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Update No: 081 - (29/01/10)

North Korea: Mixed messages
If the last month of the old year was eventful for North Korea – a senior US visit, a weapons seizure in Thailand, and a strange currency redenomination – the new year by contrast began uneventfully. January saw no progress on any front in or with Pyongyang. Rather it was a month of mixed messages. This could be a deliberate ploy, to keep the world guessing and sow confusion. Or it may mean that behind the bombast Kim Jong-il’s regime cannot decide how best to proceed. There may even be divisions in Pyongyang over strategy and tactics.

Living standards take priority, in theory
Ever since the death of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung in 1994, ideological and policy directions have been laid down annually by a joint editorial in three daily papers. The best known is Rodong Sinmun, organ of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). The other two are Josoninmingun, for the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and Chongnyonjonwi, organ of the Socialist Youth League (SYL). (But not, be it noted, the Cabinet – i.e. government – daily Minju Joson.) What seems an almost full text can be read on North Korea’s Naenara website: http://www.kcckp.net/en/news/news_view.php?0+22208

The title is less than catchy: “Bring about Radical Turn in People’s Standard of Living by Accelerating Development of Light Industry and Agriculture once again This Year That Marks 65th Founding Anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.” As this suggests, the main focus for 2010 is on the economy – as it sorely needs to be. Long-suffering citizens, accustomed though they are to their rulers’ breathless boosterism, may find it hard to believe that last year “the economy of the country entered the stage of full-scale upturn.” The rest of the sentence rings truer than its authors may have meant: “… as all the people staged a life-and-death struggle under the leadership of the Party.” But what will they make of this? (Note that Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung’s names are printed in large font, and their words in bold):

Kim Jong Il said: “Our building of the country into an economic giant is aimed, to all intents and purposes, at radically improving the people’s standard of living. When the people’s living standards are decisively improved, hooray for socialism and singing of Arirang of prosperity can ring out louder across the country and the gate to a prosperous nation be opened.”

The idea of puny, stunted, backward North Korea as an “economic giant” boggles the mind.
As for “radically improving the people’s standard of living”, this year’s oft-repeated theme, amen to that. But this slogan is a huge hostage to fortune, because no way can it happen. An impoverished regime, currently under UN sanctions, still wedded to outmoded centralized control, which has just wiped out most people’s meagre savings with a predatory currency ‘reform’, simply cannot deliver better living standards – unless it both radically alters its policies at home, and also makes peace with the wider world by giving up nuclear weapons.

A mellower note
On that the editorial sounded a less bellicose note than in the past. It called for a nuclear-free peninsula – even while praising last May’s nuclear test as a “landmark event” – and “an end to the hostile relationship between the DPRK and the USA.” It was especially fulsome on ties with South Korea, which have soured in the past two years. Noting the upcoming 10th anniversary of the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration (i.e. the first inter-Korean summit held in Pyongyang in 2000, between Kim Jong-il and the South’s then president, the late Kim Dae-jung), it hailed this for promoting “great, unprecedented successes”, and urged:

National reconciliation and cooperation should be promoted actively. Reconciliation should be promoted with the common national interests given precedence, and cooperation should be encouraged through travel and contacts between the people from all walks of life. All sorts of legal and institutional mechanisms that hinder the projects for common interests and prosperity of the nation should be abolished and free discussion and activities of the broad sections of the people for reunification should be fully ensured.

Fine words, but do they mean it? As to “travel and contacts”, even during the decade of the ‘sunshine’ policy (1998-2007) these were strictly one-way; almost no North Koreans except high officials visited the South. As for “free discussion”, this is non-existent in the North.

Juche jihad
The response in Seoul, while welcoming this more mellow tone, was thus cautious. Rightly so, since barely a fortnight later Pyongyang was threatening fire and brimstone again. True, there was some provocation. The North can hardly be silent when the Seoul press openly discusses joint contingency plans with the US for various scenarios, including collapse of the DPRK. Under its previous left-leaning president, the late Roh Moo-hyun, the South hitherto refused to go beyond an outline concept plan for any such situation, called Conplan 5029. But Roh’s successor, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, acceded to Washington’s wish for a more detailed fully operational plan: Oplan 5029. This was promptly hacked in December, presumably by the North which has both an obvious motive and known cyberwar capacity.

On January 15 the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) issued a rare statement by the National Defence Commission (NDC): the DPRK’s top executive body, ranking above the merely civilian Cabinet. This did not pull its punches against what it called “a scenario for toppling the system in the DPRK jointly drafted by the American master and his stooge.” The full text can be read at http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2010/201001/news15/20100115-11ee.html.  It threatened “a sacred nationwide retaliatory battle, to blow up the stronghold of the south Korean authorities including Chongwadae” – i.e. the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House. Earlier unofficial translations used the phrase “holy war”, which made a few headlines. For good measure the NDC also demanded the immediate disbandment and severe punishment of those “tricksters” and “plot-breeding mechanisms” the unification ministry (MOU) and National Intelligence Service (NIS). And it drew a wider lesson:

The army and people of the DPRK regarded from the outset the improved north-south relations and the resumption of dialogue touted by riff-raffs of south Korea including its chief executive as sheer hypocrisy and have followed their rhetoric with vigilance without even a moment's slackness.

Yet other Northern actions suggested that hypocrisy is not all on one side. This fiery talk came the very day that Seoul confirmed Pyongyang’s belated acceptance of its stingy offer, made last October, of 10,000 tonnes of maize. The first food aid for two years, this is a far cry from the 500,000 tonnes of rice and 300,000 of fertilizer which the South used to send North (ostensibly on loan terms) during the previous decade of the ‘sunshine’ policy.

Kaesong: mixed messages
A day earlier, the North also proposed talks with the South on their two cross-border joint ventures: the Mount Kumgang tourist resort and Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ; the South’s ghastly romanization calls this the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, or GIC.) At this writing the South had not yet decided whether it will agree to discuss Kumgang, where Hyundai’s tours have been suspended for 18 months; ever since the KPA shot dead a Southern female tourist who strayed off-limits, and then refused to allow the South to investigate her death.

The KIZ is another matter, so three days of negotiations on and in the zone were held on January 19-21. This left the South puzzled. After months of harassment in the first half of 2009 (see previous monthly Updates), latterly the North had seemed to grasp that this is self-defeating. In December both Koreas sent a joint team to look at similar, indeed competing, industrial parks in China and Vietnam. Pyongyang appeared to have got the message.

Apparently not. The talks broke up without agreement, though they agreed to meet again on February 1. To Southern surprise, the North resurrected the demand it first made in May, but had dropped since, for a 300% wage rise from the present basic monthly US$58 (most in fact earn a bit more, with overtime) for the 42,000 Northern workers in the KIZ. The current rate may indeed be “paltry” as the DPRK complains, but wage competitiveness is the KIZ’s main attraction and selling point for the 100-odd SMEs now invested there. The North’s demand would render it wholly uneconomic; indeed, it would be the death-knell of the KIZ.

As ever it is worth reading the DPRK’s own words. KCNA reports on the KIZ meeting at
http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2010/201001/news21/20100121-07ee.html. The contradictions are glaring. First, the North says that “laws and regulations on the KIZ, contract on lease of land, wages and taxation … should be settled in conformity with international standards” – though it immediately adds “ and the peculiarities and actual conditions of the zone.” Yet two paragraphs later they claim that “the south side has viciously pursued the confrontation policy to seriously get on the [North]’s nerves and is opposing even negotiations on the increase of wages for the workers in the KIZ, which are very paltry at present, while refusing to pay more under unreasonable pretexts of ‘financial resources’ and the like.” It seems that local peculiarities trump international standards. But they cannot, in a global market – not to mention a lingering economic crisis, and the debt-laden balance sheets of most ROK SMEs.

No 6PT till sanctions are lifted
Back in militant mode, on January 17 DPRK media showed Kim Jong-il inspecting a large-scale joint drill of the army, navy and air force. The dear leader often visits military bases, but this is the first time he has been seen watching the KPA in action. Some photos of the drill showed road signs with South Korean place names, lest anyone fail to get the message.

North Korea also remains defiant on the nuclear issue. Its latest position, stated on January 18, is that it will not return to the six-party talks unless United Nations sanctions are lifted. Or in KCNA’s rather convoluted words: “If the six-party talks are to take place again, it is necessary to seek whatever way of removing the factor of torpedoing them.” Otherwise this would be like “talks between ‘defendant’ and ‘judge’.” This statement by the DPRK foreign ministry also reiterated that the way forward is first to conclude a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice: an old Pyongyang demand. Seen from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, this is back to front on both counts. North Korea must first recommit to denuclearization, this time with substantive steps to show it is serious. Only then can sanctions be lifted, and only then would a peace treaty have any meaning. It is hard to see how this impasse can be overcome.

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