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Update No: 057 - (30/01/08)

North Korea: Delaying, or defiant?
To general disappointment but no one’s surprise, the old year ended without North Korea meeting either of the twin commitments it had earlier made in the Six Party Talks (6PT): to disable its Yongbyon reactor site, and give a full account of all its nuclear programmes. 

So far, a delay is not a disaster. If this persists, however, there is a risk that the whole 6PT process may unravel. Already unease in Washington has seen a recurrence of open disarray within the Bush administration. Kim Jong-il may even be waiting out Bush, in hope (surely misguided) of a better deal from a future Democrat US president after 2009. Or he may be playing hardball: reckoning no one has the stomach for a fight, so the world will just have to accept a de facto nuclear North Korea as it did with India and Pakistan. Or he might still be trying to persuade his hardline generals to give up the bomb, but not succeeding so far.

Pyongyang purports to see it differently. It claims it has already told the US everything, while accusing other parties of not delivering on their own promises of energy shipments and diplomatic easing. That will not wash, but Washington at first feigned insouciance. Christopher Hill, who leads the US 6PT delegation as assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said he is hoping for a DPRK declaration by February 25, when Lee Myung-bak will be inaugurated as ROK president; adding that he did not mean to set this as a deadline.

Others are less sanguine. The Bush administration was long divided, and often paralyzed, between those for and against engaging North Korea. For years the latter held sway, and blocked the former. Only in the past year have the engagers been given a chance, but their foes and the dispute have not gone away.

Since last year’s shift to engagement, little had been heard of Jay Lefkowitz: appointed by George W Bush as special envoy on North Korean human rights at a time when the US was keener to goad Pyongyang than talk to it. (Conversely, if sadly, the new focus on seriously seeking a nuclear deal inevitably means playing down other concerns, which though real enough would rile North Korea if raised now – and distract from the nuclear priority.)

A neocon breaks ranks
On January 17 Lefkowitz broke ranks. Speaking – from a prepared text – at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative thinktank, he pulled no punches. North Korea, he said, “has not kept its word,” was “not serious about disarming in a timely manner… Its conduct does not appear to be that of a government …willing to come in from the cold.” A “serial proliferator,” it uses nuclear arms to “extort” foreign aid. At this rate Kim Jong-il will still have nuclear weapons by the time George Bush leaves office in early 2009.

For good measure Lefkowitz also laid into China and South Korea, as “unwilling to apply significant pressure on Pyongyang.” As a result the 6PT have become in effect a bilateral process between the US and DPRK. He called for a new approach, including human rights as well as nuclear concerns as a key part of any agreement and diplomatic normalization. Indeed he said that North Korea policy was already under review.

The White House was quick to slap him down, saying Lefkowitz had no authority to speak on the 6PT; “his comments certainly don't represent the views of the administration.” Other insider sources denied that any policy review on North Korea is under way. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly rebuked Lefkowitz. One wonders if he may even resign; no great sacrifice for him, since he has a day job with a Washington law firm.

A Helsinki process?
A fresh outbreak of public disarray on policy within the US government – as so often over North Korea during 2001-06 – is a bad sign. Yet the issues Lefkowitz raises are real. If Kim Jong-il does not surrender his nukes, then all concerned will have to rethink their policies.

Moreover, with North Korea a concern on so many fronts – WMD, human rights and more – a narrowly nuclear focus may not be the way to go. All interlocutors must prioritize, but some are advocating a version of the Helsinki process with the former USSR: that is, an engagement which builds in both security and human rights issues. If the 6PT do start to unravel this year in face of Pyongyang’s recalcitrance, such voices will become louder – although the DPRK is likely to reject any such attempted linkage as brazen interference.

South may abolish the unification ministry
Meanwhile South Korea has a new president. Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), elected by a landslide on December 19, takes office on February 25. North Korea has yet to comment on his election victory. In the past it has excoriated the GNP as traitors, but this time such flak was directed at the hard-right candidate, Lee Hoi-chang. Kim Jong-il may be waiting for the new regime’s nordpolitik to take shape. Lee is pro-engagement, but wants more reciprocity from Pyongyang – and says he will link future aid to the North’s fulfilling its denuclearization pledges.

One straw in the wind is Lee’s plan to slim down government in Seoul by abolishing five ministries – includimg that of unification, to the consternation of its officials and other fans of the past decade’s ‘sunshine’ policy of engagement with the North. On January 17 Lee defended his idea, insisting it will improve both efficiency and coordination in North Korea policy to merge – not close – MOU into the foreign affairs and trade ministry (MOFAT).

A decade of the ‘sunshine’ policy and growing intercourse with North Korea have indeed seen MOU’s clout rise. To its critics, it has exceeded its brief: going beyond administering engagement to advocacy. The result has been foreign policy confusion, with MOU and MOFAT saying different things in such contentious areas as North Korean human rights and replacing the 1953 Armistice with a permanent peace treaty. Some even accuse MOU of going native, in effect fighting Kim Jong-il’s corner in Seoul.

MOFAT’s diplomats were aghast as under Roh Moo-hyun Pyongyang policy shifted from the professionals (themselves) to those they scorned as ‘Taleban’. Left-wing advisers in the Blue House, abetted by MOU, saw embracing the North as top priority: insouciant – or glad – if that vexed a US ally whose leader denounced North Korea as part of an ‘axis of evil’.

The wrong signal
Better coordination is certainly needed, both in Seoul and with Washington. A new right-leaning government will give more weight to joined-up diplomacy and security alike. But need this mean killing off MOU? Founded in 1969 as the National Unification Board by the dictator Park Chung-hee, this was intended to counter the United Front Department of the North’s ruling Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK). For several years MOU’s minister also had deputy premier status in Seoul. 

In law, not merely sentiment, intra-Korean relations (the preferred phrase in Seoul) are not strictly foreign. Despite sunshine, each Korea still formally claims to be the sole legitimate state on the peninsula. Legal niceties apart, MOU’s existence foregrounds and separates out what by any standards will be South Korea’s prime policy challenge in the coming decades.
Abolishing it now may send the wrong signals.

Pyongyang downsizes
Domestic politics in Pyongyang remains opaque. In the bitter North Korean winter, many enterprises as usual are wasting precious heat to cultivate Kimjongilia flowers (a hybrid begonia) for the 12th Kimjongilia Festival, soon to be held at the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Exhibition in Pyongyang in celebration of Kim Jong-il’s 66th birthday on February 16.

This year some work units may be less enthusiastic, and not only the weather is bitter. For according to the Seoul daily Dong-A Ilbo, on 29 December the dear leader instructed every institution in North Korea – the Party, the military and government alike – to start cutting their staff by 30%, with immediate effect.

One sees his point. Far more than South Korea, the North is organizationally top-heavy to a degree it can no longer afford. (There is a saying: every farmer feeds seven bureaucrats.) Thus the Cabinet – which at least does something useful, in running the economy – has 30 sections, three committees, two departments, one institute, and a bank. The ruling Workers Party (WPK), which in economic terms is a wholly unproductive waste of space, has five committees, two departments, 14 bureaus and one research centre.

A particular target is said to be agencies tasked with earning foreign currency, which have mushroomed in recent years since each organization was allowed – indeed commanded – to do this as a patriotic duty. Not many in fact earn much, though the WPK and the Korean People’s Army (KPA) each control their own mini-empires of trading and other firms.

The dear leader may be on dangerous ground here. As in Seoul, those affected will hardly be happy, and may resist. In Pyongyang the grim alternative to what by local standards are cushy jobs is either retirement, or (in a revealing phrase) “transfer to the workforce”. Kim must be careful not to alienate his core supporters; yet he also needs to make economies. (One wonders whether his own vast personal staff who run his palaces and yachts, now revealed to the world thanks to Google Earth, will be included in this economy drive.)

Beijing ponders
On January 27 the Beijing rumour mill buzzed with claims that Kim Jong-il will visit China in March. This would be his fifth visit in recent years. If still defiant on the nuclear front, he will no doubt be pressed by Hu Jintao to come clean. For his part, the dear leader may have complaints too – about some remarkably frank Chinese scenarios for his country.

On any account China is key to North Korea’s future, but it used to be hard to know what Beijing really thinks of its fractious neighbour. No longer, thanks to a report published on 3 January by two Washington thinktanks: the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the US Institute of Peace (USIP). Based on interviews with a wide range of Chinese North Korea specialists, this reveals a lively debate in Beijing – as elsewhere – on almost every aspect of North Korea’s situation, and what if anything can be done about it.
(It can be read at

Gone are the days when comradeship or circumspection kept China silent on such matters. Public criticism remains rare, though Beijing did attack the DPRK’s 2006 nuclear test as “brazen”. Of course China formally denied the most sensational and publicized part of the CSIS-USIP report: that Beijing has secret contingency plans to go into North Korea in case of any collapse there. But there is no reason to doubt that. Indeed it would be a dereliction of duty not to plan for trouble, on a long porous border where refugees are already an issue. 

According to the report, China has three main objectives: to protect its military-strategic environment, maintain security and stability along the border and sustain development and stability in its three northeastern provinces bordering North Korea (Manchuria as was). But on all the key dilemmas, Chinese analysts are as divided as everyone else. These include:

· Will Pyongyang ever in fact give up its nuclear weapons? 
· How important strategically is North Korea to China, really? 
· Should the longstanding Sino-DPRK treaty, now largely a dead letter, be revised, or abandoned – or retained, with its ambiguity stressed so as to enhance deterrence? 
· Might US-DPRK ties suddenly improve, and if so how would that impact China?

Stable, for now
On the immediate domestic situation most Chinese analysts are less worried than a year ago, when many saw Kim Jong-il as facing a stark choice between stability and reform. They now report conditions as “severe but stable”. Inflation has eased; most people make a living via markets rather than state rations. Yet partial reforms since 2002 have not fundamentally changed economic policy. Views differ on how far the regime is managing to ban the sale of staple grains in market, and whether the rationing system is working. Slow reform, with greater enterprise autonomy, will continue – provided it does not threaten central control.

North Korea’s stability is naturally a major concern. Chinese experts carefully scrutinize a wide range of factors, which they are better placed than most to monitor. These include:

· Factionalism in the regime and potential challenges to Kim Jong Il’s leadership; 
· Political controls and ideological education; 
· Influences from the outside; 
· The general public’s loyalty to the Kim family; 
· Crimes and illicit activities; 
· The economy, food supply, and economic reform; and 
· Kim Jong-il’s health and the leadership succession. 

Just in case
They conclude, crucially, that as yet there are few problem signs in any of these areas. So North Korea may remain stable for several more years – unless Kim Jong-il dies suddenly, or there are serious outside efforts to destabilize him. But long run viability is something else. That requires economic development, which in turn entails real reform – and there is no clear sign yet that the DPRK is willing or able to follow China down that road.

If North Korea does turn unstable, Beijing is taking no chances. It has contingency plans to send troops across the border if need be; preferably under a UN mandate, but if necessary alone. Such plans envisage three possible missions that might arise for the PLA:

· Humanitarian: assisting after a natural disaster, or helping (sic) refugees; 
· Peacekeeping: police functions, restoring public order if this were to break down; 
· ‘Environmental’: cleaning up contamination in case of a strike on DPRK nuclear facilities near the border, or securing “loose nukes” and fissile material.

‘Helping’ refugees sounds a euphemism for keeping them firmly inside North Korea or pushing them back, as China does at present. Despite widespread criticism, Beijing refuses to accept any North Koreans in China as refugees, but instead repatriates all it catches to an often brutal fate. (Under DPRK law, it is a crime to leave.) Such fugitives must thus either seek sanctuary in foreign embassies, or in most cases travel covertly across China to enter kinder lands like Thailand or Mongolia, from whence they are sent on to Seoul.

Go it alone, or with the US?
Strikingly, some in Beijing now favour official discussions with the US on North Korea’s potential for instability, even “including possible joint responses in support of common objectives such as securing nuclear weapons and fissile material.” We have indeed come a long way since the two armies fought each other to a standstill in the 1950-53 Korean War. 

So far this remains a minority view, which other Chinese analysts deem premature. Yet it sounds a good and even essential idea – given that, of course, the US and South Korea also have their own contingency plans to go north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) if need be. 

Like China’s, these focus on controlling weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and dealing with refugees. But US army captain Jonathan Stafford, writing in the latest (Jan-Feb) issue of the US army journal Military Review, goes further: urging the US and ROK to prepare for South Korea to occupy the North, or risk “losing the Korean dream of reunification to Chinese hegemony.” Beijing, in his view, “wants to develop its landlocked, economically backward northeast by gaining access to nearby North Korean seaports.” It could achieve this by establishing a puppet state, or even “incorporating North Korea into China proper.”

The latter is far-fetched, but a Chinese puppet state is not. Formally, the ROK still claims jurisdiction over the entire peninsula. The time may come when it will have to back up that claim, or risk losing the North. Already, while both Beijing and Seoul support engagement with Kim Jong-il, they are also rivals for influence in Pyongyang. If it comes to a DPRK collapse, Stafford wisely advises a background role for US forces; they should stay firmly south of the DMZ to avoid alarming China (as in 1950), and let the ROK take the lead.

Dangerous corner
Any North Korean collapse will be a dangerous moment in any case – but immeasurably more so if other powers muscle in, to stake rival claims for the post-DPRK era. A century ago, Korea’s three neighbours fought two wars in and for the peninsula as the old Choson dynasty crumbled. A rising Japan trounced China and Russia, themselves then moribund empires, to rule Korea for 40 years – until 1945, when again two rival great powers, the US and USSR, carved up the peninsula in a way that made civil war all but inevitable.

To repeat this history is to no one’s benefit. Kim Jong-il’s perverse achievement, in going nuclear, is to have so annoyed everyone as to forge, if not quite a united front against him, at least an unprecedented convergence – as seen in the 6PT. Such coordination – whether overt or, more probably, behind the scenes – should go beyond denuclearization (especially if that prospect fades) to embrace the full range of North Korean concerns; including, above all, the eventual endgame. Only thus is there a chance of avoiding a hard landing, or worse.

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