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Update No: 096 - (30/04/11)

Carter snubbed again
What was billed as April’s main event in North Korea, almost at the month’s end, turned out to be rather a damp squib. Former US president Jimmy Carter, now 86, paid his third visit to Pyongyang; this time on behalf of ‘The Elders’, a group of elder statesmen founded by Nelson Mandela. Though most media focused on Carter, he was not alone but accompanied by three (less elderly) European former heads of state or government: Ireland’s Mary Robinson, also a one-time UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Gro Harlem Bruntland of Norway, a former head of the World Health Organisation (WHO); and Finland’s Martti Ahtisaari, the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his peace-making efforts in the Balkans and elsewhere.

This was a high-powered team. Much, perhaps too much, was expected of it – or hoped for.

The Korean peninsula at the moment appears an intractable Gordian knot. It cries out for a deus ex machina – to mix classical metaphors – to come and cut through it at one fell swoop. This time, the implicit hope was that all concerned – above all, the two Koreas and the US – might at some level tacitly acknowledge the impasse; using Carter and his colleagues to send messages, or at least serious signals, which could serve to put direct dialogue back on track.

Carter famously did just that on his first trip to North Korea, back in June 1994. Then too his visit was nominally private, but he achieved a breakthrough: defusing a serious nuclear crisis – plus ça change – and even averting war. The US had drawn up plans to bomb the nuclear site at Yongbyon, and was considering evacuating 80,000 Americans from South Korea.

Back then, Carter was welcomed by North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. The two men and their wives even took a boat trip together. (Pictures of this can be found online, eg here: www.pbs.org). Carter hoped also to meet the Great Leader’s son and heir apparent, but Kim Jong-il did not oblige him. (This would become a pattern.) But he accomplished much. Within months the US and DPRK signed an Agreed Framework (AF), sealing the facilities at Yongbyon. The AF had its critics, but at least it canned North Korea’s nukes. Bill Clinton went on to hold talks about curbing missiles as well – before George W Bush, of course, blew everything.

In another Carter breakthrough, often forgotten now, Kim Il-sung also agreed to what would have been the first ever inter-Korean summit – only to die weeks later, just before this was due. Kim Young-sam, South Korea’s then president, responded not with condolences (as the US did) but by putting ROK forces on high alert. Momentum and goodwill were thus lost.

All that is heavy water under the bridge now. Since then Carter has been back once to North Korea, only last August: to rescue a US Christian activist, Aijalon Gomes, who had crazily and illegally entered North Korea from China. This visit echoed one by Bill Clinton a year earlier, when he brought home two US journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had also illicitly crossed the border (they claim they were lured into doing so) while filming in China. Hopes that Carter this time might bring out Jun Young-su, a US-Korean businessman held in the DPRK (having entered legally) on charges of missionary activity, proved unfounded.

Kim Jong-il had hosted a dinner for Clinton, but a year later he left on a sudden trip to China – his second in four months – just as Carter arrived. The latter thus had to make do with Kim Yong-nam, now the DPRK’s titular head of state. They had met before: in 1994 Kim Yong-nam was foreign minister, and took a hard line before Kim Il-sung agreed to concessions.

Third time unlucky
Now it is third time unlucky. Before his latest visit Carter expressed a hope to meet not only Kim Jong-il, at last, but also the new heir-apparent: the recently unveiled Kim Jong-eun. In the event he saw neither of them: a considerable and doubtless a considered snub. Yet again he was fobbed off with Kim Yong nam, and also with foreign minister Pak Ui-chun, who is a nobody. The real heavy hitters in North Korean foreign policy are Pak’s nominal deputy as first vice minister, Kim Kye-gwan, and his predecessor, Politburo member Kang Sok-ju.

In fact Pyongyang’s handling of the whole visit could hardly have been more disrespectful. For a start the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) named only Carter, but none of his distinguished colleagues. KCNA’s reports on the visit were minimal in the extreme; some only a single sentence. The unofficial site nk-news.net, which archives KCNA, tallied six such snippets totalling 282 words. It is worth listing these, to get their offhand flavour:

Apr 26, 2011. Delegation of Elders Here (20 words)
Apr 26. Pak Ui Chun Meets Elders' Delegation (54 words)
Apr 27. Gift to Kim Jong Il from Elders' Delegation (46 words)
Apr 27. Kim Yong Nam Meets Elders' Delegation (47 words)
Apr 27. Elders’ Delegation Tours Different Places (95 words)
Apr 28. Delegation of Elders Leaves (20 words)

By contrast, a single KCNA report on Carter’s visit last year was longer than all these put together (461 words). Almost as large this time, at 265 words, was a gratuitous item quoting a Beijing spokesman, Hong Lei, who confirmed that China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi had met the Elders on April 26. KCNA found space for plenty of flannel by this lowly figure – “It conforms with the common interests in this region to defend peace and stability in the peninsula, promote denuclearization and realize normalization of relations of the countries concerned, Hong noted” – yet quoted nary a word by Carter or his distinguished colleagues.

Conceivably, more than meets the eye might be going on behind the scenes; so post-mortems may be premature. Yet on the face of it this was a sadly squandered opportunity. Pyongyang manifestly was not interested – but why, exactly? And in that case why bother to permit this visit at all, if only to downplay and coldshoulder it with such ostentatious rudeness?

Sorry, we’re busy
As usual both domestic and external factors are in play. The Kims may be preoccupied with the delicate task of effecting Kim Jong-eun’s succession – and gearing up for Kim Il-sung’s centenary in April 2012. Less than a year from now, by its own vow, North Korea will be a “great and prosperous nation” (kangsong taeguk). Now that will indeed be “a grand magic” – as KCNA described one of the entertainments laid on for Carter and co. How will they do it?

Right now Pyongyang has different foreign priorities. A flurry of activity suggests they are gearing up for Kim Jong-eun’s first acknowledged visit to China. (He went last year with his father, but this was not announced). If so, the Elders’ timing may have been a distraction.

Or Pyongyang could be cross, on several counts. Unlike in 1994 when he took a senior State Department Korea hand with him, this time Carter’s visit had very little Washington input. He bore no known message from Obama. Why then should Kim Jong-il waste his time?

The DPRK may also have looked askance at the Elders’ agenda. The group voiced a range of concerns, without clarifying which took priority. Carter’s urgent pleas for food aid will have pleased Pyongyang as much as they riled Seoul (see below). But mention of human rights will not have gone down well, while the nuclear issue remains central yet intractable.

Importantly, it was not only North Korea which ‘dissed’ the Elders. South Korea was pretty dismissive as well. This was in part Carter’s fault, for sharp comments made both in Beijing beforehand and in Seoul afterwards. In the latter, he said: “For the South Koreans and for the Americans and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation.” (He can be heard here: www.bbc.co.uk )

That is a point of view, yet the issues are complex. It would have been wiser had he balanced this with recognition of the DPRK regime’s own culpability for its people’s hunger. Simply criticising the US and South Korea sounds one-sided, and it sparked a predictable backlash.

But some were rooting against him anyway. The hardline rightists who hold sway in Seoul for now – there are elections next year – have not forgiven Carter his bid when president to cut US troop numbers in South Korea, even though he was eventually dissuaded from this.

President Lee Myung-bak, who had other things on his mind – his ruling Grand National Party did badly in by-elections on April 27 – did not see the Elders. In Seoul they met with the unification and foreign ministers. The latter, Kim Sung-hwan, had said before the visit that North Korea should contact the South directly rather than using foreign intermediaries.

Bizarrely, just before leaving Pyongyang Carter and co were called back to hear a personal message from Kim Jong-il read out to them: “He specifically told us that he is prepared for a summit meeting directly with President Lee Myung-bak at any time to discuss any subject directly between the two heads of state.” That too brought yawns in Seoul. The North has said for months that it wants talks, but the South deems this pointless absent an admission and apology first for its two fatal attacks last year: sinking the corvette Cheonan in March, which it still denies, and shelling an island in November (it says the South provoked this).

Optimists seized on a phrase where Carter reported the North as expressing “deep regret for the loss of life on the Cheonan and …Yeonpyeong Island.” Yet this fell short of an apology, and its status – who said it, in what context – is obscure. Seoul needs more than this. The Elders will next brief leaders in Washington and Europe, but to what avail is yet to be seen.

‘Parliament’ meets
Before this visit, April saw the customary pair of major events. Sun’s Day – Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15; he would be 99 – witnessed the usual celebrations, including the 27th April Spring Friendship Art Festival. Foreign ensembles came mainly from the ex-USSR.

Earlier in the month, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, met on April 7. As usual a single day sufficed to hear an economic report and approve a budget with no published real numbers. There were a few personnel changes, two quite significant. Against some predictions, neither Kim Jong-il nor Kim Jong-eun attended and the latter received no further promotions. Kim Jong-il often does not bother to turn up, although he did last year. Unusually, father and son were reported as elsewhere: giving on-the-spot guidance in the northern border province of Jagang during April 6-8. Kim Jong-il’s sister Kim Kyong-hui, and her powerful husband Jang Song-thaek, were also in that party.

All this can be read in several ways. It highlights the irrelevance of the SPA: large meetings reportedly bore Kim Jong-il. After last autumn’s rare Party conference, 2011 may be a year of consolidation as Kim Jong-eun seeks to turn his formal anointment into substantive clout. At all events the younger Kim did not, as some had forecast, gain a position on the National Defence Commission (NDC): the highest executive organ of state, outranking the Cabinet.

The SPA appointed Ri Myong-su, a general and a key aide to Kim Jong-il, as minister of people’s security. He replaces another general, Ju Sang-song, in post since 2004 but who on March 16 was unusually announced as dismissed by the NDC due to illness. Only a month before that Ju had received his visiting Chinese counterpart, so this may conceal a purging.

Jon Pyong-ho, who has long run the armaments industry, was removed from the NDC. He was supposedly transferred, but no new post was mentioned – and he is 84. His successor is Pak To-chun: a former chief Party secretary in Jagang, where many arms factories are sited. At 65 Pak is young by Pyongyang elite standards. He seemed to be in two places at once: KCNA reported him accompanying the Kims in Jagang. Or perhaps he skipped the SPA.

Budget blanks and bluster
The SPA economic reports were as opaque and unconvincing as ever. Although premier Choe Yong-rim declared 2010 had been a year of “big successes”, 2011’s tasks still included to “remarkably increase” output of consumer goods, “attain the goal of grain production without fail” and bring about a “decisive turn in improving the standard of people's living.”

Finance minister Pak Su-gil reported that in 2010 revenues rose 7.7% while spending was up 8.2%. Light industry and farming, perennial priorities, each got above-average rises. For 2011 – the calendar year is the financial year – revenue is slated to rise 7.5% and spending by 8.9%. The largest increase, 15.1%, is for capital construction, to complete key projects in time for Kim Il-sung’s centenary in April 2012 under the Kangsong Taeguk campaign.

As usual Pak gave only percentages. South Korea’s unification ministry (MOU) translated some of these into hard numbers, although its basis for doing so is unclear. MOU put the North’s overall budget for 2011 at 567 billion Northern won (KRW), which it equated to US5.73bn: a tiny fraction – barely 2% – of the South’s 2011 budget of US$268bn.

The disconnect between this vague ritual and harsh economic reality has grown pathological. Lack of numbers apart, the slogans vary little from year to year. Claims of success being de rigueur, there can be no direct admission of problems. Nor is it clear who runs the economy. No further detail was given about a new State General Bureau for Economic Development (SGBED), announced in January as in charge of strategy – but unmentioned subsequently.

In sum, North Korean politics, economics and foreign policy all marked time in April. Hopes of spring in these spheres were thwarted: all seemed frozen fast. That cannot endure for ever.

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