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Update No: 104 - (26/02/12)

North Korea: All smooth, on the surface
As of late February Kim Jong-il has been dead for two months. His son Kim Jong-eun, who was at once hailed as the “great successor”, seems to have slipped almost seamlessly into his father’s shoes, judging from how the mass media report and eulogise him: printing his name in a larger font, like those of his father and grandfather Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. So it is now Kim Jong-eun who makes guidance tours, watches concerts, presses the flesh and all of the rest. He often does so with a beaming smile: just like the young Kim Il-sung whom he so strikingly resembles, but very different from the sour dour mien of his father in recent years. (Yet in another way he resembles Kim Jong-il, in that so far he has not been heard to speak in the media – unlike Kim Il-sung, whose hectoring voice sounded off at every opportunity.)

Two cults a-building
Shrunken and ailing since his stroke in 2008, Kim Jong-il had precious little to smile about. But obviously that is not how the regime wants him remembered. The images posthumously proliferating show him smiling broadly: for instance in a brand-new backdrop to a meeting called to mark what would have been his 70th birthday on February 16, now renamed as the Day of the Shining Star. (See the Party daily paper Rodong Sinmun’s new English website at www.rodong.rep.kp )

The entire top leadership was seated on the platform, with Kim Jong-eun centre stage – but not yet trusted to open his mouth: the veteran Kim Yong-nam (no relation) made the speech.

Pyongyang’s image-makers – anonymous, but as savvy as any on Madison Avenue – now face the challenge of constructing, in short order, not one but two new personality cults. It is not just Kim Jong-eun who needs building up, but also Kim Jong-il. Given the pre-eminence of loyalty and fealty, the dear leader during his lifetime (if hardly a shrinking violet) boosted his own father more than himself. For example, there were no public statues of Kim Jong-il.

There are now. Working at heroic speed, the Mansudae Art Studio – possibly the world’s largest art-industrial complex, including a thriving export trade to Africa – on February 14 unveiled a large (6 metre) bronze of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on horseback; the latter’s steed rears up. (Though he scarcely looked it, the dear leader was indeed a keen equestrian. His sometime Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto claims he suffered a serious fall in 1992, breaking his collar bone and lying unconscious for some hours. Where were the guards?)

The same day Kim Jong-il was awarded the title of Generalissimo, hitherto held only by his father, for (inter alia) his “immortal contribution to global peace and stability.” Meanwhile Volume I of his Complete Works rolled off the press: doubtless pre-planned to mark his 70th birthday, rather than a posthumous rush job. This fat tome contains 104 “historic speeches, conclusions, talks and others” allegedly dating from 1952 (when he was a boy of 10) to 1960 (when he turned 18). By contrast, at almost 30 Kim Jong-eun does not yet have even a single published work to his name – though no doubt even now the ghost-writers are busy plugging that gap. (Needless to add, none of his father’s supposed juvenilia came out at the time.) And there was more: new coins and postage stamps featured a smiling Kim Jong-il, who now also beams from a lapel badge for the first time. It is not clear who will wear this, for surely he cannot displace Kim Il-sung. Perhaps henceforth North Koreans must sport two badges?

Otherwise the Day of the Shining Star proceeded much as if the star in question were still alive. This being North Korea, the mere fact of his decease was no reason not to hold the usual festivities, from Kimjongilia flower shows – we can also expect a Kimjongeunia to bloom in due course – to synchronised swimming. (Both, plus much more, can be watched at www.kcna.kp)

After all Kim Il-sung, dead since 1994, remains the Eternal President; his centenary will be celebrated with vast pomp on April 15. As in any cult, the whole idea is to inculcate a sense of solemn unity between leaders and led, dead or alive, Unsurprisingly, mid-April – no exact date was given – has also been set as the time for a conference of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), announced on February 20. This is expected to see Kim Jong-eun officially appointed as Party general secretary, and perhaps also as chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC), the highest organ of state: the two positions held by his late father.

As of now, despite being hailed as supreme leader, the only new post which Kim Jong-eun has officially taken on is as commander-in-chief of the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA). Due process matters less in Pyongyang than symbolism. For that matter, purists might query the precise status of the upcoming WPK conference. It was not described as a Party Congress: the last of those was the Sixth, back in 1980, when Kim Jong-il first appeared in public. So it may be another delegate conference, like the one in September 2010 at which Kim Jong-eun was first revealed to his country and the world. Strictly there should be a congress every five years, and this is the only body qualified to elect the secretary-general. But here, as so often, the North Korean regime plays by its own rules – which it alters at will. Such is Juche.

Tourism as usual
Meanwhile all appears to be running smoothly. One indicator of this is that foreign tourists continue to trickle in: North Korea has not slammed the gates or battened down the hatches.

The British-run, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, veterans in this field, were assured as early as December 30 that North Korea would reopen to tourists from January 10. On February 16 Koryo announced a new tourist route, travelling by road from Rason special economic zone in the far northeast down the east coast to Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city (and the setting, as Koryo Tours fails to mention, of Barbara Demick’s award-winning book Nothing to Envy, with its harrowing tales of suffering). Rarely visited by foreigners, Chongjin – once a centre for heavy industry, how much of which still functions is unclear – has reputedly experienced both civil unrest and military revolt; including, by one account, the murder of four hated local officials as recently as during the mourning period for Kim Jong-il, and a separate incident where anti-Kim Jong-eun leaflets were scattered in the city’s downtown; see www.dailynk.com.

Adding it to the tourist trail thus suggests a certain confidence on the part of the regime.

Armchair travellers can peruse http://nknews.org or www.flickr.com, while as so often a single picture by the remarkable Eric Lafforgue speaks volumes: see www.flickr.com . On a grimmer note, Chongjin also houses a notorious prison camp at Susong, some 6 km northwest of the city centre; see http://freekorea.us/camps/25. It would be a bold tourist who innocently enquired about this!

Tourists are also welcome at the April festivities. Koryo Tours were told on February 21 that they can accept more applications until February 28 – only there is no guarantee which hotel they will stay in, nor that the Arirang mass games will be performed at this season (although another tour operator, the Connecticut-based New Korea Tours, insists that they will be.)

Nuclear talks: same old same old
Politics too has continuities, like shouting at South Korea while talking to the US. This year the faux rage against Seoul has been shriller than ever, including threats to counter-attack if the South proceeded with routine live fire drills near five islands in the Yellow (West) Sea, near the North’s coast, one of which (Yeonpyeong; not to be confused with the North’s own nuclear site, Yongbyon) the KPA notoriously shelled last November, killing four. The North even warned residents of the islands to evacuate before 9am on February 20. They did take the precaution of going into air raid shelters, but otherwise the South shrugged this off and the drill went ahead. Two imminent major joint US-ROK annual war games – Key Resolve kicks off on February 27, with the combined services’ Foal Eagle following on March 1 and continuing through April 30 – offer ample opportunity for further sabre-rattling.

But for now North Korea is talking to the US, if not to South Korea. Kim Kye-gwan – long North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, now the senior vice foreign minister – is due to meet the new US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, on February 24 in Beijing. Davies is an experienced nuclear negotiator, but is new to Korea. Despite pro-forma urgings from Beijing for the Six Party Talks to reconvene, as they have not done since 2008, there is no reason to expect any progress, much less a breakthrough, from this encounter.

Military moves
Returning to domestic politics, totalitarian transitions tend to be marked by purges. Of these there are rumours but so far no visible sign. Any personnel changes should become clearer in April: not only at the upcoming Party conference, but also at the annual one-day meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the rubber-stamp parliament, which is usually held in late March or early April.

Meanwhile the great successor has created yet more generals: a caste not exactly thin on the ground already. Among 23 promotions announced on February 15, two stand out. Kim Jong-gak, perhaps the hardest face among the DPRK’s many dour demeanours (see photograph and more at http://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com ), becomes a vice-marshal. In charge of political education within the KPA, among much else, Kim is now the second most powerful among the top brass after his fellow vice-marshal Ri Yong-ho. At Kim Jong-il’s memorial service it was Kim who spoke on behalf of the KPA.

Secondly, it did not go unremarked in Seoul that Kim Yong-chol has risen from lieutenant general to general. As head of the KPA General Reconnaissance Bureau, which oversees all operations against the South, this Kim is seen by ROK intelligence as behind March 2010’s sinking of the corvette Cheonan (which the North still denies) as well as other attacks, such as July 2009’s DDoS (computer virus) assaults on major ROK and US government agencies.

Another foe of the South has also bounced back. Kim Kyok-sik was in charge of West Sea naval forces, hence responsible for the shelling of Yeonpyong Island in November 2010. Thought to have been relieved of his command – his name did not appear on the 200-strong funeral committee for Kim Jong-il – he was spotted saluting at one of February’s birthday events. By one account he may even be chief of the general staff, a post he has held before.

A duo of denials
Finally, two non-events – or are they? Two recent press reports about planned investments, although each was promptly denied, might turn out to be a case of no smoke without fire.

On February 15 the Seoul news agency Yonhap claimed that China is to invest US$3 billion in Rason economic zone in North Korea’s far northeast. In exchange for a 50 year lease on three piers there, Beijing will build not only the piers but also an airport, a power plant and a 55-kilometre railway to the border town of Tumen; it has already nearly finished upgrading the hitherto unmetalled road to the border at Wonjong. Next day China’s foreign ministry said this was “not true”, but it all sounds very plausible since the plan is for Rason to become a much-needed port for China’s own far northeast (Heilongjiang and Jilin Provinces).

A few days earlier on February 11 the Dong-A Ilbo, Korea’s oldest daily paper, claimed that Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (S&ME), the second largest shipbuilder in the world, plans to set up shop in another North Korean special zone co-run with China, though this one is yet to be built: on Hwanggeumpyong island in the lower Yalu river near Dandong city in China and Sinuiju in the DPRK. The paper quoted Daewoo as saying it will construct a ship repair dockyard and a steel structures plant – in partnership with a Chinese firm, Rilin.

Here again Daewoo promptly denied everything. But the Dong-A’s story was detailed, and is plausible. Back in 2007 in happier times, Daewoo was keen to participate in the joint North-South shipbuilding agreed on in that year’s second inter-Korean summit: just one of many planned joint ventures on which South Korea’s current president, Lee Myung-bak, reneged when he took office in 2008. One can understand Daewoo’s embarrassment now, for since the eponymous parent Daewoo group went bust in 1999, Daewoo SM&E has been majority-owned by the ROK state; efforts to privatise it have so far failed. But a year from now, when a new leader will be in the Blue House – Lee cannot stand again – it will be a different story. If South Korea is to regain any of the ground Lee has lost in the North, then joint ventures with a Chinese partner may now be the way to do it. Of course, if the 2007 summit accords had been implemented, no such non-Korean intermediary would have been needed.

 

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