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;
" 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 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.