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.