unauthorized experiments by rogue scientists, the North will not let the matter go, accusing the IAEA of a cover-up and double standards. While there may be a grain of truth here, North Korea's purpose in dragging out this affair is patently to play for time on its own account.

One thing it needs time for - besides pushing ahead on two separate nuclear programmes; one admitted, the other strongly suspected - is to work out how to react to Bush's second term. Evidence of divided counsels in Pyongyang (or perhaps deliberately blowing hot and cold) continues to surface, as paroxysms of wrath alternate with calmer pleas. Thus on December 14 the party daily Rodong Sinmun called on the US to "take a confident-building" attitude (sic) and make a "policy switchover" to "rebuild [the] groundwork" of the six-party talks; adding that "the DPRK … intends to follow with patience the course of policy-shaping by the second-term Bush administration. We think this is a wise act."

US tries to sound reassuring
If North Korea is listening attentively, it may draw some comfort from recent comments. Talking to visiting South Korean MPs, the new US National Security Adviser-designate, Stephen Hadley, said that the goal of US policy is "regime transformation". If this sounds alarmingly like "regime change" (and may indeed be meant as a sop to hawks), Hadley spoke too of "managed pressure." Park Jin of the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) - which, despite its hostility to the North, shares the ruling Uri party's fears of US hawks - was reassured that this means trying to induce transformation via gradual economic reform, rather than seeking to bring down Kim Jong-il. On that, the outgoing deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, was forthright: "The US government has no intention of attacking North Korea from the soil of South Korea or any other country. It would be a most irresponsible act." Separately, in an interview with a Seoul daily, the Korea Times, James Kelly - the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and chief US delegate to the six-way talks - called Kim Jong-il a "rational" leader who could transform his country once the nuclear standoff is resolved. Doubting predictions of collapse, Kelly opined that Kim Jong-Il's "army-first policy guarantees a kind of built-in stability."

Sceptics, in Pyongyang or elsewhere, may note that Armitage is on the way out. As such, his may be a parting shot across the bows of hawks like vice-president Dick Cheney, an adamant foe and obstructor of dialogue with the DPRK (which is not the same, however, as advocating attacking it); or John Bolton, the current under-secretary of state who once attacked Kim Jong-il by name over 40 times in a single speech - in Seoul. Should Bolton get Armitage's job, we can expect more such rhetorical posturing. Even so, it remains our view that the second Bush administration, like the first, will remain so preoccupied by - and bogged down in - Iraq and elsewhere in west Asia that North Korea will stay on the back burner. At all events, little if any movement on the six-party talks or other dialogue can be expected until Bush is inaugurated and his full Asia team is named and confirmed - which takes us into February at the earliest.

A fresh row flares with Japan
Meanwhile North Korea is making difficulties for itself on another front. The past month has seen uproar in Japan, whose ties with the DPRK are as ever dominated by the fate of the dozen or more young Japanese abducted by Pyongyang agents over 20 years ago. One might query whether this issue, awful as it is, really looms larger than nuclear, missile or other military threats; but the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, cannot afford to ignore public opinion. In general, Tokyo commendably - and alone among North Korea's major interlocutors - pursues a balanced policy of stick and carrot: offering aid and better ties, but insisting on getting the full truth on the kidnappings, and in particular on how eight of the victims really died (various implausible natural causes, according to Pyongyang: but Japan suspects foul play, while families cherish hopes that their kin might still be alive).

Closure here looks further away than ever, after DNA tests on remains returned by North Korea showed they are not, as claimed, from two abductees including Megumi Yakota - at 13 the youngest and best-known victim. Amid public fury, Japan threatened economic sanctions. With equal vehemence, Pyongyang warned (not for the first time) that it would treat sanctions "as a declaration of war … and promptly react … by an effective physical method." On December 17, after an informal summit with South Korea's president Roh Moo-hyun, who opposes sanctions or indeed any overt pressure on Pyongyang, Koizumi said he will await North Korea's response before deciding. Pyongyang may not have long to come clean, and it is difficult to foresee how either side can easily back down.

Cynical and temporizing North Korea may be, and liable to misjudgments. Yet it is hard to see what it hoped to gain from such a massive own goal: jeopardizing a peace process in which Kim Jong-il personally, like Koizumi, has invested much political capital. The dear leader, unprecedentedly, had admitted and apologized for the abductions; usually Pyongyang never admits anything, let alone says sorry. But failure to make a clean breast on all the facts at once has only worsened Japanese perceptions of a nightmare neighbour.

Elite in-fighting in Pyongyang
Even that normally sober organ The Economist, no friend of North Korea, was moved to wonder whether some foe of Kim Jong-il could have tampered with the remains so as to deliberately embarrass the dear leader. Pyongyang politics remain as publicly opaque as ever, but there are increasing reports of policy arguments and purges: plausibly enough, as the basic dilemma - to "do a Gadaffi" and come in from the cold like Libya, or remain a defiant pariah on nuclear and other concerns - has no easy answers; each carries risks. A separate issue, also inherently contentious, is who will eventually succeed Kim Jong-il.

On December 19 Yonhap, South Korea's semi-official news agency, cited an intelligence source as claiming that Kim Jong-il's eldest son Kim Jong-nam faced a death threat from DPRK agents in Austria in November, which was foiled by Austrian intelligence. This is said to be linked to succession rivalry between Kim and his two younger half-brothers, Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un, whose mother Ko Young-hee died earlier this year.

Also in November, so perhaps relatedly, a reliable source tells NewNations that a power struggle in Pyongyang led to the purging of Chang Song-taek: Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law and former right-hand man. Chang is said to have opposed economic reform, and to have been building up his own power base. Whatever the truth of these rumours, they are a salutary reminder never to neglect the internal dimension. North Korea's fate does not hinge on the nuclear and other external issues alone, thorny as these are. If intensifying contradictions debouch into political in-fighting, regime collapse cannot be ruled out.

Kaesong comes on stream
Amid a bleak and anxious picture there is one more hopeful note. On December 15 South Korea's unification minister Chung Dong-young - a likely presidential contender in 2007 - crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for a ceremony to mark the first production of goods by a South Korean firm using Northern labour in the Kaesong industrial zone just north of the border. No one of remotely equivalent rank from Pyongyang attended, and conversation was reportedly formal and chilly, with Northern officials chiding the South for delays on this project. That is rich, given that South Korea has long completed its side of two cross-border road-rail corridors (at the moment a temporary road is in use) while after four years the North continues to stall. Also, since July Pyongyang has boycotted most contacts with Seoul (except where it stands to gain, as at Kaesong) for no good or clear reason; its specious excuses include the South's nuclear programme, and an airlift of refugees from Vietnam last July. This is a rude rebuff for Seoul's patient and generous sunshine policy, and for the risks Roh Moo-hyun keeps on taking in his relations with the US by publicly and repeatedly opposing any pressure against North Korea. If Pyongyang remains so uncouth, this reserve of goodwill in Seoul is bound to fade over time.

Kaesong, its proponents hope, will become as Shenzhen is to Hong Kong: a growth pole both for its own hinterland and cross-border ties. Its first products, 1,000 saucepan sets, swiftly sold out in Seoul department stores. But so far this is just gestural: the maker, a small firm called Livingart, had to bring its own generator as the zone's electricity supply had not yet been agreed (it will come from the South). This should have begun 20 years ago, had North Korea been less benighted. As it is, if a mighty oak is ever to grow from this tiny acorn, then Pyongyang must first settle the nuclear issue; otherwise investors will hesitate, while the US will press to ensure sensitive technologies are not transferred.

In sum, going into 2005 Kaesong is almost the sole small candle of hope in an otherwise gloomy picture. It is difficult to envisage a swift resumption of the six-party nuclear talks, much less a resolution of the actual issues. Engagement and gradualism remain the best options, as argued in the Background article above. Yet given the attitudes on all sides, it grows harder to be optimistic that the desired soft landing will necessarily come to pass. Much as little seems to change in Pyongyang, one should be ready for the unexpected.

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Turkey signs deal with N. Korea

Turkey recently signed a commercial and economic cooperation deal with North Korea, a country it recognised three years ago, a Turkish spokesman said, Anadolu News Agency reported. 
This deal was one of the first official agreements. The deal, which aims to boost bilateral trade, Tuncer Kayalar, and the North Korean Ambassador to Bulgaria, Kim Ha Dong, the spokesman for Kayalar's office said. Trade volume between the two countries stood at US$4m in 2003, which went up to €4.5m in the first nine months of last year, Turkey recognised North Korea in 2001 but neither country has opened an embassy on the other's territory. 

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Russia backs 6-nation talks on North Korea

Russia still backs the six-nation talks format on North Korea's nuclear programme, Interfax news service said recently. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said that Russia views the six-nation talks to resolve the problem of North Korea's defiance of international monitoring on its nuclear programme as the most suitable format, Interfax News Agency reported. 
The talks involve the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. China hosts the negotiations in Beijing.
"A settlement is possible only if a persistent search for mutually acceptable solutions continues. We are convinced that the six-nation format is the best for attaining this goal," Yakovenko told a news conference.

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