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Update No: 094 - (26/02/11)

North Korea: Birthday blues
February 16 was Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday. Officially he is 69, but there is evidence that the year was altered to fit better with his late father Kim Il-sung’s dates. 2012 will be the Great Leader’s centenary, so it is more convenient for his son officially to turn 70 next year.

The Dear Leader’s birthday, a public holiday, was celebrated as described in past issues of NewNations. There were special performances of ice skating and synchronised swimming. In the latter, dozens of nymphets with red fans lined up in the pool to form the numbers 2.16. (See http://english.chosun.com or for a video clip [not to be missed!] http://itn.co.uk (Also, of course, there was the usual festival of Kimjongilia: a begonia named in his honour. (Naturally there also exists a Kimilsungia flower, an orchid; but not yet a Kimjongeunia.)

Kim and the giant peach
More unusual was a huge porcelain peach, symbolising longevity. This, plus a sculpture and a set of DVDs – all can be seen at the link above – was a birthday present from China, in the person of state councillor Meng Jianzhu, who visited Pyongyang during February 13-15. The gifts were not specified in official press releases, but Chinese internet chatter reckons this is a shou tao: a peach bun symbolizing longevity, traditionally given to those of riper years. Rich Chinese give shou tao of jade, gold or porcelain; Kim’s may be fine Henan porcelain.

Beijing’s choice of emissaries is interesting. Zhou Yongkang, who stood on the podium with the Kims at October’s military parade and seems to be China’s new point man on North Korea – he ranks 9th in the CPC Politburo – was Meng’s predecessor as Minister for Public Security. Security, of all kinds, must now be a major concern in Sino-DPRK relations.

A real shou tao peach bun would also contain a message wishing the recipient good health. That is another concern, as Kim Jong-il enters his eighth decade. While he has recovered well enough from his 2008 stroke to undertake an active programme of guidance visits, footage from October showed him limping and holding a balcony rail for support. His stroke is thought to have been caused by complications from diabetes, which may also be leading to renal failure: this could explain blotches on his face, and he is said to undergo dialysis twice weekly. That he has gained some weight and apparently started smoking again will not help.

Talks with the South break down
Externally, the month’s main news was that a hoped-for rapprochement with South Korea proved short-lived. The first official inter-Korean talks since the North shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong island on November 23, killing four, began on February 8 at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). These talks between colonels were intended to prepare for higher level military talks. They began promisingly, meeting for nine hours on the first day; which suggests a real effort to resolve problems. But on day two they met for only an hour before lunch – and just 12 minutes thereafter, before the North stormed out. A stream of vitriolic denunciations from Pyongyang swiftly followed; see e.g. www.kcna.co.jp

It was always going to be difficult to find an agreed formula to discuss the shelling, and the earlier sinking of a Southern warship last March (for which the North denies responsibility). Among a plethora of seemingly no-strings offers of dialogue in Pyongyang’s latest peace offensive, Seoul accepted military talks as offering a way forward. The sticking points, it appears, included niceties of language in specifying this agenda, as well as disagreements about the date and appropriate rank for the planned higher level talks to follow. Despite the ferocity of the North’s subsequent reaction, this may not be the last word. Hopes of renewed Red Cross talks, leading to further family reunions, have also been dashed for the moment.

The mugger as beggar
Bizarrely, North Korea finds no contradiction in rattling the begging bowl at those whom it simultaneously excoriates. Press reports in February claimed that all 40 DPRK embassies around the world have been instructed to appeal for food aid; by one account each has been given a quota. The US and UK confirmed that they have both been approached; but neither is minded to give, absent concessions by Pyongyang on the nuclear issue and a multilateral aid programme with proper monitoring. South Korea, perhaps cynically, wondered if the North’s need right now is really all that urgent, or whether this represents an early start in trying to stockpile food ahead of Kim Il-sung’s big centenary party in 2012.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) noted that “North Korea has had a severe winter and a poor vegetable harvest, and there could be an impact on the spring harvest.” A needs assessment by WFP and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is under way; its results should be published in the next few weeks. WFP noted that its DPRK programme, once its largest anywhere, is now 80% underfunded; so there is no guarantee that any new needs identified will be met. Pyongyang’s antics over the years, from nuclear backtracking to restrictions on monitoring, mean that donor fatigue has become a major problem.

Honey, I shrunk the capital!
South Korea’s Unification Ministry (MOU), which monitors the North, said on February 14 that Pyongyang has recently been downsized. As an administrative area it formerly covered a sprawling 2,630 sq km: more than four times as large as Seoul’s 606 sq km, yet with less than a third as many people (3 million as against 10 million). It has now lost half its area and a sixth (500,000) of its population, which suggests that the areas removed are quasi-rural.

Analysts in Seoul speculated that this is a money-saving move. Pyongyang residents have special privileges, including receiving rations when most of North Korea does not, as well as fewer restrictions on travel, better supplies and extra television channels. The excised areas will now become part of the surrounding North Hwanghae province. In another change, Nampo has become a Special City again. The port for Pyongyang, 50 km to the southwest with a population of half a million, has undergone several changes of status over the years.

A tale of three brothers
Speculation that Kim Jong-eun’s own birthday on January 8 would also be marked officially proved premature. However the ‘young general’ was prominent at festivities for his father, and their names are increasingly bracketed together; meaning that Jong-eun is sometimes now listed ahead of vice-marshal Ri Yong-ho, who nominally outranks him and was seated between the two Kims when the dauphin made his first public appearance last September.

Meanwhile Kim Jong-eun’s two elder brothers have also been in the news. The eldest, Kim Jong-nam, now in presumably permanent exile in China, went even more off-message than hitherto in interviews to a Japanese paper (the Tokyo Shimbun) in late January: criticising hawks in Pyongyang for the Yeonpyeong shelling, and saying North Korea should open up.

Kim Jong-chol, the middle brother, once seen at an Eric Clapton concert in Germany, is still a fan of the British guitarist. The South Korean broadcaster KBS, presumably tipped off by ROK intelligence, snapped him at another Clapton gig in Singapore on February 13 – with a woman, seemingly a close friend. (His father’s reported view that Jong-chol is “effeminate” and unfit to lead may simply mean that he is laid-back and not forceful in character – rather than gay or suffering a hormonal disease, as has been speculated.) He looked relaxed, unlike the now quite numerous photos of his younger brother at official occasions: in his Mao suit, guarded, perforce on his best behaviour. One wonders what the future may hold for all three.

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