Republican Reference - Area ( 120,538 - Population 24,457,492 - Capital Pyongyang - Currency North Korean won - Chairman Kim Jong-il (WPK)

North Korea

North Korea















Books on North Korea

Click here to go direct to latest Update

Korea is in fact one of the world's older nations. Most of the peninsula was unified in 668CE when the southern kingdom of Shilla conquered its northern rival, Koguryo. Despite owing much of its civilisation to China, to which it was long a formal vassal, Korea is ethnically and linguistically quite distinct and was in practice self-governing.

Few countries have known a more painful passage to modernity. The imperialist age found the last Chosun dynasty in decay. Its efforts to keep out the wider world earned it the sobriquet 'hermit kingdom'; but its stubborn refusal to reform made it a "shrimp among whales": prey to whichever power achieved regional dominance. That turned out to be Meiji Japan, which trounced the fading Chinese and Russian empires to rule Korea brutally during 1905-45. This brought some development; yet the scars - such as 'comfort women' (sex slaves) - still poison ties between Japan and today's Koreas, as is evident from several recent bouts of conflict over history's wounds.

Those scars include Korea's almost accidental, yet fateful, partition: a 'temporary' US idea in 1945, to stop the Red Army occupying the whole peninsula. Predictably, US and Soviet zones hardened into separate regimes, proclaimed in 1948: the Republic of Korea (ROK) south of the 38th Parallel, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the north. In 1950 the north's ex-guerrilla leader, Kim Il-sung, invaded the south, but was beaten back by a US-led UN force. The 1953 Armistice - there is still no peace treaty - left both states in place, but terribly ravaged. Four million died. The sealed border, now ironically called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), hardly budged.

Thereafter the two Koreas competed economically and diplomatically. The DPRK led at first: its GNP was ahead of the ROK's until the 1970s, giving it clout in the Non-Aligned Movement. But the south's alliance with the US and export-oriented model proved a more lasting formula for success, even before the USSR's demise in 1991 both alarmed the now ageing Kim Il-sung and removed his main source of subsidy.

That blow exposed the 'Great Leader''s vaunted self-reliance (Juche) as a myth. As in Cuba, North Korea's economy went into free fall. Unlike Cuba, the regime's refusal to adapt led to catastrophe. In a uniquely tragic trajectory, a once industrial economy took a great leap backwards. In 1996-98, famine killed at least one million out of 23m people: some estimates run as high as 3m. The country relied on food aid, which fell as needs arose elsewhere (Afghanistan, Iraq) and donors grew exasperated.

Although acute privation remained, in September 2005 Pyongyang declared that it wanted food aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to cease, and foreign NGOs to leave, by the end of the year. In May 2006 WFP agreed a much reduced operation, feeding just 1.9 million North Koreans: barely a quarter of the peak of 6.5 million. Despite severe flooding in 2007 and fresh fears of famine in 2008, WFP was not allowed to resume a larger presence - until May 2008's news that the US would give 500,000 tonnes of grain, with 80% to be distributed via WFP. Yet in 2009 the DPRK expelled US NGOs distributing food aid, which it could ill afford to do. In December 2010 WFP warned that lack of funding may force it to withdraw. It is still there, but donor fatigue has reduced its funding and hence ability to help.

As of mid-2011 the US, EU and others had sent survey missions and were mulling whether to resume food aid. In July the EU decided to do so, on a modest scale. In February 2012 the US tentatively agreed to supply 240,000 tonnes of food in exchange for nuclear concessions, only for this to be cancelled after Pyongyang launched a rocket (which failed) that April. Supposedly carrying a satellite, this is regarded as tantamount to a ballistic missile test.

The wider problems are threefold, affecting economics, politics, and relations with the wider world. Economically, for decades the DPRK resisted market reform. In July 2002 it imposed drastic wage and price rises; but without supply-side steps to match, these produced little except inflation. In 2003, however, it became clear that wider, if still cautious, reforms were under way. Yet politically, the extreme cult of personality around Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, continued under his son Kim Jong-il - and now, if all goes to plan, will become a third-generation hereditary succession under Kim Jong-eun. This is a system which in the 21st century remains Stalinist, ossified, opaque, bizarre and cruel. In recent years the regime had sought to roll back market reforms and reassert control, as seen in a currency 'reform' in December 2009 whose effect, and seeming intent, was to wipe out citizens' meagre savings. Reports since 2012 suggest that further market reforms may be on the cards, though as ever its details and scope are unclear.

Still, even its foes must admit, and rue, the DPRK's staying power. More than two decades after the demise of the USSR, its battered Korean epigone is still alive and kicking - albeit now with occasional reports of unrest. A major challenge is whether this political model can manage a second transition to a third generation of hereditary leadership. With the death of Kim Jong-il from a heart attack on 17 December 2011, this is now being put to the test. So far the system still appears stable under Kim Jong-eun, though it is early days as yet.

Kim Jong-eun's succession
The succession issue, previously abstract, gained urgency in September 2008 with reports that Kim had had a stroke. He emerged in January 2009 to greet a Chinese visitor, and in April presided over the newly 'elected' parliament, but looked old and gaunt. By mid-2009 reports that his little-known third son, Kim Jong-eun, had been designated as successor appeared increasingly plausible, though there was still no official word from Pyongyang. As of early autumn, however, the dear leader's improved health - seen when he met Bill Clinton in August - had apparently put the succession process on hold, at least for the time being. It was rumoured that Kim Jong-eun was getting above himself and had been slapped down.

In mid-2010, however, a government reshuffle plus the calling of an unusual meeting in early September to elect a new Party leadership suggested that developments were imminent. That meeting was delayed, but Kim Jong-eun did emerge holding key posts, making it clear that he was the chosen successor. His quasi-exiled elder brother Kim Jong-nam promptly said he disagrees with a third-generation hereditary succession; he pledged support, but the note of dissent was clear - and was amplified in a book published in Japan in January 2012.

As soon as Kim Jong-il's death was announced, DPRK media hailed Kim Jong-eun as the "great successor". His first year passed smoothly, starting with a well-choreographed funeral for his father amid snowy scenes of mass grief. The usual events for Kim Jong-il's birthday on February 16 were followed in April by celebrations of Kim Il-sung's birth centenary, which also saw Kim Jong-eun formally appointed to the top state and party posts.

Yet successions are always the Achilles' heel of dictatorships, and there can be no guarantee that Kim Jong-eun's will prove problem-free. The sudden retirement of a top military figure, Ri Yong-ho, in July 2012 (supposedly due to illness), followed in November by the second change of defence minister in seven months - yet another was named in May 2013 - hinted at problems below the surface. If rumoured market reforms do go ahead, although much needed they could also prove destabilising.

The nuclear saga
Foreign relations are a third area of concern. Rather than reform, North Korea's response to adversity was to rearm. In a policy of militant mendicancy, the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), real or suspected, has been used to parlay resources. Thus after the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, when the Clinton administration considered bombing the Yongbyon nuclear site, the 1994 Agreed Framework (AF) with the US shut Yongbyon - in exchange for fuel oil and two new light water reactors (LWRs), to be built and paid for mainly by the ROK via a consortium, KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization).

Hopes of the AF as a model rose when Kim Dae-jung, a veteran dissident, was elected as South Korea's president in late 1997. His 'sunshine' policy of outreach led to the first ever North-South summit, held in the DPRK capital Pyongyang in June 2000, for which Kim won that year's Nobel Peace Prize. But progress proved fitful, as the US under George W Bush took a harder line: naming North Korea in 2002, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an "axis of evil". Perversely, part of North Korea's riposte to US pressure was twice to suspend most dealings with South Korea also - in 2001, and again in 2004-05 - although Seoul's sunshine remained largely undimmed, even as it now faced a nuclear-armed North.

In October 2002 the US accused the DPRK of having a new covert nuclear project, based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) - and says it admitted as much. (North Korea denies both the programme and the admission.). This sparked a new nuclear crisis. KEDO cut off oil supplies; North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors, restarted its Yongbyon reactor, and became the first of 170 signatory states ever to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A shift to dialogue came when an anxious China brokered talks between North Korea and the US in April 2003. Wider six-party talks ensued in August, bringing South Korea, Japan and Russia to the table too. Neither round made substantive progress; at both Pyongyang hinted that it has nuclear weapons, and might sell or test them. The fear was that Kim Jong-il had concluded after Iraq that only a nuclear deterrent can save him from sharing the fate of Saddam Hussein. With pressure from China, and some signs of a softer line by the US towards meeting North Korea's concerns, it was hoped that six-party talks would reconvene in 2003; but this deadline passed. In January 2004 an unofficial US delegation was shown what appeared to be plutonium at Yongbyon, whose reactor was up and running. The six finally met again in late February, but agreed only to hold a third round by June, preceded by working groups.

The June meeting brought hints of movement: for the first time the US tabled a concrete proposal, with incentives. But wide gaps remained; a fourth round was due in September, yet North Korea refused to commit to the process - all the more firmly after awkward revelations that South Korea had carried out illicit (albeit minor) nuclear experiments. Other obstacles include Pyongyang's continued blanket denial of any HEU activity. In the event the September deadline passed, as Kim Jong-il waited to see who would be the new US president. Though he will not have welcomed George W Bush's re-election, it was hoped that six-party talks would resume early in 2005. But in February a tough official statement reaffirmed that the DPRK has "nukes," and said it was indefinitely suspending participation in the six-party talks. Kim Jong-il later told a Chinese envoy that talks could resume if conditions mature, but this inevitably cast a cloud over prospects for progress.

While the stalemate persisted, in April 2005 a reactor shutdown at the Yongbyon site raised concern that this was to make plutonium for more bombs. Fears also grew that North Korea might soon conduct its first nuclear test, but in late May it categorically denied any such plan - while continuing to boast of its nuclear arsenal. In July it was announced that six-party talks would resume; a much-delayed fourth round duly began in Beijing on July 26. Unusually this lasted nearly two weeks, but no agreement was reached despite a serious atmosphere. The talks then recessed, and were delayed till mid-September. After a week's further negotiation, on September 19 to general relief an agreement on principles was signed - but thrown in jeopardy next day, when the DPRK demanded LWRs from the US as the first step before disarming. A brief fifth round held in November got no further. In December US-DPRK relations worsened again after the new US ambassador in Seoul, Alexander Vershbow, called North Korea "a criminal regime."

The stalemate continued into 2006. Tensions rose with the test firing on July 5 of seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 which apparently failed. This brought North Korea unanimous condemnation ten days later from the UN Security Council, including China and Russia. Then in October North Korea first warned it would test a nuclear device, and within days made good on that threat. A further UNSC resolution followed, this time including sanctions. On October 31 Pyongyang agreed to return to the six-party talks, and on December 18 a sixth round opened in Beijing after a hiatus of over a year. These got nowhere, with North Korea insisting that the US lift financial sanctions.

Despite this unpromising history, a further six-party meeting in February 2007 produced an agreement and a breakthrough. North Korea was supposed to shut its Yongbyon site within 60 days in exchange for oil, while five working groups would tackle not only the details of this but also wider diplomatic issues between the DPRK, the US and Japan. All the groups duly met, but in March a sixth round of six-party talks failed when Pyongyang boycotted it because it had yet to receive funds released after the US agreed to end an oddly timed freeze and probe of North Korean funds in a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia. This unexpected technical hitch was finally resolved in late June, and in July the Yongbyon site was finally closed again under IAEA supervision.

A further accord in October 2007 saw North Korea pledge to permanently disable Yongbyon and declare all of its nuclear programmes, both by the end of 2007. That deadline passed with disabling well under way, albeit now slowed, but no sign of a nuclear declaration. There was no undue panic in Washington, but any lengthy delay or defiance could prove fatal for the 6PT. By March 2008 concern was starting to grow, and as of late April there were fears that allegations of DPRK nuclear proliferation to Syria might scupper the 6PT.

In late May, however, North Korea handed over nearly 19,000 pages of Yongbyon records to the US. On June 26 the belated nuclear declaration finally arrived, followed next day by the blowing up of Yongbyon's main cooling tower. In response, Bush at once lifted long-standing economic sanctions, and gave Congress the statutory 45 days' notice that he would delist the DPRK as a state regarded as sponsoring terrorism. Yet delisting did not take place on August 11, as the US added the rider that a protocol to verify progress in denuclearization must first be agreed. In riposte, on August 26 Pyongyang announced that it had halted work on disabling Yongbyon and threatened to reopen the site. In September it asked the IAEA to remove seals from Yongbyon's reprocessing plant, escalating the crisis.

A compromise was effected by the then chief US negotiatior, assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill, who visited Pyongyang in early October. The DPRK's delisting followed on October 11, to chagrin in Japan but broad approval elsewhere, with hopes that the 6PT would now get back on track. However a fresh 6PT plenary, held in Beijing in December, stalled over the continuing dispute regarding verification protocols. Kim Jong-il in any case had scant incentive to make progress with George W Bush, since he was about to face a new US president, Barack Obama, overtly committed to engagement with America's foes.

Yet perversely 2009 found Pyongyang more militantly hardline than ever, declaring its right and intent to fire a multi-stage rocket - ostensibly to launch a satellite. It duly did so on April 5, sparking censure by the UN Security Council. In riposte North Korea said it will never return to the 6PT, kicked out IAEA inspectors and restarted its nuclear programme. Barely a month later, on May 25 it carried out a second and bigger nuclear test; for which it was again censured, and this time also sanctioned, by the UNSC. In August, however, a series of events - visits to Pyongyang by Bill Clinton and the head of Hyundai to bring home US and South Korean citizens held there, and a meeting in Seoul by two senior DPRK emissaries with the normally reviled ROK President, Lee Myung-bak - raised hopes that this mood of militancy might now be easing, at least tactically and temporarily. In November it was announced that the US special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, would visit Pyongyang. He duly did so in December, but nothing concrete has subsequently come of this visit.

In July 2010 the US tightened sanctions after the sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan. In November a US scientist reported being shown a hitherto unsuspected new facility to enrich uranium, suggesting North Korea is far advanced along a second route to making the bomb. Despite the concerns this aroused, over two years later the 6PT still remain in abeyance. The launch in December 2012 of a long-range rocket to put a satellite in orbit, seen as tantamount to a missile test, followed in February 2013 by a third nuclear test (the biggest yet), have the perverse double effect of making dialogue more urgent yet also more difficult, as the global community inevitably condemns such provocations via the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Any wider peace process will be a long haul since North Korea poses so many challenges. Two nuclear programmes and missiles are just the start. Other security worries include suspected chemical and biological weapons (CBW), the million-strong Korean People's Army (KPA), and more. Further concerns include past abductions (a major issue for Japan), drug trafficking and counterfeiting, refugees fleeing into China, and human rights. With interlocutors having different priorities, it is very hard to see what kind of deal the DPRK can accept that would resolve much or all of this. As mentioned above, the so-called Leap Day Accord with the US on February 29, 2012 raised hopes, which were dashed a fortnight later when Pyongyang announced a rocket launch. The young Kim Jong-eun will surely be wary of entering into any agreements which his enemies might construe as weakness.

Much earlier, a visit by Kim Jong-il to Beijing in April 2004, with an entourage consisting mainly of reformers, had raised hopes that Pyongyang might prove more amenable in future. Soon after that, a serious railway explosion which killed 161 people starkly emphasized the dire state of North Korea's infrastructure and its urgent need for new investment. This may have been one aim of Kim's trip to China in January 2006, which focused on the high-tech plants and special economic zones of Guangdong, China's richest province. Yet the sacking in April 2007 of the pro-reform premier Pak Pong-ju, who accompanied Kim to China, sent a worrying signal. Since then economic reform has been put on hold. Pak's re-appearance in August 2010 was a sign of hope, as is his return to the premiership in April 2013.

Sunshine, sunset?
Here South Korea could help, if conditions were right. Inter-Korean relations since the 2000 summit have been fitful. The North withdrew from talks for almost a year until mid-2005, for no clear reason. But since the South's unification minister met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in June 2005, ties had not only been restored but deepened, with promises of wider economic cooperation as well as some progress on local security issues. Two cross-border roads are now partially open; railways too were relinked, and after two years lying idle the first regular crossborder freight service began in December 2007, if only as far as the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), abutting the DMZ. At this, the most tangible fruit so far of inter-Korean cooperation, as of February 2012 some 125 small Southern firms employed 50,000 Northern workers, paying them barely US$60 per month, to manufacture household goods for export.

North Korea's missile and nuclear tests in 2006 were a rude slap in the face for Seoul, where an unpopular government struggled to find a way to show its censure - and implement UN sanctions - while not jeopardizing the sunshine framework. Having at first suspended food aid, it partly relented in August 2006 to offer emergency help in the wake of serious flooding - but the nuclear test put paid to that. The new six-party accord saw sunshine brighten once more: the South again pledged food aid despite April's missed nuclear deadline, and rice shipments resumed in June 2007 once it was clear that Yongbyon would be closing.

A new inter-Korean summit meeting, held in Pyongyang in October 2007, raised hopes in Seoul of putting North-South relations on a deeper and more businesslike basis than hitherto; hopes which grew when a follow-up meeting of prime ministers added further details and dates. However, South Korea's election in December 2007 of a conservative new president, Lee Myung-bak, who took office in February 2008 and said that he will seek more reciprocity from the North, put a question-mark over this expansion. In April North Korea denounced Lee in strong terms, thereafter insulting him repeatedly and stridently for over a year. Official inter-Korean ties were suspended, but business and other contacts continued.

In July 2008 the South suspended tourism to Mt. Kumgang after the fatal shooting of a female middle-aged Southern visitor. Relations steadily worsened, exacerbated by Southern NGOs launching leaflets critical of Kim Jong-il (and revealing his illness, of which ordinary North Koreans had not been told) by balloon across the DMZ. In reprisal, in December the North carried out its self-defeating threat to restrict border crossings and curtail the KIC. In January 2009 Northern threats against the South grew even fiercer; this was widely discounted as being a ploy for internal reasons, and/or to get Barack Obama's attention. In March North Korea closed the border three times without warning as a protest against (in fact routine) joint US-ROK military exercises, while in June it demanded huge increases in both wages and land use fees at the KIC. All this put in question the future of the zone, which nonetheless survived.

In March 2010 Pyongyang threatened to expropriate Southern property at Mt. Kumgang, and in April began to do so. Meanwhile on March 26 a mysterious explosion sank the Cheonan, an ROK navy corvette, killing 46. Despite initial caution in Seoul, on May 20 an official enquiry blamed a North Korean torpedo. Seoul retaliated by banning most trade and exchanges, though Kaesong was exempted; the North threatened war. After a few days of high tension this eased slightly, but North-South relations reverted to Cold War levels of icy mutual hostility.

Tensions flared again in late July, when US-ROK naval exercises prompted Pyongyang to threaten a "sacred" nuclear war. Hopes of a slight thaw were raised by agreement to hold a fresh round of reunions of separated families. This was held in early November, but hopes of it presaging a wider improvement of inter-Korean ties were dashed when on November 23 the North without warning shelled a South Korean island near its coast, killing four people and again plunging the peninsula back into crisis - though no wider escalation appeared probable. Tensions remained high in December, but in January 2011 Seoul accepted an offer from Pyongyang for military talks in February - which however broke up in acrimony. In June the North revealed details of secret inter-Korean talks, undermining any chance they may resume.

Despite much acrimony over this, in July two unexpected inter-Korean meetings on the fringe of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, plus an expected visit to the US by one of North Korea's top foreign policy heavyweights, raised hopes that serious diplomacy might resume.
However, Kim Jong-il's visit to Russia - his first in almost a decade - in August, despite his reiterating a supposed readiness to return unconditionally to the 6PT, suggested that for now the DPRK will seek sustenance from former friends, the better to cock a snook at its foes; while also luring South Korea with the prospect of pan-peninsular gas and rail links to Siberia.

This bait worked. September saw the South begin to ease its hardline stance, but the new mood between the two Koreas did not last. From December 2011 it was the North that took a hard line, with paroxysms of faux rage against Lee Myung-bak's supposed disrespect after the death of Kim Jong-il. Pyongyang vowed it will not deal with Seoul while Lee is in office; he must step down in February 2013. This apoplexy plumbed new depths of viciousness in the first half of 2012, including violent cartoons portraying Lee as a rat being bloodily killed and explicit threats that the KPA will do just that. DPRK media were hardly fonder of Park Geun-hye, branding her a "political prostitute" despite her advocacy of 'trustpolitik' with the North.

In December South Koreans elected Park as their next president. She took office on February 25, but the North's nuclear test a fortnight earlier - and threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against both South Korea and the US - soured hopes of any quick thaw in relations. To the contrary, in April North Korea withdrew its entire workforce from the KIC, effectively closing it. In early June the North suddenly offered talks on the KIC, the Kumgang zone and family reunions. The South accepted, but after initial contacts a planned minister-level meeting was cancelled at the last minute in a protocol row about the ranks of each side's delegation head.

An uncertain future
Overall, Korea now has odd echoes of two older eras. Again a hermit strategy has failed, as in the Chosun dynasty's late C19 death-throes. And again South has trounced North, as when Shilla defeated Koguryo 1,300 years ago - only this time by economic growth, not by force.

Indeed, the economic gap is so wide that the two Koreas no longer fit on the same graph. The South exports more in two days than the North in a year, and throws away more food than the North eats. Southerners have grown much taller and heavier than Northerners. The Korean question today is thus not just about nukes, but how these vast chasms can ever be bridged.

Five scenarios are possible. A 'soft landing', with Kim Jong-eun embracing peace and reform is still feasible and devoutly to be hoped and worked for. Since 2000 hopes had grown that this may finally be happening. Yet the current gloomy picture and past reverses counsel caution, and a young successor will make no hasty moves. Realistically the West's wish list needs to be disaggregated. Market reforms, prodded by China, are more probable than denuclearisation.

Alternatively, the alarums may continue, and North Korea limp on as is - but not indefinitely. Collapse and absorption is a third possibility: certain to be even costlier than in Germany, but unlikely to be as peaceful. Finally, a second Korean War would inflict vast casualties (again), and cost trillions of dollars to rebuild South as well as North. It is encouraging that even after North Korea's second nuclear test in 2009, or the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, no one seriously suggested a military response. But if Pyongyang provokes again, the risk will rise.

Since 2010 a fifth scenario has been emerging, which in a sense is a variant of the first. Any 'soft landing' looks ever more likely to take the concrete form of North Korea moving closer to China. Other powers, notably South Korea and the US, while welcoming anything which defangs the DPRK and its multiple menaces, could hardly be wholly happy if the price of this is for North Korea to become a pliant client state of Beijing. But it is early days yet.

In sum, even a world awash in turmoil has few unfolding dramas with stakes as high as this. The chapter in Korea's long history that began in 1945 is coming to a close. Can the DPRK leopard change its spots, and if so how and with what result? The only certainty, especially after the latest nuclear test, is that developments in Korea will demand our utmost vigilance.

 « Top  

Update No: 120 - (26/11/13)

More of the same in 2014?
This is NewNations' first update on Korea since July, so instead of a month there is almost half a year to catch up on. As a new year approaches, the third with Kim Jong-un at the helm, it is also apposite to ask what 2014 may bring. So we shall look forward, but first backward.

Overall, the second half of 2013 was quieter than the first. The lurid threats which peaked in March and April died down thereafter - until now: see our concluding paragraph. It remains hard to see what Pyongyang thought to gain from such extreme sabre-rattling, or why - God forbid - it might be tempted to try it on again. All interlocutors, China included, are utterly fed up with this rebarbative, recalcitrant, recidivist regime. Those who support engagement - as many still do, faute de mieux - now do so warily and wearily, rather than with enthusiasm or real optimism. Everyone has had their hopes dashed and fingers burned too many times.

Top brass musical chairs
Domestic politics remain as opaque as ever. Yet behind the theatrical mask of mass parades and endless celebrations of unity and loyalty, some difficulties cannot be hidden. The most visible problem is the extraordinary churn at the top of the Korean People's Army (KPA).

In October the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed that the KPA had a new Chief of the General Staff (CGS): Ri Yong-gil, a little-known general who only recently gained his fourth star. This had been suspected since August, since Ri was newly prominent in Kim Jong-un's entourage whereas the man he replaced, Kim Kyok-sik, suddenly vanished - he was last seen on August 3. Kim had only been CGS since May, though this was the second time he had held the post. Ri is thus the fourth CGS in 15 months: an extraordinary turnover. Likewise when Jang Jong-nam - a still more obscure but fast-rising general, who got his third star only in 2011 - was appointed as Minister of People's Armed Forces (MPAF, ie defence minister) in May, he was already Kim Jong-un's third appointee to that position. So North Korea has also had four different defence ministers in just over a year.

This is not normal. Under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, defence ministers and chiefs of staff served for years at a stretch. Over 60 years after the regime's foundation in 1948 the DPRK had just seven defence ministers, but in four years since 2009 it has had four - three of them since April 2012. Rather than generational change, which would be more stable than this, the likeliest hypotheses are two. Either Kim Jong-un has yet to find generals whose loyalty he can fully trust, or he is deliberately circulating them so that none has the chance to stay in one post and build up a power-base - which also suggests deep underlying mistrust.

Few fences yet mended
North Korea's international relations in the second half of 2013 were uneventful. No progress was made on the nuclear issue or towards reviving the long-comatose Six Party Talks (6PT, last held in 2008), despite various comings and goings - including 'track two' meetings with assorted former US officials in Berlin in late September and London in early October.

China as host is keen to resurrect the 6PT, and North Korea says it is ready for talks "without preconditions". That reasonable-sounding stance is deceptive: it appears to mean not being bound by any earlier commitments agreed during the long hard 6PT slog from 2003-08. With Pyongyang also declaring its nuclear weapons to be non-negotiable, understandably the US, South Korea and Japan are demanding some tangible sign that the DPRK is serious before talking again. They refuse to resume the old game, which at best involved interminable 'salami-slicing' - breaking down the disarmament process into tiny steps, for each of which Pyongyang demanded immediate rewards - and at worst, in the former US defence secretary Robert Gates' memorable phrase, ended up with the allies "buying the same horse twice". It is very hard to see how this impasse can be broken, unless somebody backs down.

Bilaterally, in late July China sent its Vice President, Li Yuanchao, for the 60th anniversary of what North Korea celebrates as Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War; everyone else marks this, more sombrely and honestly, as the 1953 Armistice. A month earlier China's new President Xi Jinping welcomed a new Korean leader to Beijing: not Kim Jong-un, who still awaits his invitation, but Park Geun-hye of South Korea. Recurrent rumours that Kim is to make his first official visit to China - supposedly this autumn, but the latest suggestion is before Chinese New Year (31 January) - have so far proved unfounded. It will happen sooner or later, but neither side wishes to risk a fiasco when it does. China may also be demanding concessions on the nuclear issue, or it may regard young Kim as not up to par for the task, yet or...

Mongolia steppes out
In late October Mongolia's President, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, became the first foreign leader to visit Pyongyang in the Kim Jong-un era. Mongolia is friendly with both Koreas, and all seemed cordial. But in a speech at Kim Il-sung University the visitor roundly declared that "No tyranny lives for ever" and emphasised Mongolia's own transition in the past 20 years to a market economy, abolishing capital punishment and more. (More questionably, he insisted further that "the Great Mongol Empire never waged wars without a justifiable reason." [1])

Elbegdorj did not get to meet Kim Jong-un but only the titular head of state, Kim Yong-nam. It is variously canvassed that either host or guest was angry: the former at such impertinent lèse-majesté, or alternatively that the latter spoke out as revenge for not being allowed to meet 'the Kim who matters'. All this is speculation. Nor should we assume that Kim Jong-un is either rude or too green to do the honours, for this is how it was in Kim Jong-il's early years in office as well. The dear leader initially cultivated an air of mystery, only emerging to greet important foreign visitors in 2000 and thereafter. Perhaps his son is similarly biding his time.

The Rodman delusion
Then again, one foreign guest Kim Jong-un is happy to hang out with is the eccentric former basketball star Dennis Rodman. After a week-long second visit in September, mainly spent on Kim's private island and yacht, Rodman was widely quoted on his host's "seven-star" luxury lifestyle and partying. A seemingly unembarrassed KCNA gave this a positive spin:

"Rodman is trying hard to make the reality of the DPRK properly known to the world. His visit to the DPRK helped the world know a lot of new things about Kim Jong Un. This gave a big blow at the U.S. and bourgeois media which have hurled mud at the DPRK so far. (KCNA 13 October 2013) [2]"

Can they be serious? The last sentence in particular betrays a terrible lack of judgment as to how the "reptile press" actually works, and the real impact of having Rodman as a publicist. It does not make North Korea or Kim Jong-un seem any nicer, or more normal; quite the reverse.

Kaesong limps back
On the peninsula, relations with South Korea have yet to recover from the body-blow, and - for North Korea - own goal of sabotaging the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last remaining inter-Korean joint venture. Idle for five months after the North abruptly pulled its workers out in April, the KIC partially reopened in September; but all is far from well. Many of the 123 small Southern firms (SMEs) invested there are in dire financial straits, despite bailouts from Seoul which they say are inadequate. Half a year's shutdown has cost them not only lost production but also reputation: not a few of their former trade partners are unwilling to risk a similar non-fulfilment of orders in future. Whether North Korea has learnt any lesson is far from clear, for it is still dragging its feet on allowing mobile phones and the Internet at Kaesong. Does Kim Jong-un not grasp how basic such facilities are in the 21st century, and how hobbled the KIC will be compared to its foreign competitors if it remains without them?

Spokes, unspoken
Perhaps not. Under Kim Jong-il the North Korean system was compared to a spider's web, or rather a bicycle wheel whose spokes do not touch each other but only the hub. So every unit reports upwards, without a sideways glance at or even any knowledge of what other units are doing. Western management-speak calls this a silo problem, and in Pyongyang it is extreme: lateral co-ordination is not only not structurally missing but actively dangerous. (A foreigner with three separate lines of business in North Korea reports that if he is there for purpose A and happen to run into a Korean associate from business B or C, they blank each other.)

Only such rigid compartmentalisation can explain how North Korea could simultaneously, with no apparent awareness of contradiction, seek more foreign investment and even create new special economic zones (SEZs) while sabotaging the main SEZ it actually has. Maybe Kim Jong-un files the KIC under inter-Korean ties, and hence politics rather than business. But potential investors won't do that. If not already deterred by UN sanctions - which while not formally banning all trade and investment, serve as a wider blanket discouragement to anyone fearful of incurring Washington's displeasure - they will surely hesitate to entrust their money to a country which behaves so arbitrarily, high-handedly and self-defeatingly.

China- and Russia?
At all events, we shall soon see. Having passed a new Law on Economic Development Zones (EDZs) targeting foreign investors back in May, just a month after it had closed the KIC, on 21 November North Korea announced its first 13 EDZs. Spread throughout the country, their specialisations vary: general economic development (4), industry (3), agriculture (2), tourism (2) and export processing (2). The latter two, significantly, are almost adjacent on the west coast at the mouth of the Taedong river, facing the east coast of China - which for both geographic and political reasons is the only likely source of FDI in present circumstances.

What about Russia? In September 2012, when Moscow at last gave up trying to get its money back and cancelled US$11 billion of accumulated Soviet-era debt, it earmarked US$1 bn for potential aid and investments. With still no sign of the much-mooted trans-Korea gas pipeline from Siberia to South Korea, so far the only fresh Russian investment in North Korea is in railways. 22 September, five years late, finally saw the opening of the upgraded (now dual-gauge) tracks from Khasan on the Russo-DPRK border to Rajin, 54 km inside North Korea; connecting Asia's most northerly year-round ice-free port to the Trans-Siberian railway and hence to Europe. This US$340 million project also involves modernising facilities at Rajin.

In an intriguing twist, when Putin visited the other Korea in November it was announced that three South Korean companies have an MOU to buy up to half of Russia's 70% stake in this project (the DPRK holds 30%). Despite official denials, this seems to breach the South's ban, imposed in 2010, on investing in the North outside Kaesong. As with the pipeline initially, no one seems to have consulted North Korea: an omission at once impolite and impolitic.

Sea of fire, again
That brings us back to inter-Korean relations, where the flickering Kaesong zone is currently the sole ray of hope. Hopes in the summer that reopening the KIC would lead to a wider thaw in North-South ties were dashed in on 21 September, when the North abruptly and callously cancelled reunions of separated families due to begin just four days later at Mount Kumgang. Readers may recall that name as a further sad piece of inter-Korean wreckage: a resort visited by 1.9 million South Koreans after 1998, but left largely to rot, since one such tourist was shot dead there in July 2008 and the North refused entry to Southern investigators. The North is keen to resume tours, so it cancelled the family reunions in pique at the South's insistence on taking matters one step at a time: reunions first, then - maybe - tourism talks. Earlier in the summer President Park Geun-hye's administration had seemed prepared to countenance a simultaneous package deal, so the North might rightly be puzzled at this change of stance.

But that is no excuse for the note on which we must regrettably conclude. Three years ago Northern artillery shelled the South's Yeonpyeong island, killing four; two were civilians. Rejoicing in this anniversary, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published several unpleasant commentaries. These, especially a 22 November statement issued by the "Command of the Korean People's Army [KPA] in the southwestern sector of the front" (where the shelling occurred), merit reading in full for sheer nastiness; the KPA document is at Sample extracts follow (emphases added in italics; the North also romanises the island's name differently):

Thunderous shelling rocked the earth, pounding the enemies who mounted pre-emptive attacks [not true - NN] with just showering of shells in the hotspot area in the southwestern sector of the front on November 23 three years ago. ..... The prompt counterattack ... turned Yonphyong Island into the sea of fire. This praiseworthy event proved that the DPRK will never tolerate anyone who provokes it and that the provokers will be made to pay a very dear price. ... This was also an eruption of the pent-up grudge of the army and people of the DPRK ...The deep-running hatred toward the enemies resulted in the shower of shells and the mounting resentment turned the island into the heap of ashes. ... The scene on the Island ... was quite spectacular. Not only inhabitants but service personnel of the puppet army tried to escape from the island to get rid of horror. The sea route leading to Inchon was blocked as they fled in disarray. ... Last year traitor Lee Myung Bak with just "2MB" of IQ held the farce [of commemorating the shelling]. This year Park Geun Hye and her group is behaving just as same as Lee. ... Park and her group should draw a bitter lesson from the shameful defeat they sustained from the Yonphyong island shelling. It is the fixed will and determination of the army and people of the DPRK ... not to miss an opportunity should the puppet forces make provocation again. Three years ago the retaliatory blow was confined to the Yonphyong island only but this time Chongwadae [the Blue House, South Korea's presidential office and residence] and other bases of the puppet forces will be put within the striking range. [Reinforcing coastal islands] is as foolish an act as trying to evade the shower of shelling with an ordinary umbrella. They should clearly bear in mind that everything will turn into stick of taffy by the unprecedented powerful military strike of the KPA.

They should never forget that the recurrence of the reckless provocation will reduce Chongwadae into the sea of fire leading it [sic] to the reunification.

With North Korea led by a young man partly educated in Switzerland, that longtime bastion of peaceful neutrality, while the South has a new leader offering "trustpolitik", it is deeply depressing and unconscionable that Pyongyang still, with no provocation whatever, spews out foul diatribes like this. Two thirds of a century after the peninsula was divided, sadly it is impossible to welcome a new year with any optimism that it will be better than the old one.


 « Top  


Our analysts and editorial staff have many years experience in analysing and reporting events in these nations. This knowledge is available in the form of geopolitical and/or economic country reports on any individual or grouping of countries. Such reports may be bespoke to the specification of clients or by access to one of our existing specialised reports. 
For further information email:

« Back


Published by 
Newnations (a not-for-profit company)
PO Box 12 Monmouth 
United Kingdom NP25 3UW 
Fax: UK +44 (0)1600 890774