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22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)


North Korean won (KPW)

Kim Jong-il

Update No: 043 - (28/11/06)

Talks agreed, but to what end?
After a momentous previous month - North Korea's first ever nuclear test on October 9, duly condemned and sanctioned by unanimous UN Security Council resolution (no 1718) on October 14 - November by contrast was relatively quiet. It began, indeed, with the good news that Pyongyang had agreed to return to the six-party nuclear talks, now in abeyance for over a year. But by late November no date had yet been set for these. Nor was it clear what they might achieve, or how soon. Kim Jong-il is hardly about to surrender his newly acquired nuclear status and the extra clout this gives him.

Back to the table
On November 1 North Korea's foreign ministry confirmed US and Chinese reports a day earlier that it has agreed to return to six-party nuclear talks, which had not met since November 2005. No date was set. This followed secret discussions in Beijing between Christopher Hill, who as assistant secretary of state heads the US delegation to the talks, and his opposite number, North Korean vice-foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan. Ironically, despite the Bush administration's continuing insistence - deemed perverse by every other player - that it will not talk bilaterally to North Korea, when the chips are down it takes what in all but name was a bilateral meeting (hosted by China) to make actual progress.

Financial sanctions to be eased?
Despite the relief this news brought after a month of nuclear tension, many pitfalls remain. Pyongyang specified that its return is "on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions will be discussed and settled between the DPRK and the US." But Washington can hardly accept such overt bilateralism, nor simply withdraw measures imposed after accusing North Korea of counterfeiting its currency and other crimes. Nonetheless, some understanding must have been reached on this issue - the main reason for the six-party stasis - for a resumption of talks to be agreed. It appears that a separate working group on this will be set up within the six-party format. 

A nuclear fait accompli?
Financial sanctions apart, the core nuclear crux will now be even harder to resolve than before. North Korea returns to the talks with a new status and heft, as a de facto presumed nuclear power: the very thing the six-party talks were meant to prevent. For at least one of the six, this sticks in the craw. Tokyo, increasingly hard-line, was quick to say that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. Pyongyang's equally swift riposte condemned Japan as a "political imbecile" and said it need not bother to attend, being "no more than a state of the US." This may all just be posturing, but it could cause a bad atmosphere as and when the six-party talks do reconvene.

Besides this new unpalatable fact of the DPRK's nuclear status, all the same problems that stymied progress a year ago still remain; above all, which side should move first, how far or fast, and with what quid pro quo. As a presumed nuclear power (although ambiguity about its test's success remains), Pyongyang will demand an even higher price than before for any concessions, much less full denuclearisation.

Six-party talks in mid-December?
As November ended, the six parties were still engaged in various permutations of shuttle diplomacy, even while suggesting mid-December as a likely date to reopen the six-party talks. Japanese news wires on November 26 reported that Christopher Hill and Kim Kye-gwan are to meet again, possibly on November 28. Time is tight, and a six-party session may now not be possible before January. Even if something is pulled off in December, it can hardly be more than a pro forma gathering to restart the process. Any substantive progress, if possible at all, must await the new year.

Cynics may wonder how far progress is the point. Not for the first time, it currently suits all concerned to be able to point to a process as implying that matters are in hand, even if this is but a figleaf. For Bush, beleaguered in Iraq and west Asia more widely, a nuclear North Korea however dismaying is both separate - provided there is no proliferation from Pyongyang, surely a 'red line' issue for Washington - and in principle containable, if not reversible. The new balance of forces on Capitol Hill, now that the Democrats control both houses of Congress, will also strengthen the pro-engagement camp in the Bush administration and the Republican party.

Possible incentives and security guarantees
While Washington is revealing nothing in advance, there is speculation on what mix of incentives and security guarantees the US might offer; with hints that Pyongyang's longstanding demand for a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War, still technically ongoing (there is only an armistice), might be accommodated - perhaps even with a ceremony. Ironically again, this is something the US has long resisted. If the rumours are true, then better late than never to acknowledge that such concessions on formalities and status cost little, yet may mean and achieve much. One could only wish that such flexibility and imagination had been shown before Kim got the bomb.

Who has the upper hand?
On balance the nuclear test, plus continuing disarray among his interlocutors, has strengthened Kim Jong-il's hand. That does not wholly gainsay the counter-view: that pressure from a furious China, possibly including cutting oil supplies, forced North Korea back to the table. Quite how big a squeeze Beijing may have applied is unclear, but Pyongyang now has little to lose by merely agreeing to turn up for the talks.

Passing through Beijing on November 22 after a visit to Russia, Kang Sok-ju, North Korea's senior vice foreign minister, was predictably hardline. Japanese press reports quoted him as saying to reporters: "Why would we abandon nuclear weapons? … Are you saying we conducted a nuclear test in order to abandon them?" One fears these are not merely rhetorical questions.

Sanctions as spoiler? 
Despite the US view that these are wholly separate matters, the diplomatic momentum to resume six-party talks may run counter to enforcing the sanctions prescribed by the UN Security Council's Resolution 1718, passed unanimously on October 14. On November 1 a UNSC committee specified items banned from export to Pyongyang as potentially usable for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These include dual-use products such as high-performance computers, global positioning systems (GPS), and high-strength steel and bearings.

The dear leader must change his tuna
Beyond that it will be left to member states to enforce other sanctions, including those on luxury goods (for more detail, see last month's Update). Japan, ever keen to press, on November 14 announced its own list of 24 luxury items henceforth banned from export to the DPRK. They include beef and cars, tuna filet (a favourite delicacy of Kim Jong-il), and film making equipment (the dear leader is a movie buff).

The value of such exports in 2005 was modest: 1.09 billion yen ($9.4 million), or some 16% of 6.88 billion yen in total Japanese exports to the DPRK last year. Amid already falling bilateral trade - long gone are the days when Japan was North Korea's second largest trade partner and its main source of hard currency - this is hardly more than a pinprick. The dear leader can no doubt source his tuna steaks elsewhere. Indeed on the gourmet front it is Japan which will suffer more: an earlier ban on imports from North Korea had already deprived Japanese diners of such prized delicacies as clams and matsutake mushrooms.

To inspect or interdict? 
Returning to weightier matters, important disagreements continue over enforcement and cargo inspection. The US and Japan are keen to intercept North Korean vessels at sea, while China and South Korea fear this could be inflammatory. To Washington's chagrin, Seoul is still keeping its distance from the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): a 70-nation US-led coalition of the willing, which the UNSC resolution has now put on a firmer basis in international law.

After a bilateral meeting between George W Bush and South Korea's president Roh Moo-hyun on November 18, on the sidelines of the APEC (Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Hanoi, Roh confirmed that South Korea was "not taking part in the full scope" of the PSI, but insisted Seoul would "fully cooperate in preventing WMD (weapons of mass destruction) materiel transfer" in the region. Such hesitation disappoints the US, leaving open as it does the key question of whether South Korea would ever agree to challenge any suspect Northern vessel in or near its own waters.

Roh appoints more doves
Further to Washington's dismay, Roh's reshuffle of his security team on November 1 - nominating new foreign, defence and unification ministers, plus a new intelligence chief - tilted the balance further towards doves. Hitherto, pro-sunshine unification and foreign ministers had been balanced, or tempered, by the scepticism of military minds at the defence ministry and the National Intelligence Service (NIS). But the new NIS head, Kim Man-bok, despite a long career in the agency and its feared predecessor the KCIA, is firmly pro-engagement. 

South Korean leftists accused of spying for the North
His predecessor Kim Seung-kyu did not go quietly, as good as confirming claims by the oppostion Grand National Party (GNP) that he was forced out - a charge angrily denied by the Blue House - for pursuing a spy case, Seoul's first in years. Several leading figures in the hard-left Democratic Labour Party (DLP), which has ten seats in the ROK national assembly, are accused of spying for North Korea. In the bad old days, military regimes often trumped up such charges against innocent democrats.

Whatever the facts this time, the suspicion is that fellow members of the radical 386 generation - in their 30s (in fact 40s now), at university in the 1980s, born in the 1960s - in the Roh administration are not keen to see a new spy case now, for fear of further harming ties with the North and also of reinforcing the conservative canard that seeking peace with the North is tantamount to treachery.

Seoul out of the loop
Almost a month after their nomination, by late November South Korea's new foreign affairs and security team had yet to be confirmed in office due to opposition protests. Their lame duck predecessors carried on, but with foreign minister Ban Ki-moon in effect absent: preparing for his new role come January as Kofi Annan's successor.

On top of the split with Washington over PSI, this has led many in Seoul (hawks and doves alike) to fear that South Korea is falling out of the policy loop on North Korea, as the US talks more to China: a more predictable partner, and one with more clout.

South criticizes North's human rights
Striking a tougher note, on November 17 South Korea for the first time backed a UN resolution condemning North Korea's human rights record. Sponsored by the EU, this passed the UN's Third Committee by 91 votes to 21, with 60 abstentions. Besides direct abuses, the resolution accused the DPRK government of responisbility through mismanagement for a dire humanitarian situation, especially infant malnutrition.

Seoul had abstained on four previous such votes. Its support this time was widely seen as linked to Ban Ki-moon's election as UN secretary-general - and undermined by a Unification Ministry statement pleading for Pyongyang's understanding of a "painful decision." In similar vein, ex-president and Nobel peace prize laureate Kim Dae-jung, the sunshine policy's onlie begetter who at 82 has re-entered public life after a period of illness, warned on November 24 that pressure was not the way to change the North.

APEC disappoints Bush
As noted by the US secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, for those who remember the Vietnam War Hanoi may seem an unlikely and thus encouraging venue for an APEC summit. (Perhaps in Pyongyang one day? - although the DPRK is not even an APEC member thus far.) In its absence, North Korea naturally was much discussed. A final oral statement urged Pyongyang to adhere to earlier pledges to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. The US had hoped for something stronger, and in writing.

Japan lengthens the list of acknowledged abductees
As ever, the nuclear issue by no means the only way Pyongyang riles its neighbours. In an ever more hard line Japan, kidnaps continue to stoke passions: understandably, but also fomented by conservatives whose increasing influence owes much to playing the North Korea card. (One has to wonder why Kim Jong-il plays into their hands.)

On November 20 Tokyo formally acknowledged Kyoko Matsumoto, a woman aged 29 when she vanished in 1977, as the 17th person whom it officially regards as having been kidnapped by North Korea. Five days later a DPRK foreign ministry spokesman denied she had ever entered the country. Ri Pyong-dok also claimed that Kim Myong-suk, an alleged Pyongyang agent for whom Japanese police issued an arrest warrant earlier in the month, did not exist.

This issue appears increasingly insoluble. Support groups claim the true number of abductees runs to over 100. With a partial candour remarkable by its own standards, North Korea in 2002 admitted 13 kidnaps and has returned five survivors; Kim Jong-il even apologized. But far from assuaging anger, Pyongyang's tall tales of how the other eight (all relatively young) died have merely inflamed sentiment in Japan.

How bad a disaster?
Debate continues on the severity of the typhoon damage North Korea suffered in July. The official death toll of 549 dead and 295 missing was challenged by Good Friends, a South Korean Buddhist NGO, claiming that floods and landslides killed 57,000. The latter view got support in November from a British landslide expert. After studying satellite images of the town of Yangdok, one of the worst affected areas, David Petley of Durham University said the figure of 549 deaths was "absolutely not credible"; and that "disaster on [such] an epic scale" probably killed at least 10,000.

Market traders protest
Given their extreme, persistent and manifold oppressions, it is remarkable that North Koreans do not react more. Protests are often rumoured, but very few are confirmed.

A recent case, reported in the usually well-informed Seoul defector online newspaper DailyNK, has some new twists. On November 7 over 100 traders in Hoeryong, a city near the Chinese border, spontaneously protested to the local government after being forced to close their market south of the town and relocate to a site in the city where there was no guarantee they would all get stalls. They rushed into the offices, also demanding compensation for 'market refurbishment payments' exacted from them. Local security officers dispersed them; it was unclear if any were arrested. One slogan shouted was: "Why walk 5 km just to buy a piece of tofu!"

North Korea's tight police state is starting to fray, especially near the Chinese border where rife bribery means people still cross regularly in search of a better life. Most come back, but with new ideas and less tolerance of the status quo. Chinese mobile phones work across the border, which is how this story reached Seoul so promptly. Markets are increasingly indispensable to the system, with a new class of merchants (on this evidence) emboldened to stand up for their rights against arbitrary authority.

Pyongyang rocks?
North Korea and rock festivals do not normally mix. Yet Jean-Baptiste Kim, a pro-DPRK French citizen of ROK origin resident in New Malden, Surrey (the UK's main 'Koreatown', naturally meaning South Koreans), has announced just such an event for next May on his website, which claims officially to represent North Korea. Already 54 bands from 20 countries are said to have applied. US bands will be considered. Musicians must pay their own way, and are warned: their"lyrics should not contain admirations on war, sex, violence, murder, drug, rape, non-governmental society, imperialism, colonialism, racism, anti-DPRK, and anti-socialism."

Battening down the hatches
Despite North Korea's missile and nuclear tests plus UN sanctions, South Korean NGOs continue to help their Northern brethren. One such, 'South and North Korean Children Hand in Hand', recently sent a team for the opening of a hospital it had sponsored in Pyongyang. The ceremony was marred by the inability to test medical equipment, due to one of the DPRK capital's regular electricity blackouts.

More generally and ominously, the regime seems to be readying its people for another downturn like the "march of hardship": the official term for the dire famine of the late 1980s which killed at least a million people. According to the JoongAng Ilbo, a Seoul daily which sent a reporter on this trip, there were "clear signs that Pyongyang viewed itself as in the midst of another ideological struggle with the outside world. Slogans boasting of the North's nuclear capability and calling on its citizens to resist the imperialist tidal wave dotted public areas, and conversations with …officials and ordinary people took on a strident tone. Asked whether circumstances could lead to another 'march of hardship,' one official said: 'We are confident. Even if the pressure continues, that's not the end. There is no other way but war then." While such rhetoric is not unusual, the tenor of the new campaign hardly suggests a state suing for peace.

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