Interview with a North Korea Watcher

31 01 2012

ImageToday, I gave interview to the Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby. Our discussion was structured around the past, present and future of North Korea. Listen to the podcast of this program here…

Also, last week a freelance journalist, Tom Farrell, approached me with a set of questions on the similar topic. The following is the transcript of our e-mail correspondence:

T.F.: In recent interviews given by Kim Jong Nam and published by journalist Yoji Gomi, the late Dear Leader’s eldest son has dismissed Kim Jong Un as not a credible succesor to KIm Jong-Il. Do you think he is trying to set himself up as a future Opposition figure or perhaps, a ‘safe pair of hands’ that China might want in Pyongyang in the future, acting as a would-be North Korean Deng Xiaoping?

L.P.: I think that KJN is opposing the hereditary succession system of power in general, and in this context he does not see his younger half brother is a potent candidate for leadership in North Korea. Surely, KJN has had much more exposure to the realities of contemporary world and has more experience in international trade than KJU, but this is not enough to rule the country. I don’t think that KJN is the future Deng Xiaoping on North Korea. Even if China wants him to play this role he cannot lead a China-type of reform in North Korea because such reform is impossible (see below why).

T.F.: Does Kim Jong Nam have a powerbase of any kind and might China see him a bridge to his uncle, Jang Song-Taek, if he is now the real power in Pyongyang?

L.P.: KJN is a businessman who is well connected in North Korea, China, Japan and other countries of the region. His uncle Jang Song-Taek is a purely political figure, very conservative and ostensibly anti-market. In this, JST ensures KJU’s accession and stability in North Korea. Any reform in NK will destabilise the situation. I doubt that KJN and JST have anything in common except for family links.

T.F.: Do you think Kim Jong Nam’s critique is valid? Namely, that Kim Jong Un is too young to anything more than a figurehead? Would such actions as the Cheonan/island artillery attacks during 2010 have been enough for Kim Jong Un to have gained the respect and backing of the KPA leadership?

L.P: KJN and KJU are half-brothers in the ruling dynasty, thus the venomous rivalry between them is pretty natural. KJU won’t waste bullets to hunt KJN down but simply ban him from returning the country, which is perfectly OK for both of them. To gain respect and backing of the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA), KJU needs to pay the elite and feed the 1.1 million of conscripts. Cheonan Corvet and Yeonpyongdo incidents are used in North Korean domestic policies as much as in South Korean and US regional policies. The war in Korea is continuing and KJU has been already elevated to the role of Supreme Leader, so there will be no discussion among the KPA about possible alternatives.

T.F.: Do you think there are any prospects for an organised and effective opposition from NK defectors and refugees now living in the ROK and the West?

L.P.: No, the ROK government claims the sole legitimacy for power in Korea and will not permit any effective political opposition, which might proclaim an alternative DPRK government in exile. Neither will US government support such movement.

T.F.: Given that 2012 marks both the 100th anniversary of Kim il-Sung’s birth and an election year in the United States, would you predict more offensive military actions e.g. another underground nuclear test or attacks along the DMZ and maritime border?

L.P.: For North Korea the beginning of 2012 has been overshadowed by the mourning over late KJI and consolidation of power by KJU. I don’t think that North Korean elites are willing to risk provoking a full-fledged war or a forced invasion and a regime change in the midst of 100th anniversary celebrations. Also, a provocation from the North Korean side will only help the outgoing conservative forces in South Korea to win presidential elections. In other words, I think that North Korea will stay calm, sombre, and cautious.

T.F.: Ten years after the ‘Ardous March’ (famine) there have been tens of thousands of North Koreans who crossed back and forth across the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Presumably the level of information control is not what it once was. Coupled with the won devaluation fiasco, do you think there is potential for an uprising of some kind?

L.P.: It has been 13 years since the Arduous March (1995-1998) ended. Common people in North Korea live a much better life, while the elites have many more freedoms and opportunities. Currently, no popular uprising is possible as long as the people’s level of life continues to rise and the elites feel safe and economically confident. KJU is the best person to give them that sense of safety and open the new opportunities.

T.F.: If the DPRK implodes or faces a serious breakdown of government control, this will mean massive refugee infux into China. Do you think the PLA would not stop at sealing the boder but might actually intervene with the DPRK and would they risk confronting the ROK and West?

L.P: If the DPRK implodes the ROK army will enter northern Korea to stabilise the situation and prevent the uncontrolled border crossings. China will not get involved in Korea’s domestic crisis as long as other foreign troops stay away from this crisis.

T.F.: According to Kim Jong Nam, economic liberalisation will translate into a breakdown of the political order. Do you think the DPRK might opt to butress its position by setting up more exclusive economic zones e.g. Raijin-Songbong, Kumgangsan or Kaesong that bring in revenue but keep out the general population?

L.P.: I agree with KJN. More SEZ (with or without South Korean participation) will work best for NK, generating income for the regime without compromising its political system. Reforms in economy will inevitably affect politics. The DPRK leadership want to modernise the country’s economy without much change in social and political areas. Thus, the DPRK is not attempting to fix its outdated and dysfunctional economic system. Economic changes in North Korea usually come from below, and only later (post-factum) are accepted by the top of the pyramid. The current leadership does not have a visionary master plan for development. They only react to the slow motions timidly initiated from below and, therefore, nothing is really changing in North Korea. People eat better and use mobile phones but continue fearing the same things they learned during the Cold War. Radical change in the DPRK is substituted for a slow-motion make-up measures.

Listen to another interview by Leonid Petrov given to the Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby on 31 January 2012 here…

“My Father, Kim Jong Il, and I: Kim Jong Nam’s Exclusive Confession”

27 01 2012

ImageYoji Gomi, Senior Staff Writer, Tokyo Shimbun, author of “My Father, Kim Jong Il, and I: Kim Jong Nam’s Exclusive Confession” gave press conference given at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Jan 24, 2012.

For journalists, getting reliable information out of North Korea is notoriously difficult. Getting a one-on-one interview with an insider with unique insight into the family that has run the country since it was created, the party, the politics and the people definitely counts as a scoop.

Yoji Gomi, a journalist with the Tokyo Shimbun, must thank the gods of journalism for the chance meeting in a Beijing airport with Kim Jong-Nam.

The oldest son of the recently departed Dear Leader, Kim Jong-nam was apparently being groomed to succeed Kim Jong-il as leader of the reclusive state until he was arrested in May 2001 trying to enter Japan on a forged Dominican Republic passport with two women and a boy aged 4. He told Japanese police that he wanted to visit Disneyland.

Furious at his son’s indiscretion, Kim Jong-il banished him to Macau and turned to Kim Jong-un as his eventual successor.

After meeting Gomi in Beijing, the journalist interviewed the man who could have been ruling North Korea, in Macao and through more than 150 e-mails. The result is the timely release, on January 20, of “My Father, Kim Jong-Il, and I: Kim Jong-Nam’s Exclusive Confession.”

Gomi commented on Kim Jong-Nam’s opposition to the hereditary transition of power to his half-brother and his ambition to one day return to his homeland.

Listen to the audio record (MP3) of the press conference here…

North Korea: Kim Jong-un as Leader – How Pyonyang may change?

24 01 2012

ImageOpinions differ as to what will be the eventual outcome of the death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and the official transfer of power to his third son, Kim Jong-un.

In an essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, AIIA member Hamish McDonald explores a range of possibilities. Apart from the possibility of change within the Pyongyang regime itself, there are the complex attitudes and strategic interests of the various powers involved in on-off talks to bring peace to the Korean peninsula and persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

China fears a surge of refugees across its border if hostilities break out and worries that the United States could gain a foothold on its border. Japan is uneasy about the industrial muscle of a united Korea while other countries see investment and market opportunities. No one, however, wants to see a destabilisation of the peninsula – how the DPRK manages itself under its new leadership and how the regional powers engage the regime is crucial to this end.

Few expect any change to happen quickly. The Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) in Sydney has assembled a panel of experts to discuss one of the top agenda items of 2012.

Joining us will be Dr. Leonid Petrov, lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Sydney and Korean scholar who trained at the Institute of Oriental Studies in St Petersburg. Prof. Petrov has also held the chair in Korean studies at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.

Mack Williams was Australia’s ambassador in Seoul at the time of the last North Korean handover. Mr Williams is a former president of the AIIA in Sydney and chairman of the board of the UTS Insearch program. He also chairs the Korea-Australasian research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

Professor Peter Hayes from the Nautilus Institute will join us by video link from San Francisco. Prof. Hayes’ paper on North Korea has attracted international attention.

Date: Tuesday,  21 February, 2012

Time: Refreshments 6:00 pm; Presentation 6:30 pm – 7.30pm

Venue: The Australian Institute of International Affairs invites you to, The Glover Cottages, 124 Kent Street, Sydney (located adjacent to the Kent St Fire Station)

Cost: AIIA members $15; Senior members / students $10;
Visitors $20;    Senior Visitors $15;  Student Visitors:  $10


Payment may be made at the door by cash/cheque/credit card

Rev. Kang Young-Sup dies at the age of 80

23 01 2012

Rev. Kang Young-Sup, the Chairperson of the Central Committee, the Korean Christian Federation in North Korea, passed away on the 21st of January 2012 at the age of 80.

Kang, a family member of late Kim Jong Il, was the son of Kang Ryang Wook, the sixth cousin of Kang Dong Wook, Kim Il Sung’s maternal grandfather.

The National Council of Churches in Korea sent its letter of condolence to the Korean Christian Federation. The following is the Letter of Condolence written by Rev. Kim Young-Ju, General Secretary of the NCCK dated January 23rd, 2012.

Dear Rev. Oh Kyung Woo, General Secretary of the Korean Christian Federation,

The National Council of Churches in Korea express its sincere condolences on the death of Rev. Kang Young-Sup, Chairperson of the Central Committee of the Korean Christian Federation, and send our deepest consolation to his bereaved family and the members of the KCF.

The NCCK expresses its deepest gratitude on his devotion and sincere commitment for peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula through various exchanges and cooperation of christians between North and South Korea. Remembering of his desire, the NCCK will do our best in our journey toward peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula as the great task of our nation through continuous cooperation in solidarity of the KCF.

We pray that God’s consolation be with his bereaved family and member of the Korean Christian Federation who are in the midst of grieving and suffering.

Rev. Kim Young-Ju

General Secretary

The National Council of Churches in Korea

Rev. Kang Young-Sup attended the International Consultation on Peace, Reconciliation and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula: Towards an Ecumenical Vision beyond the Tozanso Process in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, 21-23 October 2009.

See the video clip of Rev. Kang Yong-seop (Head of NK Delegation) speaking there…

Also, see “통일위해 뜨거운 눈물로 기도하자”조그련 강영섭 위원장, 최초 CBS 단독인터뷰

His dear leader: Meet North Korea’s secret weapon – an IT consultant from Spain

21 01 2012

Alejandro Cao de Benos_1(by Tim Hume, The Independent, 21 January 2012) Alejandro Cao de Benos – or ‘Zo’, as his comrades call him – is a devoted follower of the late Kim Jong-il and vigorously defends the North Korean government he represents.

As North Korea convulsed in grief last month with the passing of its Dear Leader, the rest of the world tittered nervously. For Zo Sun-il, a North Korean government spokesman in Europe, this made the bereavement doubly hard to take. While he mourned in isolation, his phone rang hot with calls from international media, who marked Kim Jong-il’s demise by gleefully rehashing the more remarkable claims put forward about him in state propaganda: that he was an influential trendsetter in world fashion; that the one time he picked up a golf club, he made 11 holes-in-one. That he didn’t need to defecate.

Zo took their calls, and seethed inwardly. “I found myself alone in the outside world,” he told me, days before Kim Jong-il’s funeral. “It’s so painful to hear words from people that are so completely ignorant. They broadcast these stupid cartoons of Team America, making a mockery out of the pain of the Korean people. This makes me even more angry and resolute to continue defending his honour.”

For comfort, Zo drew on memories of the man North Koreans viewed as a father, and who, unlike the vast majority of his countrymen, he had met personally. He recalled the horn-handled hunting knife he had presented Kim, and the tea set he had received in return. The way that Kim seemed to single him out for personal salutes at military parades. “His eyes looking at me, his face smiling at me. I keep this very dear to me,” he said.

Most of all, the way Kim’s words had guided Zo to reach his own improbable life’s goal: of joining the Communist revolution by becoming part of the North Korean government. “My friends would say, ‘We love you, but what you want to do is impossible’,” he said. “But in his speeches and writings, Kim Jong-il taught me that impossible is a word that doesn’t exist in the Korean language.”

Zo, whose name means ‘Korea is one’, had to take the Dear Leader’s word for that, because he doesn’t actually speak Korean. His friends’ scepticism seems well-founded given that he is a Spaniard of aristocratic Catalan heritage, better known as Alejandro Cao de Benos, and that North Korea is possibly the world’s most paranoid and isolated nation, a nuclear-armed rogue state all but closed to outsiders.

Yet despite this, Cao de Benos – or Zo – has managed to achieve the unique distinction of being granted honorary North Korean citizenship and an official role as “honorary special delegate” to its Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.

He spends about half of every year in Pyongyang, where he has close ties with the upper echelons of the regime. There, he hosts foreign delegations and acts as an intermediary for external parties wanting to invest, make documentaries or simply visit the country. (He maintains he has “never received a single cent” from North Korea, although admits to clipping the ticket on deals he helps see to fruition.) The other half of the year he acts as a roving ambassador, making media appearances with each new flashpoint arising from North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship, his talking points drawn from the state ideology of juche, or self-reliance.

A rotund 37-year-old with a brusque bearing (as a young man, he spent a year in the Spanish army), Cao de Benos speaks forcefully and formally, favouring archaic terms of statecraft like “plenipotentiary”. For public appearances, he wears a North Korean military uniform heavy with state medals, or black suits cut in the distinctive, high-buttoned style of his adopted homeland, from which his scrubbed, clean-shaven face emerges like a pink balloon.

It took a decade of wooing of North Korean officials before Cao de Benos, who has a background in IT, sought and received permission to set up the country’s first website, in 2000. “Imagine you’re bringing flowers every day to a girl and she’s always rejecting you,” he recalls.

The webpage he built established the first fixed, broadly accessible conduit for communication between North Korea and the world beyond its borders. “Imagine the power in my hands!” the webmaster marvels.

Although he had envisaged attracting “high profile people” – diplomats, entrepreneurs, journalists – Cao de Benos says the site was soon being used by “the most normal people in the world”, wanting to contact the DPRK (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). From their ranks, Cao de Benos founded the Korean Friendship Association, a club for people wishing to express solidarity with a totalitarian regime whose deadly famines, spontaneous acts of aggression and nuclear weapons programme has it viewed even by its closest remaining patron, China, as a dangerous liability.

On a Saturday afternoon last November, about 20 people assembled before the North Korean flag in a community centre in Camden, north London, for a meeting of the Korean Friendship Association.

Turnout was smaller than expected, given that Cao de Benos claims his organisation has 15,000 members, but the founder was unbowed. Flanked by a display of ideologically sound texts (sample title: “Kim Il-sung: The Great Man of the Century”), he seemed to be channelling his mentor as he delivered a stream of bellicose, anti-American invective.

“If they dare to touch a single inch of the DPRK, we will unleash all our force,” he promised. “If you shoot even one nuclear bomb over US territory, it’s enough to destroy the country,” he went on. “The people will start killing each other, because everybody has weapons in their houses… It will be the Far West once again.”

Though many in the audience wore militaristic attire, the impression was more that of a Boy Scout jamboree. At such meetings, KFA members are awarded badges and posters, and jostle to outdo each other with their trainspotters’ grasp of the minutiae of North Korean life.

Like other followers of niche enthusiasms – medieval role players, American Civil War re-enacters, Japanese anime obsessives – the KFA’s members seem not completely at home in their own world, seeking instead a deeper affinity with a distant, idealised time or place. For them, North Korea’s isolation, its status as a mysterious, forbidden kingdom in an otherwise globalised world, is the source of its unlikely mystique. “It’s the only exotic country,” explains Frank Martin, a 49-year-old Parisian bank manager and KFA member, who has twice visited North Korea on KFA solidarity tours.

North Korea is seen as the ultimate outlier, boldly defying not just global corporate capitalism, but modernity itself. Their fantasy worker’s paradise hews to simpler, nobler values than exist in the benighted West. “They’re not having an easy time of it, the Koreans, but what drives them? What keeps them going? How can they have such grit, whereas in the West they fold over any given problem?” asks George Hadjipateras, a 36-year-old London office clerk and ideological true believer whose affection for North Korea as Communism’s last great hope extends to collecting the republic’s music, and picketing the US embassy once a year. He doesn’t believe the “lies” he reads about Kim Jong-il in the Western media, but has never visited the DPRK because he doesn’t like to travel.

“Sarcasm doesn’t exist in DPRK,” Cao de Benos notes at one point, giving a list of things that do: “Honour, respect, order, discipline”.

Cao de Benos was a serious-minded teenager seeking a solution to the world’s problems, when he first found himself drawn to North Korea in 1990. “I didn’t want to dedicate my life to be a slave in the capitalist system. My dream was to be a part of the revolution,” he recalls.

When, at 16, he came into contact with a North Korean delegation at a World Tourism Organisation exhibition in Madrid, he was mesmerised. “They treated me as though I were their own son,” he recalls. Two years later, he made his first trip to North Korea, with money saved working nights at a petrol station. There, his infatuation deepened. “In DPRK, not only did I find a reflection of my ideal politics, but also of an ideal way of life. I was feeling I was half-Korean.”

In the following years, he developed close relationships with officials as high-ranking as Kim Yong-nam, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, who in theory jointly ruled the country as part of a tripartite executive with Premier Choe Yong-rim and, before his death, Chairman of the National Defence Commission Kim Jong-il. (Like many things in North Korea, theory and practice surrounding this arrangement do not necessarily align: Kim Jong-il’s power was absolute.)

Cao de Benos’s fidelity to a rogue state has come at considerable cost. When his interest began, during the time of perestroika, he says, “saying you were a Communist was close to saying you were a terrorist”. He lost jobs and friends, upset his family, and became “a very isolated person”. But he says his convictions never wavered. “If I had taken a different path, in IT or politics, I could have enjoyed success much earlier and without problems. I wouldn’t be a millionaire, I’d be a billionaire. But I’m a revolutionary person. I had to go a very hard and painful way that no one else has taken.”

All the same, his work has earnt him a minor degree of celebrity in North Korea, where he writes newspaper articles and performs revolutionary songs at government banquets. “People will approach me with their babies if they see me in the street, or invite me for a drink,” he says. He makes no secret of the fact he enjoys the status his role as a gatekeeper affords him, in North Korea as well as beyond it, among media, businessmen and other curious parties seeking access to this closed-off regime. “Suddenly, I’m a very, very respected person, even among people who are not Communists.”

Not everyone agrees. Deploying a term historically used for Western sympathisers of the Soviet Union, a former participant on one of Cao de Benos’s tours to North Korea describes him as a “perfect example of the ‘useful idiot'”.

The one-time traveller – who does not want to be identified for fear of jeopardising future trips – had taken the tour out of a sense of goodwill and curiosity, “to see if North Korea could really be as bad as everyone said it was. It was”.

“You mostly just wanted to cry,” the tourist recalls. “It’s like you’ve witnessed a terrible car accident, and you slow down just enough to see, but you’re not allowed to do anything. And then you leave, and you know there’s no ambulance coming to help.”

The group witnessed events and settings that were clearly laid on for their benefit, and increasingly felt their presence was being mined for propaganda. Closely monitored, the visitors had no opportunity to discuss their concerns. Even after the tour’s conclusion, back in the safety of Beijing, they remained too shocked to dissect their surreal ordeal. The fakery was so obvious that the trip might have seemed farcical, were it not for the ominous sense that there could be terrible consequences if events deviated from the approved pathway – both for the group, and any North Koreans dragged into their gyre.

One such departure from the script was captured in a Dutch documentary, Friends of Kim, which follows a KFA trip to North Korea in 2004. During the tour, Cao de Benos breaks into the hotel room of an American journalist in the party, stealing his tapes and denouncing him to authorities. The terrified reporter, under threat of imprisonment, signed a confession and an apology for filming sensitive sites, and was allowed to flee the country.

Incidents like this have earnt Cao de Benos a reputation as a dangerous ideological brown-noser, eager to report on anyone whose actions might be politically suspect in order to curry favour with his superiors. Certainly, it was witnessing this type of behaviour which has led the former tourist to conclude: “In my view, he’s a narcissist. And he loves the power and control he has over there. He does have real influence. People are frightened of him, and he likes that power. I think his primary motivation is that he’s special there.”

For his part, Cao de Benos says he has no qualms about taking action against the journalist during the trip featured in the documentary. He would have been blamed if the journalist’s report had eroded the dignity of North Korea. To the best of his knowledge, while his denouncements have led to North Koreans being demoted in rank, no one has been sent to a prison camp as a result. Besides, he says, those camps – in which international human rights groups say 200,000 political prisoners are held in inhumane conditions, starved or worked to death or publicly executed – are not the great evil they are made out to be.

“These are re-education camps. With 24 million people, sometimes you may have a few criminals. We believe not in punishment but in rehabilitation. It’s a kind of psychological therapy.”

Another misunderstanding he is keen to clear up is that North Korea is a hereditary dictatorship. “There’s no one person that decides everything and can do whatever he wants,” he explained, two days before Kim Jong-il’s funeral. As to whether the dictator’s third son, Jong-un, would become “the next beloved leader of Korea, it is up to the people of Korea to recognise him as such”.

The people of Korea must have liked what they saw as, four days later, Kim Jong-un was formally named supreme commander of North Korea’s military, making the untested political novice, believed to be 28, the world’s youngest head of state.

Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at the Australian National University, has had contact with Cao de Benos for more than a decade, and doubts that he, or any other rational outsider, could genuinely believe North Korean state propaganda. He believes the KFA president is making the right noises ideologically so that he can straddle both worlds, carving out a profitable niche as a middle man and deriving status, access, and financial rewards through his consultancy work.

“Alejandro believes that to be close to the establishment he has to play the role of a revolutionary Westerner who is more North Korean than the North Koreans are,” Petrov says. “I really doubt he is a brainwashed individual who believes North Korea is the paradise for workers. Even North Koreans don’t believe in that.”

“I don’t think he’d like to spend the rest of his life in North Korea,” he adds. (Cao de Benos responds that he would love to live in Pyongyang permanently, but that would prevent him from performing his spokesman role in the West.)

The member of his tour party agrees – “You can’t possibly believe that stuff if you’ve been there” – and says while believing state propaganda is understandable for brainwashed North Koreans, it’s unconscionable in a Westerner who knows the outside world.

“To come back and tell North Korean people that everything they hear is correct – that the rest of the world is evil, out to cut each other’s throats, that war and oppression is everywhere… he perpetuates that. He’s not forced to; he does that for personal gain and power and prestige. It’s horrible.”

Cao de Benos bristles at the suggestion he is motivated by anything less than genuine ideological commitment. “I will take this as a type of jealousy from people who have no goals in their life. I have lived a life of big things,” he reminds me. “I only care about the opinions of the people that love me, my comrades.”

Given his position, he need neither answer nor fear their criticisms from the West. And despite the recent upheaval, that position so far appears secure. Kim Jong-un is “a very military person” who is “exactly like” his father, he says, and who, most importantly, “represents the continuity of our ideology”.

“He’s an important sign that although Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is passed away, there’s not going to be any changes,” says Cao de Benos, perhaps hopefully. Whatever North Koreans might make of that, it suits him down to the ground.

North Korean Realities

20 01 2012

ImageBy Peter Drysdale (East Asia Forum, January 16th, 2012)

One of the more momentous changes in Asia that heralded in the New Year was the sudden death of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, and the succession by his son, Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-il’s death had long been seen by some outside observers as portent for the collapse of the North Korean regime and the announcement encouraged much comment that reflected these forebodings, including calls for calm from political leaders who should have been in the know.

Certainly there were anxieties about whether the assumption of the North Korean leadership by a relatively untried and youthful Kim Jong-un would be accompanied by a power struggle in the North and political instability. Cooler heads saw little immediate sign of that.

In this week’s lead Chung-in Moon and John Delury at Yonsei University urge focus on the realities that face North Korea itself and the rest of the world in dealing with the isolated state, not imagined contingencies surrounding the leadership change. Their injunction is timely. Moon was a key adviser to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung on North Korean affairs and heavily involved in negotiations between the North and the South that saw the Sunshine policy put in place. But he is a hard-headed realist.

Delury and Moon point out that there are no signs of political ferment in North Korea. For the moment, the system is quite stable. The regime is ‘unified around the new face of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and, most importantly, the grandson of founding father Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-un does not need charisma. In North Korea’s hierarchic ‘big leader’ suryong system, the young Kim is born to authority. His Baekdu bloodline is sufficient to endow his rule with legitimacy. And his power base is solid’. This is an hereditary system of rule as much as an authoritarian one.

Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy is secured by three inner circles. The first is the ruling family. The key sign of unity within the family is that Kim Jong-un’s aunt and her powerful husband Jang Song-taek both received promotions along with the heir-apparent at the historic Party conference last year. The second is the Korean Worker’s Party itself, which has been going through a period of resuscitation. The revitalised network of Party members — who now carry cell phones and are eager to travel abroad — see their prospects very much linked to the success of the grandson. The third is the military — the Korean People’s Army — which is the logical competitor in the power succession. But even in the army there is no sign of high-level disaffection like that seen in many Middle Eastern states. ‘The military’, Delury and Moon point out, ‘has been the primary beneficiary of the North’s ”military first politics” campaign initiated by Kim Jong-il in 1995′. The military has been co-opted through numerous incentives, and controlled through close confidants. The military has pledged loyalty to Kim Jong-un, whose highest title is Vice Chair of the Central Military Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party.

As for the 20 million or so North Koreans not in the Party, they are likely to take a wait-and-see approach to the new leadership group. Kim Jong-un bears a striking physical resemblance to his grandfather, evoking nostalgia for North Korea’s halcyon days, and people may hope his rule will see a new, better chapter for their country. Whatever the case, those who may wish to rebel have no networks or organisations through which to do so. For now, all signs confirm the state media slogans: Kim Jong-un is the ‘outstanding leader of our party, army and people’ and ‘great successor’ to his father.

In the near term, the chances of political crisis, let alone regime collapse, are remote. In the longer term, however, North Korea faces the same perennial hard choices: the dilemma, Delury and Moon call it, of mutually conflicting goals.

Pyongyang proclaims to its citizens that 2012 marks the year of North Korea’s emergence as a ‘strong and prosperous great nation’ [Gangsong Daeguk]. ‘If Kim Jong-il could claim nothing else’, say Delury and Moon, ‘he did achieve at least one thing for North Korea — the ultimate ”strength” of nuclear deterrence’.

What most outside observers of North Korean affairs miss is the importance of the goal of world standard prosperity. It was set out again post-succession in the New Year’s joint editorial in North Korea’s three main newspapers. There are unmistakable signs of a push to improve the national economy — from growing trade with and investment from China, revived plans for special economic zones and official propaganda promising to improve the people’s welfare.

The issue at stake is whether Kim Jong-un can enhance North Korea’s prosperity without undermining the source of its strength — its nuclear weapons program. ‘Comprehensive economic development will also require foreign investment, trade, and financing; all of which would require negotiation of loosening, and eventual lifting, the sanctions which surround the North Korean economy like a barbed wire fence. Getting that sanctions regime lifted will require substantive nuclear concessions on Pyongyang’s part’.

This, of course, opens opportunity for dealing between Pyongyang, Washington, Beijing and Seoul. As Delury and Moon observe, it will be in that moment, the transition from security-first to security-plus-prosperity, when the unity of the North Korean political system would come under strain. It was perhaps ever thus. ‘Elements in the military might oppose sacrificing their prize possession — nuclear weapons capability. Hardliners will argue it would be a fool’s errand to give up the ultimate weapon, leaving their country exposed to an Iraqi or Libyan fate’.

The path to getting the North over that hump needs to start now, with building constructive relationships with their new leadership, and avoiding the risk of playing into the hands of hardliners, and above all investing in the capacities now that North Koreans will need to run a prosperous and open economy and society. There are signs that this is recognised in Washington and Seoul, though unfortunately not in Canberra which had earlier played a helpful role in prosecuting just this interest — and again is positioned, because of the importance of being unimportant, to do so now.

*Peter Drysdale is the Editor of the East Asia Forum.

The DPRK Interregnum: Window of Opportunity for the International Community

19 01 2012

By Victor Hsu (Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, January 10, 2012)

Now that the funeral of Kim Jong Il is over, it is time for the international community to explore avenues of engaging with the DPRK, rather than trying to read the tea leaves about who is in charge or whether Kim Jong Un is the real Supreme Leader and Military Commander. This period presents a window of opportunity either to engage constructively or to destabilize the Korean peninsula. It is truly a time of danger and opportunity. While it is legitimate to expect the DPRK to take the first step, there is an equal onus on the international community to adopt policies and strategies to encourage the DPRK to initiate a new chapter in its foreign policy. However, this post funeral interregnum may be ironically the right time for the “strategic patience” policy of the Obama’s administration.

First, it is important to bear in mind that following precedent is a basic rule of engagement on the part of the DPRK. It was a full three years before Kim Jong Il emerged to lead the country following Kim Il Sung’s unexpected death. There is no reason for the DPRK not to observe a similar period of prolonged national mourning. Of course, next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the eternal President, Kim Il Sung. The celebration is likely to proceed in April. Moreover, to use a term often employed by the DPRK to describe the success of Kim Il Sung and the DPRK heroes, the “exploits” of the Dear Leader will be extolled and given more prominence than if he were still alive. This is already evident from the DPRK’s annual New Year’s Editorial which has heaped high praise on the accomplishments of Kim Jong Il.

Second, the confirmation of Kim Jong Un as the “supreme leader and commander” is to be expected. Anything else would be a real surprise and would warrant speculation and analysis. For analysts keen to spot fissures in the leadership of the DPRK, perhaps the sole speculation that can be made is a possible vacuum in the decision-making process. Kim Jong Un is unlikely to take bold unilateral actions unless his position or his family is threatened. In fact, he may even welcome a prolonged period of national celebration of his father and grandfather.

It is unrealistic to expect dramatic policy reversal or new initiatives for the foreseeable future. If anything, it will be business as usual unless the leadership is forced or provoked into taking action.

Therefore, in the near term, the international community should:

–   Avoid taking actions that will force the DPRK to make premature decisions.
–    Respond to the DPRK should the invitation be extended to resume existing negotiations.

This past week, newspaper editorials noted the absence of commentary on the DPRK nuclear program in the New Year Joint Editorial and questioned the DPRK’s motivation. In fact, keeping silent on controversial issues is part of the DPRK’s diplomatic brinksmanship and has been the DPRK’s signature negotiation tool.
Third, following precedent, the DPRK is likely to resume existing formal or back channel talks and honor existing commitments, be it the 6-party talks or a new round of food/nutrition aid from the US government, or the joint ventures in Kaesong or tours to Mount Kumgang by South Koreans. The Joint Editorial contains ample indications about DPRK’s desire to be a “thriving country,” with a “knowledge-based economy.”  There are repeated references to “achieving prosperity” with world standards.  For 2012, it talks about

“the important task of scaling without fail the historical-stage targets… true to the lifetime instructions of General Kim Jong Il. By registering a brilliant success in this year’s struggle for opening the gates of a thriving country, we must enter a new, high stage of building a thriving socialist country in an all-round way.”

Therefore, for example, “light industries” should be a “modern base” to produce “larger quality goods” that “cater to people’s tastes” and are “welcomed” by them.  Equally significant is the highlighting of solving the food problem as a “burning issue” and the pathway to prosperity.

In order for the DPRK to become “a thriving nation,” the technocrats and sectoral professionals, will have to play a pivotal role. Ideology, alone, cannot feed the people or achieve prosperity.  To quote from the Joint Editorial, the professionals with technical know-how and expertise will have to ensure that:

–    “Farming materials and machinery needed” “hit the target for agricultural production.”
–    “Modern bases for stockbreeding and poultry farming and large-size fruit and fish farms” lead to “the improvement of people’s living standards, run at full capacity.”
–    Continue the construction of large hydropower stations, thermal powered mining, metallurgy, and upgrade railroads, and chemical industries.
–    Guide scientific research to develop “core, basic technologies, including information and nano technologies and bioengineering, and promote technical engineering in major fields and produce more research findings that would beat the world.”

In short, “all sectors and units of the national economy should drastically increase the capacity for developing new technologies and products of their own, and push forward in a far-sighted way the work of turning the national economy into a technology-intensive one.”  Hence, “talents in the field of science and technology,” are “precious assets of the country,” to be “given prominence and the conditions for their scientific research should be provided at the highest standard.”

The challenges that the Joint Editorial laid out for 2012 are formidable. But the contours of a roadmap to its economic prosperity are clearly laid out. To date, governments in North America and the European Union have refused to engage the DPRK in any form of assistance other than humanitarian aid. The technocrats within the DPRK will not be able to accomplish their mandate without technical upgrade, inputs and resources.

Interestingly, NGOs such as Adventist Disaster Response Agency, American Friends Service Committee, Christian Friends of Korea, Eugene Bell Foundation, German Agro-Action, Global Resources Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children UK, and World Vision have had fruitful partnerships with the DPRK in projects that address organic farming, upgrading of clinics and hospitals, livestock, food aid, vegetable and fruit fertigation and renewable energy.  These are helpful knowledge sharing activities seen by the DPRK to be particularly valuable.

This post funeral interregnum in the DPRK should be seen as a window of opportunity for moving its relationships in a constructive direction. The international community should take time to network and to plan a coordinated engagement at multiple levels such as exchange visits, knowledge sharing activities, and other confidence building measures.  A coordinated plan is necessary to avoid duplication, to maximize the increasingly scarce resources among traditional donors and to gather the lessons learned for follow-up.  Donors should facilitate this networking by supporting civil society knowledge-sharing efforts. Civil society access is more sustainable and is less susceptible to the vicissitudes of inter-state relations, as the history of NGO involvement there has amply demonstrated.  If NGO involvement has decreased in recent years it is in large measure due to decreased donor funding.

It is also time for the international community to consider the implications of the existing UN sanctions which have not been effective and are perceived mainly as a political exercise by states with few options to punish the DPRK’s nuclear program.  It should also ask itself whether the relationship with the DPRK should be dictated by, and solely confined to, the now highly contentious nuclear and human rights issues. Countries not involved in the 6-party negotiations, such as those in the EU, should encourage the broadening of the engagement agenda with the DPRK to include confidence building measures.

*Victor Hsu, a Visiting Professor at the Korea Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management.

Towards co-operative partnership with two Koreas

8 01 2012

 (Leonid Petrov, Public speech at the Regional Meeting of ROK National Unification Advisory Council in Sydney, 28 Oct. 2011)

In March 2008, the then newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared his foreign policy philosophy and promised that “during the course of the next three years, the world will see an increasingly activist Australian international policy in areas where we believe we may be able to make a positive difference”. Rudd assured the audience that the new Australian government was committed to the principle of “creative middle-power diplomacy” as the best means of enhancing Australia’s national interests.

Since then Australia has already made great steps forward in departing from the one-sided conservative foreign policy of the Howard Years. The Australian Labor Party now proudly states that its foreign policy platform is based on the three pillars – alliance with the US, active membership of the UN, and comprehensive engagement with Asia – that manifest realism, liberal internationalism, and regionalism. Given this approach, how can Australia develop a comprehensive and co-operative partnership with the two Koreas and contribute to the building of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region?

In April 2011, while visiting Seoul, Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard admitted that “China, Japan and Korea are countries of vital strategic and economic importance in the Asia-Pacific region and to Australia. They are Australia’s top three export destinations and three of Australia’s top four trading partners overall”. But at the Korean War memorial in Kapyong (the place of fierce fighting between Australians and Chinese), she brushed off the prospects for resuming denuclearisation talks with North Korea, saying “There’s no point just saying ‘sit down and talk’, if the talks are not going to achieve anything.”

Despite the pledge for a balanced regional partnership, Australia maintains strong relations with the ROK but minimal relations with the DPRK. While maintaining formal diplomatic links, Canberra has little plans to open its embassy in Pyongyang. Most bilateral cooperation with the North has been put on hold by the Australian side “until the nuclear-weapon crisis is resolved”. The closure of the DPRK’s embassy in Canberra in 2008 seemed to be a logical outcome of this freeze in relations. There is little discussion of the future of Australia-DPRK relations in the media. Reports on trade with North Korea produced by the Australian government reflect a pessimistic posture.

Certainly, the DPRK is not an ordinary state and its social order is unique in today’s world. To deal with North Korea successfully we must remember and understand Cold War history and its consequences for the region. The reality of the inter-Korean conflict must be taken into account whenever we try to engage in dialogue or cooperation. Sensibility and understanding in dealing with Korea and Koreans are as important as first-hand knowledge of their country, language and culture. Sadly, preoccupation with pragmatism and allied solidarity left Australia-Korea relations lopsided.

To be pragmatic means to understand that regime change in North Korea, despite the long-standing predictions, cannot happen in current circumstances. The Korean War has never ended, and as long as regional powers help one side of the divided Korea and bully the other, the division of Korea will continue. Without our full diplomatic recognition, solid security assurance, and fair economic treatment the DPRK will not follow China or Vietnam’s examples in market reforms and democratisation. Instead, North Korea will remain consolidated ideologically with no room for political freedom or economic liberalism.

The demise of its supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, has already triggered the power succession process, which may open new opportunities for negotiations. We also know that man-made and natural disasters began hitting North Korea again, leaving the population weakened and desperate. The fall in grain production around the world and rising international grain prices have also put international food donors into a difficult situation. Last year the World Food Program (WFP) warned that North Korea would need massive food aid in the coming months to avert widespread hunger caused by severe floods, economic sanctions, and ineffective diplomacy.

In the meantime, inter-Korean relations have deteriorated to a level previously known only in the Cold War era. The sinking of the Cheonan Corvette and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island are commonly attributed to Pyongyang’s “erratic and dangerous behavior”, but are rarely associated with Seoul’s actions in the disputed waters around the controversial Northern-Limit Line. Neither of these incidents would have occurred if the agreements of the June 2000 and October 2007 Inter-Korean Summits had been implemented. The Peace and Prosperity (or “Sunshine”) Policy had prioritised economic and humanitarian cooperation over political and military considerations, and was quite effective.

These days, South Korean producers dump millions of tons of quality food that could bring famine relief to their brethren in the North. I think that it would be much wiser for the ROK government to assume more active responsibility for the wellbeing of the people residing in the territories which will sooner or later become part of the unified Korea. Similarly, an Australia that routinely helps the flood victims in Myanmar and drought victims in Afghanistan could more actively assist the impoverished people of North Korea. Wouldn’t it be better if the Labor government in Canberra, together with administrations in Seoul and Pyongyang could cement the foundation for a new balanced relationship?

As the first step towards ending the war in Northeast Asia the mutual recognition of both the ROK and DPRK is necessary. Although both governments understand the pros and cons of peaceful co-existence the Cold War mentality that dominates the region does not permit such an option. In order to resolve the Korean knot both competing states in the North and South should dismantle the thesis of exclusive legitimacy on the peninsula, on which the whole building of their respective identities and statehood are founded. Sadly, as long as the ideology of nationalism permeates their domestic politics, I don’t think it is possible.

Confrontation will continue indefinitely until the regional powers decide to interrupt the vicious circle and change the paradigm of relations. But to make this situation sustainable, a special status (neutral and non-nuclear) should be given to the Korean peninsula with no place for foreign troops or conflicting alliances. Only this would stop the century-long foreign rivalry for domination in Korea, and help the Koreans reconcile.

While the Cold War mentality rules inter-Korean relations and limits contacts between the people of North and South Korea to an absolute minimum, it is impossible to expect much support from below either. The best example of balance between the grass-root initiative and government actions was achieved during the 10 years of Sunshine Policy. Its main principles were: “give first, take later” and “easy tasks first, difficult tasks later”. It’s time to understand that there is no alternative to such policy, and the sooner the ROK government resumes it the brighter will be the future for Korea and Koreans.

Differences in political views and economic systems must not divide but should rather enhance the value of partnership and help complement each other’s strengths. By intensifying diplomatic ties and expanding economic cooperation with both halves of divided Korea we can make a significant contribution to the peaceful resolution of the nuclear problem and prepare the basis for durable peace and prosperity in the region.

Published as “Toward partnership with two Koreas” (The Korea Times,  01-10-2012)

Publisged as “Towards a co-operative Korean partnership” (A-Times On-line, 10 Jan. 2012)

See report (in Korean) about the Regional Meeting of ROK National Unification Advisory Council in Sydney, 28 Oct. 2011in Korean here…

Kim Jong-un stars in new North Korean TV documentary

8 01 2012

(The Telegraph, 08 Jan 2012) On what is believed to be Kim Jong-un’s birthday, North Korea’s state television broadcasts a new documentary on the ‘Great Successor’ in which he rides tanks, horses and a fairground ride.

The documentary is the second in a week seeking to highlight Kim Jong-un’s experience in leading North Korea’s 1.2 million-strong military and was aimed at showing that he was in charge of the armed forces long before his father, former leader Kim Jong-il, died of a heart attack last month.

The film, entitled Succeeding great work of military-first revolution, showed new footage of Kim Jong-un in various locations such as military bases, parades and even an amusement park.

The footage, according to broadcaster KRT, was filmed when Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was still alive.

Sunday reportedly also marks Kim Jong-un’s birthday, although the documentary appears to make no mention of the landmark. North Korea tends to recognise the birthday of its leaders as a national holiday as part of efforts to deify them.

The son, who is in his late 20s, has moved swiftly into the role of “supreme leader” of the people, the ruling Workers’ Party and the military despite questions abroad about how easily he could assume power with only a few years of grooming behind him. Kim Jong-il, in contrast, had 20 years of training when his father, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, died of a heart attack in 1994.

LP’s video comment… NK State Media creates personality cult

A Proposal for a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in Northeast Asia

4 01 2012

(By Morton H. Halperin, Nautilus Institute, January 3, 2011) If the international community is seen to accept North Korea as even a de facto permanent nuclear power there would be a very serious deterioration of the security situation in East Asia and globally.  Notwithstanding the current consensus in both Japan and South Korea against developing nuclear weapons, I believe that a nuclear North Korea would eventually compel South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons and the danger of an armed conflict in which nuclear weapons might be used would significantly increase.  This would pose a serious threat to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Until and unless it becomes absolutely clear that reversing North Korea’s nuclear program is not possible, Western security policy in the region must be directed at persuading the North to give up its nuclear weapons and commit to a verifiable regime to insure its permanent compliance.

There is no prospect of that happening unless the United States also pledges not to threaten the North with nuclear weapons. An agreement would be more likely if Japan were included in a treaty creating a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWF zone) for Northeast Asia. The prospects for such an agreement would be increased if it were embodied in a more comprehensive agreement on peace and security in the region.

Therefore, in order to break the current impasse that has prevented any real negotiations for several years, the parties to the Six-Party talks should seek to negotiate, initially through bilateral channels, the text of a comprehensive treaty that would end the state of belligerency from the Korean War, establish a security organization for the region, commit all parties to normalization of relations with no hostile intent, and establish an NWF zone.  Once an agreement on the text was reached, the parties could negotiate the process for bringing it into force…

The elements of the comprehensive Treaty on Peace and Security in Northeast Asia would include:

1. Termination of the state of war This is clearly a major objective of North Korea. This section of the treaty should be adhered to by the armistice nations and by South Korea.  It should provide for the normalization of relations while providing support for the eventual unification of the Peninsula.  The agreement should provide for opening the border between the North and South and the pulling back of military forces in the demilitarized zone.  The territorial disputes between the North and South, including at sea, should either be settled or the two parties should commit to a peaceful resolution of the disputes.

2. Creation of a permanent council on security The treaty should transform the Six-Party talks into a permanent council and support organization to monitor the provisions of the treaty and to provide a forum to deal with future security problems in the region.  In addition to the six parties to the treaty, other states from the region could be invited to join as full participants or observers.

3. Mutual declaration of no hostile intent This is a key objective of North Korea, which put great stock in getting such a statement from US President Bill Clinton’s administration.  It was flummoxed when the administration of President George W. Bush simply withdrew it and when President Barrack Obama’s administration continued this policy.  To be credible, this commitment must be embodied in the treaty and affect all the parties’ relations with each other.

4. Provisions of assistance for nuclear and other energy The right of all parties to the treaty to have access to necessary sources of energy including nuclear power will need to be affirmed.  Any limitations on North Korea will need to apply equally to the other non-nuclear parties to the treaty. A new multilateral framework might be appropriate to deal with the fuel cycle. North Korea will also want assurances that its energy needs will be subsidized.  Beyond a general commitment this will probably need to be negotiated as a separate agreement.

5. Termination of sanctions/response to violations of the treaty The parties to the treaty will need to commit to refrain from the use of sanctions on any other party to the treaty and to remove them from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.  The parties would reserve the right to collectively impose sanctions on any state that violates its commitments under the treaty.

6. A nuclear weapons-free zone Finally, the treaty would contain a chapter that would create a nuclear weapons-free zone in Northeast Asia…

… De-nuclearizing the Korean Peninsula must remain a high priority of the international community.  Failure to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will lead to further proliferation and to a more dangerous world.  The outline proposed here, with a flexible NWF zone, is a way forward that deserves careful consideration.

See the full text of the article here…

*Morton H. Halperin served four US presidents and is currently a Senior Adviser at the Open Society Foundation. Halperin notes that, as the Six-Party talks aimed at eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program remain stalled, a fresh approach incorporating the concept of a nuclear weapons-free zone in Northeast Asia should be considered as a way of ensuring peace and security in the region.