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Update No: 059 - (26/03/08)

North Korea: Nothing much doing
Like February, March – at least as of an early Easter: not a feast marked in Pyongyang, for obvious reasons – was a month where nothing much happened in and about North Korea. Yet there was a sense of unease on at least two fronts: whether the stalled Six Party Talks (6PT) had hit the buffers; and fear of a new food crisis as supplies dwindle.

The nuclear issue remained deadlocked, despite fresh talks between Christopher Hill, the indefatigable US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and his DPRK counterpart vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan, in Geneva on March 13. The sticking points are by now wearily familiar. Washington needs a full, credible account of three things: plutonium, weaponized or usable therefore; a separate, hopefully past uranium enrichment programme (UEP); and suspected nuclear proliferation to Syria.

On UEP and Syria, North Korea remains in denial mode a la Bart Simpson: didn’t do it/ nobody saw me/ can’t prove a thing. Thus Kim KG on UEP: “There have never been such programmes in the past, there are no such things going on currently and […] we will not engage in them in the future.” Yet Pyongyang is known to have bought potentially UEP-related materiel from the former rogue nuclear network run by Dr A Q Khan. When history comes to a full reckoning of the late Benazir Bhutto, it should include the strong likelihood that Pyongyang and Islamabad traded nuclear for missile know-how on her watch.

Off balance sheet?
Borrowing a term from accounting, Hill’s strategy now is to try to put the UEP and Syria issues ‘off balance sheet’, so they do not impede the main priority, plutonium. That seems sensible, if it can be done; although critics of the 6PT would cry that yet again Kim Jong-il is getting away with it. Sung Kim, head of the State Department’s Korea desk, stayed on in Geneva, which at least suggests ongoing negotiations rather than a complete stalemate. Given Pyongyang’s penchant to spring surprises, a rabbit may yet be pulled from the hat.

Yet the omens do not seem good. North Korea has its own grievances: claiming the US has failed to take it off its list off terrorism-sponsoring countries, while other nations in the Six Party Talks (6PT) have been late delivering heavy fuel oil (HFO) or equivalent promised compensation. Rodong Sinmun, daily paper of the ruling Workers Party of Korea (WPK), has complained: “Why should we hurry while the 'action-for-action' principle is not kept?”

All this aside, Kim Jong-il may be playing for time. Just as in 2004 he stalled in (vain) hope of a President John Kerry, so now the dear leader – ever one to sniff out and profit from his foes’ weakness – may spurn an enfeebled George W Bush and hope for better from a future Democrat in the Blue House, be it Obama or a second Clinton. In fact no US administration is likely to offer him more than is on the table now, if and only if he comes fully clean.

With his usual candour, Hill restated the sticking points on March 20. “The [DPRK has] to understand that we cannot, at the end of the day, permit them to hold on to nuclear material … I've said it to them 50 times, and I'll be happy to say it another 50 times.” And any deal that fails to address UEP and past proliferation concerns “is not politically sustainable.”

Spring hunger
As ever, there is much more to North Korea than the nuclear issue – but not much is good.

Spring is an ambivalent season in today’s DPRK. Relief at the end of bitterly cold winter – typically unheated due to fuel shortages, this many a year – is countered by the exhaustion of grain stocks from the previous autumn’s harvest. Even older South Koreans remember ‘spring hunger’: history for them, but a clear and present danger still for their Northern kin.

Such concerns are high now, since serious flooding last summer affected the 2007 harvest. On March 20 Good Friends (GF), a usually well-informed South Korean Buddhist NGO, claimed that food shortages are even hitting residents of Pyongyang, hitherto a protected elite. Top cadres of course still eat their fill, but medium and lower rank officials saw their rice ration cut by 60% in February, while so far this month they have received none at all.

That has long been the lot of many ordinary citizens outside the capital. South Hwanghae, a farming region in the southwest abutting South Korea, has reportedly received no rations since November. As a result some collective farm labourers have not turned up for work, and their absence is causing problems in the spring planting season. The implication that they can in effect boycott work with impunity is interesting, and surprising.

Fertilizer: none asked, none sent
Spring planting also requires fertilizer. For the past several years South Korea has supplied this, nominally as a loan. But with a new conservative president in Seoul – elected last December, Lee Myung-bak took office on February 25 – Pyongyang has not made its usual request; although Lee has said he will continue humanitarian aid. But the seasonal window is passing, so it may soon be too late to send fertilizer this year. The North normally asks for and gets rice too, but again it has yet to do so this year so far.

Compounding the problem, soaring global grain prices militate against easy food aid for the DPRK even were donors so minded. China, its other main sustainer hitherto besides South Korea, has reduced supplies – perhaps a punishment for the nuclear test in October 2006 – and recently slapped a 22% tariff on grain exports to North Korea. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which a decade ago had its largest operation anywhere in the world feeding 6 million North Koreans, saw donations plummet by 80% between 2005 and 2007.

Unsurprisingly, WFP warns of a new food crisis this year. That will create dilemmas for the US and South Korea, especially if Kim Jong-il remains obdurate on the nuclear issue. The temptation to use food aid as a bargaining tool will be acute. As ever, it is ordinary North Koreans who will continue to suffer and bear the brunt.

Or perhaps it will finally become unbearable. Cutting rations even in Pyongyang must be risky for Kim Jong-il, who needs elite support. Yet Bob Marley’s view that “a hungry man is an angry man” is countered by historical sociology: revolutions tend to happen when life starts to improve, whereas the utterly impoverished are too busy just trying to survive. In North Korea, most people are preoccupied with scrabbling to secure food for their families. But their hearts and minds surely belong ever less to a regime that commands absolutely – still trying to curb markets, even – yet which cannot provide even the basics of life.

Africa: still building and training
Kim Yong-nam, the DPRK's No. 2 leader and titular head of state, set out on March 18 for three African countries: Namibia, Angola and Uganda. The well-travelled Kim – the more so since his boss famously hardly ever leaves the country, and then only by train – cannot but reflect on how his country’s standing has fallen over time, even in Africa. Thirty years ago North Korea was a power in the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) and a significant aid donor to Africa, whose more radical regimes refused to recognize South Korea. 

Echoes of those days still survive. The DPRK helped train SWAPO’s freedom fighters, and now North Koreans have designed and built a vast new State House in Windhoek, whose opening was the occasion for Kim’s visit. Both this and the edifice itself – North Korean with African characteristics, like the many other grand monuments built by Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP) all over Africa in recent decades – were controversial locally. Costs have overrun, though at about US$60m it looks cheap for a huge concrete palace; but this was at a time when Namibia had the begging bowl out internationally for drought aid. 

As for Kim’s visit, local press comment in Windhoek, while recognizing the historic ties between North Korea and the still ruling SWAPO, feared that hosting such a guest was hardly the image Namibia now needed to attract serious investors. Other observers noted that Namibia is the world’s fifth largest producer of uranium. (They wouldn’t, would they?)

As to what Pyongyang can offer Africa these days, an advance report from Kampala spoke of another familiar North Korean export line: military hardware and training, in this case for VIP protection units and the police – who are reportedly learning taekwondo from the DPRK. Uganda in turn seeks to sell silk, dried mushrooms and simsim (sesame seeds).

Personnel changes
One of North Korea’s many oddities is that it often fails to announce personnel changes at the time. Thus we only learned that Ri Ryong-nam has been promoted from vice-minister to minister of trade when he was tagged as such on the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA)’s report of the Africa trip. Also on board the special plane – hopefully newer than the 40 year old Ilyushins used on Air Koryo’s commercial flights – were foreign minister Pak Ui-chun and the minister of health (interestingly), Choe Chang-shik.

By contrast, the next DPRK envoy to the UN may already be known. Reports from New York suggest that Pak Gil-yon will be replaced in April. This is no purge: Pak has served since 2001, and has spent 18 years of his career altogether at the UN. His successor is expected to be Shin Sun-ho, who formerly served as deputy ambassador in New York.

Amid longstanding US-DPRK hostility and the continuing lack of formal diplomatic ties, it is often forgotten that there have been North Koreans in New York (if not Washington) for some 30 years; ever since Pyongyang obtained observer status, long before both Korean states belatedly joined the UN – a move the North fiercely resisted – in 1991. In the early days, one American Korea expert (living on the opposite coast) who had met these pioneers was surprised to be telephoned by them – and asked to recommend a good restaurant. For North Koreans unused to choice, the Big Apple’s variety was overwhelming.

Parliament to meet
KCNA revealed on March 20 that what passes for a parliament in Pyongyang, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), will meet on April 9. It is always around this time, but one must ask if it was wise to pick the very same day as South Korea will hold hard-fought elections to its own national assembly. That can only point up the contrast with the solemn farce to the North, where the 650-strong SPA meets for just one day, to hear an economic report and approve a budget which on past form will not even have any real numbers in it. 

We live in hope, but no expectation, that the SPA might one day discuss – debate, even – North Korea’s many pressing problems. April’s main priority, however, is not the SPA but celebrating Sun’s Day on the 15th: the birthday of Kim Il-sung, still officially the DPRK’s eternal president despite being dead since 1994. Will his son Kim Jong-il ever get real? 

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