Thursday, December 16, 2010

Violence, the Currency of North Korea

Until the 1960s, a fish known in Korean as 아귀 (Agu: angler fish) was the much-derided bastard child of the domestic fish establishment. There was no market for the fish, a fact mostly put down to its ugliness, so it was discarded as worthless by trawler captains. But then, for no obvious reason except perhaps post-war poverty and the realization that it tastes pretty fine behind that gruff exterior, 아구찜, or 'braised spicy angler', slowly but inexorably grew in popularity.

Now, this spicy stuff is sold for $40 a plate.

All of which has little or nothing to do with North Korea, of course, except for the fact that it was in such a restaurant that I most recently enjoyed two seemingly unrelated conversations with one of the North Korean defectors I know; conversations, note, forced upon us by the inevitable arrival of the first of a festive tsunami of end-of-year parties.

(Note here that since South Korea is not a Christian country (yet), Christmas is relatively unimportant, and what westerners would normally call a Christmas party is, here, called an end-of-year party)

Anyway, that matters no more and no less than the history of the angler fish. What matters is that my North Korean friend was explaining two things which this bruising, gangsterish fish would have enjoyed, and which have far-reaching implications; first, that no North Korean end of year party is complete without a fight, and, second, that North Koreans only respect three South Korean presidents.

Two facts which overlap more than you might think.

First, North Koreans have end of year parties, you asked? Yes, of course they do, this is not the 19th century. Look, it goes a bit like this; the enterprise which, and I like this translation, "is living well" at the time of the party puts up the money in the form of a pig and maybe a 15kg+ edible dog etc, and the person with the biggest house puts up the real estate to host the party. Thereafter, everyone eats a lot and gets jolly drunk. Really very simple, and sounds quite nice in some ways. Of course, with men drinking comes lairiness, and lairiness leads, as night follows day, to fighting. Mostly, my friend explained, of the "did you spill my pint?"-type of lairiness, and always post-scripted with a hug and a concilliatory bout of further drinking, but nevertheless almost mandatory. Not a drunken stumble into conflict of the man who has lost his self-awareness, you see; more a habitual procedure that must be negotiated in order to get to the next round.

Of course, it is fighting that decides many things in North Korea. It is a violence-oriented society, is it not? Can this possibly be a surprise? No, not at all. When there are no civilized ways to express discontent effectively, when one's anger at the arbitrariness of state controls cannot be expressed at all for fear of imprisonment or worse, when upward mobility in society is entirely contingent upon one's forebears or the whim of a senior, can it be at all surprising that people fight with each other?

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Next, we talked presidents. Only three, remember. Who? Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan and... Lee Myung Bak.

Why? This is where the two issues overlap. It's the tendency of these three to employ the diplomatic equivalent of violence, the determination to give nothing until something is given in return.

And this is where the respect comes from. Just as I, as a North Korean man, can't respect you unless we fight at some point (then make up and drink more), so no North Korean leader can respect his South Korean counterpart unless he refuses to give you anything without getting something in return. And what, I inquired on your behalf, did the North Korean leadership think of the Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung administrations? For the Korean speakers, "바보 같은 녀석들". Think dismissive, think smirking irrelevance, think idiots.

This predominance of violence, its integration into the very fabric of society, is important since if things go South Korea's way it will be just one more potential problem for the post-unification leadership to deal with in trying to integrate 23 million North Koreans into a South Korea governed, broadly speaking, by rule of law, and it is already a huge hamstring for any future international effort to talk to the North, period.

By the very act of talking, the act of talking is rendered meaningless, and success even harder to achieve. Quite a Catch-22.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bet Kim Hyung Jik Didn't Foresee This

Kim Hyung Jik, father of Kim Il Sung, good revolutionary and all-around believer in the Mankyungdae Line, or so it is said. But also a man who has thrust the Chosun Workers' Party propaganda wonks into a bit of a bind with his most unperspicacious 1918 declaration that North Korea would thrive in the third generation, meaning that of Kim Jong Il;

What is awakened in the father's generation, is implemented in the son's generation, and thrives in the grandson's generation.

Or, in the words of Kim Jong Il;

From early on, teacher Kim Hyong Jik laid out a far-reaching ideology, and he created a song called 'the Green Pine-tree on Mt. Nam,' which conveyed the idea that revolution should be undertaken by every generation in succession. The Great Leader inherited and improved the ideology, and paved the new path of our revolution. And the teaching was ultimately fulfilled by me.

To be fair, there is every chance that he didn't say that, but I do like to imagine the unabridged chutzpah that would be needed to have done so.

Anyhow, the rub now is that the pinnacle of this musing has theoretically been arrived at in the form of Kim Jong Il, the third generation. In which case, what is left? Well, apparently, "망하다", according to the original Korean of a whispered postscript to this so-called "Kim Hyung Jik prophecy" which is apparently doing the rounds in North Korea.

This, I believe, is a word which can most accurately be translated as "fucking it all up royally".

Therefore, The Daily NK's source tells us that North Korean people are pointing out to each other, I hope with a wry smile, that "이제 조선은 증손자 세대를 남겨두고 있으니 망하는 일만 남았다", which, employing my uniquely evocative translation, means that the people of North Korea are saying, "Well, since we are now down to the great-grandson's generation, only fucking it all up royally remains."

It's certainly a possibility.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rules of Engagement

The key riff of the much-lauded B.R. Myers tract "The Cleanest Race", which should be familiar enough to anyone who has come this far down the wormhole of online North Korea analysis, is the one that states:
The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.

..and continues...
The country has always been, at the very least, ideologically closer to America's adversaries in World War II than to communist China and Eastern Europe.

...which segues, eventually, into...
It is the regime's awareness of a pending legitimacy crisis, not a fear of attack from without, which makes it behave ever more provocatively on the world stage.

And that, in blitzkrieg fashion, leads us to the New York Times.

Wherein Myers, offering an op-ed to the cacophony of views post-Yeonpyeong, rehashes his driving idea, namely that North Korea can never change since it's raison d'etre is that it is more ideologically and morally pure than the South, and that because it is driven by the Military-first policy overlaying racist nationalism, it is doomed to remain a vicious Military-first regime that needs to repeatedly attack its perceived foes in order to legitimize itself.

Accordingly, to those who would negotiate with North Korea on the premise that it can be persuaded to become a stakeholder member of the international community, Myers states in absolute terms;
The provocation view of North Korean behavior also distorts our understanding of the domestic situation. Analysts tend to focus too much on the succession issue; they interpret the attack on the island as an effort to bolster the reputation of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and anointed successor. Their conclusion is that North Korea will play nice once the young man is firmly in power.

As both its adversaries and supporters should realize, the North can never play nice. Just as our own economy-first governments must ensure growth to stay in power, a military-first regime must deliver a steady stream of victories or lose all reason to exist.

There is no easy solution to the North Korea problem, but to begin to solve it, we must realize that its behavior is aggressive, not provocative, and that its aggression is ideologically built in. Pyongyang is thus virtually predestined to push Seoul and Washington too far, thereby bringing about its own ruin.

This analysis is tidy, pleasingly well-written and viable. It is also useful, for if we are to negotiate with Pyongyang, we ought to do so with our eyes open, which means doing so while well aware that we cannot bring them to actually change, denuclearize or feed their people.

That said, there are three caveats that need to be noted; one is a point of order, that North Korea's militaristic brutality did not come into being with the Military-first policy in the late 90s, which the above quote would appear to imply, the second is that Pyongyang is not completely "predestined" to bring about its own ruin through a spiral of attacks, though it may very well achieve exactly that, and the third is that there really is no difference between regime legitimization and the elevation of Kim Jong Eun.

What I am saying is that in the pursuit of a pleasant, nay perhaps even quotable, turn of phrase, Myers may have distorted things slightly.

On the first point, Google is your friend. The list of North Korean provocations is long and creatively varied.

On the second, I assert that if there is one thing more important to North Korea than state ideology, it is regime survival. As Myers himself points out, Kim Jong Il has no reason whatsoever to believe that South Korea will retaliate to his attacks, and he is probably also certain that in the unlikely event that retaliation does come it will not be of the regime-ending variety, so he is content to continue down the provocations/attacks path.

If, on the other hand, he were satisfactorily convinced that one step out of line would bring his villa crashing down around his very ears, he would be less likely to attack South Korea. Ergo, North Korea is only predestined to annoy to the outermost limits of what the leading Kim perceives as likely to be acceptable, and that is all. Therefore, if Seoul's words were actually believable, South Korea could in theory deter North Korean aggression. It wouldn't make North Korea play nice, but it might stop them killing innocent civilians (apart, unfortunately, from their own).

On the third, though I agree that Kim Jong Eun will change little, I disagree with those who claim that there is too much focus on his elevation. This is because I see no relevant difference between Kim Jong Eun and regime survival. While Yeonpyeong may indeed have been partly a display of the rationale behind the Military-first policy, it was also clearly an act to legitimize Kim Jong Eun's rise to power. Kim Jong Eun is being positioned to be the defender of the North Korean people, a people who are, to return to Myers' own writing, "too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader."

Don't believe me? How about this?
The more troubling the political time, the tenser the lives we must lead and the better we must serve the General and Youth Captain to guarantee ourselves victory!

No matter how viciously our enemies conduct their confrontational schemes, we, under the guidance of the Youth Captain’s revolutionary military power, will always be victorious.

Since Myers himself implored us to actually read what the North writes in order to discover the truth of the state, it is odd that he would reject his own advice at this stage.

Anyway, there we go. In conclusion, I turn to this analysis, for it is pleasingly concise;
As long as the North Korean government exists in its current form it cannot change its economy, and as long as it cannot change its economy it is bound to follow a foreign policy designed to solicit aid from the outside world using centrifuges, artillery or any other tools considered useful.

Now, if engagement advocates were prepared to state openly that their goal is to manage the North Korea problem in order to continue to live in relative peace and affluence, then that would be a huge improvement over the current situation. Let us speak frankly, as these two scholars have done: management is all negotiations can hope to achieve.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

China, China, What Do You Think?

Since Chinese foreign policy amounts to a fairly predictable brand of realism, we can say with some certainty that the only activities North Korea could engage in which would cause Pyongyang to lose the backing, diplomatic and/or economic, of their sole significant benefactor would be activities that undermined the Chinese national interest.

So a good question is this; what activities would cause China to feel that way?

Let’s start here. Broadly speaking, the quieter China is about an issue pertaining to the Korean Peninsula, the angrier, or more surprised, or both, it is.

Of course any nation can make a bland diplomatic statement of no value whatsoever; indeed my mornings at Daily NK are regularly blighted by the activities of chirpy spokesman Philip Crowley over at the U.S. State Department. And China certainly did make such a statement yesterday evening.

But that is not substance, actually, not where China (or the States, for that matter) is concerned. Instead, until an editorial or weighty comment not attributed to a scholar (in order to achieve deniability) appears in the Chinese state media, we can consider China to be silent on said issue.

Which means that not only has China yet to comment on the Yeonpyeong Island assault, but it also has yet, to my knowledge and with the exception of this, yes, bland diplomatic statement, to comment on North Korea's light-water reactor/uranium enrichment revelations of last week.

Which makes me think that Beijing is pretty unimpressed.

And that leads me to this thought; given the consequences, I'm not in favor of a military retaliation for the Yeonpyeong Island assault, but if there is one thing that could be said for it, it would be that it would make China think twice or thrice about its stance, since we can say with some certainty that a second Korean War would have a most unpalatable effect on the Chinese national interest.

Now if we could come up with some less unattractive ways to make North Korea issues affect the Chinese national interest...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Putting the Light in Light-Water Reactor

A minor issue arose last weekend that is busy pretending to need attention; the claim that North Korea is building a light-water reactor (LWR) at Yongbyon, as conveyed to the world by American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker on November 13th.

Well let's put the cart before the horse and issue the conclusion first: this is a ham-fisted pressure tactic from a bygone era when what North Korea said was taken seriously by people in the international community. Or at least that is what I hope. Either way, it should be ignored.

Now that is out of the way, the facts. There are a number of reasons to mark the LWR claim down as unimportant even if true and a number more by which to dismiss it outright.

For a start, it takes at least five years to build an LWR. Given that satellite imagery showed zero construction on the site as of October, 2009, that means we have until 2015 to "watch this space".

Second, it is unlikely, though admittedly not impossible, that North Korea knows how to build one. In an October assessment of North Korea's rumored Highly Enriched Uranium project, ISIS scientists David Albright and Paul Brennan wrote, "North Korea has not demonstrated any capability to build a light water reactor, which requires a range of technological capabilities that are lacking in the country."

Therefore, if they do now know how to build one, that would be because somebody told them. It doesn't bear stating what size that particular can of worms would be.

Third, Siegfried Hecker was not shown the construction, only told about it by North Korean officials. As a former director of Los Alamos Laboratory, he is presumably a man who knows what a light-water nuclear reactor looks like, and as an annual visitor to Yongbyon I doubt he could be readily hoodwinked by the North Koreans. It seems to me, then, that he has been employed here as a useful idiot, a conveyor of hearsay lent a wholly unwarranted veneer of believability by the man himself.

Thus, I think it reasonably clear that whatever construction is going on at Yongbyon (and make no mistake, there is construction going on) it is probably not a light-water reactor, or if it is then it will take a long, long time to complete.

The best part of all this is that the international community seems to be playing it the right way. A good example came in a U.S. State Department daily briefing on Monday, in which spokesperson Philip Crowley, evidently well briefed, consummately dodged the question and stayed right on message. The message; stop bluffing, and do what we want.

QUESTION: Okay. Do you think – do you have any comment on the report North Korea is building light-water nuclear reactor?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, North Korea has obligations. It has stated in the 2005 joint statement that it is committed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We expect North Korea to live up to its international obligations. As it does, we are prepared to have conversations with North Korea about its long-term requirements. But first and foremost, North Korea has to live up to its stated commitments.

When even the U.S. government seems to appreciate that you are bluffing to try and get attention, then you know you have a problem.

UPDATE: The Hecker report is available here for you to make up your own mind.

UPDATE 2: According to Chosun Ilbo;

"If Pyongyang had really succeeded in making highly enriched uranium and producing nuclear weapons, it would have hidden it rather than making it public," the defector said Monday. He interpreted the unveiling as a ploy to get the North out of dire straits caused by a botched currency reform late last year and an exhausted treasury due to the expensive power transfer to leader Kim Jong-il's son. The North is getting desperate and trying to win concessions from the international community by ratcheting up the nuclear threat, he said.

It doesn't make me right, but it is nice to have friends.

Meanwhile, as an obvious point of order I should point out that Siegfried Hecker was in fact shown what North Korea says is the LWR under construction, and the associated uranium enrichment facility. This does not alter my conclusion, however.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to Build a Juche-based Torpedo

On Tuesday, North Korea tried once again to present evidence contradicting the findings of the international investigation team into the Cheonan incident, this time by offering to give a sample of one of its torpedoes, which the National Defense Commission(NDC) says are made "with steel alloy materials by the working class in the Juche way", or, to put it in the much more entertaining Yonhap way, "Juche-based torpedoes," to the international community.

Since it will obviously act to neither confirm nor deny North Korea's guilt in and of itself, it is best to ignore the offer of a sample. Further to which, no-one, least of all me, wants to get into the question of what features a torpedo would have to include if it were to be considered a Juche-based torpedo.

However, what I do want to pause over is today's Daily NK report, which responds to the NDC refutation with a claim from an inside source that the "No. 129 Factory" in the north-eastern coastal city of Chongjin makes torpedoes with aluminium, and that this is so well-known that;

Even ten-year-old kids in Songpyong-district boast of the fact that our No. 129 Factory produces torpedoes,” adding that it is common knowledge in the area around the factory that aluminium is used for this purpose.

If true, the NDC claim is a bare-faced lie. I'm inclined to think this is probably the case, given the timing of the offer and North Korea's history of propaganda nonsense and disinformation half-truths, but The Daily NK story is not verifiable and that is a problem.

Furthermore, based on the prima facie evidence presented in the report, an objective thinker would rightly pause to question the claim about local people's knowledge of the factory's operations, since it is not logical to imagine that a child of ten in any country would know what a torpedo was made from, even if it were being made in his metaphorical backyard.

But it is possible in this case as a result of "83 Processes". This is the name given to the part of the "7.1 Measures" of 2002 whereby munitions factories and other state enterprises were given permission to use the leftover materials from the industrial processes they are designed to perform to produce other light industrial products for sale on the open market, and the profits used to prop up the, mostly loss-making, enterprise itself, and probably a number of venal Party hacks into the bargain.

In the case of the "No. 129 Factory" in Chongjin, this happens to mean kitchen implements. Aluminium kitchen implements.

As my colleague Park In Ho noted when I spoke to him about the article this afternoon, people think that North Korea's munitions industry is very secretive, but that is not true. They know what is being made, and that is due to "83 Processes".

So while I do not really believe that the average ten-year-old boy running the streets of Songpyong-dong in Chongjin necessarily does know what is being made, or more pertinently from what it is being produced, it is important to note that the route by which he could reasonably find out is there, and there is nothing unduly secret about it.

Did the Chongjin source who proffered this story exaggerate? Well maybe, but don't let that get in the way of the central claim, which is more reasonable than the article at first glance makes it appear.

Monday, October 11, 2010

In Memorium and Understanding

Hwang Jang Yop has left us. He was a man who inspired many, but who, for good reasons, had a great many critics. Sitting having dinner after paying my respects at his memorium in Seoul yesterday night, I was forced to decide something I had been avoiding for many years; what do I actually think of Hwang?

To represent the basic viewpoint of some people, one blogger wrote this;
Hwang Jang-yop, the chief architect of North Korea's guiding Juche philosophy who defected to South Korea in 1997 and became a vocal critic of North Korea and any attempts to engage Pyongyang, has died of an apparent heart attack.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly had a special loathing for Mr Hwang and saw his defection as a particularly egregious betrayal. Mr Hwang became a mouthpiece for groups on the right opposed to the DPRK, and he became a valuable source of intelligence for Seoul and Washington. Let's just say he knew where all the bodies were buried because he helped bury some of them himself.

I've made no secret of my dismay that someone who was responsible for so much suffering became a poster boy for Pyongyang's critics. When I saw him speak at North Korean human rights events, I was not the only one who asked, "Why isn't this man in jail?"


Requiescant in pace, Mr Hwang and all your victims.

Which may or may not be representative of the public at large, but is a definite strand of opinion that is out there, that is clear.

So then, why would South Korean human rights activists, who are firmly in favor of bringing down the Kim Jong Il dictatorship for human rights reasons, be unstinting in their support of Hwang when he was, as a Chosun Workers' Party secretary, complicit in the deaths of a great many North Koreans and many more human rights violations?

In the end I believe it is because, and forgive me if this is obvious to you, he not only changed his mind, but because he really meant it. The South Korean people are very forgiving of misdeeds, should they be made amends of. And Hwang certainly tried. He worked tirelessly for 13 years, wrote 20 books, gave an uncountable number of lectures, seminars and sundry impromptu talks, and in the process did more than any other one person to reveal to the world the terrible circumstances in which the North Korean people live and forced the world to pay attention to what was going on behind the last vestiges of the bamboo curtain.

Hwang saw what was happening in North Korea, and decided that he could not accept it. He made a conscious choice to get out and work for the other side. Does that completely absolve him of responsibility? No, morally it certainly does not, but if actions speak louder than words, then Hwang Jang Yop tried harder than most to fix the mess he surely helped create. To fail to see this is to fail to get the point.

A friend of mine told me some months ago that her father had visited Pyongyang on business one day in 1997, and seen Hwang's family being led away with sacks on their heads. He was told not to look at the traitors, but he watched through his hands anyway. He later told his daughter it was the worst thing he'd seen, in a country where bad things happen all the time.

To sacrifice a whole family like that must have been the worst of all possible decisions to have to make, and the torment that I am aware Hwang suffered following the making of that decision was immense. Maybe he was guided by utilitarian logic, maybe his philosophical training stood him in good stead to make that fateful choice, but the very fact that he did it can tell us much about the state of the nation he was leaving behind, of that much I am sure.

So that's it. I think Hwang did his best to make good the things he did wrong, and that was all that we could hope for by the time he came to us in 1997.

I would rather, then, that we not ponder too deeply the rights and wrongs of Hwang Jang Yop at the time of his passing. I would prefer instead that we focus hereafter on bringing about a time when nobody, and I mean nobody, has to choose between the fate of their nation and the certain, painful death of their entire family. That, that, is the point.

May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Habitat for Whom?

Just today, I was drawn by him to here thanks in part to him.

But upon arrival I realized that I already knew this story; it has been at the planning stage for three years or more, and now seems to be coming to pass. This organization, The Fuller Center for Housing, a religious non-profit not unlike Habitat for Humanity, is building 25 energy efficient duplexes in the middle of a collective farm near Sunan Airport, Pyongyang. The news, such as it is, is that Jimmy Carter, who recently descended on Pyongyang to pull an ill-advised missionary sort, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, out and take him back to Boston, where he should probably consider staying, has endorsed the project;

They’ve already gotten permission from the government of North Korea to come in; they’ve already had a team there to assess the construction possibilities. This has to be a very flexible thing because as you know all of the houses in North Korea are owned by the government,” Carter said. “We’re just thankful that we’ll be able to get some houses built in North Korea for people in need.

Anyhow, my attention span shortened by the lack of newsworthiness contained in this revelation, I ambled over and took a short look at the blog of David Snell, the president of the organization. He was in North Korea in late-September, he reveals. But it was what else he said that concerned me;

A final stop for the day was the E-Library at Kim Il Sung University. This was a project of the Paektusan Academy and took one of the original campus buildings and turned it into a state of the art computer center. Students can do research ‘online’ accessing thousands of books on terminals in a number of study rooms. Very impressive.

Monday evening was set aside for a special treat—we went to the Arirang mass games performance. This is an annual event that involves some 20,000 dancers and gymnasts. The back bleachers are a solid mass of placard-bearing youngsters who change their cards to create panoramas that provide the backdrop for the performances. It was an amazing experience. I was exhausted by the time it was over.

On Tuesday we broke from our discussions to visit the Taedonggang fruit farm, a massive sea of apple trees that has grown from nothing to 1,600 acres since 2008. Big is a part of the culture here. We went to see some new houses that the Academy has been working on—very nice, very tidy and appropriate to what we will be doing.

Now I’m back home. The miracle of modern travel can make for a disjointed life. There are few places on the planet as different from Colorado Springs as is Pyongyang. Remarkably I feel pretty much at home in either one.

I don't really want to get into the rights and wrongs of The Fuller Center for Housing, or Habitat for Humanity for that matter, working in North Korea. I expect that they may end up building homes for Party loyalists in the countryside of South Pyongan and North Hwanghae, but life is probably fairly hard for those people, too, and being a mid-level rural Party functionary does not, in my book, make you particularly evil, so maybe a new house is not unreasonable, anyway.

Furthermore, David's organization is doing something, and anyone doing something is better than everyone doing nothing, more or less. And he is building trust, which is equally important.

And in any case, from his use of bold in a previous post, here, it is also clear that David believes the international media is doing North Korea a disservice;

I arrived in Pyongyang Saturday afternoon and was met at the airport by Mr. Sin from the Paektusan Academy and my interpreter, Mrs. Kim. My seatmate for the flight was a young man from Alberta, Canada, who was traveling with his wife and two sons and 11 other Canadians who are coming to Pyongyang to teach English for three months. This is one of the few cases I’m aware of a longer stay being allowed for western visitors. Things seem to be changing in the Democratic People’s Republic. At the airport I happened to meet the British Ambassador and the Hong Kong representative of the ATPN news group—a providential meeting perhaps.

But on the other hand I will also say this; there is good quality evidence that the people who take part in the Arirang Mass Games are forced to do so (knowing about the North Korean system, one knows that volunteering plays little part in anything), that the audience is also compelled to be there, and if there is a sea of apple trees why isn't there a sea of apples for the children in the schools and orphanages around the nation?

At the very minimum, I think more perspective and a critical approach are necessary if David Snell's laudible attempts to work with North Korea are going to bring about the best possible results.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

So Is That It for 44 More Years?

The Chosun Workers' Party Delegates' Conference is over, and a veritable torrent of personnel and rule changes has been handed down. The whole thing quickly got a bit much, not least when Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA) took it upon itself to release a digest of the movers and shakers at 4:08AM on Wednesday morning.

Nevertheless, coffee brewed, news read. What did we learn, and what matters?

First, we learned that Kim Jong Il is a liar. He told Hu Jintao that the succession of Kim Jong Eun was a story cooked up by foreigners. Well, apparently not; Kim's third son has become, in the veritable blink of an eye, a "Daejang" (roughly but not really a four-star general), Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Party, and a member of the Central Committee of the Party. Not sure how Hu Jintao really views being used this way. We will probably never know.

Second, that this is all about keeping it in the family. Kim Kyung Hee, not only Kim Jong Il's biological sister but also Jang Sung Taek's wife, has become, again in the blink of an eye, a "Daejang", a full member of the Politburo and a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. For someone who has quietly toiled at ministerial level for a good few years and without apparently seeking any more political clout, this is also quite impressive.

Third, that Jang Sung Taek is continuing to do very nicely, having been conferred with another title to add to his Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission desk label; he can now call himself a candidate member of the Politburo, should he so choose. But, Kim Jong Il may well have felt that Jang was accumulating a little too much power, since he did not make him a voice in the Standing Committee, as some anticipated that he would.

Fourth, that a few hitherto mid-level elite figures are set for greatness. A Google alert for Lee Young Ho, for example, might not be a bad idea.

Fifth, we learned that the Chinese Communist Party does a good line in wilful blindness.

Kim Jong Il has "led the entire Korean people to be self-reliant, to struggle arduously and to make great achievements in the cause of building Korean-style socialism.

The Korean people have made a series of delightful achievements in building the DPRK (North Korea) into a strong and prosperous nation, in developing the national economy, in improving the people's livelihoods, etc.”

Well indeed. I can't actually think of any achievements, let alone delightful ones, but alright.

Then there is also the issue of what did NOT happen at the Delegates' Conference; namely, that offshoots of the Kim family were not mentioned in any way, shape or form, including half-brothers Kim Pyong Il and Kim Yong Il, for example. They have been out of the loop since Kim Jong Il rose to power, but have never been quite so invisible.

Of course, with the focusing of power on relationships forged out of Kim Il Sung's marriage to Kim Jong Suk, known as the mother of modern North Korea, rather than that to second-wife Kim Song Ae, this is a natural progression.

However, it is noteworthy that this did not include second son Kim Jong Cheol. It will be interesting to see how close to the action he comes in the next couple of years.

Then there is the fact that Kim Jong Eun came to prominence down the Military-first line, which can be seen one of two ways.

Looked at negatively, it means that the pseudo-fascist military dictatorship of Kim Jong Il may be set to continue, which does not bode well for reform, economic transformation, or improvements to the people's lives.

Looked at positively, however, it is not really all that surprising, so perhaps we should not read too much into it. Kim Jong Il rules through the military, and his "guiding philosophy", such as it is, is one of militarism. Since a dictator can never actually be wrong or he/she will lose his/her legitimacy, and the principle of a dynastic succession doesn't even allow page breaks derived from deaths, such as the USSR had when Stalin passed away, or Mao in 1976, it is necessary to pretend that Kim Jong Il was right,is right and will forever be right. Therefore, Kim Jong Eun needs to rule through the military and pay lip service to the Military-first policy.

If he makes the right moves (from my perspective, not his own) then he can install his people and begin reforms after his father dies whether he is nominally a military man or not. If not, then the people of North Korea may have to suffer a bit longer. Nobody knows his plan, and it is far too early in the power transition to make predictions.

Oh, and finally, we know what he now looks like, and it is; a portlier version of his grandfather.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Times They Are a Changing

It pays big dividends to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that North Korea is an unchanging totalitarian monolith. It isn't, of course, and here to prove it is the story of modern Chuseok, the three-day Korean traditional harvest festival which finishes today, the 23rd, thanks to the two female defectors who struggle, day in and day out, to bring the reality of North Korea to you over at The Daily NK.

For those who can provide it, Chuseok food costs almost as much as an average month's food for the family, requiring a few kilograms of “ddeok” (rice cakes), a kilogram of rice, a good amount of pork, three or four bottles of liquor and some other vegetables. So, for those people who find it hard to get by trading in the jangmadang or farming a small piece of land, Chuseok can be a tough time; more goods must be sold or a housewife may resort to helping cadres cook their own Chuseok feast to earn additional money.

The most irritating Chuseok chore for modern North Koreans is gathering water to prepare food. Even in Pyongyang and other big cities, tap water is not clean and electricity is not consistent, so people have to go and get water from local mountains. Ironically, while the authorities do tend to provide electricity on the night of Chuseok, on the previous day, when people actually need it, there is none. Therefore, people say that carrying water is half their Chuseok work.

Even though the main Chuseok event is a visit to an ancestor's grave, the North Korean authorities have pushed the people to embrace cremation, ironic given the fact that Kim Jong Il spent a rumored $800 million on not cremating his father. However, the fact is that only kotjebi, homeless people, are cremated by the authorities; those who are able to choose still bury their relatives.

In North Korea, cemeteries are generally found near an arterial route on hills in the suburbs of cities. In the early 2000s, Kim Jong Il handed down a decree to reduce the scale of such burial mounds, after foreign visitors reportedly saw packed graves and asked whether or not they were the victims of the late 1990s’ famine.

Naturally, Chuseok is a high season for traders, just as it is in the South. In advance of the big day, traders, especially sellers of rice cake, do very well. Even a few years ago, these rice cakes were sold arranged on plates, but now they are sold on styrofoam platters in various quantities.

What they do not sell before Chuseok, they try to sell on the streets around grave sites.

The cemetery is a good place for other traders, too; they go there to peddle liquor, cigarettes, candy, ddeok, donuts and such like. They also sell home-brew corn makgoli, but this is done in secret because the selling of alcohol is banned. Some even sell home-brew beer made with barley grown privately.

Another lucrative trade is in water. Budding traders without a refrigerator pay a lucky, refrigerator owning neighbor to freeze water a few days ahead of Chuseok, and then they sell it with ice.

One of the newest temporary businesses is security for bicycles. Those with a bicycle will come to the cemetery on it, carrying food and probably family members as well, but the bicycle cannot be brought up to the grave. As a key source of prosperity, the bicycle must be kept securely.

Barbers also gather there. Of course, people want to get a trim before visiting their ancestors, so the barbers cut their hair on the streets. Just a little more money can buy a hair wash as well.

On a less joyful note, thieves and kotjebi aim for the multitude of empty houses.

After enjoying the food, drink and catching up with family and friends, people tend to head home at around 4 P.M. Naturally, some things are common wherever one goes; the men get drunk and the women struggle to get them home safely. Some fail; a huge number of drunken men can be found on the streets and in the allies on Chuseok night...

And that is how today's North Korean people spend the only day without politics, Chuseok.

Not an endlessly entertaining time, but a good step up from round after round of political lectures, that's for sure.

Happy Chuseok!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Polite Disagreement in the Ol' FT

What is the future of the relationship between North Korea and China?

It's an interesting question, and the reality as I see it is that not even Pyongyang and Beijing really know, so expecting anyone to come to a sensible, by which I mean correct, answer is something of a fool's errand. But it is interesting to see the way the debate plays out regardless.

One recent round of the debate has been happening on the pages of the Financial Times, spurred by an article by popular journalist and author Robert Kaplan and partner in crime Abraham Denmark.

In their article, the two pour forth a fairly believable torrent of information on the threats facing the (assessments-vary-but-probably-reasonably-soon) to be incumbent post-Kim Jong Il North Korean administration.

The article was printed before the deferral/cancellation/revelation as a counter-espionage operation to weed out spies that is/was/may still be the Chosun Workers' Party Delegates' Conference, so its attempts at prescience haven't turned out that well so far, but that was not really the point. Thankfully, the piece presents a splendid digest of itself in the concluding paragraph, so let's go there without further a-do;

North Korea is entering a pivotal period. Kim Jong Eun will either oversee the collapse of the state his grandfather created, or – improbably – a radical reform of its approach to economic management and state control. Either way, the future stability of the world’s most dynamic region – north-east Asia – is likely to be most directly threatened by the whims of the untested and unknown youth. The implications for the Korean peninsula, and the broader region, are historic.

So far, so good. Next, entering with an important interjection comes Aiden Foster-Carter, a serious yet entertaining pro-Sunshine Policy British North Korea watcher. No reason not to quote the body of his letter, it not being particularly long;

Yet (Kaplan and Denmark) underplay one key factor: the external dimension. Despite its shrill claims of juche (self-reliance), North Korea can no longer do it alone. Its people, long unfed, are finally fed up. Kim Jong Il’s latest oddly sudden trip to China was to seek urgent aid, without which the anointing of his untried son Kim Jong Eun as successor would be an even riskier manoeuvre.

Such help has a price. Beijing will demand overdue market reforms, and the Kims are in no position to resist. The old game is up. Economic and political exigencies alike mean they need a protector, to finance and guarantee what still threatens to be a perilous transition.

South Korea could have played this role, but its current government foolishly ditched the “sunshine” policy of the previous decade.

Seoul now has no influence in or on Pyongyang. Beijing has filled the vacuum. North Korea’s future, if it has one, is as a Chinese satellite.

It's not an argument between opposing forces, it's a debate about the weight of any one individual factor in the future of North Korea. It's the "whims of the untested and unknown youth" against the vacuum-filling technocrats in Beijing. Both will vie for influence, we are told, but which will be in the ascendancy?

Foster-Carter also challenges us to decide whether we feel that abandoning the Sunshine Policy was folly on the part of the South Korean government, or, as my employer would have it, a very sensible full-stop on a decade of unconstrained and unwise aid to an unreconstructed and hostile North Korean state. Certainly Foster-Carter feels it is the former, not only using "foolishly" but "ditching" as well to make his point.

But next, coming from an unlikely source, London's haven for Korean expats, not to mention a growing crop of defectors, New Malden, is Kim Joo Il. In his letter, Kim, of the newly formed European Union North Korean Residents Society strikes out against the Sunshine Policy and downplays the likelihood of North Korea becoming a satellite of China;

Firstly, (Aiden Foster-Carter) does not see the shadow from the “sunshine” policy. The policy provided thousands and thousands of cash to Kim Jong Il, which helped the collapsing regime to survive. Ordinary people who live in the shade are still suffering from the dictatorship. It is the “sunshine” policy that encouraged Kim Jong Il to carry on nuclear weapons development and make ordinary people suffer.

Second, his prediction on North Korea becoming China’s satellite comes from his ignorance of North Korean nationalism. North Koreans are very poor, but they are very hostile to foreigners, not only to the US and Japan, but also to China. The class does not matter. They all think in the same way.

Ordinary North Koreans and the ruling class are deeply humiliated by Kim Jong Il’s begging to China. Considering this strong nationalism, it is unlikely that North Korea will be China’s satellite no matter who becomes his successor.

In other words, the Sunshine Policy was itself a folly which allowed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and play fast and loose with international proliferation agreements on, in large part, the South Korean dime.

In addition, Kim believes North Koreans are far too nationalistic to put up with becoming a Chinese satellite. In the end, with an admirable degree of bravado but a total and distressing absence of actual evidence, Kim claims that North Korea will be peacefully absorbed by South Korea.

Which leaves us where? Well, there is much to take away from all three contributions;

-Yes, the whims of the successor will presumably have a considerable influence on events and will need to be watched carefully, but if China imposes itself on the successor there may not be much he/she can do to avoid bending to their will.

-Yes, China's potential influence on North Korea is massive, but let us not forget that there are said to be limits to their interest in exercising that influence.

-No, the nigh-on xenophobically nationalistic average North Korean apparently doesn't want his country to be a Chinese satellite, but he is not in control of the country, and even if he is, he probably prefers following the Chinese model to losing control altogether, while the North Korean everyman will probably quickly come to a compelling conclusion about which side his/her bread is buttered when presented with this.

So who is right? Everybody and nobody, of course! This is fun, isn't it?!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mansudae Art Hall Snubbed!

There has not been much good to say about Zimbabwe in recent years, since Robert Mugabe lost the last remnants of his legitimacy in an ill-advised and economically crippling wave of farm redistributions to people who, by and large, had no idea how to farm.

Since then, I will be honest, I have found it hard in South Korea to keep a handle on the revival of the country; a coalition government of national unity took control a couple of years ago, but Mugabe remains in power. That is pretty much all I am sure of.

Nevertheless, if this is any guide, Mugabe's power has been circumscribed and a measure of sense has returned to the body politic.

It has the makings of an interesting story; in the 1980s Kim Il Sung, in the spirit of comradeship, sent a hundred or so North Korean advisers to train a special unit of the Zimbabwean military, the 5th Brigade, one which turned out to be extremely brutal as it was unleashed on Matabeleland during the "Gukurahundi", in Shona meaning the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains, killing thousands upon thousands of the ethnic Ndebele people who were fighting an insurgency against Mugabe.

So when the pre-national unity Mugabe regime handed a contract to Mansudae Art Institute to build a statue of Joshua Nkomo, one of the first rebels against the white rule of Ian Smith in the 1960s and a native of Matabeleland, in Bulawayo, the provincial capital, its leader was obviously still operating in the blinkered belief that he could do whatever he wanted. Not so.

Recent protests by the family, including present day Vice President John Nkomo, a ZANU-PF stalwart with a chequered history, have apparently led to a government decision to dismantle the statue.

Not a great loss, one might say. Without getting embroiled in the rights and wrongs of the fight against Ian Smith, all I will say is that there are ways and means of fomenting an uprising, but I would prefer to live in a world where people who order missiles be put in civilian aircraft do not get commemorated with statues.

- Flight RH825
- Flight RH827

Despite this setback, Mansudae, with their reputation for cheap but high quality statuary, seem not to be running out of customers. They recently completed the 164-foot high, $27 million “Monument to the African Renaissance” in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

The Democratic Republic of Congo also seems not to have been put off by this, which is surely just a Kim body with a Robert Kabila head, also commissioning this more recent work.

Back in Zimbabwe, Mugabe was apparently not interested in the family's protests, which is hardly surprising. He is not known for his listening skills these days.

A senior government source revealed Mohadi had spoken to President Robert Mugabe after the tense meeting with Nkomo’s family.

“The President told Mohadi to ‘leave them (Nkomo’s family)’. He also said he was disappointed with John Nkomo for failing to take a principled stand,” the source said.

However, the family won, and the statue goes.

I want to leave the final word on this unseemly mess to the finely tuned sense of irony of political analyst Grace Mutandwa;

It was highly insensitive of the government to have hired the North Koreans to produce the statue without consulting Nkomo's family or the people of Matabeleland.

Let's just say the North Koreans are not the Ndebele's favourite people.


Monday, August 30, 2010

The Calibre of South Korean Politicians

This article is one that didn't make it onto The Daily NK English page. As an example of extraordinary, willful xenophobia and undisguised nationalism delivered with no apparent sense of irony, it is splendid. As an example of the thinking of a national lawmaker in the 21st Century, it is quite disturbing.

(For those with the chops, check out the Korean version here)

Talking about Kim Jong Il’s latest visit to China, a former Democratic Party lawmaker, Jang Sung Min told a radio program this morning, “A lot of people criticize it for being to beg for the investiture of the crown prince or for food.”

Speaking on a Peace Broadcasting Company show, Jang went on, “There are some in Seoul diplomatic circles who criticize the fact that North Korea, which claims to be an independent state, would undertake dependency and tribute diplomacy, as the Chosun Dynasty did in the 17th and 18th centuries. The North is a new version of a vassal state, which has thrown away its national self-respect.”

He went on, “Some also say that in terms of his visits to the historical sites of the anti-Japanese colonial movement, Kim Jong Il is misusing our ancestors’ noble spirit for national liberation to establish the hereditary dynasty of the Kim family.”

“It is a national comedy and a hilarious move by the Kim Jong Il royal family, to lead national diplomacy in the exact opposite direction to Juche or the independence that they claim.”

“People in Seoul diplomatic circles think that the Juche ideology based on North Korean self-reliance or independence has already been demolished if his visit is related to the Kim Jong Eun succession issue and food aid,” he concluded.

(Translation by Kwon, E.K.)

What I dislike is that this man, a former lawmaker, is basically advocating for the Juche ideology in its "national independence and self-reliance" format.

By stating that Kim Jong Il should not be visiting the Chinese in this way, he is saying a lot about the South Korean relationship with the U.S, too, and furthermore betraying his considerable, ingrained xenophobic nationalism.

The fact is that national self-respect has nothing to do with independence, or an absence of foreigners on one's soil per se. That is the stuff of Kim Jong Il and Osama Bin Laden, and is reprehensible.

Instead, national self-respect has everything to do with a harmonious, adult presence in the international arena. That doesn't just mean hosting the Olympics or World Cup or G20 meeting, it means being aware of obligations and meeting those which it is possible, or ethically desirable, to meet.

North Korea has indeed thrown away its national self-respect; on this most people to the right of Han Sang Ryeol are happy to agree. But it did that when it sacrificed the wellbeing of its people for the chance to possess nuclear weapons, when it started using brinkmanship and threats as a means of extracting aid from the international community.

Whenever that was, it was not when Kim Jong Il snuck out of Pyongyang in the dead of night to go and visit a middle school in the Chinese countryside.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chinese Media, Chinese Stance.

Kremlinology was and still is a precise set of analytical skills. Kumsusanology is the same. And China watching is very similar. A lot of it revolves around careful reading between the lines of official pronouncements and the state-run media.

Sometimes, of course, the reading doesn’t even need to be all that careful. Such is the case with recent pieces from the two major outward-looking organs of the Communist Party of China, “The People’s Daily” and “Global Times”, on North Korea and the regional power balance.

Take a look at these quotes;

August 20th, 2010

“South Korea needs to keep clear-minded that its security has to be built on goodwill with its neighbors, and the strategic balance of the region should be unchanged.

A stronger South Korea-US alliance might jeopardize the trust of Seoul with its neighbors, and lead to more insecurity.

The hawkish trend of the Lee Myung Bak administration has also aroused public opinion that pressed it to take more hard-line actions. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is stuck in a vicious cycle.

Seoul has to think clearly if it wants to break the vicious cycle. Its security will come from a stable Northeast Asia.”

August 26th, 2010

“To put it simply, the US has never changed its basic policy toward North Korea, which is to ensue a regime change.

Although Washington is not openly talking about the policy, its goal remains to overthrow the current North Korean government.

The US-South Korean joint military exercises are a move to accelerate this momentum. It is a strategy to push and prepare for change, and take the initiative if the regime change really happens.

The controversial sinking of the South Korean battleship, in retrospect, is more like a convenient excuse for the US to conduct a long-planned drill that envisions the occupation of the North, rather than a single reaction toward an emergency.

The Korean Peninsula is too important to ignore in the realm of global geopolitics. U.S. control of the peninsula will pose a realistic threat to China and Russia.

North Korean leadership is expected to change hands soon. The world is watching the change closely, as North Korea is still not back to the Six-Party Talks that aim to persuade it to drop its nuclear weapon program.

A smooth transition of power in the North is vital for the stability of Northeast Asia.

China needs to clearly realize this, and try to play an active role in preserving the peace on the Korean Peninsula, as well as look after its own interests.”

These are unattributed editorials. They are, to all intents and purposes, the Chinese leadership's current stance. And they make the position very clear.

First, the U.S. and South Korea should avoid trying to enhance their power in the region. Lee Myung Bak is overstepping the mark with his hawkishness.

Second, the Chinese are prepared to accept the Kim Jong Eun transition of power if it means that stability is ensured.

Finally, the U.S. should not try/stop trying to topple the regime in Pyongyang. To say the Chinese want Kim Jong Eun there is an almighty overstatement, but they don’t want the alternative, especially instability. The Chinese know that a transition period is a time of weakness in a dictatorship, and they don't want the U.S. to try and incite rebellion in the people at such a time.

To wit, they feel that the U.S.-South Korean military exercises being conducted this year are partially aimed at fomenting just that unrest in the North Korean military establishment.

For sure, there are warnings in there for Pyongyang too, not least among them; if we don’t see stability coming out of the succession, then we might just change our minds. And there are positive messages, notably; we won't go out of our way to stop your hereditary succession.

But what this shows above all is how the Chinese go about giving gentle guidance to their international competitors.

All we, the aforementioned competitors, have to do is read it. When the government's opinion is also the newspaper's opinion, isn't it so much simpler?!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Marketization Getting Back on the Road

New video of bustling and uninterrupted trading in a border market has been obtained by a South Korean daily newspaper, suggesting that the fight against market activity has been won, for the time being at least, by market traders and the forces of capitalism.

As the piece in the Chosun Ilbo points out, the new video, taken this month in Shinuiju, stands in stark contrast to another video obtained by the same paper in April. In the previous video, empty stalls and limited numbers of customers were the most obvious features of a market in Onsung.

Markets in the country were practically deserted until May, but the situation began to change in June. Now business is booming. Sources say the authorities have virtually stopped trying to control the markets.

South Korean products are also freely available in the market, the paper’s sources add. They are not advertised, but everyone knows how to get them and many are prepared to pay a premium for a desirable item.

Cuckoo rice cookers, Samsung Anycall mobile phones and LG TV sets are very popular.

We display Chinese cosmetics but tell customers we also have South Korean ones. When a customer wants South Korean cosmetics, we take them out from under the table and sell them in the backroom.

Which is exactly what I want to hear. It shows that the currency redenomination has had no effect, and while the long term effects of one bustling market in Shinuiju are hard to predict, it is certainly a good sign of a lack of state control over the economic sphere.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Well That's Nice to Hear

Alright, so a piece on Open Radio for North Korea (ORNK) has finally announced that North Korean national football team coach Kim Jong Hun has, to mine and everyone else's great relief, not been sent to a construction site or received any other deplorable punishment for his team's poor showing in South Africa, and is, on the contrary, still in charge.

As Michael Madden put it here, "sometimes a criticism session is just a criticism session."

As per the ORNK piece, translation my own, "North Korea national football team coach Kim Jong Hun is in the middle of training the team at the Escort Bureau-managed Lee Myung Su Sports Complex Football Stadium."

"Kim took personal responsibility for the World Cup result, and offered to resign, but he got one more chance."

Kudos to this piece, "NK’s National Soccer Team Punished for Defeat in South Africa?", which I cannot link but promise was also carried by Open Radio. It got to the bottom of things early doors, and revealed a depth of knowledge clearly absent from the mainstream "quality" dailies (not a charge I am levelling at The Sun, by the by, a paper which can be relied upon to plumb the depths of shoddy journalism on literally any given day);

But the source said, the government will probably not take extreme measures. "Many people believe Kim Jong Il is crazy for soccer, but he's not. He likes soccer because it makes money for him. He likes other entertainment more," said the source.

The soccer team earned at least 1,600 million dollars (18 billion won) by receiving a dividend (at least 900 million dollars), club compensation for the players ($960,000), and the donation from Legea ($490,000).

Since the national soccer team brought a lot of foreign currency into North Korea, the players should be safe, the source said.

This, friends, is how modern North Korea works. What we are left with is another case to file under too few sources, too much gullibility and too great a desire to sell newspapers, it seems.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Silence is Golden?

It seems from recent reports that the U.S. Treasury has been quietly investigating and freezing suspicious North Korean bank accounts since June in response to the sinking of the Cheonan; though not, it seems, accounts explicitly theretofore linked to the sinking, if such a thing could be said to exist.

Regardless, is this good? Well yes, overall it probably is. However, I take serious issue with this;

"The source said the new financial sanctions will be different from what happened in the Banco Delta Asia crisis that stalled the six-party nuclear talks for years due to the North’s protest. Instead of naming and shaming a specific bank as a money laundering institution and pressuring it to freeze North Korean assets, “quiet” moves are now preferred to avoid blowback from Pyongyang, the source said.

Another source confirmed the additional financial sanctions, noting that, “If the charges are very clear, then the Banco Delta Asia method will be used, while the silent method will be used in more ambiguous cases.”

Is this a shoddy translation? Can we really be suggesting we might publicly, though not as loudly as before, freeze cut 'n' dried illegality, but then use the "silent method" in "more ambiguous" cases? What is "more ambiguous"?

I can't, or, more accurately, don't have time to, find the Korean versions to confirm or deny anything, but if true, then were one to wonder why the U.S. government is viewed with suspicion in those sectors of society with a predisposition towards either left wing blinkers or believing conspiracy theories, there could be your answer.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Is a Dusty Old Ruleboook Still a Rulebook?

With September edging closer and the Chosun Workers' Party Delegates' Conference therein concealed, it is fast approaching time for Pyongyang watchers to take the stage. And Kumsusanology is certainly full of ideas on what the event might mean.

For that matter, let it not be said that the Chosun Workers' Party itself is underplaying the conference, either. It's august organ, mouthpiece of choice and a newpsaper which can be relied on never to hold back on the hyperbole and propaganda, Rodong Shinmun asserted this week that the event “will shine as a notable event in the history of the sacred Workers’ Party.”

Obviously, something is afoot then, and many people, not least among them Hwang Jang Yop, see it as an attempt to reboot the Workers' Party and reinstall it as the leading power in the state, a position it nominally lost because Kim Jong Il felt he had the best chance of surviving if he hollowed it out and placed most of its power in the hands of the National Defense Commission during the decade(s) horribilis otherwise known as the 1990s and early 2000s.

Meanwhile, others simply think that Kim Jong Il may feel the need to place a wafer-thin veneer of legitimacy on installing his son into the top position. In the words of Daily NK man Park In Ho,

The Politburo statement limits the reasons for the holding of the delegates’ meeting to “electing the Party’s highest organs”, suggesting instead that it is by no means a sign of reorganization in advance of a Party Congress, for example, but simply a move to prepare the minimum decision making structure for the succession of Kim Jong Eun.

And this is partly the key question, and partly irrelevant. I mean, can we say that it is even possible to try and restore the function of a system of governance by holding for just the third time a meeting which Party statutes decree should have been held every five years, thus requiring there to have been twelve such meetings, give or take, since the founding of the country?

Kim seems to have decided that his son doesn't have the chops to keep the military in line over the long term within the system he leads through, and has decided to hollow out the NDC a little. So a rebalancing of the military-Party balance it may well be, but it is overreaching a fair bit to call it a return to communist or any other kind of orthodoxy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bus Crashes Seem to Be National Secrets

There is something odd about this, and I don't know what to think about it. I am not pushing for a conspiracy theory; I just find it a bit strange.

First of all, let's be clear that it may well be a good example of North Korea's reprehensible and blithe disregard for the value of human life that its primary ambition appears to have been to avoid letting anyone see the location of the bus crash rather than helping people maybe survive. But we don't actually know exactly what went on behind the scenes, we can only guess. And guessing is not good, even when we have 60 years of blithe disregard to use as precedent.

Regardless, the real oddness is derived from the fact that the crash was apparently known to the Kaesong Complex Management Committee and/or the Unification Ministry for fully five days before it was released to the public.

I recognize that the death of ten North Koreans is not technically South Korean news, and I am sure many more people than that die on a daily basis in individual incidents around the world of which I am persistently and embarrassingly ignorant, but this is a bit strange, is it not.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Deja Vu of the UN Option

Found this today;

UN Options

Calling a Security Council Meeting. This would gain maximum publicity but we could not obtain any action and we would force the Soviets to defend the North Koreans.

Present a letter to the Security Council. This gets our position on the record but with little publicity and appears perfunctory.

Nothing to do with the Cheonan sinking, instead it is the minutes of a National Security Council meeting on April 16th, 1969 following the downing, probably in international waters, of a U.S. Navy Lockheed EC-121 reconnaissance plane by North Korea.

Elsewhere in the documents, which have been declassified and placed on the internet by the people at the U.S. National Security Archive at George Washington University under the prescient title "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea?", it is revealed that the U.S. contemplated up to 47 nuclear strikes against the North, but ultimately rejected the use of any military force whatsoever because "air strikes against military targets in North Korea “will be a deliberate act of war” and, thereafter, “North Korea may respond by launching air strikes against US/ROK forces.”

Proof, then, if proof were needed, that the more things change the more they stay the same. Of course the Soviets are gone, and the Chinese are unlikely to start banging their shoes on the UN Security Council lectern, but cosmetic changes do not the substance change.

Which is not to say that the UN is an unhelpful or worthless institution, or anything else which Joshua Stanton might conclude, or indeed to say we should bomb North Korea back into the Stone Age, simply to ponder aloud whether the current situation is anything new, and that, from there, if one concludes that previous efforts didn't succeed, is it wise to do the same thing again?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Knowing When to Quit Is Important

It is hard to decide whether this is a symbol of a vibrant and blossoming democracy, or another example of how one side or the other in almost all arguments related to North Korea conducted in South Korean civil society and government circles tends to simply refuse to acquiesce to the majority viewpoint, willfully acting to the detriment of the image of the nation and its ability to persue its national interest.

It's a letter sent by a South Korean NGO, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, or PSPD, to Mexico in its capacity as current chair of the UN Security Council. In the letter, PSPD, whose rather grandiose administrative HQ I can see from my office window, thus confirming their existence and suggesting rather wealthy backers to boot, casts doubt on the Cheonan incident investigation, raising eight points of contention.

It is not my intention to debate whether their points have any merit. Some criticisms of the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation carry weight, and some questions remain about the event itself. That has been discussed at great length, though, and need not be revisited.

However, in the end I do think it reasonable to say that South Korea has a burgeoning civil society, and as a result PSPD has had more than its fair share of opportunities to put its viewpoint forward domestically since the Cheonan sank on March 26th, or since the investigation released its findings on May 20th, or at any time in between. Indeed, it did do that, as did almost every organization of note, including my employer.

But the act of sending a letter to the UN in an apparent attempt to deliberately undermine your own government's diplomatic efforts so late in the game? This is a very odd way to behave, and not in any way to be applauded. It is incumbent upon any moderately mature organization, which the offices of PSPD do imply that it purports to be, to recognize that in a functioning democracy which guarantees freedom of speech, it is important to know when one is on the wrong side, and from there to regroup and move on.

For all its good points and strengths, this is not something that South Korean civil society has yet learned.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Could You Not Even Try to Understand?

A few days ago, I started writing a piece about the serious surfeit of hyperbole in the British media about the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula but, mostly because I had no time for research, it never reached critical mass.

For the record, most of my ire was reserved for this nonsense by Rupert Cornwell in The Independent, a piece characterized by statements about North Korea like "in our world of instant experts and instant explanations, what a delight to discover something genuinely mystifying" and which could not help but conclude with an Inspector O quote, "Where I live, we don't solve cases, for what is a solution in a reality that never resolves itself into anything definable?"

Thereafter, as an aside, it didn't surprise me to learn via this USA Today pish that the American media is no less guilty of mindless hysteria and sensationalism. Indeed, this may be the worst piece of all, with the standout quote (by which I mean most divorced from reality) being;

The March 26 sinking of the South Korea warship Cheonan by a suspected North Korean torpedo, killing all 46 sailors aboard, has grown into a crisis in which the world's two largest militaries — those of the United States and China— are lined up on opposite sides behind the South and North, respectively.
There are more, and I would point you to this cutting criticism from Seoul resident Rob York if you want to follow it up.

But I also had some problems with this piece in the Telegraph. Let's be clear, I have a great deal of time for Aiden Foster-Carter; he is an expert of long standing, and a pithy writer whose style appeals to my British sensibilities. In short, I am not surprised that he is sought out to provide analysis for the British press.

The problem I have is that daily newspapers of substance are still printing this kind of "Who is the madman in Pyongyang?" piece every time something newsworthy happens on the Korean Peninsula. If the Telegraph had asked Aiden Foster-Carter to provide an analysis of the post-Cheonan political landscape, that is what they would have received. Let's reiterate; Aiden Foster-Carter is an expert, with expertise.

But it seems to me that what they wanted, and by God it is mostly what they got, was the standard rehash of the well worn stories we have all heard; stories that characterize Kim Jong Il as a cartoon dictator in the eyes of the reader. It is designed to entertain, not inform. It is eruditely written, but ultimately unhelpful.

Anyway, I was inspired to drag that formerly dead piece out of the recycling after reading here that the Telegraph has also been stealing the pro bono North Korea research of One Free Korea.

And what is my reaction? Well I instinctively recommend following this up and getting the apology deserved, but beyond that, I just shrug. Because this is symptomatic of the kind of slapdash North Korea journalism that just isn't very surprising anymore.

Is it that hard to actually try?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cheonan Theories Get a Torpedoing

Most people are in favor of putting as many points of view in the public sphere as possible, on pretty much all issues. Nobody should be forbidden from speaking their mind, it is generally believed. This is the way to create a creative, diverse, and harmonious society, after all.

Here is an example. It is a list of what some might call conspiracy theories, but I see as reasonable assertions of doubt about certain issues surrounding the Cheonan sinking. Much of it has long been disproved, but it is in the public domain and it asks some searching questions.

But there comes a time when exercising the right to free speech can turn into what General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett might call a "total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face."

There has been quite a bit of this in South Korea of late, but two events in the last two days should be enough to put paid to it as far as the Cheonan sinking is concerned.

Last Friday, North Korea's National Defense Commission (NDC) made its own presentation to a group of assorted persons both Korean and foreign, the latter presumed by most to be embassy officials. The details of it, and the associated refutations by the Ministry of National Defense, are here.

The NDC presentation, as this Chosun Ilbo articles points out, seemed for all the world to be an agglomeration of facts and conspiracy theories pulled from the internet, which, as the article points out, it may well have been.

Well, the internet bites both ways, it turns out. First, for North Korea to think it could claim that it "does not have Ghadir class, Sangeo class, or any other 130-ton submarines” in the era of Google Earth was outright foolhardy.

Second, it also thought that even though nigh on 20,000 North Korean defectors and former soldiers live in South Korea it would be possible to make claims like "It is impossible for a 130-ton submarine loaded with a 1.7 ton torpedo to attack in a ‘C’-formation." No, as has today been proven by this.

Pyongyang may think it unfortunate that the helmsman of a Sangeo class submarine which was beached at Gangneung in 1996 might break his 14-year silence to debunk the whole show, but that is not so. International Relations is changing, and changing too fast for North Korea to keep up.

Together, these two stories are likely to do more to convince skeptics of North Korea's guilt than all the evidence presented by the joint investigation team, and the two efforts together, added to the extraordinarily amateur effort of the NDC, really ought to bring this particular debate to a close, and allow the world to focus on what to actually do.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Question of Kaesong

Is North Korea prepared to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex? It could be the biggest question of all, except for the one about whether or not there will be a war.

And yet, as with all things involving the thin slicing of salami, it was never going to be that simple. No, for all North Korea did today was expel South Korean government officials from one particular office in the zone, the "North‐South Economic Cooperation Council."

Actually, not quite all. They also ceased communications between various authorities of North and South, for example the Red Cross, and announced that their belligerence would continue for as long as the "traitor" President Lee Myung Bak remains in power.

One can look at the Kaesong issue one of two ways. Either North Korea hasn't closed it because it cannot afford to close it, which seems unlikely since even North Korea's GDP is above the level at which the loss of $50 million per year would be seriously felt at the highest levels, or Pyongyang is keeping it in reserve to use as a pawn later. Closing it would be one of the few things North Korea could do which could not readily be undone, and so would need to be pondered long and hard in the corridors of power.

If it is the pawn rationale in play, and it probably is, there is a good side. The deliberate placing of obstacles in the way of war, as President Lee did in his speech on Monday and now the North has done by making a show of expelling eight South Korean government officials and then shouting about it rather than throwing out the whole show, proves that nobody has any intention of moving away from jaw-jaw.

This is bad news in terms of undermining the international community's strategy against North Korea, since announcing that you are ending all cooperative economic projects with the exception of the Kaesong Complex to punish North Korea is rather like saying you are closing all the coffee shops in the USA with the exception of those owned by Starbucks, but it depends on the ends one seeks.

If you are simply seeking to avoid a catastrophic conflict, look upon this kindly. If you are looking to bring down the last Cold War frontier, I'm afraid I won't be heading for Pyongyang with The Daily NK tomorrow, and you won't be reading about it either.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Mother of All Cold War Hangovers

So, it's official. After much speculation, North Korea has officially been fingered for the Cheonan attack, possibly the worst of Pyongyang's many peacetime provocations against South Korea since 1953.

According to the explanation given in this morning's press conference, a Yeoneo Class midget (meaning weighing 300T or less) submarine left a port on the west coast of North Korea on the night of March 26th, skirted through international waters to avoid detection, came in from the west towards the Cheonan, which was to the west of Baekryeong Island at the time, and deliberately torpedoed it.

The torpedo exploded 69m below the portside of the vessel, creating a so-called "bubble jet" which impacted the hull of the vessel, scything it in two. Torpedo parts were scattered far and wide, of course, but a pair of intact propellers and a drive shaft were left on the ocean floor surprisingly close to the site of the explosion.

One and a half months later, a dredger employing extremely high tensile netting dragged up that torpedo propeller and drive shaft, the latter of which had the ill-fated numerical, "1번" written on it.

It was perhaps unnecessary for an investigating official to announce in today's press conference, "We have confirmed that no other nation besides North Korea marks its torpedoes in Korean."

We know the torpedo didn't impact with the hull of the ship itself for these reasons, and we know that this particular torpedo sank this particular ship for these reasons.

Not everyone in South Korea believes it, of course. We know that North Korea is denying it, and apparently thinks that the best form of defense is attack.

The inevitable but unusually swiftly released statement from the Korean Central News Agency is not interesting for what it says, which is, among other things;

“In the event of any punishment, retaliatory action or any kind of sanction which damages our national interests, we will answer with hard-line measures including immediate war. This total war will be a sacred war of the nation, people and state to get rid of the base of followers of the rebel factions which created this fabrication and to build a unified great state.

Any trifling incidents in the waters, air or land of our sovereign territory including in the West Sea will be considered the actions of confrontation fanatics and we will cope with that with merciless physical blows and infinite retaliation.”

What is interesting, however, is that the statement was released by the National Defense Commission, to all intents and purposes the top administrative body in North Korea, and one of which Kim Jong Il is the chair. For this reason, the statement can be interpreted as being the word of Kim himself.

The second interesting thing about it is that it is more direct than most statements which emerge from North Korea, with few attempts at qualification.

These facts are designed to instill a measure of fear in South Korean people, obviously, and turn them off the rule of the conservative Lee Myung Bak administration, which some people think is to blame for creating conditions in which North Korea thought it might be a good idea to slaughter 46 conscript soldiers in cold blood.

And it is also designed to change the political landscape of the June 2nd local elections. Let us be clear, it certainly will do that, but whether it will be in the direction that North Korea wants is altogether more debatable.

Either way, as Baek Hak Soon of the Sejong Institute told Yonhap;

The South Korean announcement on Thursday marks "a moment when inter-Korean relations have essentially ended. They will remain that way unless a fundamental political change takes place in either Seoul or Pyongyang."

Yet another day to remember in the last moments of the mother of all Cold War hangovers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

To the Fallen of Gwangju

May is a month thick with meaning in South Korea. First comes the anniversary of the 5.16 Revolution which brought little known military figure Park Chung Hee to power, eventually turning him, slowly but inexorably and despite his many wrongs, into a national hero.

But, conversely, today is also the anniversary of the Gwangju uprising, one of those rare events which matched the narrative propagated by Pyongyang, thus inspiring ten days of blanket Chosun Central Television and radio coverage. It isn't necessary to retell once again the tragic story of the events which took place in Gwangju themselves, for they are well known. Troops were sent, the rebellion was crushed, and many people, just a few of whom can be seen on the right, were slaughtered.

It is to be hoped, though, that as time passes the way this event is remembered at the end of the No. 518 bus route in Gwangju comes to be better known. Here, in the countryside outside the city, and in a way that stands in monumental contrast to the glossing over of historical wrongs to be found at Seodaemun Prison in Seoul, lies the May 18 Memorial Cemetary, a construction which compares favorably with Auschwitz or the vast cemetaries on the fields of Flanders. Not in terms of horror, for this is nothing to do with historical relativism, but in terms of the sheer grace with which the burden of remembering the events of May, 1980 is borne.

There are no plastic replica soldiers shooting plastic replica Gwangju citizens, no mechanical replications of torture in action, and no avoiding of responsibility for what unfolded. There is no drama, and there is no hate. For this the people of Gwangju deserve a huge, huge measure of respect.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Logic Is a Necessary Part of Discourse

Broadly speaking, it is better to have various points of view on any one issue in the public domain than not, and this op-ed piece by Selig Harrison in the Hankyoreh does nothing to change that.

Nevertheless, it is an uncomfortable read. Inevitably, the most quoted part will be;

I don't know whether North Korea torpedoed the Cheonan, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Lee Myung Bak has invited retaliation by repudiating the commitment to coexistence and eventual confederation enshrined in the two summit declarations negotiated with Kim Dae Jang and Roh Moo Hyun.

It is extraordinary to me that an expert could appear in a national newspaper and assert that playground logic ("If you don't listen to me, I'll break your toy") could possibly be appropriate in the international arena, but there it is.

However, that is in the introductory paragraph, and while I think readers of One Free Korea are perfectly within their rights to be aghast at it, if it were the end of the piece it would be dismissed out of hand. But it is not.

The lead paragraph is just an attention grabber. Let's go deeper into the piece, because that is where the interesting parts lie. Here are the points Mr. Harrison is really trying to make;

- What is needed is a series of explicit statements accepting the two summit declarations as the point of departure for the resumption of the efforts made by his predecessors to improve North-South relations in parallel with denuclearization negotiations.

- Seoul should push the U.S. to pursue bilateral denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang, a trilateral peace treaty (North Korea, the United States and South Korea) and renewed six-party talks.

On the first, it is fair to say that Lee Myung Bak has violated some of the tenets of the summit declarations in question, but it is also much more to the point to say that North Korea abrogated them first, and abrogated them better. Every single provocation of the past ten years has been a violation of the summit declarations, which are rooted in non-aggression.

These are declarations which were designed to be adhered to in a state of peaceful coexistance. I could draw attention to a number of parts of the agreements, but I'll just leave it at article 3 of the October, 2007 "Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity";

3. The South and the North have agreed to closely work together to put an end to military hostilities, mitigate tensions and guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula. The South and the North have agreed not to antagonize each other, reduce military tension, and resolve issues in dispute through dialogue and negotiation. The South and the North have agreed to oppose war on the Korean Peninsula and to adhere strictly to their obligation to nonaggression.

To which I simply say; last November, and the Cheonan. Can we now really use these declarations as "points of departure" for a renewed dialogue? Should we simply ignore all these North Korean violations, the deaths of 46 sailors?

On the second point, the U.S. was not in need of any pushing to revive the Six-Party Talks, at least not until Pyongyang put a torpedo in a passing vessel one Friday evening in March. Yes, the U.S. was and is reluctant to engage in bilateral dialogue with the North, but that was and remains because the North Koreans manufactured a rationale to desert the Six-Party Talks, and talking to them would certainly represent rewarding that bad behavior. To then come out and say that a military vessel was torpedoed in peacetime (yes it is, let's not go down that road) because the U.S. refused to talk to the regime in Pyongyang (which is not true, anyway) so we should talk to them now (reinforcing the apparent belief that bad behavior is destined to be rewarded) is broadly insupportable.

I think the claim that North Korea developed its nuclear weapons out of fear of the U.S. carried weight in the beginning, but the fact is that the Obama administration went out of its way to present an open door to North Korea, which Pyongyang promptly slammed shut.

The reality is that North Korea now is so weak that it is fearful of everyone around it, and no amount of talking will change that. We have reached an impasse, and the only thing that will change it is for North Korea to enter civilized international society.

Which does not necessarily mean reunification. I do not actually believe that "reform and opening," as the Korean press is incapable of not calling it, will necessarily destroy the North Korean regime, although it will put its internal contradictions under improbable strain. All I know is that a measure of economic liberalization is the only path North Korea has left, and if the successor has half the statecraft of his father, he had better put it to good use and make that happen. Because the clock is ticking in a big way.