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Update No: 053 - (26/09/07)

North Korea: A Syrian spoiler?
For North Korea September was largely a month of anticipation, on two linked fronts. With the inter-Korean summit postponed from late August to early October, owing to devastating floods in the North, speculation - for some, alarm - grew as to what might transpire there.

Also keenly anticipated was the next meeting of six party talks (6PT) - both Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia - on the North Korean nuclear issue. Originally expected in mid-September, this was postponed after a mysterious Israeli bombing raid on Syria raised fears that Pyongyang might be proliferating nuclear materiel to Damascus: a charge indignantly denied. The 6PT is now due to meet in Beijing on September 27-30; it may be less smooth than had been hoped.

6PT working groups make progress
The month began with sessions of the last two of the 6PT's five working groups (WGs) that had not yet held a second meeting this summer; namely, those working towards bilateral diplomatic normalization between the DPRK and the US and Japan, respectively. As usual the former, held in Geneva on September 1-2, fared better. The two delegation heads - US assistant secretary of state for east Asia Christopher Hill, and DPRK vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan - both skilled negotiatiors, have a good personal rapport; and Hill at least appears to have been granted considerable leeway to make US policy on the hoof.

Terrorism list: not off, yet
Having that much rope can cause tangles, however. Hill, ever upbeat, announced after the meeting that they had agreed that "the DPRK will provide a full declaration of all of their nuclear programmes and will disable [these] by the end of this year 2007." Two days later, the version from Pyongyang was more circumspect: "both sides discussed the issue of taking practical measures to neutralize the existing nuclear facilities in the DPRK within this year and agreed on them". But North Korea's foreign ministry then added a rider: "In return …the US decided to take such political and economic measures for compensation as delisting the DPRK as a terrorism sponsor and lifting all sanctions that have been applied according to the Trading with the Enemy Act." This compelled Hill - by now in Sydney for the APEC summit - flatly to deny that Pyongyang had in fact yet been removed from the State Department's list of countries regarded as sponsoring terrorism. To achieve this, Hill made clear, will require further steps towards denuclearisation.

But on drugs, the US says they're clean now
Typically, Pyongyang was jumping the gun and trying it on. For the US to move too swiftly to delist North Korea would risk offending Japan (see below), whose obsession with past DPRK abductions has included urging the US to treat this issue as an obstacle to delisting.

A fortnight later, however, Washington signalled a concession elsewhere. It quietly dropped North Korea from another of the State Department's lists: countries of concern for narcotics production and trafficking. Despite previous listing and high profile recent cases such as the Pong Su in Australia (see NewNations update, April 2006), it was determined that with no seizures or arrests since 2004, as a US spokesperson rather cryptically put it, "North Korea is not affecting the United States as much as the requirements on the list." That formulation also hints at an implicit political agenda behind such designations: hardly surprising, yet undermining any claim to pure objectivity.

Nuclear expert troika inspects Yongbyon
Balancing the slight frisson over delisting for terrorism, Hill and Kim pulled a fresh rabbit out of the hat with an unexpected invitation for nuclear experts from three nations - the US, China and Russia - to survey DPRK nuclear facilities. This 4-day tour (September 11-15) was mainly an inspection of the already closed Yongbyon site, to decide what precisely the next stages - its disabling and eventual dismantlement - would involve. The group had no wider remit, such as visiting any other sites relating to a suspected separate programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU), which (if they exist) must ere long be declared under the 6PT February 13 agreement. In a rare concession, the US scientists were allowed to enter and leave the North from South Korea overland via the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). They said they had full cooperation from their hosts.

First US direct flight in half a century
Separately, but also helping cement US-DPRK ties, on August 31 in the first direct flight between the two countries in over half a century since the Korean War ended in 1953, a chartered Boeing 747 which had taken off from Charlotte, NC landed at Pyongyang's Sunan airport, bringing aid goods worth US$8 million. Apart from US$50,000 from the US government, the donor was Samaritan's Purse, a charity whose president, Rev. Franklin Graham, is the son of Dr Billy Graham, the famous evangelist who twice visited North Korea and met Kim Il-sung in 1992 and 1994 - and whose late wife, Ruth Bell Graham, attended a Pyongyang high school in the 1930s. The donor party were received by DPRK foreign minister Park Ui-chun: a sign of how seriously North Korea takes such connections.

Japan talks stay the course, but no breakthrough
Completing the WG quintet, the final and most sensitive working group, on normalizing ties with Japan, met on September 5-6 in a new venue, Ulan Bator. (Mongolia is one of several Asian states - others include Thailand and Indonesia - which keep good relations with both Koreas and fancy themselves as peacemakers on the peninsula.) Although no progress was made, the meeting at least ran its course - unlike last time, in Hanoi in March, when the DPRK side walked out when pressed by Tokyo on past abductions of Japanese by Pyongyang's agents. Despite an unprecedented apology by Kim Jong-il and the repatriation of five survivors, Japan demands a fuller account as a sine qua non of moving forward on other fronts. Tokyo imposed stronger sanctions than required by the UN Security Council after last year's missile and nuclear tests, and overall bilateral relations had worsened in the year since the hard-line Shinzo Abe became premier. They may now improve after Abe's sudden resignation, and the appointment on September 23 of a moderate, Yasuo Fukuda, as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and hence Japan's next prime minister. Fukuda has already said that he will rethink Tokyo's tough line towards Pyongyang, which whatever its domestic popularity has achieved nothing - save to isolate Japan in the 6PT.

6PT delayed
With all five WGs thus having completed their second meetings this year, the next round of the full 6PT - strictly, the second phase of the sixth round of this long-running forum, first launched in 2003 but with many ups and downs since - was expected in in mid-September.
But the word from Beijing was that North Korea demanded a delay. With no reason given, speculation mounted. Was Pyongyang cross with Japan for refusing to lift its ban on DPRK ships entering its ports, even for flood aid? Or with China for delaying shipment of 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (HFO): a second tranche - the same volume was sent by Seoul in July - of an eventual million tonnes promised as a reward for the DPRK's continuing step by step implementation of the February 13 accord? In fact the first batch of HFO reached Nampo on September 16, but five more days passed before the foreign ministry in Beijing announced that the 6PT would convene less than a week later, on September 27-30.

Noises off in Syria
Most analysts, however, put the blame for this delay neither in Beijing nor Tokyo, but far off in the deserts of eastern Syria, where on September 6 Israeli jets bombed an undisclosed target. With a rare lack of leaks in either Jerusalem or Washington, implying something top secret, suggestions were rife that this was a nascent nuclear facility involving North Korea. The fact that Pyongyang condemned the raid swiftly and severely led some to wonder if it may even have killed DPRK operatives. Yet this could also be because Syria is one of the last two countries (the other being Cuba) who recognize North but not South Korea, and Pyongyang is keen to keep things that way by giving Damascus strong diplomatic support.

Beyond that, Syria - like Iran and indeed Pakistan - is known to be a major buyer of North Korean missiles: many, ironically, paid for from the US$2 billion that the US gave Syria for participating in the first Gulf war. Unless destined for Hezbollah, missiles per se, while hardly good news for Israel, are a far less serious concern than nukes. Moreover, if it were a missile facility which Israel struck, it would have no reason not to publicize this.

Fact or spin?
The idea of a possible nuclear link between North Korea and Syria seemed to be endorsed in unguarded remarks by a junior Bush administration official: Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation. More cautiously, but still showing concern, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that "there are, frankly, a lot of questions that remain to be answered" about North Korea's nuclear programme. President George W Bush warned Kim Jong-il not to proliferate, without confirming any Syrian link.

Some in Washington see the nuclear angle as an unwarranted spin put about by hawks like John Bolton who deplore Bush's turn to engagement. Yet this casts a shadow over the 6PT, and it remains to be seen how all concerned will handle it. Although both Pyongyang and Damascus indignantly deny any nuclear cooperation, there will be tough talk around the hexagonal table in Beijing. While it is unclear where any US 'red line' now falls, proven nuclear proliferation could be catastrophic for the 6PT - and ominous for both ends of Asia.

Seoul sticks to sunshine
If even Washington, since its U-turn earlier this year, strives to put the best interpretation on any news about North Korea, this is even more true in Seoul. The 'sunshine' policy, begun a decade ago as a radical strategic shift towards engagement, sometimes seems now to have mutated into an axiom proclaiming, like Voltaire's Dr Pangloss, that all is for the best no matter what. Thus South Korea was quick to pooh-pooh the Syria story a priori.

Elsewhere, fears that the upcoming inter-Korean summit may see the wily and experienced Kim Jong-il run rings around his weak and mercurial guest were hardly allayed when Roh Moo-hyun said he did not intend to raise the nuclear issue while in Pyongyang. He showed no such compunction with Bush, who got visibly annoyed at a joint press conference after a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of APEC in Sydney when Roh pressed him to "be a bit clearer in your message" on US readiness to sign a peace treaty with Pyongyang. Insisting this was contingent on further North Korean de nuclearization, Bush snapped back: "I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President." Both sides later blamed their translators, but the harm had been done - though the Seoul press, including those usually hostile to Roh, oddly played down what all those present saw as a dire moment. With the good news of North Korea welcoming the scientists' troika breaking almost simultaneously, the paradox was summed up by an Associated Press headline: "S. Korea rebuffs Bush; North makes nice."

Arirang: grand spectacle, or child abuse?
There was also criticism of hints that Roh may agree to watch the Arirang mass spectacular, recently resumed after suspension due to August's floods. Here again, fear of offending the host seems paramount. Yet Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, got no favours in 2000 from being pictured sitting alongside Kim Jong-il watching displays that included DPRK missiles. Likewise, South Koreans have no idea what hostile images the North may regale them with. They might also ponder defector testimony that Arirang constitutes child abuse, with months of intense training and no bathroom breaks leading to illness. 

That suggestion was pooh-poohed on September 20 by Seoul's unification minister, Lee Jae-joung (an ordained Anglican priest). Lee not only compared Arirang to any sports event that children migh rehearse for, but was quoted as saying more generally that there was no evidence of human rights abuse in North Korea. That will come as a surprise to scholars at the Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government think-tank, who each year compile a meticulous and damning White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea. Several similar substantial reports have been published in recent years. 

While there would be no point in going to Pyongyang to provoke confrontation, as of late September it was impossible to avoid concern that Roh may stray too far in the opposite direction. With the summit to follow directly after the next 6PT, the period from September 27 through October 4 promised to be an especially momentous week for the peninsula.

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