Building a New Elite for the Post-Kim World

26 03 2010

by Andrei Lankov (DailyNK,2010-03-25)

When considering the future of North and South Korea, we can see that the time has come to raise an alternative elite, the kind that meets the expectations of the modern world and has no relationship with the Kim Jong Il regime.

But since it is impossible to participate in any political activity or gain a great deal of knowledge while inside North Korea, this kind of elite can only be formed in South Korea. For North Korean intellectuals with a sense of the modern world, South Korea is a base from which they can go into action and even receive an education. The birthplace of the alternative elite is the defector community in South Korea.

In 2010, the number of defectors in South Korea reached 20,000. The number of defectors is growing, and their social backgrounds are very different from those who escaped in the 1990s and after. Most of the defectors who crossed over to South Korea in and after the 1990s were farmers, laborers and soldiers. Being realistic, it is difficult to view them as talented people who could have been converted into an alternative elite.

However, there are a growing number of exceptions now. First of all, there are intellectuals among the defectors. Secondly, there are quite a lot of people who are young, talented and eager to get educated. The number of juvenile defectors who need to be educated in South Korea has now reached 1,800.

[…] Among the defectors in South Korea today are writers, poets, journalists and people working in the movie industry. But most of them find it difficult to continue their creative lifestyles. The experiences that are the themes in their work are, of course, close to the reality of North Korea. However, it is a matter of regret that South Korean mainstream society is indifferent to both North Koreans and their experiences. Under such conditions, works that deal with North Korean life are not marketable. This is why North Korean artists cannot make a living in creative activities without external support.

There are various ways to support them. Giving financial support to North Korean writers, supporting magazines and publishing companies that publish their work and promoting exhibitions by North Korean painters are just some of the examples. Broadcasting stations for North Korea such as Free North Korea Radio can act as a base of financial support for the alternative elite.

While it is important to help North Korean elites, however, it is more important to pursue the formation of a new North Korean elite group. Intellectuals who were educated in North Korea know well about the reality of the country, but they face a lot of obstacles in learning modern knowledge. On the contrary, young North Koreans can learn about world class technology and knowledge when educated in South Korea.

But I find a lot of problems when I listen to the experiences of defectors studying in South Korean universities. Most either quit school or are regularly absent. Of course some leave school because of a lack of ability, but for many of them the reason why they do not graduate does not have anything to do with their ability at all.

[…] We can also see how difficult it is for North Korean students to study when we consider the economic status of defector families. The income of a North Korean family is about 50 percent of that of a South Korean family. This forces them to put more effort into making a living than studying hard, and those defectors who could serve as the future elite cannot focus on their studies because they have to support themselves.

This is why we should consider providing scholarships for defector students. Current scholarships support them only with tuition fees. However, considering the financial problems North Korean students suffer, that is far from enough. Not all the defector students should receive living expenses and scholarships. It is a better policy to provide opportunities to those students who are determined to perform the role of future elite.

This method is not only economic, but it also encourages them to study harder. 25 to 30 percent of the whole defector student community would benefit. Of course, in order to select nominees objectively, there should be well-organized evaluation standards with grades and an interview at their core.

It would be a good idea to provide those top students with a living expense subsidy of 400,000 won to 500,000 won a month and a scholarship for graduate school. This program is not a big pressure. Scholarships could be provided by the government, but there will be only about 100 students who deserve the scholarship in the whole country, so any foundation or social organization would be able to support them, too.

Read the full text of this articles…

North Koreans fear another famine amid economic crisis

24 03 2010

By Barbara Demick (Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2010)

Women who fled to China describe acute shortages and anger after a disastrous currency revaluation. As an ailing Kim Jong Il tries to secure his son’s ascension, some people are beginning to speak out.

Reporting from Yanji, China – North Koreans who recently fled to China say many of their fellow citizens are losing faith in the regime of Kim Jong Il after a disastrous currency revaluation that wiped out savings and left food scarcer than at any time since the famine of the mid-1990s, when up to 2 million people died.

“People are outspoken. They complain,” said a 56-year-old woman from the border city of Musan who gave her name as Li Mi Hee. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she added: “My son thinks that something might happen. I don’t know what, but I can tell you this — people have opinions. . . . It is not like the 1990s when people just died without saying what they thought.”

Li was one of five North Koreans from different parts of the country interviewed this month near the border with China. Using pseudonyms, as many North Koreans even outside their country do to protect family members from retaliation, they told of panic in the wake of the bungled economic move, which left even a staple such as rice in the hands of black marketeers and sent the communist government scrambling to repair the damage.

“The whole economic structure has collapsed because of the currency reform,” said James Kim, a Korean American educator and president of the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, who is in the process of setting up a similar school in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “It is a very difficult situation for them. . . . It might end up being worse than the 1990s.”

[…] “They apologized, but it didn’t do us any good. People already had lost all their money,” said Song Hee, a 17-year-old from Musan. She said party officials in Musan went door to door, speaking to neighborhood leaders of the inminban, or “people’s committee,” about the economic mistakes.

The teenager fled last month after the revaluation wiped out the cash her parents had been saving in hopes of sending her to college. “My friends would leave too if they could. They see no future in North Korea,” Song Hee said nervously, her bangs slick with sweat across her forehead. Before the revaluation, Song Hee said, her mother had been eking out a modest living selling cheap socks, keeping the family reasonably well fed.

North Korea announced Nov. 30 that it was issuing new currency and that the old currency would become invalid. People were permitted to trade in their old money for new, but only what would be worth about $30 on the black market. (The limit was later raised.) Unlike in Pyongyang, where people had seven days’ notice, the switch-over of the currency took place within 48 hours in Musan, Song Hee said. “People were in shock. Our money was becoming like water. With the psychological stress, many people had to go to the hospital,” she said.

As far as she knew, nobody dared to disobey the order for fear of punishment. “We were told that somebody decided he would burn the money instead of giving it to the government. The money had the picture of Kim Il Sung, and because he burned it he was shot to death for treason,” Song Hee said…

[…] “They wanted to make everybody the same,” said Choi Kum Ok, a 54-year-old member of the Korean Workers’ Party who left North Korea’s Yanggang province in mid-December to work in China. Choi, who said she remains loyal to the regime, nonetheless acknowledged that the economic reform had backfired. “There is no food and what there is has become unaffordable,” Choi said.

[…] The scarcities are spreading to the more privileged in North Korea. An aid worker who visits regularly said that on a trip this month, officials begged him to bring in food the next time. “I usually bring a bottle of Scotch as a gift — they really enjoy it — but this time they said, ‘Why didn’t you bring in rice instead?’ ” said the aid worker, who asked not to be identified. Even the relatively privileged capital has been affected.

“We live in one of the richer parts of the country. Things were OK for us around 2004, but now they’ve gotten bad again, maybe worse than before . . . people are starving to death,” said Su Jong, 28, who is from Pyongsong. The city, on the northern outskirts of Pyongyang, is home to many of North Korea’s top science institutes and to the largest wholesale market.

Although Su Jong held North Korea’s own economic policies at fault, she said she had not lost her love for Kim Jong Il. “If [Kim] was a good leader, we wouldn’t see children starving, people wandering the streets in rags, the markets with no food,” she said. “But I don’t doubt his good intentions. It is the people under him who are corrupt.”

It was a common sentiment among the North Koreans interviewed in China, several of whom said they weren’t defectors and hoped to return to their country. North Koreans live under a cult of personality in which members of the Kim family are demigods with unsurpassed skills at everything from golf to metallurgy and, of course, economic management. During the 1990s famine, North Koreans were largely persuaded by propagandists that U.S. sanctions were to blame for their troubles.

“In China, people use bad words to criticize the government,” said Jeong Hee Ok, 50, who left the east coast city of Hamhung in mid-December to work as a maid in China. “But I come from North Korea — even little children know you are a bad person if you talk that way about the leadership. It is hard to change that mind-set.”

Read more about North Korea in Barbara Demick’s new book “Nothing to Envy”…

Read the review of Barbara Demick’s new book “Nothing to Envy”…

NK`s Seizure Threat Rattles S. Korean Investors

24 03 2010

Dong-A Ilbo (March 24, 2010) “I’d hoped that the inter-Korean tours would be resumed after a hiatus of more than 20 months. But North Korea has threatened to seize our assets in the North. I’m just aghast.” Ilyeon Investment Chairman Ahn Gyo-shik is nervous over Pyongyang’s latest moves. “I feel helpless since our company is rattled by external conditions, not our management’s ability,” he said.

The North has threatened to seize real estate owned by South Korean businessmen unless they visit North Korea for a land survey by Thursday. Ahn said he will cross the inter-Korean border with staff from the subcontractors of Hyundai Asan Corp. early Thursday morning.

Since launching a tour to Mount Kumgang in 2003, Ahn has built Kumgang Family Beach Hotel (photo) and a sashimi restaurant in the North. He has even served as a chairman of the Corporate Conference for South Korean Companies Doing Business at Mount Kumgang, a gathering of Hyundai Asan’s subcontractors.

In an interview with The Dong-A Ilbo yesterday, Ahn said the head of a conference member company recently died of a heart attack due to severe stress from his business in North Korea. The suspension of the inter-Korean tours caused the late chairman’s company to teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, causing his death at age 55, Ahn said.

Ilyeon’s prospects are no better. Ahn has invested 14.7 billion won (12.9 million U.S. dollars) in his North Korea venture, including 13.4 billion won (11.8 million dollars) to build the hotel and additional facilities. His company is six billion won (5.3 million dollars) in the red due to the suspension of the Kumgang tour. Its deficit slightly decreased in early 2007, but the killing of a South Korean tourist at Mount Kumgang in July 2008 by a North Korean soldier dealt another serious blow.

Since the shooting, Ilyeon has slashed the number of hotel staff from 119 (including North Korean workers) to three. Over the same period, Ilyeon’s office in South Korea has also downsized from 15 workers to four. Ilyeon director Kim Rae-hyeon said, “Most member companies of the conference are almost bankrupt but cannot file for bankruptcy since their assets are in North Korea.”

On the North’s land survey Thursday, Ahn said, “Considering precedents and North Korea’s recent moves, Pyongyang is unlikely to make just empty threats. In the worst-case scenario, the North will confiscate assets held by South Korean companies after compensating South Korean investors with part of their investment.” Worryingly, a Chinese tourist agency has released a six-day tour of both Kaesong and Mount Kumgang. This could encourage the North to deprive South Korean companies of their right to run businesses in the North.

Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said, “North Korea could mention Hyundai Asan’s underpayment of 400 million dollars as grounds to freeze assets held by South Korean companies. The North could also freeze the properties of South Korean companies, force them to recall their staff, annul existing contracts, and sign contracts with new companies.” Other experts, however, say the North is unlikely to confiscate South Korean companies’ assets or deprive them of their exclusive right to do business.

For Thursday’s survey, Hyundai Asan said yesterday that 52 staff from 33 companies such as Hyundai Asan, its subcontractors, Korea Tourism Organization and Emerson Pacific will make the trip. Forty-eight workers from Hyundai Asan and its subcontractors had applied for their visit.

Shim Sang-jin, in charge of Mount Kumgang affairs for Hyundai Asan, will lead the group. The group will board a bus in Seoul and pass through the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office in Goseong County, Gangwon Province, around 9:40 a.m. Thursday. Officials of the tourism organization will head for the North today.

Read an update N. Korea Threatens to Seize S. Korean Assets at Mount Kumgang (25 Mar.2010)

Pak Nam-gi executed for bungled currency reform

18 03 2010

SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) — North Korea executed a former top finance official last week, holding him responsible for the country’s currency reform fiasco that has caused massive inflation, worsened food shortages and dented leader Kim Jong-il’s efforts to transfer power to a son, sources said Thursday.

Pak Nam-Ki, who was reportedly sacked in January as chief of the planning and finance department of the ruling Workers’ Party, was executed at a shooting range in Pyongyang, multiple sources familiar with information on North Korea told Yonhap News Agency. “All the blame has been poured on Pak after the currency reform failure exacerbated public sentiment and had a bad effect” on leader Kim Jong-il’s plan to hand power over to his third son Kim Jong-un, one source told Yonhap on condition of anonymity.

Pak, a 77-year-old technocrat, was charged with “deliberately ruining the national economy” as a “son of a big landowner,” the sources said. But an overwhelming number of people believe the charge serves only to scapegoat Pak for the currency revaluation, which fueled already-bad inflation and dried up food and basic supplies for the public, the sources said.

Pak, a graduate of engineering schools in the former Soviet Union and one of its satellite states, disappeared from North Korea’s official media reports in January after having accompanied Kim Jong-il on a number of his field inspections.

Pak’s execution is the latest in a series of punishments the North has reportedly meted out to its elite for failed economic reforms. South Korean officials and analysts believe North Korean leader Kim has been pushing a series of bold economic drives in recent months to pave the ground for power transfer to his son, after the regime shored up its military self-confidence by conducting its second nuclear test in May last year.

Pak visited South Korea in 2002 as head of a committee overseeing economic planning, leading a delegation of bureaucrats and inspecting South Korean industrial facilities…

See reports which deny the fact that Pak Nam-gi was executed or even held responsible for the currency reform.

北 박남기 黨부장 처형설은 “사실무근” [노컷뉴스] 2010년 03월 30일(화)

북한의 박남기 당중앙위 부장이 지난 연말 단행된 화폐개혁 실패에 따른 문책으로 현직에서 해임되고, 공개 처형됐다는 일부 보도는 사실이 아니라고 북한전략센터가 주장했다.

(사) 북한전략센터는 30일 “현재 해외에 머물고 있는 복수의 북한 소식통을 인용해 화폐개혁은 전적으로 내각이 실무를 주도했으며, 박남기 부장과는 전혀 무관한 일로 그가 책임질 일이 아니라”고 말했다….

북한 박남기 처형설은 사실무근 [뉴데일리] 2010년 03월 29일(월)

…소식통은 “박 부장은 26일 현재 현직을 유지하고 있으며, 업무에 충실하고 있다”며 “철직(해임)설이나 처형설은 난센스”라고 일축했다. 소식통은 “박 부장이 최근 김정일 앞에서 자그만 ‘말실수’를 해 김정일로부터 질책을 받은 바 있다”면서 “(이 때문에) 김정일의 공개 활동을 수행하는 ‘행사조’ 명단에서 제외됐다”고 전했다.

또한 박 부장이 ‘행사조’ 명단에서 제외되자 김정일의 공개활동 자료를 제작·배포하는 ‘5호문헌편집사'(노동신문 등에는 ‘정치보도반’으로 명기) 담당자들이 이미 나와 있는 자료에서까지 그의 모습을 삭제하는 ‘과잉행동’을 보이고 있다고 소식통은 덧붙였다…

We have already reported about Pak Nam-gi’s suspected arrest in January 2010…

Listen to the related radio interview with Dr. Bronwen Dalton on ABC Radio Australia (February 4, 2010)

Kim Jong-il’s visit to China: What should we expect?

14 03 2010

Jonas Parello-Plesner (East Asia Forum, March 14th, 2010)

There are rumours that Kim Jong-il will visit China late-March. If the visit takes place, it must be after the 18 March when the joint US-ROK military training ends, which is regarded by North Korea as a prelude to war. The supreme commander can’t be seen to leave the country during that period. Alternately, the visit might be made by a top official in the North Korean system, such as Kim Young-nam. So, what should we expect from this meeting?

Broadly speaking, our expectations can be framed around Kim Jong-il’s promise to his people. Kim has promised to the North Korean people to make the country strong and prosperous by 2012, the centenary of the birthday of his father, Kim Il-sung’s. On the face of it, this promise is illusory. The North Korean leadership is probably the least accountable leadership in the world. It was casual about the plight of its people during the famine of the mid-1990’s, and on numerous other occasions…

…As for the nuclear question, the Six Party Talks are still in official hibernation, with a flurry of bilateral consultations taking their place. Recent Chinese statements that the talks could restart in the first half of this year are promising. The renewal of talks would place China back in its preferred position as mediator. Outside of these negotiations, North Korea is often portrayed as China’s headache. When North Korea is anchored in the negotiation room, it becomes the US’s headache. Getting negotiations started is therefore clearly in China’s interests. It could also help China on another nuclear case, namely Iran. Getting North Korea back to the table could demonstrate the value of negotiations instead of sanctions.

But restarting these talks will require China to employ some deft diplomatic manoeuvring. The US and its allies have demanded progress on North Korean denuclearisation before starting talks on other issues. North Korea has demanded bilateral talks with the US, and an abolition of the US’ hostile policies, including sanctions…

…A further issue is that the US is more constrained by the continuation of bilateral negotiations. Bilateral negotiations could sideline US allies like Japan and South Korea. They could also reaffirm to North Korea that there is a reward for abandoning the Six Party Talks.

Despite all of this there remains a possibility that the Six Party Talks could be restarted. A possibility which would satisfy North Korea on bilateral talks, and the US, Japan and South Korea on Six Party talks, could be for the Chinese to restart Six Party talks and the sub-working groups simultaneously. One of these sub-groups could deal with bilateral US-DPRK relations including diplomatic recognition. The US and DPRK might then meet bilaterally in this Six Party talks sanctioned format. Or the Chinese might have other similar diplomatic tactics to secure face-saving for both parties.

For China, a visit by Kim could and would be employed to confirm North Korean willingness to reengage in talks. Kim will want something in exchange from the Chinese. Most likely, this will take the form of investment, and this is where the economic side comes in.

Every time Kim goes to China the question is posed about whether North Korea will copy China’s economic reforms. The simple answer is that, for North Korea, this is not really possible. North Korea’s leaders realised early on that full-blown economic reforms would blow the current regime away. Regime survival trumps the economic benefits of following the path of China and Vietnam’s economic reforms. And ever since North Korea started timid economic reforms in 2002 there have been successive efforts to rein in market forces; currency reform in 2009 being the latest attempt to stamp out middle class traders selling Chinese goods in local markets…

…Even Chinese investment will not be enough to reverse North Korea’s dismal economy. North Korea will not be prosperous in 2012 by any standards. So Kim cannot easily make North Korea both strong and prosperous – although he may make it strong by sticking with the nuclear weapons.

The nuclear arsenal, then, is both a bargaining tool, and the regime’s insurance policy. North Korea, without nuclear capacity and missile technology; would be a poor Communist country in a remote area in Asia likely to attract about as much news coverage and international attention as Laos.

Kim has little room for manoeuvre. By 2012, he has promised to make North Korea both strong and prosperous; a deadline that will be very difficult to meet no matter how successful his diplomacy. He also faces the vexed issue of succession. Notwithstanding possible new investments and renewed momentum in relation to the Six Party Talks, a visit to China will only serve to highlight these problems.

See the full text here….

Jonas Parello-Plesner is Executive Director of a Danish NGO. He used to work as senior advisor with the Danish government on Asian affairs. He is on the board of editors of the Danish magazine Raeson and regular columnist on Asian affairs.

Rajin-Sonbong: North Korea’s (New?) Strategy to Attract Foreign Investment

12 03 2010

By Scott A. Snyder (Council on Foreign Relations, March 11, 2010)

I’ve been watching North Korea ramp up efforts to attract foreign investment since Jack Pritchard and I heard last November in Pyongyang from the chairman of Pyongyang’s Foreign Investment Advisory Board a presentation of new laws that provide for repatriation of investments, tax benefits, and wages of 30 Euros/month that undercut the $57/month wage rate at the Kaesong Industrial Zone.

Although catastrophic failure of currency revaluation implemented from late November of last year has severely eroded the credibility of the government’s economic policies, there are serious efforts underway to realize new foreign investment at Rajin-Sonbong port at the northeastern tip of North Korea. The location is significant because Rajin-Sonbong has been the focus of similar past failed efforts in 1991 (when the area was first announced as a free trade zone at the time of the launch of the UN-sponsored Tumen River Area Development Project) and 1996 (when North Korea held an international investment forum that was subsequently eclipsed by the famine).

Following a rare visit by Kim Jong Il to Rajin-Sonbong in January, the local leadership has been replaced with cadres who have prior international experience at the central government level, led by former minister of foreign trade Rim Kyung-man. Reported investments include a 50-year lease of one pier to the Russians and a 10-year lease of a second pier to the Chinese. The pro-North Korean Chosun Sinbo reports that a new company, Taepung International Investment Group, has been set up with initial capital of $10 billion to finance investments in sectors including food supply, railways, roads, harbors, electricity, and other energy supplies. North Korea has also set up a new State Development Bank to support this effort. Given the strategic importance of Rajin port as a year-round ice-free port with the capacity to service both landlocked Jilin province and the Russian Far East, the North Koreans are offering opportunities at Rajin that the Chinese and Russians have long coveted.

Although there were false reports in late 2005 that the dirt road inside North Korea between Quanhe-Wonjong border crossing and Rajin might be paved in a deal with the Hunchun local government, preparations to improve the road are now underway and the North Koreans have built a large customs facility at Wonjong designed to handle goods coming to and from Rajin port to China.

All these activities beg the question of why now? North Korea’s internal economic policies in recent years have focused on reassertion of state control over economic activities. Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard describe the November 2009 currency revaluation as a confiscatory measure designed to attack the markets. North Korea faces stricter international economic sanctions on suspected shipments of fissile materials under UN Security Council Resolution 1874.

Is the effort to attract new foreign investment a measure designed to circumvent the pressure from international economic sanctions? Could the promise of new investment by the Chinese be part of a deal whereby China provides cash necessary for the stability and survival of North Korea’s leadership in exchange for a return to the Six Party Talks and to denuclearization? Was North Korea’s currency revaluation such a big failure that Kim Jong Il has finally realized he has no choice but to follow the Chinese model? Or is the push for foreign investment just another phase following previous phases of apparent economic opening in the 1970s and 1980s through which the North induces foreign investment, but international investors are left holding the bag? Is the Kim regime selling off rights to a part of the family estate in order to earn the cash flow necessary to survive? I have my own admittedly jaded views on these questions, but I invite Asia Unbound readers to weigh in with their own interpretations.

See the original article here…

See the recent photos of Rajin-Seonbong SEZ by Hannah Barraclough here…

N. Korea Threatens to Scrap Suspended Mountain Tour Program

11 03 2010

SEOUL (Yonhap) — North Korea on March 11 claimed that the Seoul government is effectively blocking South Koreans from visiting its tourist attractions and warned it could revoke all deals covering inter-Korean tours.

The North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee statement carried by the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) follows a fresh round of talks held in February that failed to reach a compromise on restarting tourism to the scenic Mt. Kumgang on the east coast and Kaesong, the ancient capital of the Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 918-1392).

At the meeting, Seoul demanded an official apology for the shooting death of a female South Korean tourist in July 2008 and a pledge that such an incident will not occur in the future. The South has said a formal investigation must be carried out to determine why the shooting occurred. All tours to the famed mountain were suspended right after the shooting, while visits to Kaesong were stopped in December of the same year.

“If the South Korean government continues to block the travel routes while making false accusations, we will be left with no choice but to take extreme measures,” an unidentified spokesman for the committee said. The spokesman said such measures will include the nullification of contracts with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan, which has organized the tours, and freezing real estate and other assets. He did not go into further detail.

The official also claimed that there is growing demand from within the country and abroad to open Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong to tourists. “Kaesong will be open to tourists starting this month, while tours to Mt. Kumgang will be permitted from April,” the spokesman said, adding that South Korean tourists who visit the two areas will be afforded complete safety and offered every convenience.

In addition, he stressed that whether or not South Korean tours to the two locations will restart or not will depend entirely on South Korean authorities, who will have to bear full responsibility if the cross-border exchange does not take place. The Asia-Pacific Peace Committee official emphasized that Pyongyang has said on numerous occasions in talks with Hyundai Asan executives that every effort will be taken to ensure the safety of South Korean tourists in the future. He pointed out that the North already explained in detail that the death of the female tourist was caused by her crossing into a “no entry” zone in violation of set rules.

Despite the latest threat, South Korea made clear that the resumption of tours to Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang depends entirely on Pyongyang providing firm assurances that the safety of tourists will be protected. “There is no change in the government’s stance that concrete measures must be taken to ensure the safety of tourists,” said Unification Ministry spokesperson Chun Hae-sung. He said that all outstanding issues related to the tours must be handled through dialogue.

NKorea defector tells of business deals in West

9 03 2010

By Sim Sim Wissgott (AFP)

VIENNA — Kim Jong Ryul spent 20 years doing business for North Korea’s dictators with European firms, before he defected to Austria in 1994. Now he fears for his life after emerging from hiding this week.

“I’ve come up to the light. But how long the sun will shine for me, I don’t know. I think it will be a short time,” he told AFP. “The North Koreans will try to capture me and kill me. I am very afraid.”

The small 75-year-old with the steel-rimmed glasses and the easy smile spent 20 years procuring legal and illegal goods for North Korea’s regime, saying he easily side-stepped the economic embargo against his country.

During repeated shopping trips to Europe, the fluent German-speaker acquired everything from spy technology, weapons and small planes to luxury cars and carpets, and a gold-plated gun for dictator Kim Il Sung.

One of his regular destinations was Vienna, where Pyongyang knew it could count on banking secrecy, relatively unrestricted trade and lax airport control.

Traveling on a North Korean diplomatic passport, often with a briefcase full of cash, Kim Jong Ryul spent months at a time in Europe, dealing with small firms that happily turned a blind eye on the goods’ destination in exchange for a 30-percent additional fee.

The North Korean embassy in Vienna often stored the banned surveillance equipment and high-tech devices before they were repackaged and flown out of the country with fake shipping documents and the help of paid-off customs officers, he said.

Not only Austrian but also Swiss, German and French firms did business with the North Koreans, and goods also came from Czechoslovakia.

All this is disclosed in a new book about Kim Jong Ryul’s life, “Im Dienst des Diktators” (“At the dictator’s service”) by Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi, whose publication this week brought the old man out of hiding.

A loyal party member who had never put a foot wrong, Colonel Kim defected to Austria on 18 October 1994 during one of his visits here, faking his death to throw the authorities off his scent.

Disgusted by a regime that lived in luxury while its people starved and sick of having his actions dictated to him by up-on-high, Kim left his family behind without a word about his plans. “I wanted freedom, I needed freedom,” he told AFP.

When his family saw him off at Pyongyang airport in October 1993, he already knew he wanted to defect. But he always planned to go back once the regime had fallen and Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 gave him hope. “I hoped if the great dictator was dead, there would be a change, a revolution.”

“I’ve waited so long and after 15 years I’m still sitting here. A small consolation is this book: that’s something I can leave behind.” For 15 years, Kim Jong Ryul has lived illegally in Austria, trying not to stand out, making few friends and living on savings which he managed to conceal before his escape.

In all this time, he has had no news of his family, whom he never informed of his decision, for his safety and theirs. “I have no clue if my family is still alive or not… Letters would be so dangerous because they all think I’m dead.”

Today, Kim, who owns five TV sets and has taught himself Japanese to better follow news about his country, has little hope of going back.

“To see my family, my son, my daughter once more before I die, that’s my dream… but it is far from likely. “For Asians it is very important to remain loyal to your masters. I violated that, today I’m a traitor. I betrayed the fatherland, I betrayed the revolution.”

Talking to the book’s authors was a calculated risk: “I will die eventually anyway. Why die without having some meaning?” “I’m very afraid, I don’t know where the bullets that will kill me might come from.” But he has no regrets, saying that defecting “was 100-percent the right decision.”

He is nevertheless taking precautions. “Starting tomorrow, you won’t see me anymore. Tomorrow or after tomorrow, I will disappear.”

Read more about Kim Jong-Ryul:

Das neue Leben des Waffenkäufers von Kim Il-sung

Hoflieferant des Geliebten Führers

Too many Kim Yong-ils

6 03 2010

by Aidan Foster-Carter (Policy Forum Online 10-015A: March 4th, 2009)

Korean names can set traps for the unwary. Amid a multitude of Kims, almost all unrelated, North Korea adds an extra twist. German speakers, and some others, tend to mispronounce the J in Kim Jong-il as a Y. Not only is this incorrect, but currently it can confuse; for North Korea’s Premier – head of the civilian Cabinet, as distinct from the Dear Leader who chairs the more powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) – is named Kim Yong-il.

To add to the confusion, another Kim Yong-il was until recently vice foreign minister (one of several), but in January became director of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s international department: a post apparently vacant since 2007. As such, this Kim Yong-il met his Chinese counterpart Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s international liaison department, when Wang visited Pyongyang in early February. Since his promotion, Kim Yong-il 2 (as it may be best to call him) has been reported as frequently at Kim Jong-il’s side. This suggests he may see far more of the Dear Leader than does anyone else involved in DPRK foreign policy, including the man hitherto thought to be the eminence grise on that front: first vice foreign minister Kang Sok-ju, who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with the US. It was Kang whom the current US special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, demanded to meet when he visited Pyongyang in December, rather than the North’s main nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan: a more junior deputy foreign minister.

Or is Washington behind the curve? That Kim Yong-il 2 is the DPRK’s new foreign affairs head honcho seemed confirmed on February 23, when he turned up in Beijing and went right to the top: going straight into talks with President Hu Jintao and separately with Wang Jiarui. This flurry of activity suggests two possibilities. Either Kim Jong-il will soon visit China, as he is overdue to do; or North Korea may return to the nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT), which have not met in over a year. Or perhaps both, if we are especially fortunate.

If both Kim Yong-ils are now leading players, perhaps one of them could change his name? That is not a frivolous suggestion. Some DPRK officials do this, for no clear reason. Often the change is small, so this is not a case of deception. Thus Paek Nam-sun, DPRK foreign minister – meaning chief meeter and greeter rather than top negotiator – from 1998 until his death in 2007, was originally Paek Nam-jun. Ri Jong-hyok, who as vice-chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC) now handles relations with the South, was Ri Dong-hyok in the 1980s when this writer knew him as head of North Korea’s mission in Paris.

(For completeness, yet another Kim Yong-il was Kim Jong-il’s late half-brother. He died of liver cirrhosis in 2000 aged only 45 in Berlin, where he had a diplomatic posting tantamount to exile – as his elder brother Kim Pyong-il, the DPRK ambassador to Poland, still does.)

Jong and Yong both say sorry

The past month saw both Chairman and Premier Kim doing something almost unheard of in Pyongyang. Apparently they both said sorry, although some reports got the two muddled up.

On February 1 Rodong Sinmun, daily paper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), reported Kim Jong-il as lamenting his failure to fulfil his late father Kim Il-sung’s pledge, to which he had also alluded shortly before on January 9, that all North Koreans would eat rice and meat soup (everyday fare for even the poorest South Korean, be it noted). This time Kim said: “What I should do now is feed the world’s greatest people with rice and let them eat their fill of bread and noodles. Let us all honour the oath we made before the Leader and help our people feed themselves without having to know broken rice [an inferior version]”.

Given Kim Jong-il’s own notoriety as gourmet and gourmand, his professed “compassion” for his less fortunate subjects’ deprivation may induce queasiness. Yet even this not-quite-apology glosses over the truth. Broken rice? They should be so lucky. As readers of Barbara Demick’s excellent and heartbreaking new book Nothing to Envy will know, rice of any kind – whole or broken – is a rare luxury for most North Koreans. In the late 1990s a million or so starved to death; even today most remain malnourished. One refugee who fled to China saw her first rice in years in the first house she came to – in a dog’s bowl. That is the true reality.

Worse, all this was and is avoidable: the result of stupid and vicious policies, not the natural disasters that the regime blames. The real cause was the government’s failure to adapt in the 1990s after Moscow abruptly pulled the plug on aid. This hurt other ex-Soviet client states too. Cuba went for tourism; Vietnam tried cautious reform; Mongolia sold minerals. North Korea, bizarrely, did nothing – except watch its old system break down and growth plunge.

In a speech at Kim Il-sung University in December 1996, when famine was seriously biting, Kim Jong-il lashed out at the WPK and uttered this petulant but very revealing whinge: “In this complex situation, I cannot solve all the problems while I have the duty of being in charge of practical economic projects as well as the overall economy, since I have to control important sectors such as the military and the party as well. If I concentrated only on the economy there would be irrecoverable damage to the revolution. The great leader told me when he was alive never to be involved in economic projects, just concentrate on the military and the party and leave economics to party functionaries. If I do delve into economics then I cannot run the party and the military effectively.”

Evidently Bill Clinton’s famously apt watchword, which helped him win the presidency in 1992, had not breached North Korea’s thick walls and heads. It’s the economy, stupid! The paternal advice was dead wrong. (The full speech can be read on the much-missed Kimsoft website. Unsurprisingly it is not part of the DPRK’s official canon of the dear leader’s works, but the scholarly consensus is that it is genuine. A slightly different version appears here.)