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Area (sq.km)
120,540

Population

22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)

Capital
Pyongyang

Currency
North Korean won (KPW)

Leader
Kim Jong-il


Update No: 026 - (01/07/05)

Back to dialogue?
The most significant development in June regarding North Korea was its resumption, after almost a year's rupture, of active dialogue with South Korea. What might have been the merely formalistic commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the first - and still the only - inter-Korean summit meeting, on June 15, became something substantial when the North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il unexpectedly met with the South's unification minister. 

A week later, cabinet-level talks in Seoul, reconvened after over a year's hiatus, produced a 12-point agreement which not only reactivates most tranches of dialogue suspended for the past year, but pledges to break new ground in some areas. Yet two cautions remain in order. Pyongyang does not always deliver on its promises; and it has still given no date to return to the six-party nuclear talks, also in abeyance for more than a year now. With pressure mounting from various quarters, movement on this issue seems likely in the coming weeks.

Mending fences with Seoul
As noted in last month's NewNations updater, North Korea had two pressing reasons to end its frankly indefensible year-long boycott of most inter-Korean dialogue. Besides an urgent need for fertilizer, usually provided by Seoul, the DPRK had proclaimed since January that it would celebrate the fifth anniversary of Kim Jong-il's encounter with Kim Dae-jung, the then ROK president, in Pyongyang in June 2000: the first, and still the only, inter-Korean summit meeting. On both counts, therefore, some degree of fence-mending was required.

Less clear was how far this would go. Political theatre being a North Korean speciality, the risk was that South Korea's delegation - led by unification minister Chung Dong-young, a contender to succeed Roh Moo-hyun as president in 2008 - would merely be treated to the usual tendentious Pyongyang mass displays. There was indeed plenty of that. In a symbolic moment, one senior ROK cultural official had to apologize when he got home for getting carried away and singing a Korean People's Army (KPA) song at a banquet. 

Pyongyang's political theatre
The North also played wearyingly familiar games of another kind. At the last minute it demanded that the South halve the agreed size of its delegation, in protest at a recent US decision to deploy Stealth fighters to the peninsula. In the end they compromised, and a sizeable team - 40 present or past government officials, plus 295 from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - travelled to Pyongyang in two separate planes on June 14.

There was a characteristic coup de théâtre too about how Chung Dong-young, out jogging on the final morning, was whisked off to meet the Dear Leader at an undisclosed location. They spent five hours together, including a lunch to which Southern organizers of the 2000 summit were also invited. In another familiar ploy, Kim Jong-il sounded agreeable on most matters - as if he were somehow above North Korea's normal obduracy. A beaming Chung flew back to Seoul on the evening of June 17: convinced that inter-Korean relations were now back on track, and with his own likely future presidential bid conveniently boosted.

A new softer tone
The proof of the pudding came days later, when a North Korean delegation in turn visited Seoul on June 21-24 for the 15th round of ministerial talks since the 2000 summit - and the first in over a year. Reflecting the dear leader's new bonhomie, his diplomats in turn were accommodating - at least in manner. As their youngish (45) delegation head, senior cabinet councillor Kwon Ho-ung, frankly admitted: "Chairman Kim instructed us to avoid needless confrontation to save face …things went well … as Minister Chung and I held negotiations in that spirit.'' As a result, past lengthy battles - often well into the night - over every word or point were avoided this time. Significantly, the usual rectangular table with the two sides confronting each other was replaced by a round one; Kwon and Chung sat side by side, and spoke conversationally rather than exchanging lengthy set speeches. All this is positive.

Still, there were limits. To Southern chagrin, if not surprise - the North has always refused to discuss the nuclear issue in this forum - Pyongyang gave no commitment, much less a date, to return to the six-party nuclear talks. On bilateral matters, however, the eventual 12-point joint statement not only restored most channels of suspended North-South interaction but will, if implemented, deepen this and take it forward in important ways.

Bashing Japan
Here at least North Korea was not shy of setting dates. On the symbolic level, it agreed to take part in joint functions in the South around August 15: the date on which both Koreas celebrate liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. Anti-Japanese sentiment is an easy issue for them to agree on, especially since Seoul-Tokyo ties have worsened this year. Clause 5 of the joint press release was devoted to Japan-bashing: asserting the illegality of the 1905 Ulsa treaty by which "the Japanese imperialists" annexed Korea, and demanding the return of both a looted monument and the remains of "martyr An Jung-gun", who assassinated Ito Hirobumi, Ulsa's architect. It remains to be seen how far Seoul will really push such issues with a neighbour who, although disliked, is an important trade partner and fellow US ally.

Other matters agreed were more strictly bilateral, and wide-ranging. Reunions of separated families at the North's Mt. Kumgang resort will resume on August 26, after a year's hiatus. Even at the normal quarterly intervals, the few hundreds who get to meet each time are only a fraction of the over 100,000 in South Korea alone who applied. Being elderly, many die disappointed. So it is some progress that both Koreas have now agreed, as an experiment, to let larger numbers see each other on August 15, by a videoconferencing link. There will be no embracing, of course; and there is no suggestion of allowing regular contact by phone or email, much less the visits to ancestral homes and tombs which Korean tradition requires. Another agreement is to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a permanent family reunion centre at Mt. Kumgang: a project long discussed, but which has yet to get off the ground.

Abductions: coming clean?
In an important concession, North Korea also agreed to resume Red Cross talks in August and "to discuss such humanitarian issues as the issue of ascertaining the whereabouts of those reported missing during the Korean war." This is code for South Koreans abducted by North Korea during the 1950-53 conflict, as well as prisoners of war illegally retained there after the 1953 Armistice. In recent years a few, now elderly, have escaped; the total in both categories runs into thousands. Hitherto North Korea has bluntly denied their existence, so we shall see whether agreeing to talk means agreeing to deal. There is no comfort here for a third category: those (mainly fishermen) abducted since 1953. Whereas Japan puts its own far fewer kidnap victims at the top of its agenda with Pyongyang, Seoul has hitherto played this down - to the fury of victims' families and their supporters, who ambushed the arriving DPRK delegation with a banner-waving motorcade as they were driven in from the airport. If North Korea does come clean here, this would be both an important sign of sincerity and a political help to the rather unpopular centre-left government of President Roh Moo-hyun.

Military: climb every mountain?
South Korea is pleased too that the North is prepared to resume military talks. These were held last year, swiftly agreeing both to dismantle propaganda apparatus at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and for the two navies to keep in contact to avoid clashes in the Yellow Sea, before Pyongyang broke off contact. But no date ("in the future") or agenda was set for the next round; which puzzlingly will be held not at the DMZ (or nearby, e.g. Kaesong city in the north), nor in either capital - but at Mt. Paekdu, a sacred mountain (Korea's highest) on the border with China. North Korea claims both that its founding leader Kim Il-sung was a guerrilla here (in fact in Manchuria) and that his son Kim Jong-il was born there (actually at Khabarovsk); so one fears charades rather than substance. Mt. Paekdu is also to be the venue of the next (16th) round of ministerial talks, set for September 13-16. Usually these alternate between Pyongyang and Seoul, where the essential secure communications back to each others' capitals must be easier to effect than in this remote mountain border area.

Back in business
But first up, in this busy resumed and expanded schedule, is business. The tenth meeting of the North-South Committee for the Promotion of Economic Cooperation (CPEC) is due in Seoul on July 9-12. Giving flesh to the two sides' pledge to "positively promote economic cooperation," they also agreed to create both a new joint fisheries panel within the CPEC, and a more senior "North-South Committee for Agricultural Cooperation," chaired by vice-ministers, which for some reason will be under the ministerial talks rather than the CPEC. 

Both of these new panels are due to start work in July, already. Even while North Korea was boycotting most channels of inter-Korean talks, it excepted its incipient industrial park for Southern firms near Kaesong. This suggests that at long last - almost two decades after China and Taiwan allowed pragmatic mutual interest to trump, or at least counter, endemic political emnity - Kim Jong-il may finally be ready to follow suit. Better late than never. 

Transports of delight
Perhaps also business-related, the ROK agreed to let DPRK merchant ships pass between its Cheju island province and the mainland. (In 2001 some Northern boats took illicit short cuts through Southern waters, for reasons never really explained.) But there was no word on expediting cross-border railways. While new roads across the once impermeable DMZ now let Southern managers commute to Kaesong and tourist buses visit Mt. Kumgang, rail links in each corridor are marking time. Physically, trains could now run from Pusan to Beijung via Seoul and Pyongyang. When they will actually start to do so is far from clear.

So many seeming North Korean concessions - which, importantly, are so far on paper only; they are yet to be acted on - naturally have their price. South Korea agreed to send an extra 150,000 tons of fertilizer, on top of 200,000 tons it had already supplied in recent weeks; delivery began on June 27. Pyongyang also wants 500,000 tons of rice; this will be further discussed at July's CPEC meeting, but will surely be granted. Seoul has sent 400,000 tons in each of the last three years, yet the North's need is more acute than ever. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is warning that its own stocks are running out, while the DPRK's meagre daily ration of 250 grams of grain may soon be cut further to a minuscule 200 gm.

Meanwhile, no nuke talks yet
Yet South Korea's satisfaction at boosting bilateral ties is tempered by the North's failure so far to move on the nuclear issue. The joint statement could hardly be vaguer; not even mentioning the six party talks, it merely said they "agreed to take substantial measures to seek a negotiated and peaceful solution to the nuclear issue with the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as an ultimate goal, depending on the atmosphere to be created to do so." 

On June 25, in a speech marking the 55th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, President Roh Moo-hyun described the Northern nuclear problem as the biggest threat to peace on the peninsula, and called for the six party talks to resume soon. A fortnight earlier, Roh flew 30 hours (there and back) to Washington for a three-hour summit with President George W Bush on the nuclear issue. A façade of unity was preserved; but despite Bush's reiterated commitment to a diplomatic solution, it is an open secret that the US would like to see more stick and less carrot. While the US is not so tactless as to appear to block inter-Korean reconciliation, it worries that unconditional aid stiffens Kim Jong-il's recalcitrance. 

Mixed signals from Washington
Chung Dong-young will try to ease such fears, as well as report on his meeting with Kim Jong-il, on a hastily arranged six-day visit to Washington starting on June 29. Meanwhile the US pursues its own varied avenues. Low-level bilateral contacts continue in New York with the DPRK's UN delegation. Apparently based on this, on June 7 US sources said that North Korea had agreed to return to the six-party talks. Though China's ambassador to the UN was equally optimistic, this turned out to be premature. As the dear leader reiterated to Chung, Pyongyang's stance is that it will come back if conditions are mature, and if the US ends its hostile policy. It is hard to know what specific steps would satisfy either criterion. 

Petty as it seems, one problem is that from the president downwards US officials regularly attack North Korea or its leader. Terms like "tyrant," though true, are hardly conducive to dialogue. No sooner had the recently appointed assistant secretary of state, Christopher Hill - who will represent the US at any reconvened six-party talks - expressed polite eagerness to meet "Chairman Kim," than the under-secretary of state, Paula Dobriansky, called North Korea a "tyranny:" a term for whose earlier use by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, Pyongyang had demanded an apology. Rice later carefully stressed the DPRK's sovereignty - yet also accused it of avoiding dialogue. The mixed signals start at the top: Bush recently welcomed to the White House Kang Chol-hwan, the author of a harrowing memoir on his decade in North Korea's gulag (starting at age 10). Coming so soon after Roh Moo-hyun's barely longer visit, both Korean capitals wonder quite what message they are meant to get.

Tougher on crime
In more positive vein, on June 22 the US announced a donation of 50,000 tons of food aid to North Korea via the UN World Food Programme (WFP). As usual Washington claimed the gift and timing were non-political, and as usual no one believed this - quite rightly.

Elsewhere in the Bush administration other schemes are afoot. The Wall Street Journal has reported that an interagency team, dubbed the Illicit Activities Initiative (IAI), is working to curb what it calls "Pyongyang's booming trade in counterfeit cigarettes, pharmaceuticals and currency." While DPRK government involvement in a range of criminal activities has been known or suspected for decades, hitherto the US like other interlocutors has tended to play down this area, preferring to focus on the nuclear and other security issues. Thus a puzzling failure, despite much evidence, to officially designate North Korea as a narcotics-producing country is because this would force the US to halt non-humanitarian aid; which Washington prefers to keep available as a potential bargaining tool. Now, however, the policy seems to be to squeeze all Kim Jong-il's sources of hard currency: both as general pressure, and so that he has less to spend on suspected nuclear and other military activities.

Bush is urged to act
Many in Washington would dearly like to see the US government also take a more positive and proactive diplomatic stance. On June 22 two heavyweight figures - Donald Gregg, ex-ambassador in Seoul, president of the Korea Society, and a pro-engagement Republican; and the veteran journalist/author Don Oberdorfer - revealed in the Washington Post that in November 2002, just after the US accused North Korea of running a second, covert nuclear programme, they brought a written personal message from Kim Jong-il to George W Bush, saying: "if the US makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly." This was ignored by an administration preoccupied with planning to invade Iraq. Pyongyang went on to expel the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and restart its Yongbyon reactor, unleashing the slow-burn crisis that still continues. 

Given Chung Dong-Young's meeting with Kim Jong-il, Gregg and Oberdorfer went public now so as to urge Secretary Rice to "[earn] her spurs" by going to Pyongyang to sound out the dear leader's intentions. In similar vein two days later four Democrat Senators wrote to president Bush, urging him to appoint a special envoy on North Korea to try to resolve the nuclear crisis - and above all to head off a DPRK nuclear test. As June drew to a close, it remained as obscure as ever whether the Bush administration would respond to any of this; or indeed what either its policy ends or means regarding North Korea consisted of, exactly.

Nonetheless, some momentum seems to be building towards a resumption of the six-party process. China's president, Hu Jintao, is said to have made North Korea's return to the talks a precondition of his visiting Pyongyang later this year. For Kim Jong-il the game must be worth that candle; especially as turning up for talks, if only once, need not entail actually conceding anything there. With both South Korea and China seeing deeper economic ties as the way to go, the sunshine policy may yet gain further leeway to test if it can succeed. Yet Kim Jong-il cannot forever postpone choosing between guns or butter, nor may the US be patient indefinitely - even if for now it has neither much appetite to act, nor any better idea.

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