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Update No: 083 - (26/03/10)

North Korea: A strange sinking
March in and around North Korea was fairly uneventful, or at least routine, until almost the month’s end. Then, late on the evening (around 2130 hours) of Friday March 26, the ROK navy corvette Cheonan – a substantial 1,200 tonnes and 88 metres long, carrying torpedoes and missiles and a crew of 104 – suffered a mysterious explosion which tore a hole below the waterline in the rear hull, shutting off the engine and power. The ship sank quickly; those who could jumped into the chilly waters. 58 were rescued, but 46 are still missing.

This happened 2 km off Baengnyeong: South Korea’s northwesternmost island, close to the coast of North Korea. Pyongyang disputes these waters; they have seen three fatal firefights in the past decade, the most recent only in November. As noted in last month’s Update, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) spent much of February raining artillery shells – albeit with due warning, having declared no-sail zones – close to the Northern Limit Line (NLL): the de facto western sea border since the 1953 Armistice. North Korea rejects the NLL, proposing instead an alternative boundary line further to the south. But this would put Baengnyeong and other Southern-held islands in Northern waters, hence it is obviously a non-starter.

Unsurprisingly, many at first feared the worst. Hours before, in rhetoric extravagant even by Pyongyang’s usual standards, the KPA General Staff had threatened “unprecedented nuclear strikes of [our] invincible army” against “the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet warmongers” if they sought to bring down the DPRK. Amid initial confusion, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak hastily convened a security cabinet meeting, while on Wall Street jitters caused both the ROK won and the general stock index to fall slightly and briefly. Yet despite natural suspicions Seoul kept its cool, with no hasty rush to judgment or action.

The morning after brought more calm, if not clarity. Navy divers were swiftly on the scene, but two days later were still being hampered by bad weather and strong currents. It may take up to a month to investigate (and if possible salvage) the Cheonan and determine what happened. It lies in waters only about 20 metres deep, so one hypothesis is that it struck rocks, or perhaps a mine. Another theory is that munitions on board exploded. Still another, according to anguished relatives who claimed to be quoting survivors, is that the vessel – built in 1989 – was old and leaky. South Korea’s defence minister, Kim Tae-young, commented after visiting the scene that the boat “appeared to have been split in half.”

Amid these various possibilities, a senior government official in Seoul said on March 27 that “given the investigations … so far, it is the government's judgment that the incident was not caused by North Korea, although the reason for the accident has not been determined yet.” Without being unduly conspiratorial, such a comment was in any event prudent – not to say essential. Had this been indubitably a North Korean attack, that would put South Korea in a very awkward spot. Not to respond would be read in both halves of Korea as weakness; yet a hasty or excessive riposte would run a real risk of escalation into a second Korean War. By reacting as it did, the South bought time and took the situation off the boil – whatever the truth. Whether or not Pyongyang was involved, many questions remain to be answered.

‘Inspections’ at Mt Kumgang
Despite the ship incident, inter-Korean exchanges – such as they are – were not affected. South Koreans continued to travel to and from the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), just north of Seoul. Yonhap, the semi-official ROK newsagency, reported on March 28 that a Northern cargo ship left an unnamed Southern west coast port for home the same day after delivering a routine cargo of 2,000 tonnes of zinc.

Meanwhile Pyongyang persisted in harrying Seoul on other fronts. Annoyed that the South refuses to resume tours to the Mt Kumgang resort, suspended since July 2008 after the KPA shot a Southern tourist there, the North is resorting to threats. On March 4 it warned: “if the south Korean government continues to block the travel route while making false accusations, we will be left with no choice but to take extreme measures.” Seoul has insisted all along that safety issues must be discussed first, and its own investigating team allowed to visit.

A fortnight later the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC), which handles cross-border exchanges, notified the Unification Ministry (MOU) and tour operator Hyundai Asan that it will "conduct a survey of South Korean property in the Mt Kumgang area from March 25 … All assets of those who fail to cooperate with the measure will be confiscated and they will be unable to visit Mt. Kumgang again.” Under such duress, representatives of Hyundai and other investors, but not the ROK government, duly visited the site for this unilateral spectacle. At this writing as of March 28 the inspections were continuing.

These assets are not insubstantial. Hyundai Asan has a lease on the Mt Kumgang site until 2052, and has already paid total fees of $487m for the privilege since 1998. Hyundai and other firms have also invested a total of $316m in facilities there, such as hotels, a hot spring spa, a golf course, and a sushi restaurant. Obviously all are suffering as their revenues have dried up; some are close to bankruptcy. Yet Pyongyang is mistaken if it thinks Lee Myung-bak will yield to such blackmail, or that the companies have any power to pressure him. As one Southern investor noted: “The North is threatening to seize our firms’ real estate while talking about attracting large amounts of foreign investment. What South Korean or foreign business will make new investments in the North under these circumstances?”

Also inspected, even less legitimately, was a 13-story state of the art family reunion centre, conceived in happier times but barely used as yet, built by the ROK government for $53m. If as some rumours suggest the North lets Chinese tour firms operate at Kumgang, that would create an interesting three-way row. While Chinese investors are happily snapping up DPRK mines and infrastructure, stolen property would be another matter.

Off to Africa, again
For a man who turned 82 in February, Kim Yong-nam – who as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) has been the DPRK’s titular head of state since 1998 – is still clocking up the air miles, particularly to Africa. On March 27 he left on a trip to Gabon, Gambia and Senegal. In May last year Kim visited South Africa and Zimbabwe, while March 2008 found him in Angola, Congo, Uganda and Namibia. In July 2007 he went on a tour of five nations: Mongolia, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Singapores.

The purpose of this latest trip was not stated. But the Senegal leg is no doubt for the official dedication on April 4 of the Monument to the African Renaissance, a huge and controversial copper sculpture erected by a team from the DPRK’s Mansudae Art Studio on a hill outside Dakar. Taller than the Statue of Liberty at 50 metres high, this depicts an African couple and baby emerging from a volcano. A pet project of another octogenarian, President Abdoulaye Wade – who is at least 83 – it has been widely attacked on almost every count. Many deem it an extravagance in a poor country. The cost is officially US$25m, but some estimates run to $70m. The discrepancy may be because, by Wade’s own admission, having no budget he offered as payment a prime piece of state-owned land – which North Korea has since sold on at a tidy profit. Claiming personal credit as part-designer, the president also thinks he should get a share of the admission fees; he hopes it will be a tourist attraction, and like the Statue of Liberty there is internal access to a small viewing platform (in the male figure’s head).

Monumental mistake?
That personal profit has been criticized too. Almost half of Senegalese are jobless, so trade unions deplore that only 50 Senegalese worked alongside 150 North Koreans. Ideologically, in a nation that is 90% Muslim, imams have denounced the monument as idolatrous and for its semi-nudity, while Christians were outraged when Wade likened the statue to Jesus. Feminists have a different gripe; the woman is behind and being pulled along by the man, while he is the one holding the baby. Aesthetically, built in typically heroic socialist-realist style, the thing hardly appears African. (President Wade admits he demanded changes to the original design, where the heads looked Asian. The same criticism has been made of other North Korea-built official statuary in Africa, of which there is quite a lot.) While doubtless glad of the money, in public relations terms Pyongyang has done itself few favours with this project. Then again, neither the Statue of Liberty nor the Eiffel Tower were popular at first.

North Korea’s interest in resource-rich Gabon is probably more commercial, unless the new president Ali Ben Bongo can be persuaded he needs some monuments. Conservative Gabon has hitherto leant mostly towards the other Korea: Bongo’s father and predecessor, Omar Bongo, visited Seoul in 2007. Much earlier, in August 1982, the long-serving Bongo senior (who took power in 1967) had an awkward moment welcoming South Korea’s then military dictator Chun Doo-hwan to Libreville, when a Gabonese military band serenaded the state guest with the North Korean national anthem. This caused not a little quiet mirth in Seoul.

North Korean construction in Africa and elsewhere is by no means confined to monuments. In recent years the DPRK has rather belatedly gone into the gastarbeitern business, to earn much-needed foreign exchange. (By all accounts wages are paid to the government; how much the actual workers get is not clear.) The Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo reported on March 15 that up to 30,000 North Koreans are labouring in China, Russia and the Middle East; in the latter case following the precedent of South Korea some three decades earlier.

The JoongAng added that some 1,000 DPRK workers are in South Africa, renovating four or five of the stadia to be used for the upcoming soccer World Cup in June. This too sounds a lucrative contract – if it is true. For a day later the South African journal Business Report, having canvassed construction firms involved, denied the whole story.

For the first time ever both Koreas have made it to the World Cup finals. Another right-wing Seoul daily, the Chosun Ilbo, on March 22 quoted the Swazi press as saying that the DPRK had asked for US$250,000 to set up a training camp for its World Cup squad in Swaziland, close to South Africa, but was turned down. North Korea promised to run a clinic for local football players and coaches, play a practice match with the Swazi national team, and give an interview to the local press. In return it demanded transport, accommodation and meals.

Similarly, the Chosun cited a Nigerian sports paper as saying that warm-up match set for April 14 in Pyongyang is now uncertain because the DPRK wants Nigeria to pay, contrary to the principle that the host country covers the expenses for a visiting sports team. Nigeria is one of the few African states to keep a resident ambassador in Pyongyang.

Parliament will meet on April 9
Presumably Kim Yong-nam will hasten back to be in Pyongyang by April 9 so as to preside over the second session of the 12th SPA, announced on March 18. It appears that as usual, what passes for a parliament in Pyongyang will meet for just a single day: a brevity which highlights the SPA’s rubber-stamp status and impotence. This is deemed sufficient to hear an economic report and pass the budget, normally with no hard numbers. Sometimes personnel changes are also revealed. A full report will appear in next month’s NewNations Update.

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