Wednesday, December 19, 2012

South Korea Goes to the Polls

 South Korea has gone to the polls this morning. With the belief appearing to be that if more than 73% of people turn out to vote then "progressive" Moon Jae-in will win, while less than 70% will make it a win for the conservative darling Park Geun-hye, the day's left wing papers ran with exhortations to vote. In the case of Hankyoreh this meant a piece of abstract art extolling the virtues of standing in line in the cold; meanwhile, the Kyunghyang channeled the death of Emily Davison in 1913 instead.

I took the temperature of democratic fervor in Jangan-dong at 7AM, and can confirm that it was resolutely lukewarm. However, we can expect it to heat up during the day. Will it reach 73%? currently the statistics suggest not, but we'll see.

On the right, Mrs. Green shows her dedication to the good fight, perhaps also channeling Miss Davison following her marriage to a Brit? Who knows. Note to the bottom right a statement declaring that Unified Progressive Party candidate Lee Jung-hee is not on the ballot. Just say no to extremist socialism, kids.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Phones, Phones and More Phones?

A pithy moment from my latest piece for SinoNK, which you can read more of right here:
However, the pain is actually quite a long way short of being over. In a moment of uncharacteristic efficiency, the actual cell phone shop is often directly outside the communications office, but in a moment of karma-balancing inefficiency, it doesn’t open much, carries a limited amount of product and is pitifully understaffed. As a result, queues are long, as are waits. Assuming an individual lives long enough to reach the front of such a queue, he or she is finally offered the opportunity to hand over another $70-$100 and depart the scene with a brand new phone.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Can't Get There from Here

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sunshine policy, and Moon Chung-in is all for it! But I and my good friend Steven Denney are less enthusiastic here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Let the Chopped Branches Speak

A piece I published at Asia Sentinel on October 19th, 2012:

With phrases like “economic improvement measure” swirling around Kim Il-sung Square as short skirts in Pyongyang inspire whispered talk of greater freedom for the masses, 2012 has turned into a year of hope for the DPRK.

In such circumstances, it is no surprise that the talk of the town this week is an unusually frank, open interview given to former Finnish Minister of Defense Elisabeth Rehn by a suave young man named Kim Han-sol.

Any Han-sol interview was always going to be a point of interest for the international community. As Kim Jong-il’s grandson, he’s nominally close to the center of the family and, as the interview reveals, speaks English like a native. The interview content doesn’t disappoint, either; holed up in an international college in the Bosnian city of Mostar, the young man speaks of a Libyan roommate thrilled by the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi, of interaction with South Korean friends, of his father’s disinterest in politics, and of his sadness at never “being sought out” by his grandfather.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Spinning Ball Is a Tough One to Hit True

Any tennis player, particularly a relatively bad one like me, will tell you that a rapidly spinning ball is a hard ball to return effectively on the bounce.

Ditto North Korean economic improvement measures. Is it better to try and hit the ball while it is still in the air, spinning as it has been spinning for the last 60 years, knowing that will result in a weak return that could be pounced upon by one's opponent, or would one be better off letting it bounce before returning it, knowing that this will either result in a fabulous cross-court winner or a disastrous hook over the fence and into the park beyond?

More on why this matters here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Progressives Love Progress, Right?

As I noted in my last post right here at Destination Pyongyang, this December’s presidential election is shaping up to be a fascinating battle, pitting as it does the rightwing dictator’s daughter Park Geun-hye against democracy activist and former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, and both of them against the entrepreneurial, philanthropic founder of AhnLab, Ahn Cheol-soo.

Such a triumvirate does not merely demand that the South Korean citizenry decide who they want to lead their country for the next five years, it also implicitly asks every voter to decide what kind of Republic of Korea they would prefer to live in.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

3-Way Election Battle Fun Is Go!

Yesterday, entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Cheol Soo finally declared his candidacy in the upcoming 18th South Korean presidential election. Although one could argue that the extended period of indecision which preceded the declaration doesn't bode well in terms of Ahn's decisiveness in the face of nasty, brutish and short Northeast Asian politics, it certainly did all us election watchers a favor because now we only have to follow the mud-slinging for three months or so before it's all over.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

All Aboard the Bicycle Express

They Want to Ride Their Bicycles | It rapidly becomes clear to anyone paying a visit to non-Pyongyang urban North Korea that bicycles play an important role in daily life. In percentage terms, anecdotal evidence has it that 70-75% of families have one. Thus, it is not excessive to say that the country has become a nation of cyclists, at least in the cities.

This is as true down in Kaesong as it is anywhere else. Indeed, in a recent piece released by Chosun Exchange, this very city was cited as one place that has enjoyed a particularly impressive increase in bicycle ownership over the last decade, to the extent that streets “that were a few years ago dominated by pedestrians are now clogged with bicycles.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is Jang Sung Taek Going to Walk the Walk?

At some point in the second half of the 1980s, Hwang Jang Yop and Jang Sung Taek met. Hwang had called on Jang, then a newly elected candidate member of the Chosun Workers' Party Central Committee, to discuss his concerns about the state of the North Korean economy, which he had already begun to worry was in an uncontrollable downward spiral. Hwang was not an economic hand, and felt helpless.

“Comrade Jang,” Hwang is said to have begun. “What are we going to do? Our nation is going bankrupt!”

However, Jang seemed surprisingly indifferent. “There’s no need to worry,” he responded flatly.

“What do you mean?” an incredulous Hwang bounced back. His voice was as composed as ever, but there was unmistakeable concern on display, too. “By whatever measure you choose to look at, our economy is failing!”

“I said don’t worry,” Jang declared again. “And I said it because we are already bankrupt.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

Hyperbolic North Korea Reform Claims Debunked

Yesterday, Radio Free Asia ran a story that caused a bit of a furore, claiming as it did that North Korea has officially abandoned its state distribution (or 'rationing', if you prefer) system. Full text below (translation Destination Pyongyang);
North, Announces Discarding of Socialist Planned Economy Seoul- Moon Sung Hwee moons@rfa.org  
It has emerged that North Korea has officially introduced its ‘new economic management system’ and announced the abandonment of the planned economy and public distribution.

However, free education and healthcare will remain untouched as the authorities assert that the ‘new economic management system’ is not the same as ‘reform and opening’.

Moon Sung Hwee in Seoul has the story.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When Is Page One Not Page One?

Yesterday, Geoffrey See unleashed Chosun Exchange's take on a controversial statement released by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) on July 29th, in which the CPRF declared that there is to be no "reform and opening" in North Korea.

The analysis was excellent, primarily because it went beyond simple restatement of the original Rodong Shinmun copy.

One thing it missed, however, was perhaps important: that the original statement actually appeared on page 5 of the paper version of Rodong Shinmun. It only appeared on the front page of the web version, which is for international consumption.

Can you imagine making global news out of something published on pg. 7 of the New York Times? Pg. 15 of The Guardian? No. Simply, this statement was shoved up the international agenda online for emphasis to the outside world, but it should not have been taken as much of an indication of policy. At best, think of it as what Kim Jong Il would have called "wrapping Chosun in a fog."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

Nothing says, "Lee Young Ho, who the hell is he? Power struggle? What power struggle?" like an image of Kim Jong Eun and his wife strolling out in front of a literal who's who of regime heavyweights. Just look! There's Choi Yong Rim, Kim Young Nam, Choi Tae Bok, Kim Kyung Hee, Jang Sung Taek, Choi Ryong Hae and more.

Quote: "The gang's all here! So stop talking about coups, would you. No chance."

© Rodong Shinmun
But then, does anything say "This is a Party-centered system and don't you forget it" like standing in shot clapping calmly as Supreme People's Assembly Presidium Permanent Chairperson Kim Young Nam and Cabinet Prime Minister Choi Yong Rim, the two top civilian administrators in the regime, cut the ribbon on a new resort built off the backs of military labor? No sir, nothing.

Quote: "Yoo hoo, we might be moving toward reforrrrrrmmmmmmmmm... Can we have some aid, please?"

© Rodong Shinmun 

Kim Jong Eun, Back with a Fresh Disney Move

Webster’s Third New English Dictionary 

Public Relations” 

Definition: The business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution.

… 

Dictionary of Chosun Urban Slang 
[Kim Jong Eun-era edition] 

“Disney Move” 

Definition: An extremely simplistic and practically meaningless PR activity done in order to change the prevailing opinion of one or more sections of the international community in the hope of being able to enjoy the public relations benefit engendered by the activity while at the same time avoiding having to do something much harder and more sincere later on.

Monday, July 23, 2012

North Korea 2012: More Reclusive, More Open

North Korea is 7.75% more reclusive than it was in the same period of last year, new statistics released today reveal.

The news of increasing reclusiveness was revealed at an event this morning to commemorate the release of the latest report from the South Korean state-run Hermitage Foundation, “North Korea 2012: Outlook for Introspection”.

The statistics were taken from analysis of headlines and reports carried by the five major international newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and Mainichi Shimbun) between January 1st and June 30th, 2012.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Did You Say Military-first Was Dead?


Anyone who thought that the dismissal of V. Mar Lee Young Ho on Sunday meant the end of the Military-first Policy and imminent launching of “reform and opening” ought to be feeling pretty silly by now. First Gen. Hyon Yong Chol made rank and then, just 24-hours later, Gen. Kim Jong Eun parachuted in over almost every other officer’s head (everyone alive, at least) to become Mar. Kim Jong Eun.

Prof. Leonid Petrov apparently thinks “Mr. Youngman is panicking,” and is hoping to buy himself some authority with the latest move. Frankly I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I do know one thing; anyone still predicting the end of the “Military-first” political line is a fool.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ri Takes a Hit from the Regime


Kumsusanology, which, much like Kremlinology, one might define as the study of an entire ruling elite based on extremely flimsy evidence, is back with a vengeance. Yesterday, Politburo Standing Committee member, Politburo member, Party Central Military Commission Vice-chairman and Army Chief of Staff V. Mar Ri Yong Ho was cast into the wilderness by the assembled Politburo, for reasons that experts have spent much of today trying to analyse without giving away the fact that they don't actually know.

Among the more prominent of these commentators, in English at least, has been Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group. Wisely, he tried not to sell the farm, instead offering a modest takeaway; that Ri was purged to both circumscribe his power and as a warning to others not to go too far in their own pursuit of influence.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's the Election, Stupid!

When something happens like the July 5th arrest of Ro Su Hui, the vice-chairman of the ‘South Korean section’ of the “heavily left-leaning” (at best) Reunification of the Fatherland Union (RFU), it is easy to simply criticize the South Korean government for what appears at face value to have been a ridiculous overreaction that handed North Korea a propaganda victory.

It is certainly the case that by arresting Ro as soon as he crossed the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, the South Korean government did exactly what the North Korean government will have wanted it to do. There is also little doubt that Ro, a balding, mid-60s, died-in-the-wool pro-North figure, will have received a briefing in Pyongyang prior to his return during which he will have been instructed to resist his inevitable arrest and ensure, as did happen, that he would be wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. That he was tied up with a length of rope before being led away was, perhaps, an unexpected bonus.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beware the North Korean Rumor Mill

This is a story that appeared on the Radio Free Asia (RFA) website on July 3rd. Given the glacial, infrequent and patchy nature of RFA translations, here is my [reduced and lightly edited for clarity of purpose] English version;
There is a rumor going around that Kim Jong Eun is in favor of the reform and opening of the North Korean economy but is being stopped from so-doing by Jang Sung Taek and Kim Kyung Hee. This news is causing the North Korean people’s dislike of the couple [Jang and Kim are a married couple] to go through the roof.

Reporter Moon Sung Hwee is here with the story.

Moon: Criticism of Kim Jong Eun’s aunt Kim Kyung Hee and her husband Jang is spreading in the markets and in universities, and popular dislike of the two is growing rapidly as a result. This is supposedly because they are implacably opposed to Kim Jong Eun’s plans to reform and open the North Korean economy.

A student from North Hamkyung Province whom I recently spoke to explained, “Kim Jong Eun’s reform and opening plan is not being allowed to reach fruition because of the implacable opposition of Kim Kyung Hee and Jang Sung Taek. This story is whizzing around universities in Pyongyang and the provinces, of course, and also in the markets, and some people are really angry.”

According to the student, Kim planned to make the complete reform of farming and the military his first job following the death of Kim Jong Il, and had made implementation plans.

[The report then goes on to discuss the ways in which Kim hoped (and may still hope) to carry out military and agricultural reform. This includes military modernization (including troop number and military service length reductions). Notably, he also apparently strongly believes in the need to follow the Chinese road in agriculture so as to solve food insecurity issues.]

However, when she heard about Kim’s ideas, Kim Kyung Hee reportedly demanded of him, “Would you, in the fourth generation, discard the ‘juche agricultural law’ and ‘military-first political line’ made by my father Premier Kim Il Sung and adhered to by my brother NDC Chairman Kim Jong Il?”

“You will not abandon socialism for as long as I live,” she apparently went on to declare, and husband Jang declared that rapid reform could lead to regime collapse.
[Ed.: As with all quotes in all articles in all Korean print and online media all the time, the precise accuracy of this quote has to be regarded with circumspection. Anyway, onward...]
However, a Party cadre source in Yangkang Province, while agreeing that the story is indeed going around, added, “For one thing, we don’t know if that is a true story, and even if it is a true story we cannot say for sure when it took place. And, even if it did happen, doubts still exist over the way it leaked out.”

Nevertheless, “The unconfirmed rumor is circulating, and the people’s feelings towards Kim Kyung Hee and Jang Sung Taek are worsening greatly,” the cadre source continued. “People who know well how people’s minds work may very well have leaked the rumor in order to try and restrain Jang Sung Taek.”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Oh Kim, Where Art Thou?

North Korea Leadership Watch has a piece out today asking the mildly interesting question, "Where is Kim Jong Un?"

The point of the question is, as the piece notes, that young Kim has not made a public appearance for the 20 days since he rocked up at Kim Il Sung Stadium to wow the massed ranks of the Chosun Children's Union on June 7th. This causes the author to ponder aloud whether Kim might, or might not, be doing something fabulously exciting and oh-so under the radar. As follows;
"...one would think, given joint US-ROK military exercises under way in the West (Yellow) Sea timed for the 62nd anniversary of the beginning of the Korean (Fatherland Liberation) War, KJU would want to wave the banner. This week also marks the six months since he formally assumed the position of supreme leader, as well as his mother’s birthday. Has Kim Jong Un decamped for one of the Kims’ special pavilions to relax? Has the horrid reality of sitting in the party center resorted him to issuing instructions from bed? Is he enduring an excruciating policymaking process with a coterie of sangmujo?"

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bringing the Mountain to Mohammed

This article originally appeared at SinoNK.com here.

Recent news that a ‘border market’ in rural, mountainous Namyang, North Hamkyung Province has been opened on a limited basis to Chinese businesspeople is one of the most intriguing stories to emerge from North Korea in recent times. At the very least, it offers first-rate circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Kim Jong-un regime has concluded that it will have to move away from the course charted during the final years of its predecessor.

According to sources in the region, since the beginning of June, between 50 and 70 Chinese businesspeople per day have been permitted to trade directly with North Koreans via the border market. The incoming Chinese are allowed to remain in North Korea for the eight hours from 9AM to 5PM, but not to reside in the country. They take up approximately 1/3 of the stall space, which has been expanded to accommodate them. While they are not permitted to leave the marketplace and its immediate surrounds, which is only around 200m from the customs house at Namyang, it does mean that for the first time in recent history, Chinese capitalists are being allowed to come into contact with the socialist North Korean masses, including some who have presumably not been vetted in advance to ensure their regime loyalty. 

It appears that China is providing local oversight on the project via its consul-general in the industrial city of Chongjin. If his June 14 visit to Changbai County were any guide, it would appear that the same gentleman is dealing with this project in Hyesan. This offers proof that the majority of the burgeoning weight of economic cooperation in the North Korean northeast comes with the full backing of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

For the record, it is said that the North Korean authorities initially agreed to ‘open’ Namyang before Kim Jong-il died. The deal is purported to be a quid pro quo for much-needed infrastructure developments the Chinese authorities are undertaking in the area, notably at Rasun but also road and rail construction work between Tumen, Namyang and Chongjin. In any case, the first and most obvious question to ask about the border market project is, “Why Namyang?”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Ten Principles that (Still) Rule North Korea

One of a number of oft-cited tales of North Korean foreign policy under the leadership of Kim Jong Il is the one about how the former leader once gathered a number of key ‘Information Department’ cadres together not so long after the death of Kim Il Sung and proceeded to praise them for their sterling efforts to glorify the Party.

However, Kim is said to have cautioned, “That is only fine for the domestic audience.” Internationally, he urged, “Chosun must be wrapped in a fog.”

Kim’s point, one echoed in policy throughout the late ruler’s years in power, was that it is to North Korea’s advantage for the international community to be unable to understand, preferably not even to know, what is going on inside the country and by what principles it is being run.

One aspect of this approach has to do with what is not said. North Korea pursues the goal of perfectly controlling inflows and outflows of information. This is obviously impossible, as all attempts at perfection are; nevertheless, the ambitious extent of the effort can be witnessed in events including, though by no means limited to: 
(1) ongoing crackdowns the length and breadth of the Sino-North Korea border against defection and smuggling; 
(2) the way those media companies that operate on the ground in North Korea are restricted and impeded in their efforts to report on the country; 
(3) the way information on key political events is either selectively reported or not reported at all by the state media; and 
(4) the way top Party leaders are removed, rotated and replaced without so much as a press advisory.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mixed Fortunes for Former Friends

Last Friday, South Korean lawmaker-elect Lee Seok Gi was reminded again that the party in whose name he was elected to the National Assembly on April 11th, has not really got the guts to expel him in order to reform itself.

If it had unexpectedly shown the degree of backbone needed to kick him out then it would not have been undeserved, however. Having emerged onto the political landscape at the beginning of the year as a proportional representation candidate for the hard left-leaning United Progressive Party (UPP), Lee has come under near constant pressure to jump ship since compelling evidence linking him to electoral fraud in a January primary election was uncovered. Voices of condemnation then rose to a crescendo when a section of the party which supports Lee spent seven hours systematically disrupting a televised central committee meeting on May 12th; crashing the stage, pushing and shoving party leaders, tearing clothing and finally bringing about the adjournment of the entire event.

It is said that the purpose of the violence was to protect the right of both Lee and fellow proportional representative Kim Jae Yeon to enter the National Assembly. The event had been set up to facilitate a vote on the establishment of an emergency leadership entity whose actions, Lee’s supporters rightly feared, would result in the two being compelled to give up their seats.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Darkness of Heart, by Prof. Ra Jong Yil

On May 14th, 2012, Professor Ra Jong Yil of Hanyang University, a Roh Moo Hyun-era ambassador in both Tokyo and London, as well as a former head of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, gave a keynote address to an international conference on North Korean human rights in LA.

The speech, which I was lucky enough to see beforehand, is very much worth reading for a number of reasons; however, primary among these is that Professor Ra, an avowed progressive figure "from way back" and someone close to the very heart of the Sunshine Policy itself, seems to be on the verge of playing a role in the election battle of de facto Saenuri Party leader Park Geun Hye this year.

It is hard to envision at this stage what might emerge from such a combination of conservative politics that would hopefully be more compassionate than those of Lee Myung Bak and progressive thought that hopefully would have learned the lessons, both good and bad, of the Sunshine Policy era. Of course, we cannot forget that both the Democratic United Party and North Korea would want to have a say in what emerged from it, too.

But in any case, this is a good time to start reading the tea leaves, and I cannot think of a better place to do that than with 'The Darkness of Heart- On the Prolonged Abuse of Human Rights by State Power.'

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Too Many Conspiracy Theories, Too Little Time

The U.S.-based blog NK News recently took a number of media outlets (and here, although it has been corrected) to task in an enjoyable and clear-cut debunking of what we shall henceforth call “The Mad Myth of the $15 Website”. To paraphrase the story; the aforementioned media outlets took the website of the Korea Friendship Association to be an official DPRK government website, which it isn't, and reported that it had been redesigned using a $15 template, which it had. Thus, following the very well worn path outlined in 'North Korea Reporting 101', the North Korean government was once again made to look not only mad and bad, but also cheap.

It was a good and necessary debunking, and one which has now inspired me to engage in a little debunking of my own; namely, of a Radio Free Asia (RFA) article from April 26th, ‘North, Tracking Down Spreaders of Rocket Launch Failure Facts.’ (The original article has vanished, but this Chosun Ilbo one was based on it.)

According to the article, the North Korean authorities are now hunting down students guilty of claiming that the Unha-3/Gwangmyungsung-3 launch of April 13th was a failure. It cites a university student from North Hamkyung Province as saying, “In Hoiryeong University of Education, they are seeking out those students who spread the false rumor that the Gwangmyungsung-3 launch failed. On the 21st they handed down an order to this effect to the NSA agents responsible for the university in a meeting of academic department leaders and Party cell secretaries.”

Still more controversially, it says that North Korea's televised admission of launch failure was a sham: “They organized for all the ‘television relay stations’ that convert the satellite signal for relay to the regions of North Korea to be shut off so the people of North Korea could not watch.”

According to the RFA source, who presumably hails from Hoiryeong, nobody had cared about the satellite launch when it happened since there had been so many celebratory events to attend and tasks to deal with, but “following the culmination of the Day of the Sun celebrations on April15th, the satellite launch failure rumor started spreading bit-by-bit.

In a convoluted explanation of a kind that always makes me suspicious, the article also goes on to explain that the focus is on university students because they generally do have an interest in the launch failure issue, whereas common people don’t care very much about it at all, so the authorities have moved to quash the idea of launch failure at source, telling students that it was a plot by the enemy to spread information “harmful to the esteem of the Republic.”

Which is odd, is it not? Because what we know to be true is that on April 13th, just four hours after the failure of the ‘Unha-3’ rocket launch, news that the ‘Gwangmyungsung-3’ satellite it carried had “failed to enter orbit” was released in a special newscast by a Chosun Central TV anchor.

So what happened? Would the North Korean authorities really have gone to the frankly implausible lengths of producing a TV news program acknowledging the failure, but not even in a truthful way, since all they did was concede that the satellite had failed to enter orbit, and then organising for all the TV signal relay stations in the country to go down at the same time in order that the man on the street would be unable to see it?

Such a story would certainly fit in with a particular strain of North Korea reporting; the same kind that resulted in The Mad Myth of the $15 Website, as it happens. But, as usual, the simplest explanation is the right one. Simply, the story is nonsense.

My evidence for this is two-fold. First, I was actually in Pyongyang on the day after the test, and during that time I was asked by more than one person on more than one occassion for my opinion of the launch failure. In one exchange, an official with the main North Korean tourist authority engaged me in an entertaining discussion (in front of the USS Pueblo, for those who wish to visualize), during which he politely but confidently reminded me of the difference between a launch “failure” and a “failure of a satellite to enter orbit.”

Our conversation went on for some time, covering the nature of rocket launches, how hard it is to put satellites in orbit, and South Korea’s own two failed launches (which were both well reported in Rodong Shinmun and are widely known about in North Korea). Finally, we settled on a politically non-controversial position; that North Korea has limited resources and is doing quite well to have gotten this far. Surely, we agreed, they will get it right next time. He had, of course, seen the news on TV.

Aware that despite all my investigative in-situ efforts, readers might still be prepared to believe that either a) only the people of Pyongyang were allowed to watch the broadcast, or better yet b) that the tourist official had been primed by the shadowy Workers' Party to persuade me toward this way of thinking, my second piece of evidence is that I also took the time to ask a number of North Koreans whether their friends, family and contacts know about the story, and not one of them, not even one, did not know about the failure. For example, one of those I spoke to told me, "I spoke to my brother and he knew all about it, and my friends knew, too."

So they saw it on TV? "Yes."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Potemkin ICBMs: So Good We Had to Hide Them

The game of "are they real or ain't they" which has surrounded a set of ICBMs on (allegedly) Chinese TEL's that North Korea allowed to rumble through Pyongyang on the 15th doesn't particularly interest me, but for the sake of adding circumstantial evidence to the "they're clearly just mock-ups" hypothesis, here is a picture from a friend of mine, Tony Henshall, with whom I was lucky enough to enjoy the parade in question from a location just across the Taedong River.

North Korean ICBM on Chinese TEL crossing Okryu Bridge in Pyongyang, April 15th, 2012 (©Tony Henshall)
As you can see, Tony has done us the service of capturing a lovely shot of one of the mysterious projectiles on its TEL coming across Okryu Bridge, i.e moments after it passed through Kim Il Sung Square.

Note that unlike every other piece of military hardware that passed by, these "ICBMs" were all shrouded in camouflage netting, just like the one above. Admittedly I'm not a military man, but I couldn't help thinking that this did not mean that the weapons were actually so advanced that the Chosun People's Army dared not let foreigners see them close up lest they sell the secrets abroad; rather, that the closer one were allowed to get to them, the less believable they were likely to become.

The takeaway? At the very least it makes me wonder whether our North Korea policy might not be best off starting with, "Your rockets don't work, your missiles are fake and you can never launch your nukes in anger anyway, so what exactly are you hoping to achieve?"

Strategic patience? Strategic indifference, perhaps.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Holding North Korea to a Higher Standard


Shortly before I was due to fly out of Gimpo Aiport on a perfectly serviceable, relatively inexpensive and wholly successful (notwithstanding some fairly unfriendly service) China Southern Airlines jet plane on the morning of the 13th, the North Korean regime finally pinged its much vaunted, long awaited and reportedly rather more expensive ‘Unha-3’ rocket into the sky. But, as we all know, it wasn’t up there for long; indeed, back-of-an-envelope calculations suggest that my antiquated Boeing flying machine was in the sky for approximately 110 times longer than the mysterious projectile let loose from Cheolsan County in North Pyongan Province at 7:39AM. It also came down in both the location and manner intended.

However, neither the China Southern success story nor the North Korean failure was the interesting point. The interesting point was that the North actually admitted to the failure on Chosun Central TV just four hours after it happened. Naturally, the question was and remains, “Why?”

The truth is probably simple, as the truth often is. In essence, the authorities were forced to quickly conclude that they couldn’t keep such a thing under wraps forever. 

Born of watching Pyongyang’s approach to World Cup qualifying matches over a number of tournament cycles, my hypothesis is that the authorities had assumed (wrongly) that they would be able to manage the launch by recording it and then showing it off to reporters as and when it had been confirmed as a success (a fair presumption being that this would be the case, since the last time a similar stunt was tried the rocket went a very, very long way indeed).

This plan, had it been implemented, would have been in contrast to that of 2010, when the North went into the World Cup in South Africa with unreasonably high hopes after stunning Asia with an exceptional qualifying round performance, and the authorities therefore decided that the finals would be broadcast live to the folks back home. Only losing by a single goal to Brazil in the North’s opening match exacerbated this illusory trend, but that then made losing 7-1 to Portugal a few days later come as a very nasty shock indeed. The takeaway? One must be vigilant for errors born of chance. Micromanage: record, record, record.

However, this cautious initial plan was impossible for two reasons. First, with so many international journalists, tourists and pin-badged Friendship Association riff-raff loitering around the place, the likelihood of the Pyongyang citizenry finding out about the failure for themselves was deemed to be extremely high, meaning that the regime felt it would be better off revealing the "failure to enter orbit" for itself; and second, with so many people (a) able to hear the news from South Korean radio stations in places like Kaesong and (b) receiving it in the process of doing cross-border business in China, the chances of the truth leaking into society via those routes was considered similarly great, meaning that the traditional twin options of either claiming success or simply saying nothing were out of reach.

Thus the North was, for almost the first time in history, forced to admit to failure.

In the light of that fact, one question stands out: could it be that if the international media, notably Associated Press but also ITAR-TASS and Xinhua, were to “man up” and do the job journalists should be doing in deeply inhospitable environs (rather than the opposite, which KCNA already does to great effect) and if the South Korean government could simultaneously be persuaded to permit a broad range of radio broadcasters to utilize domestic FM frequencies to broadcast (informative, rather than openly propagandist) news and current affairs information into North Korea on a daily basis, at cheaper rates and with greater clarity than current circumstances allow, then we would have the capacity to hold the government of Kim Jong Eun to higher standards of honesty going forward than has ever been the case before?

You may scoff and say that nothing has changed. But there's only one way to find out.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Calling a Halt to Default Disengagement


On Friday March 30th, I headed over to Yonsei University in Seoul to see Professor John Delury. On North Korean issues Delury is a progressive proponent of constructive engagement, and on this particular day he had just published a piece in Foreign Policy with Moon Chung In called 'The Land of Lesser Evils'. The piece was itself similar to a piece published by the two in the Korea Times on the 25th of last month, 'Obama's Options for Koreas'. There is not much to choose between the two, with the possible exception of the title, a battle that Foreign Policy wins hands down.

Anyhow, Delury and Moon want to see the Obama administration send an envoy to Pyongyang immediately to talk to North Korea. Not to get the Kim Jong Eun regime to cancel the launch, it appears, since Delury told me that he agrees with Destination Pyongyang's view that this is probably impossible, but to make sure that it doesn't derail all progress and ensure that the U.S. can get something out of the current undesirable situation.

Do I agree with Professor Delury? In part, yes. I think an envoy is untenable in the current domestic U.S. environment, but in and of itself is not a bad idea. Either way, to coincide with the release of my interview article on Daily NK here, below is a transcript of the most interesting parts of the Delury-Green interview-cum-debate;

Destination Pyongyang: The main thrust of your recent op-eds with Moon Chung In seems to be that an envoy should be sent to Pyongyang prior to the rocket launch; however, just so we are all starting from the same jumping-off point, would you please outline your overall thesis.

John Delury: I would say that the sending of an envoy is the action we think should be taken to change the dynamics. At the moment there is a common description of what is likely to unfold here, and it’s really a replay of 2009. We are not the only ones saying this; Chris Green is trying to find other ways; Andray Abrahamian is also thinking about how to prevent it, Scott Snyder… he wrote it up on CFR and at The Diplomat, I think.

DP: Ah, so Scott Snyder declared the launch package idea he premiered at Asan Research Institute last week to be a sensible one and ran with it a little way did he?

JD: Yes. And that has got parallels with what Moon Chung In and I are saying, although there are some important differences; Scott has a much stronger stick there; he mentioned blowing things up…

DP: I think the phrase was, “Take things off the launch pad.”

JD: Right. However, I understand what he is doing, and although his idea is different to ours I see them as sister projects because he is proposing some very proactive engagement diplomacy; simply, his is backed by even stronger action than is currently being considered. Anyway, it runs parallel with ours in that it is trying to avoid the default ‘disengagement’ that is going on now. In conclusion, there is a small group of us who are trying to prevent the obvious path that this is currently following.

Behind our proposal lies an assessment of why the reversal from the Leap Day Deal to the satellite announcement happened. We focus on the context of what is likely to be the domestic debate in North Korea right now; I mean, Kim Jong Il has just died, it is only the second time that the state has lost its paramount leader in six decades, more than 60 years, so this is a pretty extraordinary moment in terms of their domestic politics. Our model of North Korea includes differences of opinion and different interests, vested interests. We can broadly say that some are reformist and inclined towards opening, while others are basically isolationist and happy with the isolation, not wanting things to work out internationally. We see it as a dynamic situation; we disagree with the idea of a monolithic puppet master where everyone is unified, there’s one game plan and apparent reversals are being orchestrated to trick everyone else.

DP: Did you buy into it that monolithic North Korea concept when Kim Jong Il was still alive?

JD: No. I think we can argue for a progressively decreasing scale of authority, from the peak of the Kim Il Sung era with his personal authority, charisma and incredible history of knowing what everyone did and having everyone in their place, all the way down to the weakened system we see now. I don’t think Kim Jong Il ever woke up and said, “OK, here is what we’re going to do, now everyone go and do it” either, there were already those different interests and there was internal competition then, too. If we did the historical work we could probably find splits even in Kim Il Sung’s era.

DP: We may learn more about that further down the road.

JD: Right. Anyway, the argument is not that this is new and suddenly the case now that Kim Jong Il has died.

I think the other key characteristic of our analysis is that these different groups are all seeing different things, arguing different ideas and seeing what works, but the outcome depends in great measure on the response externally. This is especially true for those who are proponents of opening, moderating and normalizing relations. If these people don’t get usable responses externally then they have no argument back in Pyongyang. They constantly have to sell it, going up against people who are skeptical or don’t want it to work because of their interests or history or whatever other factor it may be. So, that is the context in which we read the satellite launch; we see it as one of the less provocative, bellicose, aggressive things that North Korea could have done under the circumstances.

DP: But you suggest one possible alternative North Korean course of action as being a battle in the West Sea. This, I would argue, wouldn’t have the same gravitas as the rocket. Indeed, it would be an accident of sorts, and while it could be marketed as a great defense or something along the lines of “we sent them running with their tail between their legs,” it couldn’t be marketed as being something the North intended to happen. So it doesn’t make sense to me.

JD: That’s a good point; maybe a better example alternative would have been a ‘demonstration of military might in a more explicitly military way’. The thing about the satellite is that it really emphasizes peaceful use of technology. The North Koreans want to show off their prowess, they want to show off how modern they are, and they need something big that they can get foreign journalists to cover and can show to their people to say, “Wow, look at us, this is incredible,” but they are doing it through a peaceful mechanism. They could just do a long-range ballistic missile launch or something else military; new, massive exercises on air, sea and land, for example. Of course we may see that on April 25th, especially if things keep going as they are. So, I take your point, but I stand by the idea that they could have decided to use some other powerful demonstration of a more explicitly military nature.

DP: Such a thing wouldn’t fit into a grey area of any kind, either, of course.

JD: Right, exactly.

DP: They are obviously pitching to a grey area.

JD: This got dropped from the Foreign Policy piece, but what we see in the bigger picture is that they are trying to make a transition to both security and prosperity, and it is a very difficult transition for them. Therefore,they are going to need a lot of handholding. This satellite launch is one of the times when they basically need their hands held. There are different ways to do this; you can hold their hand in such a way that you, as the USA, say, “Look, we can’t handle you doing this so we will do it for you.” Or you can suck it up but say, “This is really bad form, you cannot go around doing deals then turn around and find a grey area and make us look bad if you really want a new relationship.”You can really lay down the law, but get some other stuff through your envoy in Pyongyang in return. At the end of the day, you can say, “We are not going to clap for your launch but we’re not going to let it kill everything, we are going to keep moving.” That is a form of handholding too, and a very different strategy to that which the administration seems to be pursuing.

DP: My argument is that you should do nothing. I think the launch is guaranteed to happen, so we would be wise to do nothing, because if you send an envoy and they launch the thing anyway it constrains your options later, since domestically people get angry that you’ve sent an envoy and he has come back empty-handed. He’s messed it up, it’s all over, and you’ve got nothing. Conversely, you say send the envoy before the launch. It seems risky.

JD: Yeah, it is riskier, it is more aggressive. I like do nothing, and I think it makes sense as a sister proposal, but I suppose the reason I would stick with what we are suggesting is that I think passivity is a big source of the problem here. I want to see the Obama administration get hungry and get in there to deal with these guys and build relationships; especially now when things are in a bit of flux on their side. This is when you want to be in there, figuring out the players, working out what can and can’t be done and what they want and where they are going to screw you.

I think “do nothing” would be a good fallback plan, but I’d still rather see a more proactive strategy. First of all, you don’t have to tell them that much about why you are sending them the envoy; just send in this high-powered person. I like Colin Powell for the job; it’d be like the Perry Process. I want to see a Powell Process.

DP: Henry Kissinger? Is he too old?

JD: I don’t like him; I like Powell. But as you say, we need to be careful about expectations, so we must not set it up as sending an envoy to get the launch cancelled. Simply get in there and negotiate. There may still be room to get it cancelled, although I agree that it looks very unlikely. However, the advantage of sending someone now is that you can get them to promise something you want in return for doing what Chris Green wants, which is nothing.

Conversely, if you just wait then you get nothing out of their launch. But if you send someone in and the North is nervous and excited about the visit and wants it to be a good one, then they are under some pressure to deliver. At the end of the day, if you can say, “I have instructions that allow us to do nothing about this launch but here is what we expect in return” then that is a good position to be in. Unfortunately, politically we are both running out of time, and in the current situation, after all the criticism that has already been issued, doing nothing seems harder than sending someone senior to Pyongyang.

DP: I suspect you might be right.

JD: The problem is that the approach seems to be that whenever North Korea does anything you don’t like or find objectionable in any area, particularly on the nuclear issue, then you just cancel everything else.

DP: And go all the way back to square one.

JD: Right. Our view is the complete opposite; you have to keep as many things going as you can, and when you have a problem try to contain that problem and deal with it. If you can’t solve it then maybe get something somewhere else for it. On the launch; if you cannot cancel it, then make sure you get something elsewhere in exchange for allowing it. Keep up the full court press of engagement.

Sports metaphors can be helpful, right? How many times has the administration used the metaphor, “The ball’s in your court”? This is like trying to play a game of tennis where you hit the ball but the other side doesn’t want to hit it back so you just sit there going, “Come on, come on, come on, it’s in your court, it’s in your court,” while they are saying, “Actually, it is in your court, the ball is behind you.” In reality there’s a ball behind each player and they are just sat there yelling at each other.

So maybe a soccer metaphor would be better. The ball is in play, so let’s maintain possession to keep pressuring the North Korean opposition, keep pushing. You see, we need to understand that all these different forms of engagement, from the mill-to-mill Pentagon stuff, various kinds of economic things that take a minimalist approach to sanctions, cultural exchanges, the food assistance; all these are pressuring the North Korean system; they are not rewarding it. These things are hard for their system to take, and tend to generate a lot of resistance. If you’ve been to North Korea or worked with North Koreans you can understand this; it’s frustrating and difficult for them too, they are pulling their hair out trying to work with Americans. There is a massive gap here, and closing it is stressful, threatening and destabilizing. So you have to want it, be committed, hold their hand the whole time and not look to cut it off the minute they do something you disagree with. Do the opposite, in fact. Just keep working it.

DP: My favored metaphor is also soccer related. Maybe soccer is the way forward. Either way; do you support a return to the Sunshine Policy?

JD: I think the key thing is that it needs to be Sunshine 2.0.

DP: Which is?

JD: I don’t know. But I am hoping that there are some much more informed and smarter South Koreans than I who are coming up with it. Certainly, if it is a choice between the Sunshine Policy and this administration’s policy then yes, I support the Sunshine Policy. But I think the critical thing is the 2.0 part. You have to learn lessons and have to be self-critical, ask yourself what were the weaknesses first time around and what has changed. You can’t just go right back to what you were doing before. The basic spirit was right, but too much has changed and modifications are needed.

DP: I recently met an influential figure in the Sunshine Policy the first time around, and he said that he thought the process had been over-politicized. He said President Kim Dae Jung over-politicized it and went to Pyongyang too early. He said he advised Kim to sit tight and let the next president go, but he went too early because he was too keen to be the first to go. He thinks the fungible nature of the assistance was not the biggest problem, which I take issue with because the North developed nuclear weapons off the back of all this sunshine, but regardless he believes it was mostly political.

Anyway, the Snyder proposal includes a launch package offer for the North. Does it have any legs?

JD: I think in the short term probably not, but in the medium term perhaps yes. If you look back, that was one of the key points on offer when Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang in 2000. The U.S. doesn’t want North Korea doing anything from the ground up into space, but once North Korea is in space then Washington is fine with it. I think it could be something concrete to bring to the table for these negotiations we are proposing. However, the likelihood of doing it to stop the current launch is incredibly small.

DP: When I heard Scott Snyder’s suggestion it immediately struck me as a non-starter, and this was because when you’re reading Rodong Shinmun, if you are unlucky enough to have to do that for a living, you find that they talk in terms of “with our own technology”, “in our own way”, “this is our strength”, “look what we can do” and even, on occasion, joke about South Korea’s launch failures, saying, “They have no right to comment on our work since their space launches are crap and we have much more skill than them.” So, I suspect they are never going to take the launch package offer because it means too much domestically to go it alone. I just can’t see it.

JD: That’s part of why I agree with you over the impending launch. There is too much pressure due to ‘Juche 100’ and the need to do it for themselves. However, think about if the USA is launching North Korean satellites from Florida with a big DPRK flag on the front of an American missile in the long term! You also read enough Rodong Shinmun and know enough about North Korean ideology to realize that there is this weird exception to the rule; when the USA and DPRK flag go up together, be it for a symphony orchestra or whatever, then that is a moment of incredible pride for them.

DP: The idea that “they came to bow to us”?

JD: Yes, partly that, but they can spin it as a mixture of “they came to bow to us” plus “finally they are accepting us, our strength and legitimacy, and they know we can launch a satellite but they are afraid of us so we will let them do it for us.” I think if the United States is launching satellites for North Korea then it will compensate ideologically for not doing themselves. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

He Shoots! He Scores! But Nobody Cares!

In the days since North Korea announced it is to launch a “satellite” in April to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, the 4th Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference and the 5th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly, the regime has been publishing a daily diet of commentary affirming and reaffirming the fact that it has no intention of cancelling the launch irrespective of international entreaties urging the opposing course of action.

The most assertive and clear of these many affirmations came today, when a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told KCNA the following;

1. “The launching of a working satellite to welcome the 100th anniversary of the birth of comrade Kim Il Sung is both part of General Kim Jong Il’s last instructions and a normal activity that has been in the planning for quite some time;”

2. “[The U.S.] should leave behind the idea of obstructing our way forward and have the bravery to accept that we, like everyone else, have the right to launch satellites;”

3. “We did not include the peaceful launching of satellites in the temporary cessation of long range missile launches at the Chosun-U.S. high-level talks. In the results of the 2.29 Chosun-U.S. agreement it did not say ‘long-range missile launches including those of satellites’ or ‘launches using ICBM technology’; it specified a ‘temporary halt to long-range missile launches’;”

4. “The U.S. says it has no hostile intent towards us, but since it can never step away from this confrontational approach, it sees peaceful satellite launches as long range missile launches;” and...

5. “By even inviting NASA to send experts, they will be able to confirm the peaceful character of our satellite launch with their very own eyes.”

Is the launch a flagrant violation of UN Resolution 1874? Yes, I agree that it is. Is it a slap in the face for the U.S. so soon after the conclusion of what English speakers know as the ‘Leap Day Deal’? Yes, it is most certainly that, too. But is getting all angry about it, preparing missiles to shoot it down and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, putting on hold plans to search for the remains of U.S. war dead inside North Korea because “North Korea has not acted appropriately in recent days and weeks and... it's important for them to return to the standards of behavior that the international community has called for” going to help? No, no it really is not.

Note that not only is North Korea advertizing the launch domestically, it is even calling it part of Kim Jong Il’s last instructions! These things don’t brook going back on, to put it mildly, so we can be sure the launch will happen and, as I previously noted here, really need to get used to it.

Of course, it goes without saying that if the launch is an absolute, nailed down certainty, actually responding to it by sending an envoy to Pyongyang, as advocated here by two Yonsei University professors, Moon Chung In and John Delury, would be no better.

I am assuming that the crux of the Moon-Delury hypothesis is that an envoy might be able to stop the launch. Obviously, the crux of my opposing hypothesis is that he/she can do no such thing. As such, any envoy would be left with egg on his/her face (as would those who sent him or her), returning empty-handed to an international community no better off for the entire debacle but with an even smaller range of options going forward once all the other high political drama set to engulf Pyongyang this spring, has, in at least one case literally, gone off.

Therefore, I suspect that the best option is and will remain to do… nothing. It sounds untenable I know, but fortunately there is an instructive soccer analogy we can look to that can help us rationalize.

Every time a penalty is awarded, the game of football becomes really very, very simple. There is a goalkeeper, and there is a striker. The striker can hit the ball anywhere he or she chooses, and the goalkeeper has similar freedom of movement. Simply, it is a guessing game.

As such, the goalkeeper also has the right to stand still and do, essentially, nothing. And yet, goalkeepers almost never do that, despite the fact that statistics suggest it is among the very best courses of action. The simple reason for this determination to dive, or so it is said, is that doing nothing looks bad.

In other words, it is important to be seen to be doing something, no matter how ludicrous, ill-advised, statistically insignificant or potentially unhelpful that chosen course of action may be, only because it leads to less blame if things go wrong. Soccer fans expect a penalty to be scored, and as such they don’t ordinarily blame the goalkeeper for failing to save it, no matter how badly he or she may end up flailing off theatrically in the wrong direction, but what they do expect is for the goalkeeper they have turned up to cheer to put in some kind of visible effort.

It goes without saying that this tendency is no more useful in international relations than it is in soccer.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Let the Tweeting Begin!

Destination Pyongyang has, much like Pyongyang itself although in a considerably more orderly and determined fashion, joined the modern world. In this case, that means Twitter, and it means @Dest_Pyongyang...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Looking the Other Way Can Be Good Policy

On the morning of Friday, March 16th, North Korea announced that on or around April 15th it is to launch a satellite named ‘Gwangmyungsung-3’. This is being done, according to the front page story in RodongShinmun which announced it, to welcome the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth which falls on the same day, and will “emphatically encourage our people and military as they push forward with the construction of the powerful state, and provide a vital opportunity to elevate our Republic’s technology for the peaceful use of space.”

Understandably taking a different position, the plan was immediately condemned in Washington and Seoul, with an official from the South Korean Foreign Ministry calling it a provocative act “threatening to Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asian peace and security.” The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, found the notion sufficiently disturbing that it put out a statement at 4 o’clock in the morning.

In the aforementioned early morning missive, the U.S. objected stridently to the planned launch, noting that “UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 clearly and unequivocally prohibit North Korea from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology.” Reporters were also informed later in the day that duringnegotiations last month that resulted in the Leap Day Agreement, “We did warn them that we considered that a satellite launch of this kind would be an abrogation of that agreement.”

Which is nice. However, while warnings are all well and good, the agreement signed between the U.S. and North Korea in Beijing on February 24th doesn’t reflect these warnings very well at all. Instead, it says that North Korea agreed to “implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.”

For obvious reasons, all political, none technical, North Korea chooses not to regard ‘satellite launches’ as being launches of long-range missiles, instead asserting the sovereign right of nations to make use of outer space.While this may all be starting to look like semantics to the uninitiated outside observer, it is, as Jeffrey Lewis dryly observed via Arms Control Wonk, “a loophole large enough to fly a Taepodong through.”

Though clearly an act of willful deception, this has given North Korea an out, and the reality is that we are going to have to live with it. As such, while it may not be how we would wish to reply, a measured response is clearly the best way forward.

We must start by clearing away some pervasive misconceptions. The biggest of these is that the timing of the launch announcement somehow shows fissures developing in the ruling elite. The fact is that there is nothing whatsoever in the way the news was released that lends weight to this thesis, which looks very much like yet another victory for hope over expectation.

First and foremost, it was announced a full month in advance. Not only that, it is set to coincide with the biggest state celebration for years and years in the shape of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth; it appeared on the front page of Rodong Shinmun and was subsequently very publicly backed (in Rodong Shinmun, again) by the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was also lauded in the following day’s edition of the same Party publication. There is nothing in any of these acts to suggest even the slightest schism between mythical groups of conservatives and reformers in the ruling clique; mythical groups that, we should recall, were said not even to exist just three months ago when Kim Jong Il was still with us.

Indeed, when viewed through the lens of domestic symbolism and with one eye on the media methodology involved, the event is actually a perfectly logical addition to celebrations being arranged by a state intent on preserving itself as a de facto military dictatorship. In other words, it would have been odd if there had not been some form of military endorsement of the April 15thcelebrations and 4thWorkers’ Party Delegates’ Conference that is due come along with it. This is politically one of the most important times in North Korea’s brief history, so why are we pretending to be so shocked at this?

We should remember also that outside actors including the U.S. and South Korea tend to cite post-Kim Jong Il stability as a key aim of their diplomatic strategies. Indeed, the U.S.-North Korea ‘Leap Day Agreement’ deliberately reaffirms the fact that Washington has “no hostile intent” towards Pyongyang. If this is the case, then the only logical move is to react pragmatically to the launch. Of course it is a provocative political signal for Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, but it carries an equally strong message for the domestic audience, namely that North Korea is a 'strong and prosperous state' able to defend itself and which is being run according to coherent principles by competent military men in line with the inviolable Military-first Policy of dearly departed former leader Kim Jong Il, a man whose mythical “last instructions” are still being wielded by the authorities to justify state policy three months after his death. It is both highly impractical and completely inconsistent with the stated aim of allowing security to take root in post-Kim North Korea for regional powers of any hue to react to the launch in the current, hopelessly unrealistic manner. 

As such, the U.S. would be wise not to cut off the aid it agreed with Pyongyang in Beijing last month because of this, difficult though such a decision would be. That aid is made up of 240,000 tons of “nutritional assistance," and as North Korea well knows, cutting it off will only attract negative public opinion; first, because withdrawing it hits the needy hardest, and second, because it shows clearly the presence of a link between aid and politics which the US administration continues to refute.

The best, most pragmatic and productive course is to go ahead with this aid delivery while informing Pyongyang that while the international community recognizes the importance of April in terms of domestic coherence, this type of launch is unacceptable and will preclude the delivery of aid in the form of grains for the foreseeable future.

In so doing, it should not be forgotten that such a pragmatic response is made viable precisely because April’s launch will be only the third such event in fully fourteen years. This means that North Korea is not testing its ICBM capability anywhere close to often enough to be sure of its reliability. If a missile runs a significant risk of exploding on the launch pad, North Korea would be no more prepared to launch it than any other state. In addition, if Pyongyang cannot be sure that said missile can even reach the U.S., much less hit a target when it gets there, then the same logic applies.

In response to this line of reasoning, one may point to recent suggestions that North Korea is cooperating with Iran on missile testing, allowing it to overcome technical problems those three tests in fourteen years would otherwise permit to fester. If true then it is undoubtedly a problematic and undesirable state of affairs, but the fact is that if Iran is testing North Korean missiles then there is little we can do to stop the missiles and/or their engines being tested somewhere, so we would be wise to remove the issue from discussion of this April launch, and treat it for what it is; a purely political statement.

It is time to call Pyongyang’s bluff. We must treat the launch in April as a domestic undertaking for the domestic North Korean audience. It is by far the smartest choice.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spectacularly Bad Chosun Ilbo Report Alert

Wasted my time reading this in today's Chosun Ilbo;
North Korea is about to spend an estimated US$2 billion, or one third of its annual budget, to mark the centenary of nation founder Kim Il-sung on April 15, plus an additional $850 million to build a three-stage rocket and launch pad for the event. The total would be enough to buy 4.75 million tons of rice based on current grain prices at $600 per ton as the regime holds out its hands for international food aid. 
North Korea's state budget last year was $5.7 billion, and the price tag of the centenary celebration has been estimated to be around $2 billion, according to a South Korean government source. The North invited representatives from 48 countries to Pyongyang for the centenary. 
An official from a former Soviet state said, "North Korea invited around 100 representatives from our country and offered to pay their airfare and accommodation. I've been to Pyongyang several times, but this is the first time this has happened." The official said hundreds of dancers and other performers have been invited from other countries "and I believe the delegation of foreign guests is close to 10,000." 
The regime apparently promised its people 100 gifts for the centenary. A Unification Ministry official said North Korea has spent anywhere between $300 million and $800 million every five or 10 years on the April 15th celebrations, and this year is expected to spend at least $1 billion. That is more or less the entire $1.15 billion it earned from selling anthracite and other natural resources to China last year.
This article contains not only highly questionable mathematics at the front end, but also a complete and absolute lack of hard facts of any kind whatsoever throughout. Frankly, while I would like to believe that "an official from a former Soviet state" was spoken to during the report's making, I am afraid I cannot. Further to which, even in the unlikely event that such an individual were hunted down by the Chosun's intrepid reporters, would that person have any basis upon which to guesstimate the scale of the foreign contingent that will be in Pyongyang to celebrate?

No.

I would imagine that the North is indeed about to spunk far, far more money than it can afford on April 15th events, yes; but this article does not offer believable evidence to back the claim, and in the end it does all of us a disservice to actually publish stuff this bad.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rice Is Nice, But Yuan Is Better


Until very recently, the price of rice in North Korea’s markets (“jangmadang”) had been trending upward, and this had been the case since the currency redenomination of November 30, 2009; i.e. for roughly two years. The trend reached its high point when said price tiptoed across the 5000 North Korean Won barrier in mid December 2011 in Hyesan, Yangkang Province. That was shortly before the death of Kim Jong Il.

The sense of impending doom this created in some quarters led to analysis and reanalysis, and while it was impossible for anyone to be absolutely sure what was going on for this eruditely summarized reason, the prevailing conclusion which emerged was, and remains, that the North Korean government’s determined effort to do a clutch of things that required both domestic and foreign currency, including but by no means limited to constructing 100,000 homes in Pyongyang to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15th, was inspiring them to both print money to meet domestic obligations, such as payment of wages and provision of food to workers, and simultaneously suck up much of the available foreign exchange reserves to import the materials and equipment needed to improve the showpiece capital.

The rising market prices engendered by this double-pronged incitement to hyperinflation were enough to concern defector reporter Joo Seong Ha of the Donga Ilbo (and the excellent North Korea Real Talk), who spoke on December 3rd, 2011 of a “flashing light on the dashboard of North Korea” and guesstimated rice price inflation at as much as 15,000%. 

However, despite the fact that rice denominated in North Korean Won was unquestionably now far out of the reach of people holding domestic currency alone, the only news of deaths that emerged was from southerly Hwanghae Province, reported last week here. It focused on suicides incited by hopelessness, and deaths from malnutrition caused primarily, the internal news source who reported it asserted, by excessive state appropriation of grain stocks for transfer to Pyongyang from the regions surrounding the metropolitan area.

This, while undoubtedly tragic, serves in large part to lend weight to the theory of ‘Yuanization’ that this author wrote about in a past post here. To summarize the argument in brief: rising rice prices in North Korea are caused by a number of factors, but probably the most important is exchange rates, since exchange rates have the power to affect the ability of agricultural producers to import fertilizer and other inputs and of the state to import food to make up shortfalls later on. However, in many areas transactions from Chinese rice paddy all the way to dinner table are conducted in Yuan (or U.S. Dollars), meaning that prices denominated in North Korean Won are predominantly headline grabbers rather than causes for concern, albeit that they do hit hard those with limited access to foreign currency, such as Chosun People’s Army soldiers.

Indirect evidence of the validity of this observation is that starvation very rarely occurs in the Sino-North Korean border region where it was at its most deadly in the 1990s, because economic circulation there functions on a diet of foreign currency. Ditto for Pyongyang, Pyongsung et al.

Given these facts, one would be right to presume that if the price of rice were actually falling, that would also be related to exchange rates. It is certainly one core issue, among a total of five causes that need to be taken note of.

First, there is strong evidence to suggest that as much as 500,000 tons of Chinese grain was delivered to North Korea quietly via Shinuiju at the beginning of January. A significant amount of this should be expected to enter military and Party grain stores, but a large slice will also have gone from there and elsewhere into the jangmadang. This is precisely what happens when international aid is given in the form of grains; it goes to state and Party actors, which is taken to be bad, but these already have well-dug channels by which to release it into the market, increasing supply and driving down prices. The profits from this activity go back to those state and Party actors, one of which is the Chosun People’s Army. This is one oft-unspoken fact that muddies the waters of the ‘aid transparency debate’; namely, that giving grain to the North Korean state ends up diluting prices in the jangmadang, something that is good for ordinary consumers (though bad for farmers).

The second reason is of a similar hew; namely, that there is valid evidence, available without undue difficulty to those trading across the border and in the jangmadang, that the U.S. is likely to provide substantial aid in grains to North Korea in the short- to medium term. While the aid North Korea has (almost) agreed with the U.S. so far is not in that form so as to limit this very risk of diversion into military and Party channels, the view of traders is likely to be that grains will follow where nutritional supplements lead so long as the government continues to respect its ‘Leap Day Agreement’ with Washington. Given the need to both celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birthday and overcome the spring lean period between late March, when potatoes and other staples run out, and the first summer harvest, traders and most outsiders rightly presume that this is going to be the case. 

On top of this, traders also have just cause to believe that next month will see the North Korean citizenry receiving more substantial special food rations from the state to commemorate April 15th than normal. Recent moves to lockdown Pyongyang much earlier than in previous years, partly due to the fact that there is also to be a 4th Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference in mid April, coupled to the formation of ‘4.15 Gift Preparation Committees’, are exacerbating this feeling of exceptionality.

To summarize these first three points, the presence of aid, the likelihood of more aid and just cause to anticipate state distribution in the first two weeks of April is causing expectations of a glut of rice in the jangmadang. As an aside, there is much to recommend the view that this is an argument for not giving aid at all, but with prices up around 5,000 won just three months ago, now may not be the best time to make it.

There are a further two points to take into consideration. First, projects centered on constructing housing in and beautifying central Pyongyang are now either complete or nearing completion. This is substantially reducing the requirement for foreign exchange to pay for imports to feed the construction sector, in turn reducing demand for foreign exchange on the part of North Korean enterprises affiliated with state and Party organs.

Second, there is also the issue of the strengthening North Korean Won. The Chinese Yuan exchange rate is falling, going from 605 won to 600 won over the last weekend in February, for example.

The Chinese authorities and Chinese enterprises from Manchuria have now been investing in North Korea for more than two years, and some results are sure to emerge sooner or later; following tangible infrastructure improvements in limited areas (Exhibit A: the highway from Hunchun to Rasun), the North Korean government should start to accumulate some additional hard currency reserves to draw on.

Whether this is the cause of improving exchange conditions right now is impossible to say, but over the medium term it should help. It is possible to say with some conviction that Chinese firms will persist in investing in North Korea in this way for at least the next five years. On the part of commercial enterprises this is not, it is important to note, out of kindness, brotherly love or some other form of fraternal emotion, but simply because the price of natural resources has risen to the point where extracting them in North Korea has become highly economical. Furthermore, these prices are not seen as likely to fall.

For enterprises in the region of China abutting North Korea, the North is a very good place to obtain such natural resources. The resource-rich mountainous northern provinces of the North are close, and labor costs are lower than at home. However, until relatively recently, Chinese firms balked at investing there, because they faced the risk of equipment and profit expropriation, something which North Korea, to its credit, has been attempting to ameliorate by, at the urging of Beijing, improving trade and investment laws that guarantee the rights of Chinese enterprises.

However, there are two problems with this scenario as it stands; first, that it is a monopsony because North Korea is only selling to Chinese buyers, meaning that North Korea is not getting as much for its resources as it could on a more open playing field; and second, that these improving foreign exchange conditions for the government in Pyongyang are also the main reason why it is unlikely that the recent decline in rice prices is going to turn into a longer term trend.

In short, almost all the investment that North Korea is attracting from Chinese enterprises is related to contracts for natural resource extraction or, in the case of Rasun, access to the sea. As such, Chinese firms are not contributing anything of substance to the long-term development of the North Korean economy. Infrastructure developments could in theory perform this function, but that brings us to comments about the Hunchun-Rasun road Marcus Noland made here;

“The real question,” Noland asked, “is whether it will be a springboard to broader reforms. A simple leading indicator: are off-ramps built on the road between the port and China? If they are, the road could become the main artery of a growth corridor in that part of North Korea. If not, the highway would be a metaphorical tunnel from China to the sea. Sure, North Korea will make money off the port, but the project will effectively be an enclave, and not a catalyst for broader development.”

As the world well knows, what is actually needed is for North Korea to add metaphorical off-ramps to all its economic activities, reinvesting what profits it can derive from Rasun, port fees and trade in natural resources, particularly coal, into creating new secondary manufacturing and service industries that leverage its competitive advantages, namely low labor costs and an educated work force, to begin to add value to its exports and attract more foreign exchange.

However, this will remain a distant dream for as long as the country remains a highly authoritarian dictatorship that chooses to remain ignorant of macroeconomic and development theories of this nature. The day when rice completely ceases to cost “around half the price of rice in South Korea” will not come under such conditions.