Moscow Supports Kim Jong-Un

29 06 2012

(By Leonid Petrov, The Montréal Review, 28 July 2012)

Russia claims it is willing to link divided Korea with energy pipelines and electricity grids. But its economic relations with North Korea indicate a return to the Cold War politics of the past.

In 1948 Stalin sponsored the creation of the DPRK in the Northern half of the Korean peninsula. The following year, Prime Minister Kim Il-sung travelled to Moscow to collect a 2% interest loan of 212 million Soviet Rubles. Some of this money was allocated to build the centrally-planned economy, but much of the funding was used to fuel unification efforts in a war against South Korea between 1950 and 1953. After the end of the disastrous Korean War, the Soviet Union continued to help North Korea with the rebuilding of its cities, industry and infrastructure.

Even during the Sino-Soviet ideological split in the 1960s and 1970s, Moscow tried to curry favour with Pyongyang throughout its confrontation with Beijing. As a bastion of Communism in the Far East that directly faced US troops on the Korean peninsula, North Korea successfully managed to squeeze money from both of its allies during the Cold War. But when the iron curtain fell in the early 1990s, the Democrats in Moscow swiftly recognized Seoul and demanded the payment of debts from Pyongyang.

The timing could not have been worse for North Korea. Most of the country’s capital had been wasted on non-productive sectors, an oversized army, ideological campaigns and extravagant monuments. All that North Korea could offer to Russia as payment-in-kind was a humble list of export goods that did not exceed pickles, cigarettes and ginseng-based medicines. With the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the beginning of natural disasters in 1995, North Korea’s agonising industrial and agricultural sectors collapsed, killing some 3 million people in three consecutive years of famine.

South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” (1998-2008) and growing humanitarian aid from other regional neighbours permitted North Korea to weather the “Arduous March”; finally showing some signs of recovery in the early 2000s. It was around this time that Moscow once again raised the issue of North Korea’s debt, which had already been calculated at nearly US $8 billion. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chairman Kim Jong-il visited each other twice to discuss this and other bilateral issues, creating an impression that the debt would be written off rather than paid in full.

In August last year, at the last summit between the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the Russian President Medvedev, the parties agreed to move forward on a proposal to build a pipeline that would be capable of transporting Russian natural gas to both Koreas. Simultaneously, North Korea and Russia signed a protocol calling for economic cooperation between the two countries. But international observers immediately questioned the feasibility of such a project in the midst of an ongoing inter-Korean conflict.

The oil markets of the last ten years have been favourable for Russia, allowing the country to save hundreds of billions of petro-dollars from the sale of energy-rich natural resources to its neighbours. Expecting an impoverished North Korea to pay off a Soviet-era debt, which today amounts to US $11 billion, would be unrealistic. Last week the Russian government agreed to discount 90 % of the debt owed by its destitute but stubborn ally. The remaining USD $1.1 billion was promised to be invested in joint Russian-North Korean projects, particularly in education, medical and energy sectors.

One may be surprised by the timing and generosity of the deal. Despite promises of a new era of strength and prosperity, this year saw the DPRK at odds with old evils. The coldest winter and the driest summer in decades have dashed its expectations for a proper harvest. The embarrassment of a faulty rocket launch in April was compounded by the withdrawal of US food-aid and international condemnation. The hyper-inflation of North Korean currency and the continuing energy crisis are not the propitious signs of effective governance by the newest leader in the Kim dynasty. Is Russia trying to help Kim Jong-un consolidate political power and overcome mounting economic difficulties?

This year Russia experienced the return of the Kremlin veteran, Vladimir Putin, to the presidential seat. Although he is associated with political reaction and is concerned by the prospect of “colour revolutions” at home, Russia is desperately running out of friends on the international stage. With Libya and Syria having already become victims of the “Arab Spring”, Moscow is scrambling to buttress dictatorial regimes in its vicinity. Anti-Americanism and curtailed political freedoms once again have become the primary criteria in gaining Kremlin sympathies. Belarus, Iran, the countries of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and now North Korea, have all received special treatment from the increasingly anti-Western Russia.

Whereas Beijing was once the only power that remained content to sink trillions of Yuan into North Korea simply to prop up a buffer state ruled by an anachronistic regime, Moscow is now returning to an East Asia policy that echoes of the Cold War. Instead of reprimanding Kim Jong-un for his provocative actions and belligerent rhetoric, Putin is dumping of trillions of tax-payers’ roubles into supporting a friendly dictator. Moscow’s empty promises to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program are in clear conflict with North Korea’s determination to remain a self-proclaimed nuclear power for the sake of its regime survival.

Northeast Asia is again becoming a theatre for large-scale geostrategic games where powerful empires scrum in a noxious struggle for domination, leaving 75 million Koreans in a state of anxious suspense.  Given the current situation, hopes for peace and reconciliation remain untenable.

See the Korean version of this article here… 모스크바는 김정은을 지지한다?

The Korean War and East Asia

28 06 2012

(Leonid Petrov, East Asia Forum, June 27th, 2012)

Koreans commemorated the tragic beginning of the Korean War (1950–53) on 25 June. What began as a civil war for unification soon escalated into an international war — a protracted Cold War conflict and a surrogate World War III. After 62 years and despite an Armistice Agreement, the conflict shows no signs of ending.

The Korean Peninsula’s geopolitical importance and its alliance policies are at the core of the problem. Surrounded by China, Japan and the Russian Far East, Korea is at the centre of Asia. And so, for centuries, policy makers and generals from the neighbouring regional powers have recognised Korea’s strategic importance in the region, prioritising its protection from potential enemies.

Relations with its neighbours have typically been unfavourable for Korea. Minor political events on the peninsula have long attracted attention and hasty international reactions. For this reason, Korea has an exceptionally rich and dramatic political history, including four ‘Korean Wars’ since the 16th century.

The Imjin War (1592–98) was ‘the first Korean War’, setting the tone for future relations between the combatants. The Imjin war was precipitated by a samurai warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who intended to conquer China and dominate Asia. He set out to cross into China through the Korean Peninsula, but when Korea refused to give free passage to Japanese troops, it became a target for Hideyoshi’s marauding hordes. The Japanese marched to the Sino–Korean border before China’s Ming dynasty agreed to help Chosun Korea block Hideyoshi’s march. The combined Ming and Chosun armies finally pushed the Japanese out of the peninsula but the war tarnished the reputation of Korea’s powerful ally and destroyed much of Seoul and other parts of Korea.

The ‘second Korean War’ was, in fact, the first Sino–Japanese War (1894–95), which saw Korea becoming the primary subject of contention once again. As a newly rising power, Japan wished to protect its own interests and security by either annexing Korea or by ensuring Korea’s independence from other competitors. The Great Korean Empire was founded in 1897, in the aftermath of this ‘second Korean War’. But independent status of the country was not to last: piecemeal domestic reforms and sluggish administration made Korea an easy target for imperialist contest.

Russia’s tenuous foothold on Korea was challenged during the Russo–Japanese War (1904–05). Following this ‘third Korean War’ Japan gradually took control of Korean affairs, until 1910, when Korea formally became a Japanese colony. As such, it was forced to serve the economic and military needs of the expanding Japanese empire, but not without opposition: in the subsequent 35 years radical Korean groups continued to resist the Japanese occupation in Manchuria and China, while Korean intellectuals fought a battle against cultural obliteration at home.

The fall of Japan at the end of World War II did not lead to Korea being granted its independence immediately. The Soviet Union and the US, the allied powers who had liberated the country, believed Koreans were not yet ready for self-governance and divided the peninsula into two temporary zones of occupation. By that time the Cold War was already emerging, and this ‘temporary’ division of Korea became increasingly consolidated and ideologically cemented. This led to the creation of two antagonistic states in 1948: the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The conditions for a civil conflict were ripe, and as soon as US and Russian occupying forces left the country, a new Korean war broke out.

The ‘fourth Korean War’, which started on 25 June 1950 with a surprise attack from the North against the South, was an attempt to unify the country, but soon escalated to the level of a proxy World War III, involving some 20 countries. After three years of fratricidal conflict, and despite the strong opposition from the ROK President Rhee Syngman, delegates from North Korea, China and the United Nations Command signed the Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953. Six decades later, a peace treaty has not yet been formalised.

The first step toward ending this fourth Korean War would be for the regional neighbours to formally recognise the two Korean states. Both China and Russia have already established diplomatic and trade relations with South Korea, while continuing to provide economic aid and security assurances to keep North Korea afloat. It is now time for the US and Japan to recognise North Korea, assuage its security concerns and lift economic sanctions.

In the meantime, the Korean Peninsula remains a bone of contention among its powerful neighbours. The old system of block alliances persists in the multipolar world of the 21st century, and this is keeping Korea divided. Only when Korea frees itself from the obligations of its allies will East Asia achieve peace and stability.

Ce que voulait Kim Jong-il

22 06 2012

Leonid Petrov (Asie21_n°52,_juin_2012, p.16-17)


Le testament et les dernières volontés du leader nord-coréen Kim Jong-il, décédé le 17 décembre dernier, font l’objet de nombreux commentaires qui pourraient avoir des conséquences sur les relations intercoréennes. Deux think-tanks sud-coréens : l’Institut Sejong et le Centre d’information stratégique sur la Corée du Nord (NK Strategic Information Service Center) ont récemment révélé certaines parties du testament bien que ce dernier n’ait pas encore été formellement authentifié.


Le testament présumé aurait été obtenu par l’intermédiaire d’une personne très proche d’un officiel nord-coréen de haut rang. Son contenu se résume selon les points suivants :

–              la Corée du Nord pourra faire la paix avec le Sud qu’une fois l’actuel président sud-coréen Lee Myungbak aura quitté le pouvoir. Quand le nouveau président sud-coréen prendra ses fonctions la Corée du Nord devra éviter la guerre et avancer main dans la main avec le Sud. Le but ultime est la réunification pacifique ;

–              les deux Corées devraient songer à rouvrir leurs réseaux ferroviaires, leurs routes et leurs voies maritimes ;

–              si les deux Corées entraient de nouveau en guerre, alors elles laisseraient l’ensemble de la péninsule totalement dévastée et loin derrière les autres pays. Cependant Kim Jong-il conseille à son successeur d’être militairement en position de force avant de reprendre le dialogue avec le Sud. Il rappelle aux futurs leaders nord-coréens qu’ils « doivent avoir en permanence en tête que le développement de l’arme nucléaire, des missiles à long portée et des armes chimiques sont les meilleurs moyens de maintenir la paix dans la péninsule coréenne et qu’ils ne doivent jamais baisser la garde » ;

– relations avec les États-Unis : la Corée du Nord « doit gagner la guerre psychologique en s’affirmant comme une puissance nucléaire légitime. Elle doit diminuer l’influence américaine dans la péninsule et faire en sorte que les sanctions internationales soient levées afin de créer les conditions du développement économique ». Elle doit revenir aux conversations à six mais seulement pour obtenir la reconnaissance officielle de son statut de puissance nucléaire.

– Il convient de noter que malgré tout le respect qu’il doit à la Chine, Kim Jong-il demande à ses concitoyens de rester vigilant en écrivant qu’ « historiquement la Chine a créé des difficultés pour notre pays. Il s’agit du pays qui a les relations les plus proches avec nous mais qu’il faudra toujours garder à l’œil. Gardez cela à l’esprit et faites attention. Évitez d’être exploités par la Chine ». Cette affirmation illustre en partie les relations difficiles qu’il entretenait avec la Chine, son principal et plus ancien allié.

– En dehors des questions internationales et de sécurité, Kim Jong-il a abordé trois autres sujets : la succession héréditaire, l’adhésion à la politique de priorité à l’armée et le rôle de l’énergie nucléaire dans le développement économique.

Comme prévu, son plus jeune fils Kim Jong-un a pris sa succession. Cependant c’est sa sœur cadette, Kim Kyong-hee, qui a été désignée comme exécutrice du testament. Elle est la secrétaire du Comité central du parti des travailleurs de Corée où elle supervise le secteur de l’industrie légère. De son côté Kim Jongun devrait être nommé Chef du comité national de défense au cours de l’année faisant suite à la lecture du testament. Aussi, s’il s’agit du vrai testament, nous devrions voir Kim Jung-un occuper le plus haut poste au sein de la République démocratique populaire de Corée au plus tard en décembre 2012. Dans l’intervalle, le jeune Kim a déjà été promu au grade de général quatre étoiles, commandant suprême de l’armée du peuple, Premier secrétaire du parti des travailleurs et Premier président de la Commission nationale de défense.

Le testament indique aussi que les enfants de Kim Jong-il issus de précédents mariages devront être protégés. Il demande une attention particulière pour son fils aîné Kim Jung-nam qui a eu  ’autorisation de mener une vie confortable à l’étranger. Kim Seol-song sa fille issue de son premier mariage devra également jouir d’un statut à part. Ces initiatives ont pour but de permettre à la famille de rester unie et de renforcer la dynastie Kim en limitant les conflits internes. En conséquence Kim Jong-nam pourra continuer de vivre en Chine et n’aura pas besoin de demander l’asile à la Corée du Sud ou aux États-Unis. De son côté, Kim Seol-song ne se positionnera pas comme une rivale de ses demi-frères Kim Jong-un et Kim Kong-cheol. Par ailleurs, les fonds placés dans le coffre n°216 de Samcheonri doivent être transférés à Kim Jong-un tandis que le reste doit être placé sous l’autorité de Kim Kyong-hee. Elle et son mari Jang Seong-taek ont été nommés conseillers politiques en chef de Kim Jong-un. Comme exécutrice testamentaire, Kim Kyong-hee bénéficie d’une influence remarquable sur Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il souhaitait promouvoir d’autres conseillers militaires et économiques auprès de son successeur mais ces derniers n’ayant pas l’autorité suffisante pour prendre des décisions importantes continueront de jouer les seconds rôles.


La plupart des observateurs de la Corée du Nord s’interrogent toujours sur la véracité du document. Aucun consensus n’a été dégagé mais le « testament de Kim Jong-il » aide à comprendre la situation actuelle en Corée du Nord et nous dit beaucoup sur la direction que le pays devrait prendre (propriété asie21). Il permet de mieux appréhender des actions difficilement explicables prises par les Nord-Coréens après la mort de Kim Jong-il. Ainsi la virulente campagne anti Lee Myung-bak s’inscrit dans l’idée qu’aucun dialogue ne sera possible avec la Corée du Sud tant que le Président sud-coréen n’aura pas quitté ses fonctions. De même, le récent lancement d’un missile balistique, aussi illogique qu’il puisse paraître, apparaît comme un calcul où le régime préfère sacrifier l’aide alimentaire et ses relations extérieurs au rehaussement de son prestige auprès de la population à la veille du centième anniversaire de la naissance de Kim Il-sung.

Plus important, le « testament de Kim Jong-il » qu’il soit vrai ou faux met l’accent sur l’importance des relations intercoréennes et encourage aussi bien les Coréens du Nord que du Sud à reprendre le dialogue et la coopération. Malgré une rhétorique belliqueuse que les responsables instrumentalisent pour des gains politiques immédiats, l’objectif à terme reste la paix et la sécurité.

Cela ne pourra se faire que si Seoul et Pyongyang font un pas vers la réconciliation et qu’elles reconstruisent la confiance et le respect mutuel.

Wihwado benefits China second time but leaves Korea divided

19 06 2012

 (Leonid Petrov, The University of Sydney) Last week, North Korea announced to the world that it would make its two islands, Hwanggumphyong and Wihwado, a visa-free zone for foreigners. A special law has been adopted in the DPRK to attract foreign investors and give them preferential treatment in the payment of tariffs, taxes and land use. Will this recent change in policy rescue the North from poverty and change things for the better?

Those who are familiar with Korean history will remember the Wihwado Retreat (위화도 회군) of the 14th century. In 1388, General Yi Seonggye of the Koryo kingdom was ordered to march north with his army and invade the Liaodong peninsula, which was under the control of Ming China. However, when his troops reached Wihwado Island in the estuary of the Amnok (Yalu) River, General Yi suddenly changed his mind. With the support of high-ranking government officials and the army, Yi Seonggye decided to return to the capital, Kaesŏng, and trigger a coup d’état. He toppled the Koryo King and ascended the throne himself as King Taejo, the founder of Joseon Dynasty.

King Taejo’s change of heart comes to mind in the context of the situation. In an effort to turn the tide of its economic development, North Korea selected the islands of Wihwado and Hwanggumphyong as the future site of the country’s Special Economic Zone with China. Although the move goes against the grain of North Korea’s traditional tendency to isolate itself, the islands lie at the mouth of the Amnok River, which has served as a natural border between the two countries since the time of Yi Seong-gye. Its location, just opposite the cities of Sinuiju on the DPRK side and Dandong on the PRC side, adds strategic importance to this historic place. In June 2011, a start-up ceremony took place on the island in recognition of the DPRK-China joint development and operation project.

The executive decision to develop the abandoned islands into a thriving industrial park had been made by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il who frequently visited China to solicit economic aid and investment. Soon after his demise in December 2011, his son and successor, Kim Jong-Un, called upon the citizens of the DPRK “to actively do business with China” and “bring in as much cash profit as possible”. As such, the commercial importance of Wihwado and Hwanggumphyong Economic Zone has only increased, raising speculations that it would be turned into the playground of capitalism for North Korea’s centrally-planned and autarkic economy.

The earlier experience of joint development and cooperation in the Rason (Rajin-Seonbong) Economic and Trade Zone showed that neighbouring China was keen on aggressively investing in infrastructure and manufacturing sectors provided they could be guaranteed an upper hand in competition against Russian, Japanese or South Korean investors. China’s access to the East Sea (Sea of Japan) is cut short by the 17 kilometre-long DPRK-Russian border, rendering the industrial base of Jilin and Heilongjing landlocked. On the contrary, the Wihwado and Hwanggumphyong Economic Zone, located at the mouth of the Yalu (Amnok) River, which flows into the Yellow (East) Sea, seems to be a more attractive option for China.

Beijing has once thwarted North Korea’s plans to set up a Special Economic Zone in Sinuiju, where Pyongyang intended to create a new Hong Kong or Macao. The Chinese billionaire, Yang Bin, was appointed by Kim Jong-il as the governor of Sinuiju Special Administrative Region in 2002. That same year the DPRK government enacted a new economic policy on wage and pricing systems based on self-accounting management, known as the “July 1 Measures”. To the North’s dismay, China was not impressed by the prospects of having another Hong Kong on its northeastern frontier and quickly arrested Yang Bin for tax evasion. The message was clear: any development close to China’s borders must be endorsed by Bejing.

This time, Hwanggumphyong and Wihwado Economic Zone is the product of a Sino-North Korean administrative and trade agreement. Even the recent announcement that foreigners would be granted visa-free access and enjoy tax breaks still manages to provide China with full control over the movement of people and capital within its territory. Pyongyang’s official news agency, KCNA reported that, “upon presentation of passports or other equivalent documentation, foreigners and vehicles may enter or leave the zone through the designated route without a visa.” It also promised that “customs duties will not be levied on materials brought into the zone for processing, or on finished goods.” China’s control of the surrounding geography means that Chinese investors and manufacturers will have an upper hand in trade.

North Korea is in no position to bargain. Pyongyang’s dependence on Beijing is growing as international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes make it increasingly difficult for the North to access international markets and credit. The impoverished country is striving to revitalise its economy through foreign investment in its economic zones. Since China has already invested about US$3 billion in developing port facilities and roads in the Rason Economic and Trade Zone, Beijing might decide to funnel significant capital to the Hwanggumphyong and Wihwado Economic Zone too. But will this contemporary “Wihwado Retreat” rescue the North Korean economy?

Beijing would love to see Pyongyang follow its example by introducing market-oriented reforms, but North Korea simply cannot come to terms with granting its population the many freedoms necessary to make such a reform successful. Even the Chinese-style reform of the late 1970s required some basic liberties (freedom of movement, information, association, etc.). This is simply impossible in the conditions of an ongoing Korean War, in which North Korean society is continuously fed lies by the regime and inherently fears interaction with the rest of the world, particularly, South Korea. If Pyongyang decides to initiate reform, Chinese-style or otherwise, it would inevitably and quickly lead to the collapse of DPRK’s political regime. Therefore, the very word “reform” is a taboo in North Korea.

The DPRK leadership genuinely wants to modernise the country’s economy but does not want to change its social and political life. Pyongyang is constantly searching for shortcuts that could boost its dysfunctional economy without having to conduct a systemic reform. The new North Korean leader, despite of his young age, is surrounded by conservative older family members and elites who have no visionary plan for developing the country. Setting up tiny special economic zones, which would generate foreign exchange without bringing about any change to the rest of the country, is a preferable way forward. As a result of this half-hearted policy, the ordinary North Koreans will eat and dress better; they might even own PCs and mobile phones, but they will continue to live in the same paranoid state of fear and dependency on the Great Leader’s decisions.

The visa-free regime and tax holidays, which are promised for the Wihwado and Hwanggumphyong Economic Zone, are simply measures to lure a handful of random foreign investors and should not be seen as a sign of change in the economic thinking of Kim Jong-Un. Neither reform nor economic liberalisation is on the cards because either of these would immediately jeopardise domestic stability. The zones of economic cooperation are reluctantly permitted by the North Koreans with apprehension that possible ideological contamination might cost more to the regime than economic benefit.

Given the circumstances of the ongoing inter-Korean conflict, the sustainable development of the North Korean economy is impossible. The regime is locked in a security dilemma and is reluctant to experiment. Only peaceful co-existence and economic collaboration between Seoul and Pyongyang would remove fears and re-build trust. Increased inter-Korean cooperation, where the plentiful resources of the North are complemented by the cutting-edge technologies from the South, is capable of bringing North Korea back from its prolonged socio-economic crisis. Such collaboration would also enhance the powerhouse of South Korea, opening new markets beyond the Military Demarcation Line and linking the trans-Korean railway to the Eurasian continent.

This article can be read in Korean here… 위화도. 황금평 경제개발이 주는 의미는?

This article was also published as “Pyongyang’s newest SEZ just another shortcut” (AsiaTimes On-line, 22 June 2012)

Pyongyang bureau a coup for AP, or pact with devil?

12 06 2012

Image(by Rick Wallace, The Australian, 11 June 2012) ON the face of it, Associated Press scored a big coup in January when it became the first Western media outlet allowed to open a bureau inside secretive North Korea.

The bureau gave AP a chance to provide a rare glimpse of some of what happens inside the Stalinist state. And, in the event of a collapse or uprising, the New York-based news agency would have a major advantage over its rivals Reuters and Agence France Press.

AP, formed in 1846 by four US newspapers, has a staff of 3700 spread across 300 locations. It has been hit by criticism from within the small but active community of North Korea-watchers that it has entered into a Faustian bargain with the most evil regime in the world.

AP had been trying for years to establish an operation in the reclusive and repressive state before it finally struck a deal last July. Its bureau started up just weeks after dictator Kim Jong-il’s death in December, and has been in action during the leadership transition to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. The young princeling has started with a bang, firing off a long-range rocket (which failed miserably) and then hosting a military parade where as many as 880 items of hardware were on display.

There’s no question that AP has found its subscribers keen for its Pyongyang content, but its close collaboration with state-run media KCNA has brought questions of editorial independence. The ugly nature of its partner agency was highlighted in recent weeks as KCNA ran on its website a series of slogans threatening — among other things — to rip out the windpipe of South Korea President Lee Myung-bak and carry out attacks on the South.

The AP bureau is believed to be housed within KCNA’s Pyongyang offices and AP has hired two KNCA staff to operate the bureau during the periods that correspondent Jean Lee and photographer David Guttenfelder are not there. It’s believed that, under the arrangement, Lee and Guttenfelder are allowed to visit fairly frequently, but not to reside in Pyongyang.

The arrangement has generated praise from pro-engagement Korea scholars, but in the other corner are those who argue that AP is presenting a false, regime-sanctioned picture of North Korea that ignores the gulags, torture, extra-judicial executions and starvation.

University of Sydney Korea scholar Leonid Petrov, who has led many trips to North Korea, is broadly supportive of AP’s move. But he says AP correspondents would not be allowed to interview anyone not authorised by the government and the two staff from KCNA were essentially government agents.”Every time you are in North Korea you will be accompanied by two minders. For journalists, it’s even tougher and they are shown even less than tourists are,” he told Media.

“David Guttenfelder is doing an amazing job by showing us what he can see through his enormous lens. He shows the ordinary people of North Korea; they don’t pose for pictures, so he tries to capture them with a zoom lens.”

Petrov says any requests from AP to visit prison camps or talk to starving people would be summarily rejected. He says KCNA and the regime would never have agreed to allow AP to be in Pyongyang unless the agency had reached a gentlemen’s agreement “not to portray North Korea in a damaging light” — something AP denies. Still, Petrov thinks it’s worth it in terms of breaking down barriers and helping to create a civil society in North Korea.

But another leading Korea scholar, the Asia Foundation’s Peter Beck, says the arrangement had not been a success so far and had the potential to sully AP’s reputation. “AP decided it was in their interests to put a high price — both in monetary terms and editorial independence — to set up a bureau,” he told Media.

Beck says claims by the AP to editorial independence while operating in Pyongyang “didn’t pass the laugh test”. “The simple fact is, they wouldn’t be able to keep their office if they were reporting accurately about what’s happening in Pyongyang. You cannot do both,” he says.

Beck says engaging with North Korea always comes at a price and, while there is the potential for a huge payoff if there is a collapse or other momentous event in North Korea, AP is not currently getting much in exchange for this price. “Any deal with North Korea is basically a deal with the devil,” he says.

Another keen observer of the Korean peninsula, lawyer and blogger Joshua Stanton, is so enraged by AP’s move that he has started a subpage on his One Free Korea blog called AP Watch. Stanton, who has catalogued the locations and details of various prison camps in North Korea to help lift human rights issues to prominence, has published a stream of biting posts on the blog criticising AP’s operations there and the lack of focus on human rights.

So far, AP is yet to really engage on these criticisms and has released no details of the contract it has struck to operate in North Korea. In a recent interview on National Public Radio in the US, executive editor and senior vice-president Kathleen Carroll strived to assert AP’s editorial independence.

She said if forced to choose between censoring coverage and been booted out of North Korea, AP would choose the latter. “It’s much better to be there and be able to ask questions whether or not you get all the answers that you might seek than it is to not be there at all,” she added.

Media put a list of more than 20 questions to AP about the details and ethical considerations of its operations in North Korea and requested an interview with the correspondents involved or an executive involved establishing the bureau.

AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, initially promised an interview with one of the players involved in setting up the bureau but rescinded the offer after receiving the questions, saying they suggested “a highly sceptical view of our efforts”.

Colford says AP’s efforts in North Korea have yielded a string of exclusive reports, pictures and videos including interviews with a senior politburo member and the sole Western in-country reports of Kim Jong-il’s funeral.

See a related story here… North Korean Engagement Strategy Transforms the Associated Press (One Free Korea, 12 June 2012)

Cyber attacks may spark new war in Korea

8 06 2012

(Leonid Petrov, 38 North, 9 July 2013) Those who are familiar with Len Wiseman’s 2007 film “Live Free or Die Hard” (“Die Hard 4.0”) will recall the actor Bruce Willis taking on a gang of cyber terrorists intent on hacking FBI computers. At one point, the arch-villain Gabriel orders a crew of hackers to start a “fire sale” by taking control of the stock market and transportation grids. The attack is designed to target the nation’s reliance on computer controls, sending the public into a panic and presenting us with an almost credible sci-fi plot. The reality of today’s world shows that cyber-terrorism, if left unchecked, might be used not only by individuals or extremist groups, but by hostile governments on the offensive.

The Korean peninsula is now quickly turning into a place where a singular cyber-attack might spark a full-fledged conflict. Last month, North Korea was accused of actively jamming global positioning system (GPS) signals, targeting South Korea’s two largest airports outside its capital city of Seoul. The jamming signals, which were first detected on April 28 and ended on May 6, were traced to the North Korean border city of Kaesong, just 10 km north of the DMZ. Suspicions fell on imported truck-based jamming systems from Russia, capable of jamming signals within 100 kilometres. Was it really North Korea who stood behind the GPS jamming incidents and, if so, what was the purpose?

Following the North’s failed satellite launch on April 13, cyber warfare could be considered by Pyongyang as a more cost-effective way of intimidating the South. North Korea can send out jamming signals over a wide bandwidth, affecting a large number of facilities without consuming excessive amounts of energy or much needed foreign currency. A total of 553 aircraft flying in and out of South Korea’s Incheon and Gimpo airports reported GPS system failures, as did hundreds of ships and fishing boats. Considering the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ and Incheon International Airport’s proximity to the disputed waters of West Sea (Yellow Sea), such activity could cause aircrafts or ships to stray into North Korean territory, which would justify another naval clash.

GPS jamming can be used alone or in combination with other electronic and network-based attacks to disrupt South Korea’s highly digitized society. In addition to its forays into electronic warfare, the North’s military is also reportedly building up its hacking expertise. Within the last 12 months, North Korean military intelligence was accused of conducting a number of cyber attacks against South Korean and US financial institutions, government, and military websites. Experts believe that the DPRK People’s Army has units with hundreds of hackers, many of them based in China, who are employed in psychological operations to spread propaganda and infiltrate social networks. The Reconnaissance General Bureau is usually suspected of being responsible for coordinating these attempts to take down South Korea’s IT and communications infrastructure.

While inter-Korean confrontation is reaching new heights, the arrest of a 56-year-old naturalized citizen of New Zealand in Seoul in June reveals a new trend in an old conflict. An ethnic Korean known as “Mr. Kim” has been accused of exporting a satellite navigation system and long-range rocket detectors, which could have seriously compromised South Korea’s military capability. Kim and his South Korean business partners were arrested after an alleged meeting with a North Korean agent in Dandong, China. In July of last year, Kim also engaged in trade activities in Nampo, North Korea, where he handed over sensitive information that had been requested by a North Korean agent.

To what extent the North Korean military was able to utilize this equipment and information became clearer in early June this year. In an unusually detailed statement, the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army declared an ultimatum to the South Korean president Lee Myung Bak. It claimed that its missile units and other forces had been programmed with the longitude and latitude co-ordinates of various media outlets in Seoul. Among the named targets were the Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo newspapers, a TV channel operated by the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, and the KBS, CBS, MBC, and SBS television stations. In its report, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) named specific coordinates of the targets and promised to eliminate them if Lee did not publicly apologize for “hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK.”

According to Martyn Williams, who runs the “North Korea Tech” website, the coordinates given by the KCNA for the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo were incorrect, in that they failed to factor in the simple rule that the maximum value for measuring minutes and seconds is 60. That is, the Chosun Ilbo was listed at 37°56’83″ North and 126°97’65″ East. Even if these calculations were corrected and processed through mapping software, one would end up in the mountains to the northwest of Chuncheon province—a long way from downtown Seoul. The Dong-A-Ilbo’s location was similarly mistaken, as well as the coordinates of JoongAng Ilbo office, which in fact, belonged to a building across the street.

However, it is not only the hi-tech GPS equipment that North Korea might use to cause chaos and panic in South Korea. Some computer experts say that the North could try to destroy infrastructure in South Korea connected with traffic, electricity, power plants, and water supplies by hacking into computer systems. Over the years, the arsenal of North Korean cyber warfare has expanded to include virus-laden computer games. A 39-year-old South Korean game distributor, known as “Mr. Cho,” is now in police custody for allegedly violating the National Security Law when he travelled to Shenyang, China, where he is said to have met with agents of a North Korean trading company.

Cho asked the North Korean programmers to develop game software that would be used in South Korea, purchasing dozens of copies valued at tens of millions of Korean won. He then sold them to South Korean distributers. According to South Korean intelligence officials, these games were infected with malignant viruses, which turned customers’ PCs into “zombie computers,” contributing to the attempted cyber attacks against Incheon International Airport in March 2011. This activity could also provide the North with the personal information of hundreds of thousands of South Korean users of online games.

Unlike the GPS-guided conventional strike, a cyber-attack can be much more precise, long-ranged, and frustrating. North Korea-focused websites run by Pyongyang watchers and academics often fall victim to hacking attempts, which usually take the form of a Distributed Denial of Service attack. DDoS attacks involve surging a server with unwanted requests, creating such demand on the processor that the website itself becomes unavailable. Tad Farrell’s web portal “NK News: DPRK Information Center” suffered several such attacks in the past before being knocked out completely on June 6 by a different type of malicious attack where passwords were changed and most of the data in the server was wiped out.

It happened just two days after a rare photo of Kim Il Sung was published online, revealing the huge cyst on the neck of the former North Korean leader. Talking about this tumor is considered a crime in the North, and the DPRK media still meticulously avoids depicting it. Was this attack initiated by the North Koreans? It is always very difficult to find the culprit of any cyber attack. The North is routinely blamed for masterminding cyber attacks against the unfriendly sites, particularly if they are linked to North Korean defectors or focused on human rights issues. The paranoid nature of the South’s spy agencies and the ongoing inter-Korean conflict tend to elevate such suspicions to the status of common knowledge.

Cyber-attacks occur regularly worldwide and Trojan viruses are relatively easy to code. To organize and sustain a DDoS attack, the hackers must have resources on the scale that could only be provided by a wealthy client or a nation state. With heightening tensions in mind, North Korea would certainly do everything in its power to bolster its intelligence gathering capability along with the ability to attack vulnerable targets. But would not South Korea or China do the same? Even rogue NGOs with sufficient funds and vested interests can be linked to cyber crime.

For example, another news portal that follows North Korea, The Daily NK, reports that it knows the source of the malware infections installed on its website because the same Trojan scripts can be found on Chinese registered domains and These sites have no content and could be used by squads of international hackers. But just because a script is associated with China, does not necessarily answer the question about the origin of the malware code. The reasons behind each attack are much more obvious then the identity of a culprit. In most cases, cyber attacks leave us with circumstantial evidence but never with a smoking gun.

Still, following the most recent incidents, South Korean prosecutors will look even closer at any possible relations between the arrested suspects and North Korea’s jamming of GPS signals and cyber attacks. In a divided Korea, espionage can mean the death penalty. Although no one has been executed in the South for any crime since 1997, the new age of burgeoning information and communication technologies presents new challenges to states and national security. More peoples’ lives become vulnerable to subtle technological manipulations, and even foreign nationals can be easily accused of conspiring with the enemy or targeted by the conflicting sides.

Bruce Willis_die-hard-4The damage from cyber warfare can be serious and its potential consequences are yet to be understood worldwide. A Russian specialist on information security, Eugene Kaspersky, warns: “A cyber weapon can replicate itself and hit a random victim anywhere around the world, no matter how far you are from the conflict zone. After all, the Internet has no borders and an attack may target an identical system, for example power stations, even if they are located in a very different region of the world.” In other words, cyber terrorism opens a new Pandora’s Box of dangers of which the world has not had a chance to witness except from hypothetical scenarios in the Hollywood blockbuster “Die Hard 4.0.”

Peace and security in Korea is becoming increasingly susceptible to cataclysms, which can be triggered by either a malicious intent or human mistake. The non-aggression and non-nuclear agreements, which were signed by Seoul and Pyongyang in the early 1990s, as well as the suspension of mutually hostile propaganda, which was maintained during the years of “Sunshine Policy” (1998-2008), are now null and void. Any provocation—either real or assumed—can be fatal and can lead to the resumption of a full-scale war on the densely populated peninsula.

The Armistice Agreement signed in Korea in 1953 is long over-due for replacement by a firm peace treaty, which would guarantee security and create conditions for peaceful co-existence of the two Korean states. Reconciliation and collaboration between Koreans and their neighbors is necessary to avert the danger of a man-made regional catastrophe. Failing to achieve it quickly, means the whole world might be caught in the virtual crossfire of an unfinished civil war, which began 62 years ago.

Read a shorter version of this article in Korean here…  한반도에서 펼쳐지는 사이버 전쟁?!

What Did Kim Jong-il Want?

1 06 2012

(Leonid Petrov, The University of Sydney) Speculations about the Last Will and Testament of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, who died on 17 December last year, are mounting and raise many questions about the future of inter-Korean relations. Separate parts of the alleged document have been recently obtained by the South Korean think tanks, the Sejong Institute and North Korea Strategic Information Service Centre.

The purported Will was obtained via a person very close to a top North Korean official. It says that the North should make peace with the South, but only after the current President Lee Myung Bak’s official term is over. When a new leader comes to power in Seoul, North Korea must avoid a war and should move forward hand-in-hand with the South. Peaceful reunification is named as the ultimate goal for the Kim family, who has ruled the DPRK since 1948. Concrete policies according to the will include that the two Koreas should consider opening the inter-Korean rail, roads and sea links. Moreover, the document also says that if the two Koreas go to war again with each other, the devastation would leave the entire Korean peninsula centuries behind other countries.

Still, Kim Jong-Il advises his successors that when pursuing relations with the South, the North must ensure that it is in a militarily advantageous position. Specifically, future leaders must “Keep in mind that constantly developing and keeping nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and biochemical weapons is the way to keep peace on the Korean peninsula, and never drop your guard.”

In its relationship with the United States, the Will insists: “We have to win the psychological war with America. By standing up imposingly as a legitimate nuclear power, we have to weaken the US influence on the Korean peninsula and work toward lifting international sanctions to prepare external conditions for economic development.” According to Kim, North Korea must return to Six-Party Talks, but only to gain official recognition as a global nuclear power state.

It is interesting that with respect to China, Kim Jong-Il warns his countrymen to be vigilant, stating: “Historically, China is the country that forced difficulties on our country, the country that currently has the closest relations with us, but could become the country we need to watch most in the future. Keep this in mind and be careful. Avoid being exploited by China.” This frank appraisal explains the perturbed attitude which the late leader had towards his country’s long-term sponsor and ally.

Apart from international relations and security, Kim Jong-Il’s last Will elaborates on three other areas: hereditary succession; the adherence to Military-First Policy; and the role of nuclear energy in the development of the domestic economy. As predicted, his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, succeeded Kim Jong-Il. However, it is his younger sister, Kim Kyong-Hee, who was named as the Executor of the Will. She is the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, where she supervises the Light Industry sector.

As for Kim Jong-Un, he should be named the Chief of the National Defence Committee within one year of the reading of the Will. Thus, if this document is authentic, we shall see Kim Jong-Un occupying the highest post in the DPRK sometime in late December 2012. In the meantime, the junior Kim has already been promoted to the rank of Four Star General and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and the First Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

The Will also states that the interests of Kim Jong-Il’s children from previous marriages should be protected. The late leader of North Korea requests special care be extended to his eldest son, Kim Jung-Nam, that he be permitted a comfortable life abroad. Kim’s daughter from the first marriage, Kim Seol-Song, is also to be given a special status in the family. Surely, these actions are designed to unite and strengthen the Kim dynasty and to avoid the danger of internal strife. As a result, Kim Jung-Nam will continue residing in China and won’t need to seek asylum in South Korea or in the US. Likewise, Kim Seol-Song will never become a rival to her half-brothers, Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-Cheol.

Furthermore, the family funds in Samcheonri safe No.216 are ordered to be transferred to Kim Jong-Un, while all state finances (domestic and international) are to come under the management of Kim Kyong-Hee. She and her husband, Jang Seong-Taek, were named as chief political advisors to Kim Jung-Un. As the executor of the Will, Kim Kyong-Hee has gained the greatest influence over Kim Jong-Un compared to other members and figures of other elite groups. Jang Seong-Taek has remained at the top of the political pinnacle of North Korea, but his role is limited to supporting and advising Kim Jung-Un. There are several other people whom Kim Jong-Il wanted to see as military and economy advisors to his successor, but they will continue to play secondary and temporary roles, not having enough authority to make executive decisions.

These days, North Korea watchers in South Korea and overseas are debating and evaluating the veracity of this document. There is no consensus yet, but the “Will of Kim Jong-Il” helps us understand the current situation in North Korea and tells us much about the direction which the country is likely to advance. After reading the Will, one can realise the nature of sudden and hardly explicable actions perpetrated by North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-Il.

For example, the ongoing aggressive anti-Lee Myung-Bak campaign can be better understood as an effort to inculcate in North Koreans the thought that no dialogue or reconciliation with South Korea is possible until the incumbent president is gone. Similarly, the recent launch of the ballistic missile, as illogical as it may look, appears more like a careful calculation, where food aid and improved external relations were sacrificed by a regime desiring to boost the pride and confidence of the population on the eve of important national holiday, the centennial anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birthday.

Most importantly, the “Will of Kim Jong-Il”, whether authentic or fake, emphasises the importance of inter-Korean relations and encourages Koreans in the North and South to resume dialogue and cooperation. Despite the belligerent rhetoric, which leaders of the divided country use to attain their immediate political goals, the long-term goal for all Koreans is peace and security. This can be achieved only if Seoul and Pyongyang make reconciliatory steps, re-building trust and respect toward each other.

Read the Korean version of this article here… 김정일은 무엇을 원했을까?

The articles was also published as What Did Kim Jong-il Want? (The Korea Times, 18 June 2012)