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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: 029 - (29/09/05)

The good news from North Korea in September was that, after two years, six-party talks on the nuclear issue finally produced an agreement - if only a vague statement of principles. The bad news was that the very next day Pyongyang demanded a light water reactor (LWR) from the US as a precondition for disarming; an idea whose utter unfeasibility, technical as much as political, hardly suggests that Kim Jong-il is negotiating seriously. Meanwhile, moves to curb the UN World Food Programme (WFP)'s operations in North Korea, and to force resident foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to leave by the end of the year, did not give the impression of a regime minded to open up to the wider world.

Six-party talks are delayed
Diplomacy with North Korea is a tortuous process. A product of the Bush administration's insistence on multilateral negotiations, rather than the bilateral one-on-one that Pyongyang wanted, six-party nuclear talks - both Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia - have been ongoing for over two years. Hitherto there was little to show, including a 13-month hiatus during 2004-05. As discussed in our last two Updates, the fourth round broke new ground in some ways. A new US chief delegate - Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for east Asia - clearly had more leeway to negotiate flexibly than did his predecessor, James Kelly. Yet 13 days' hard talking failed even to produce a statement of principles, and the meeting recessed on August 7. It was due to resume near the end of the month, but North Korea took umbrage on two counts: the routine annual Ulchi Focus Lens joint US-ROK military exercises (mainly computer-based, but the largest of their kind in the world); and Washington's naming on August 19 of Jay Lefkowitz, a former White House adviser, as a special envoy on DPRK human rights. This appointment was mandated by the North Korea Human Rights Act passed by Congress last year; the timing was unfortunate, but it had been long delayed and was announced in as low-key a way as possible. So Pyongyang was content with a fortnight's pause, and the sextet reconvened in Beijing on September 13.

A nuclear statement of principles
While a blow-by-blow account would be as wearing to read as it doubtless was to undergo, basically the same obstacle remained as before. North Korea insisted on its right to civil nuclear activities, while the US remained adamantly opposed. There were real fears that the talks would break up in deadlock. Instead, on September 19, to general relief, the hitherto elusive statement of principles was finally attained. Its key points are as follows:

* North Korea formally committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes, and to return "at an early date" to both the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards. The US, for its part, affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the peninsula, and no intention to mount either a nuclear or conventional attack on the DPRK.

* A 1992 inter-Korean joint declaration on denuclearizing the peninsula, which Pyongyang had repudiated in the past, was reaffirmed. This commits both Korean states to rejecting the nuclear fuel cycle, including enriching uranium (HEU). US suspicion that the DPRK has a covert HEU programme, as well as its admitted plutonium-based reprocessing activity, is the issue which triggered the current, second North Korea nuclear crisis three years ago.

* More broadly, the US and North Korea committed to respect each other's sovereignty, co-exist peacefully and take steps to normalize ties. Similar pledges in the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework (AF), which defused an earlier nuclear crisis, were never implemented. Pyongyang and Tokyo also agreed to improve their own currently fraught relations.

* All six states undertook to promote economic cooperation in energy, trade and investment - bilaterally and/or multilaterally. Specifically, the other five stated their willingnness to provide energy aid to Pyongyang. Seoul repeated its earlier offer of 2 million kilowatts of electric power, but the North has yet to accept this.

* A permanent peace regime on the peninsula will be discussed by "the directly related parties" - presumably the two Koreas, China and the US - in a separate forum. This is a longstanding Pyongyang demand. In principle, it could offer the chance to address a wide range of other concerns - chemical and biological weapons (CBW), missiles, conventional forces, and more - without all this complicating or impeding progress on the nuclear issue.

LWRs: how soon, if ever?
As for civil nuclear power: North Korea's insistence on its right to this was noted; the other five said they "respected" that, and "agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of a light-water reactor [LWR] to the DPRK." This carefully worded phrase is presumably what broke the deadlock. Pyongyang may well view it as a firm commitment to supply an LWR; two of which had been pledged, and construction begun, under the 1994 AF. But to discuss is not to deliver, and Washington looks unlikely to modify its strong opposition to Kim Jong-il having nuclear facilities of any kind in the foreseeable future. 

The fragility of this verbal legerdemain was rapidly exposed. With the ink barely dry, just a day later North Korea's foreign ministry declared that the "the US should not even dream of the issue of the DPRK's dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing LWRs, a physical guarantee for confidence-building." As Pyongyang well knows, that demand is as preposterous technically as it is unacceptable politically; it takes years to build a reactor, as witness the pair that now languish one-third built under the presumably moribund AF. For the US and Japan, North Korea would have to be in full IAEA and NPT compliance before the question of trusting it again with civil nuclear power could arise. While China, Russia and South Korea are softer, the bottom line is that no one is ready to fund LWRs. 

Though US reaction was low-key, if Pyongyang holds fast to that stance then it bodes ill for the fifth round of six-party talks, due to reconvene sometime in early November. Even if it retreats from this maximalism, the issue of who moves first and appropriate quids pro quo at each stage is bound to be contentious.

No more food aid, thank you
Three days later North Korea set another cat among the pigeons. At the UN in New York, its vice foreign minister, Choe Su-hon, said he had asked Kofi Annan to end humanitarian aid by the end of the year. Claiming that "we have very good farming this year," Choe said that "humanitarian assistance cannot last too long." He also accused the US of politicizing aid by linking it to human rights, but said Pyongyang will still seek development assistance.

This issue has been brewing for some time, and has several aspects. It was unprecedented for North Korea to appeal for foreign help, as it did a decade ago in 1995 after floods which helped precipitate the famine of 1996-98. Since then, not only UN and other international bodies (WFP, WHO, Unicef, Red Cross etc) but several western NGOs have opened offices in Pyongyang. A rare capital city which previously had almost no foreign residents, except for a few diplomats, is now home to about 100 expatriate aid workers: a significant change.

For a proud nation, itself once an aid donor in Africa, to admit that self-reliance had failed was humiliating. Security too is a concern: for the Korean Peoples' Army (KPA), giving foreigners unprecedented access - as WFP monitoring requires - must be anathema. About one-fifth of the country (42 counties out of 203) remains closed, and so gets no WFP aid.

Biting the hand that feeds
Last year Pyongyang refused to let UN bodies issue their usual consolidated appeal for the DPRK. Its preference for developmental over humanitarian aid is also longstanding, but the problem is that donors are less willing to fund infrastructure and the like - especially while the nuclear crisis remains unresolved. Even on the food front, after a decade donor fatigue is evident. In recent years WFP and other UN agencies' appeals have been far from fully funded, causing cutbacks in what was once WFP's biggest operation worldwide, feeding up to 6.5 million - almost a third of the entire DPRK population. However, other benefactors with slacker monitoring rules - notably South Korea, which recently gave 500,000 tons of rice, and China, the amount of whose aid is not known - plus the prospect of a better than usual local harvest, have evidently emboldened North Korea to take a tougher line. This has led to arguments among donors. Opposition MPs in Seoul, echoing a recent critical report by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, accuse the ROK government of in effect undermining the WFP by supplying its own food aid virtually unconditionally.

As often with North Korea, it remains unclear exactly what they want - and whether they really mean it. But if taken at face value, by the end of this year not only must WFP end its operations, but about a dozen resident NGOs have also been told to quit. Most of these are small; they are baffled as well as dismayed to get their marching orders, as they enjoy good relations with their counterparts. Many are indeed providing developmental as much as humanitarian aid: building capacity in areas like health, sanitation, water supply, and so on. For that matter, WFP reckons that some 70% of its own aid is developmental, in the form of food for work projects, factories making high-energy biscuits, and the like.

As of late September, aid agencies were seeking both to clarify and defend their positions. If activities can be recognized or redefined as developmental, a compromise looks possible. Otherwise the outlook is grim, above all for beneficiaries. As North Korea's own studies have shown, 37% of children are stunted, and a third of nursing mothers are malnourished and anaemic. Good harvest or no, WFP still estimates a grain shortfall of almost a million tons this year. It seems both cruel to its own people, and perhaps risky for Kim Jong-il, if the government really does look a gift horse in the mouth and bite the hand that feeds it.

Bullying Hyundai
Elsewhere, the momentum for expanded inter-Korean cooperation, so striking in recent months, eased somewhat in September. The latest inter-Korean cabinet-level talks, held in Pyongyang on September 13-16, did little except try to end a row between North Korean authorities and the Hyundai group, which since 1998 has taken over a million Southern tourists North (mostly at a loss). On August 19 Hyundai's chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun sacked Kim Yoon-kyu, who as CEO of Hyundai Asan had led the firm's dealings with the North, for alleged unspecified corruption. North Korea riposted by halving the daily quota of tourists allowed to visit Hyundai's Mt. Kumgang resort, delaying other planned projects, and pointedly searching Ms Hyun (who had met Kim Jong-il just weeks before) when she visited Mt Kumgang. This shameless meddling in the governance of a private company in another country may even have worked; it is thought that Kim YK may soon be reinstated. While hardly on the scale of the nuclear or food aid controversies, yet again the signal sent is hardly that North Korea is easing up, or is inclined to behave like a normal modern state.

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