For the Kims, the Weakest Link is Family

26 10 2010

In his recent op-ed entitled ‘For the Kims, the Weakest Link is Family’, published in Asia Times On-line (22 Oct. 2010) sociologist Aidan Foster-Carter discusses the dynastic succession in North Korea. He writes: “I dare to hope for a happy ending. Kim Il-sung’s sociological nous has kept the state he created alive longer than many (me included) had expected. But can it go on for ever?

That I doubt. A full answer would loose more hares than there’s room for here. In the 21st century, refusing market reforms is a recipe for self-destruction. Abroad, North Korea’s old game of militant mendicancy, despite some success from the Sino-Soviet dispute right up to the six-party talks, is past its sell-by date; other powers are fed up and won’t play any more.

But just to stick to the processes already mentioned, these too are far from foolproof. The weakest link is familism. Past history, in Korea or anywhere – think of the Borgias in Italy – suggests that monarchies or other forms of family rule can be riddled by strife. Some crown princes just aren’t up to the job. People plot, and before you know it the knives are out.

Specifically, promoting a third son over his elder siblings is asking for trouble. What does number one son think? On October 12 he told us. Interviewed in Beijing by Japan’s Asahi TV, Kim Jong-nam broke ranks, saying: ”Personally, I am against third-generation dynastic succession”. Adding that he didn’t care, and would help little brother ”while I stay abroad”, doesn’t make this any less of a bombshell. Kim Jong-nam has gone off-message, big time.”

The “Late Night Live” program of ABC Radio National invited Leonid Petrov to discuss this topic with Dr Foster-Carter.

Listen to the MP3 file of the discussion

The allocated 15 minutes did not permit the participants to use all the arguments they had prepared. The  following the is the summary of Leonid Petrov’s response:

“I’m supportive of Aidan’s analysis in general, but would like to defend my own hypothesis that Kim Jong-un is the  best candidate for continuing this ‘communist monarchy’ without  inflicting any change in politics or the economy of North Korea.

My argument is based on two assumptions. First, as long as the Cold War structures continue to dominate regional politics in Northeast Asia, North Korea will be safe by playing China, Russia and the US against each other. The former Cold War enemies badly need North Korea either as a buffer state or as a regional balancer. So, nobody (including politicians in Seoul and Pyongyang) would welcome the sudden and uncontrolled unification of Korea.

Second, the dynastic regime in North Korea with its power and legitimacy built on endless lies about the situation abroad and especially in South Korea simply cannot sustain any openness or even minor liberalisation. Instead, endless mobilisation campaigns and anti-imperialist propaganda are the well tested tools for the regime to keep the citizens under total control. There is no room for economic liberalisation or political reform in the ideology of self-reliance (Juch’e) and priority of security (Seon’gun) politics.

Since the last thing which the Kim family (who treats the DPRK like its own hereditary property) wishes to encounter is any kind of change or reform, they do everything possible to restrict access to the power for outsiders. Anticipating the imminent end of Kim Jong-il’s era, the clan has nominated the youngest person in the family because they wish the new Great Leader: 1) to be totally dependent on the older members of  the family, who would continue running the country business; 2) to have very little or no support base outside of the family, even among such groups as Army or the Party; and 3) to remain alive and maintain the system intact as long as possible, perhaps for another 30 or 40 years.

Kim Jong-un, by all means, is the candidate who best meets these criteria. Surprisingly, even the groups who could potentially rival and oppose his appointment, demonstrate solidarity and support. Why? See the above two assumptions on which the very system of Korea’s division is based: the continuation of the Cold War in the region and the reluctance of elite groups to lose their privileged status.

Aidan Foster-Carter asks how long can this system survive. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and then later witnessed the collapse of the Iron Curtain, I would say that totalitarian societies of this type are extremely resilient and will not falter until liberalisation is imposed from above (as was done first by Khruschev  and then again by Gorbachev). Thus, the Kim clan is on the right track by avoiding reforms (of the Soviet or Chinese form) and by grooming a young and inexperienced leader from inside the family.

Unless the external situation changed dramatically (i.e. if China stopped fearing the US, or Russia and Japan sign a peace treaty, or conservatives in Seoul lose the next election), we shouldn’t hold our breath. There is no reason to expect any change! Kim Jong-un is not yet ready for the job but, looking at the rigidity of fossilised Cold War structures and the return of Palaeo-conservatism in regional politics in South Korea and Japan, he has plenty of time to develop his leadership skills and charisma. In this way, Kim Jong-un can easily outshine his father, and become as successful as his grandfather in playing one great power off against another.”

“Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism and Business?”

23 10 2010

“Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism and Business?” has recently been published by LIT in Germany. In honor of the launching of the book, a workshop will take place at Seoul National University on Wednesday, October 27, 2010.

The book contains 327 pages and has four parts: Part I: Human Rights, Humanitarianism. Part II: Economic, Political and Ideological Relations between East/West Germany and North Korea, and their Legacies. Part III: Capacity-Building and Development. Part IV: Investment, Business, and Business Schools.

The table of contents is available at: – North Korea book.pdf 

October 27, 2010, SNU Workshop Program:

15.30 – 16.00 Registration

16.00 – 16.15 Opening remarks: Prof. Myoung-Kyu Park, Director, IPUS (Institute of Peace and Unification Studies). Congratulatory remarks: Marjo Crompvoets (deputy head of Mission, Embassy of The Netherlands). Prof. Woosik Moon (Director, Center for EU Studies)

16.20 – 17.40 Session: “The European Way toward North Korea”. Moderator: Mr. Pierre Clément Dubuisson (Ambassador of Belgium). Paul Tjia, “European businesses and North Korea”. Prof. Sung-Jo Park, “Aspects of European NGOs and EU’s Asia- Invest Programme in North Korea”. Dr. Bernhard Seliger, “Capacity building in North Korea – the experience of Hanns-Seidel-Foundation”.

17:40 – 18:00 Book presentation.

First University Founded by two Koreas to Open in Pyongyang Next Week

23 10 2010

SHENYANG, China, Oct. 22 (Yonhap) The first university founded jointly by South and North Korea is scheduled to open next week in Pyongyang, a school official said Friday.

The project to build Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) was launched in 2001 after the two countries’ governments approved a South Korean nonprofit organization to participate in it. The university’s stated aim is to promote reconciliation and prosperity among the Korean people, separated since the 1950-53 Korean war, and “help North Korea develop the necessary economic and intellectual infrastructure to function as a member of the international community,” according to its Web site.

“All the facilities and staff are ready, and we will officially open (next Monday, 25 October),” said James Chin-kyung Kim, the school’s founding president and co-chairman. Kim, a U.S. citizen, also founded the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in the Chinese city of Yanji, a major Korean-Chinese population center.

“In time for the opening, 17 foreign professors will fly to Pyongyang from Shenyang (on Saturday). These professors come from the U.S. and Europe,” he said. South Korean staff will also be able to teach, starting next semester, according to the school.

Instruction will be in English, and 160 students have been selected for the school’s undergraduate and master’s degree courses in agriculture, information and communication technology, and industry and management. Forty doctorate-level students began studying with four foreign academics in the summer. The university plans to increase the number of students to 500 and open more departments to teach architecture, engineering, construction and public health care.

An Unlikely Pairing Bears Fruit in North Korea

The driving force behind the school was Kim Chin-kyung, an American born in Seoul who founded a university in China in 1992. He made periodic trips from China into North Korea and in 1998 was arrested at his hotel in the capital and thrown into prison, accused of being an agent for the C.I.A…

Also read “The capitalist who loves North Korea”
“After making it as an entrepreneur in America, James Kim is fulfilling his dream of opening an university in North Korea that will offer, of all things, an MBA…”

Leonid Petrov has received an e-mail message from the PUST informing him about the following positive developments: “It seems that we will be able to open the first official semester within the next few weeks. The first faculty team members are ready to move to Pyongyang and begin the work. We are waiting for the final approval for the faculty to arrive. There are still many fine points that will have to be determined, but the main issues seem settled and we are happy to report that the North Korean counterparts who will work with us are very cooperative and have been extremely helpful to us since they arrived on campus in mid-summer. There are a few PUST personnel who are already residing at PUST and are preparing the campus for the faculty when they arrive shortly. The students also are either already on campus or will arrive in the next week. That means that there is real progress.”

24% of N.Korean Defectors Wish to Leave S.Korea

23 10 2010

The Dong-A Ilbo (October 22, 2010) Thirty percent of North Korean defectors living in South Korea are considering immigrating to another country chiefly because of discrimination, a survey released Thursday said.

Ruling Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Young-woo commissioned a poll of 210 North Korean defectors Oct. 6-19. Fifty respondents (24 percent) said they wish to go to another country, with four even saying they want to return to North Korea. Among those seeking to move abroad, 21 (42 percent) cited discrimination against defectors in South Korea as the reason, followed by their children’s education (11 people or 22 percent) and the difficulty in getting a job (nine people or 18 percent).

A 40-something female defector who participated in the survey asked for help with her child’s education, saying, “Since my child is very different (from South Korean children) in language, personality and knowledge, he cannot do what he wants.”

On Korean reunification, 80 percent (168 respondents) said, “Korea must be reunified absolutely.” On shouldering reunification costs, 50.8 percent (101) said they are willing to help cover the cost and 17.1 percent (34) said they would help if it is a small amount. On the method of reunification, 52.2 percent (105) preferred absorption as result of the collapse of the North’s communist regime and 23.9 percent (48) wanted a model guaranteeing sovereignty.

Rep. Kim acknowledged problems in Seoul’s policy for supporting defectors given the number of defectors wishing to move to another country or even back to North Korea.

Undercover “Journalism” in the DPRK

19 10 2010

David McNeill_The Independent(by Tad Farrell , October 19, 2010) As most people are aware, Western journalists are not typically welcome in North Korea. The case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling last year was a good example of what can happen to those too eager for an NK scoop.

But that didn’t stop David McNeill of London’s ‘The Independent’ travelling to the DPRK just two weeks ago, ostensibly as a tourist attending the Pyongyang International Film Festival, but most likely there to try and cover the impeding Party Congress, initially rumoured to be starting around the same time.  He wasn’t the first reporter to enter the country on a tourist visa, and he won’t be the last.   But one thing is for sure, 0 Comments and 0 Reactions is a classic example of the hyperbolic and sensationalist approach to North Korea reporting that is standard in mainstream media –  a standard where fact-checking and normally rigid editorial standards go right out of the window.

McNeill starts his tourist ‘exposé’ by explaining that just behind the boulevards of Pyongyang, “stories abound of poverty and malnutrition.” The reality?  Well, as in any other capital city, differences do exist between the showcase boulevards and less well developed back streets.  However, this qualitative difference does not mean those living in the back streets are thus starving or living in abject poverty.  No, those living in Pyongyang’s backstreets are living in relative luxury to the rest of the country – where McNeill should have gone if he wanted to prove that yes, North Korea is a poor country.

McNeill goes on to describe his guides as treating visitors “like antibodies around a virus, hustling them from one approved site to the next and isolating them in the hotel – dubbed Alcatraz because it’s built on an island”. But many of the guides are extremely friendly and inquisitive people – who, if you have an amenable character, will soon join you for beers, talk about their personal lives, and be as flexible as possible with regards to modifying itineraries.  Sure, you might not enjoy the freedoms associated with a weekend jaunt to Paris, but if that’s what you want, then Paris awaits.  And although the Yanggakdo Hotel is indeed located on an island, visitors are perfectly welcome to stay at the Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, just opposite a main road lined with shops and restaurants (open to tourists too).

Obviously distressed by the fact that the Party Congress wasn’t going to coincide with his visit, Mr. McNeill decided to do the next best thing and go with a colleague for an unescorted stroll around Pyongyang – for what better way to “see beyond the façade”?   And so at dawn McNeill set off.  After walking for more than two hours, McNeill remarks that in the DPRK, “modern life is stripped bare – no iPods, jeans, T-shirts or sneakers – which are banned as foreign affectations…[where] mobile phones are as rare as sparrows in winter”.

While iPods might well be rare, mobile telephones are becoming increasingly commonplace in Pyongyang, with over 250,000 units now sold in the DPRK and a network that spans the length of the country.  And although that’s a relatively low number of phones for a population of 23 million, it is nevertheless clear that not just the elite possess them.   In terms of McNeill’s fashion observations, Simon Cockerell from Koryo Tours points out, “loads of people wear sneakers, most wear leather shoes, they cost the same, this is nothing more than a choice, jeans of course are rare there – although you do see them being worn, and now some Chinese traders bring them in for sale at the markets”.  To suggest these items are illegal is simply incorrect, merely serving to perpetuate the same old impressions of the North.

Having dwelled on the lack of consumer goods visible seen during his 7am stroll, McNeill then describes his walk through the backstreets, where “roads were potholed, the people scruffier and more sullen, [with] some appearing to live in slum-like conditions”. Assuming he had been kept away from the many HuTongs of Beijing (where he undoubtedly started his visit), one can appreciate that witnessing such scenes in a capital city must have very well felt newsworthy for Mr. McNeill.  But more was to come.

After rounding a backstreet, McNeill then explains how he “came across a group of maybe 200, huddled around a makeshift street market” – the first sign that even in Pyongyang, “the country’s state-controlled distribution system is shot to pieces”. Describing the markets as “illegal” in North Korea, McNeill describes the angry reaction of customers when he pulls out his camera to snap them – as if on safari in Kenya.  When a “man in a scruffy army uniform demanded the cameras”, McNeill’s reaction is to try and run away – around the corner and into a “phalanx of green uniforms – a local guard-post”. And so he and his Times of London colleague were therefore ‘caught’, with the scoop being brought to a premature end.  Cameras confiscated, they were escorted back to the hotel where guide Mr. Cha was waiting, shocked to hear of what had happened.  A disaster in investigative journalism coupled with a healthy dose of misreporting.

Simon Cockerell explains, “The market isn’t a secret and people don’t get in trouble for trading there, its clearly obvious to anyone looking at it and the sellers in the streets around it too are also there legitimately.  Foreigners working in Pyongyang can go to the markets as well”.  But regardless of the markets legality, what reaction did McNeill expect to receive when pulling out his camera to snap its customers?  That the Koreans stop and pose for him, or perhaps, that he be showered with rose petals?

Back at the hotel McNeill ends his ‘exposé’ by describing a ‘tearful’ Mr. Cha and the consequences of his unescorted walk – the writing of a letter of apology and the confiscation of his camera memory cards.  Unfortunately this time, for McNeill, no high-ranking British official would be flying to Pyongyang to secure his release.

In summary, all McNeill’s “exposé” really confirms is that North Korea is a poor country with an authoritarian government.  But didn’t we know that already?  When travelling beyond Pyongyang as a tourist it soon becomes evident that the country is far from equally developed.  There are ample opportunities to see real poverty and hunger – if that’s what you are looking for.  As you travel to towns like Wonson, Kaesong and Hamhung, the tour guides most likely won’t be pointing out to the run-down villages, shabby markets, or hungry looking people – but if you look, you will see them.  In reality, these things are not the state secrets that many in the mainstream media suggest North Korea is hiding from its tourists.  Its just the North Korean tourist agency doesn’t like to draw attention to them.   As guides in Washington D.C will keep tourists away from its many poverty-stricken areas, the objective of North Korea’s tourist company is unremarkably the same.

See the comments here…

Why Russia doesn’t share its Cheonan results with Seoul

12 10 2010

By Sunny Lee, The Korea Times (12 Oct. 2010)

BEIJING ― With Russia’s envoy Alexei Borodavkin in Seoul this week, the question of why Russia has refused to share its Cheonan investigation results with South Korea begs an explanation more than ever.

The tragic incident in March remains the most instrumental event that has reconfigured the dynamics of inter-Korean relations and the regional security in East Asia where different stakeholders compete for leadership.

After the incident, Moscow signalled to Seoul that it wanted to send its own investigators. Seoul honoured the request. Russia was not part of an earlier Seoul-led international inquest, which determined that the Cheonan, the 88-meter-long navy frigate, was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine, killing 46 sailors on board.

The Russian investigators made a week-long probe, examining the Cheonan wreckage. After they returned home, however, Russia has oddly been keeping mum. So far, it has refused to release its findings to South Korea in what some observers see as a diplomatic insult. “Russia probably shared the results with China and the U.S., but not with South Korea to avoid open confrontation with Seoul,” said Leonid Petrov, a Russian expert on Korean affairs.

In a recent conference in Russia, Borodavkin, who is deputy foreign minister for Asia-Pacific affairs, vaguely touched upon on the matter when he was asked about it by a reporter. Borodavkin said the investigation results were “classified” and were submitted only to Russia’s top leadership, adding it wouldn’t provide the results to either to South Korea or to North Korea.

“Russia doesn’t want to disclose a report that would destabilize the region and which would invite immediate anger from South Korea and its allies, including the United States,” said Petrov who now teaches at the University of Sydney. “These regional powers led by the U.S. wouldn’t be pleased if Russia produced a report on the Cheonan, which could contradict their investigation.”

Russia’s silence has understandably aroused speculation. Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, then jumped into the debate, saying the Russian investigation report was not released “because it would do much political damage to President Lee (Myung-bak) and would embarrass President Barack Obama,” citing a well-placed Russian source.

Petrov is skeptical, however, as much as he is skeptical about the Seoul-led investigation. “I don’t know whether the Russians have found anything sensational from their investigation.” Reflecting the general Russian sentiment on the Cheonan incident, he said: “I think the Russian report is as equally unconvincing as the South Korean-led report.”

Actually, according to him, focusing on whether Russia has any evidence that contradicts the international investigation is a flawed approach. In fact, he said Russia’s aim is more strategic.

“The whole purpose of Russia’s move was to restore the balance of power in Northeast Asia. There was no balance of power when South Korea with its allies, including the U.S., Japan, the U.K., and Australia, produced a document, unilaterally accusing North Korea over the Cheonan incident.’’

In the region, Russia forms another security bloc with North Korea and China. Petrov believes that the Russian move was following the recommendation of China. Just days before the Russian investigators arrived in Seoul, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Beijing to discuss tensions between the two Koreas following the Cheonan sinking with top Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao.

“China said (the Cheonan) is a sad story, but this page has to be turned over,” Petrov said. “Producing their own report was good enough to restore the balance of power over how to approach this unfortunate event.”

But the Russian behavior of withholding its investigation results was seen as insensitive, if not insulting, by the South Korean side. “Russia’s behavior is rather rude since South Korea provided so much assistance to the Russian investigation team. It projected an impression that Russia believed South Korea didn’t deserve to know,” Petrov said.

Although the Russia-South Korea ties have been strained with the unpleasant episode and albeit the damage has been done, Petrov nonetheless expects that the two countries will continue to move on with their relationship, not because they will eventually find a political consensus on the Cheonan matter, but because their mutual economic dependence will hold them together tight.

“South Korea and Russia mutually need each other. Seoul needs to maintain its export capability. And Russia has the market to absorb South Korean products,” Petrov said.

Highest-ranking N. Korean defector Hwang Jang-yop found dead

10 10 2010

SEOUL, Oct. 10 (Yonhap) Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean ever to defect to South Korea, was found dead at his home Sunday, police said, adding no attack is suspected in his death.

Police said the 87-year-old Hwang appears to have died of old age, saying there was no signs of a break-in at his home in Seoul where a security guard was staying together with him.

In the meantime in Pyongyang…

SEOUL, Oct. 10 (Yonhap) North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his heir-apparent son reviewed a massive military parade Sunday that marked the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, television footage showed, as Pyongyang steps up a campaign to pave the way for the son to take over.

Live footage from Pyongyang showed Kim and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, watching the parade from the reviewing stand at Kim Il-sung Square in the capital city. It was rare for the North to televise such an event live, which shows the importance of the show to the regime.