Moment of truth coming for President Park’s ‘Trustpolitik’

29 05 2013

park-geun-hye-multiplyingby Leonid Petrov (Australian National University, 28 May 2013)

CANBERRA – Inter-Korean relations are in the lime-light again. On June 15, Koreans in the North and South were meant to celebrate another anniversary of their first historic summit, which took place in Pyongyang thirteen years ago. Nevertheless, the late South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il would have been very sad to see how their successors continue destroying the legacy of the Joint North-South Korean Declaration.

After the recent exchange of threats and muscle-flexing, the demise of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) came as a symbolic end of a once-blooming inter-Korean reconciliation. What is particularly disturbing is that this happens just months after newly-elected South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had pledged to implement a new North Korea policy.


Based on the two principles of ‘Trustpolitik’ and ‘Alignment’, Park’s strategy was supposed to be more pragmatic than Kim Dae-Jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ but less ideologically-driven than Lee Myung-Bak’s ‘Vision 3000’. Disappointingly, Park’s strategy for the normalization of inter-Korean relations was flawed from the outset.

She emphasized the promotion of cooperation in security, which is impossible in the context of the continuing Korean War. She also insisted that the trust building process would be linked to the progress in resolving the nuclear issue and, finally, Park outwardly declared that her goal was to encourage North Korea to become a “normal state”. Such a program certainly has no appeal for Pyongyang to be cooperative in its realization.

The last five years have shown that neither in Seoul nor in Pyongyang is there any appetite for cooperation. The zones of economic cooperation are now dead and buried; they were too expensive for South Korean entrepreneurs and too damaging for the North Korean regime.

Politically, North and South Korea continue to demonstrate disdain to each other. In April Seoul was “demanding” that Pyongyang negotiate the resumption of KIC operations by setting an ultimatum. In response, the North cut a military hot line connecting the two militaries on both sides of the DMZ. In reciprocation, Seoul has recently brushed off a North Korean offer to resume the Six-Party Talks.


Zero-sum game on the Korean peninsula is continuing. Whatever North Korea proposes is blocked by the South and vice versa. Pyongyang policy makers know all too well that the Blue House in Seoul will refuse their offers, regardless of how sensible or tempting they might sound.

Similarly, the conservative Saenuri Party does not want to look weak or manipulated by Pyongyang’s initiatives and will always find a reason to decline the offer. Interestingly, however, mistrust between politicians sometimes creates some rare windows of opportunity, which could lead to a major breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

No sooner did South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se call upon North Korea to make some steps to resume economic cooperation in Kaesong then Pyongyang proposed the return of South Korean managers to the ill-fated Industrial Complex. The South has all reason to fear the abduction or usage of its citizens for propaganda campaign, but this visit could be helpful in minimizing financial losses through the conservation of the abandoned facilities until times are better.

This informal meeting could also be used as a second track dialogue opportunity to improve the atmosphere for government-level negotiations. Will South Korea use this occasion to break the vicious circle of mistrust with North Korea? The moment of truth is coming for President Park’s ‘Trustpolitik’.

North Koreans Always Ready for War

23 05 2013

Soldiers of the Korean People's army in military training(Tania Branigan, The Guardian, 22 May 2013) Pyongyang’s angry rhetoric sparked fears abroad but its people are taught at an early age that they live in the shadow of conflict…

It might not be immediately obvious from her neat wool jacket, black frock and smart perm, but 55-year-old Kim Su-yeong is, she insists, “very good with weapons” – trained in throwing grenades and firing machine guns.

Her expertise is the legacy of the regular military training that she underwent in her youth in North Korea. “When I was there I believed that the US and South Korea were every day, all the time, trying to eat us up,” said Kim, who now lives in the South Korean capital, Seoul. “When I came out, I couldn’t believe that everything was so peaceful.

“Then I realised everything was a lie and felt terrible … Once you are here, everything is different, by 180 degrees. When I look at the news, I think war will not happen.”

The furore over Pyongyang’s angry rhetoric and possible missile launch, and its nuclear programme may have raised tensions internationally, but like the vast majority in Seoul, Kim said she did not believe there was any risk of a military conflict.

But the idea of an impending clash is nothing new to the North, a society structured around the belief that it is still at war. Technically, that is true. No peace treaty was signed when the Korean war ended in 1953, only an armistice. More pertinently, say analysts, the rhetoric of being under siege is used to explain and justify its straitened circumstances.

“This kind of regime can only exist under the conditions of isolation and crisis,” said Leonid Petrov, an expert on the North at Australian National University in Canberra.

The struggle against the enemy is imbued in people from the earliest age. Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on propaganda at Korea University, said a recent North Korean magazine showed under-fives at a kindergarten using wooden clubs to whack dummies of South Korean leaders.

Even maths books for primary schools include – among examples based on train timetables and children’s games – calculations of the number of “American imperialist bastards” killed by the Korean people’s army.

Gabroussenko said the longstanding militarism of North Korea was typical of a “national Stalinist” society and also reflected Kim Il-sung’s background as a guerrilla leader rather than an intellectual.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union, propaganda shifted from presenting the North as “a people’s paradise” to showing it as “a paradise under siege”, she said, stressing the message: “We have to make a fortress of our country to protect ourself from these attacks.”

Because the North’s ideology is also heavily ethnocentric, “it is easy to believe the whole world is against you, because the whole world is different from you,” Gabroussenko added.

Other analysts suggest that the shift was exacerbated by the plummeting of trade as the Soviet Union collapsed, accelerating the disintegration of an economy that had once been one of the most advanced in continental East Asia.

For Kim – who did not want to give her real name to protect relatives still in the North – the rationale of leaders is simple: “When you are preparing for war, you will never complain about where you are.”

The North still holds regular military training for civilian militias, though these days they are more likely to involve drilling, marching with backpacks or practising evacuations, and air raid and blackout drills for the population as a whole.

Hazel Smith, an expert on North Korea at Cranfield University, recalled seeing people training with wooden guns, presumably to save on precious resources. Conscription was also introduced as the prestige and security of becoming a soldier declined, reflecting increasing disaffection with authority and the government’s inability to feed its own troops.

North Korean men are supposed to spend 10 years in the army, though soldiers are often used primarily as labour; last week, one visitor to Pyongyang saw them planting flowers around a monument. “I think the big change was from 1997, with the institutionalisation of the military-first policy,” Smith added.

“With the military being in control, the tendency is to adopt military solutions to political problems as the first thing you do.”

The problem for the regime, she noted, is that “North Koreans think the military leadership has failed to achieve anything good for North Korea … In Kim Il-sung’s day, people felt life was getting better. These days, I don’t think they believe in anything.”

That view is echoed by Kim, who recalls how she used to hope that the war would start quickly, assuming the North would win.

“We had certainty that when the Americans attacked the war would finish very quickly and no one would suffer any more and then we’d be able to stop tightening our belts. Now, when I look at it from outside, they do the same – but fewer people believe it,” said Kim.

It is not uncommon for North Koreans working in China to say they wish that war would come, but often they seem to expect neither victory nor defeat – they just want to get it over with, say those who work with them.

Those living away from the border areas, where information from the outside world spreads more easily, may have more faith in the government, Kim acknowledged.

But even so, external military threats seem less important these days, she said: “Their fears are much more focused on what they will eat.”

Domestic Reasons behind the Crisis in Korea

13 05 2013

NKoreans cheer KJU_1(by Dr. Leonid Petrov for ISPI Dossier, Institute for International Political Studies, 9 April 2013)

One year has passed since the new leader, Kim Jong-Un (age 30), rose to power in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The alleged “Will of Kim Jong-Il”, Kim’s late father, demanded that the successor mend relations with South Korea, and move to resume the Six-Party talks, with the aim of gaining recognition as a nuclear power. Given these mandates, the last year might be seen as rather unsuccessful. So how can we explain the current developments in North Korea?

Kim Jong-Un opened 2012 as an ‘era of prosperity’, promising 23.5 million North Koreans that none of them “will need to tighten their belts again”. To support this claim the government built apartment blocks for 100,000 families, stacked the shops with Chinese-made goods, and launched a satellite into orbit. New economic measures were promised and foreign trade encouraged. New forms of art and entertainment, such as all-female electronic music band, a new roller-coaster, and dolphinarium were pompously introduced in Pyongyang, the show-case capital of the DPRK.

Yet following the short-lived honeymoon with hope, a chain of confounding policy decisions began to take shape: the DPRK-US food-aid and normalisation agreement was thwarted by a provocative rocket launch; the madness of an anti-South Korean smear campaign, actually bolstered the electoral success of conservatives in Seoul; and several of the North’s most conservative top-brass officials were removed from their positions, ostensibly for insubordination. Some suspect that a group of disgruntled officers even attempted to assassinate Kim Jong-Un in November 2012. If the rumours are true and Kim had to join hands with loyal hardliners to save his regime, the political chess match could have played a major role in North Korea’s recent aggressive behaviour, including the ICBM launch and the third nuclear test.

Regardless of this potential power struggle, North Korea entered the year 2013 as a-self proclaimed nuclear state equipped with long-range rockets, a growing 3G mobile phone network, and the rapidly improving physical infrastructure. Pyongyang was turning into a mecca for multinational CEOs and sports celebrities. North Korean mines were extracting various natural resources vital for its own use and for export (uranium, rare earth metals, high grade coal and gold). Tens of thousands of North Koreans worked at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint project with South Koreans just north of the De-militarised Zone, producing hi-tech and consumer goods.

It was the UN Security Council Resolution № 2087 (issued on 22 January 2013) that suddenly changed the dynamics of North Korea’s development. In punishing Pyongyang for the rocket launch that violated earlier injunctions, the international community demonstrated a rare unity. Even Beijing and Moscow supported the carefully worded text and demanded that Pyongyang freeze its indigenous nuclear and rocket technologies. Kim Jong-Un took personal offence to the resolution and ordered the detonation of a third nuclear bomb in February. Another strong-worded UNCS Resolution № 2094 (dated by 7 March 2013) followed. Kim was inclined to rip up the 1953 Armistice and proclaim war on the US and Republic of Korea.

The joint US-ROK military drills, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, also added fuel to the flames. Pyongyang promised to target American bases not only in South Korea, Okinawa, Guam, and Hawaii but also aimed its strategic rocket forces at the continental US. Foreign diplomatic missions in Pyongyang were also informed that their safety would not be guaranteed after 10 April. All North Korean workers were withdrawn from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the last surviving zone of cooperation between the North and the South.

Despite what seems to be a flagrant, masochistic and witless escalation of international tensions, the origins of and rationale for the current North Korean crisis and nuclear standoff are domestic. In order to play down the seasonal spring hunger and with the festivities of Kim Il-Sung’s anniversary fast approaching, the young leader Kim Jong-Un must do something extraordinary. By inculcating ferocious anti-Americanism the regime diverts the people’s attention from an economy in shambles and consolidates them around the Supreme Commander. Kim’s increasingly dubious assurances of prosperity can now be naturally abrogated in light of a “hostile imperialist attitude” and “imminent war”. The near-war situation will also give youthful Kim additional extraordinary powers that will help him overcome his real and imaginary rivals in the succession process.

Unfortunately this adds credence to the idea that the purpose of Kim Jong-Un’s succession was to avoid any substantial change in the DPRK due to the fact that change threatens the very existence of the North Korean state. If anything along the lines of that which played out in the Soviet Union, following Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost, were to happen in North Korea, the leadership would be unable to control the situation. The system would implode under the pressure of economic reform or political change. As the elites in North Korea are equally reluctant of any idea of change, the mood to maintain domestic stability prevails, and with it, the status quo.

Leadership succession in North Korea has definitely become a case of ‘like father, like son’. Kim Jong-Un is the legitimate successor and perfect choice to continue the Kim dynasty; he is of revolutionary blood and widely recognised as such. He is eulogised and worshipped as the Supreme Commander by the Korean People’s Army and as the Dear Leader by members of the Korean Workers’ Party. Common people associate him with their expectations of socio-economic improvement and national security, and he is also a token of stability for the elites. If everything goes according to his father’s plan Kim Jong-Un will stay in power for a very long time.

See the Korean version of this article, “김정은의 북한”, here…

All eyes on Kim Jong-un after North Korea gives 15 years’ hard labor to US citizen

3 05 2013

Kenneth Bae Jun-Ho(By Steven Borowiec, Christian Science Monitor, 2 May 2013)

North Korea says US citizen Kenneth Bae was conspiring to overthrow the regime. But analysts say the North is likely to use him as a new bargaining chip.

North Korea sentenced a US citizen to 15 years of hard labor today, after finding him guilty of crimes against the state. The move seems yet another in a series of efforts to gain interaction, attention or concessions from the US, some analysts believe.

Kenneth Bae was taken into custody in November while leading a legal tour in North Korea, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. He was tried on April 30, and found guilty of unspecified “hostile acts” against the North Korean state. A number of Americans have been detained and sentenced in the past few years but the 15-year sentence is the longest given to a US citizen there.

The country’s young leader Kim Jong-un has taken a number of bold and provocative positions since taking over from his father last year, of which this is the latest. The direction Mr. Kim takes now – and the US response – may start to set a deeper pattern for Kim’s rule and for US-North Korean relations.

“The question is whether or not the US will be willing to intervene on behalf of a citizen, given the high tensions, and whether it will kowtow to a repressive state that is known for human rights violations,” says Leonid Petrov, a researcher in Korean studies at Australian National University.

Mr. Bae, a tour operator born Pae Jun-ho in South Korea, became a US citizen more than two decades ago and has lived in Washington state. He had reportedly led a number of tours to North Korea previously, without incident.

North Korean reports indicated that Bae, who has been described as a devout Christian in Western media reports, was found with some photographs or other materials that North Korean authorities said showed Bae’s desire to overthrow the Kim regime.

“In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] with hostility toward it,” according to the official KCNA news agency.

Tensions have been high on the Korean peninsula following North Korea’s third nuclear test on Feb. 12, and two-months of an annual US-South Korea military exercise that ended April 30. Although tensions were expected to cool a bit after the end of the drills, analysts worry the sentence could reignite them. Alternatively, many speculate that North Korea is hoping to use Bae as a bargaining chip to secure aid.

Though the US and North have no formal diplomatic ties, the North has indicated it is interested in dialogue with Washington. The impoverished country prone to food shortage, has recently reached out to Mongolia for food aid. The US says it is open to dialogue but on condition North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions, which Pyongyang sees as a non-starter.

Five other US citizens have been detained in North Korea since 2009 and all were eventually released, according to the Associated Press. American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were charged with “hostile acts” after being arrested by North Korean border patrols in 2009 while reporting along the border with China. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, but were pardoned and released after former President Bill Clinton, who is viewed with relative favor in Pyongyang, traveled to North Korea and met with then-leader Kim Jong-il.

Staff from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang met with Bae on the behalf of the US, but were unable to secure his release. In January, Google executive Eric Schmidt and former governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson reportedly asked to meet with Bae when they traveled to North Korea, though were not permitted to do so.

With his Swiss prep-school education and reported Western-style tastes and hobbies, some analysts suggested after Kim took power in January 2011 that he could be the leader to bring North Korea out of isolation, possibly enact China-style economic reforms, and begin to engage the outside world.

“He’s very proactive, both politically and economically, and very outward looking. He has given public speeches, which is different from his father. Every month, he brings some kind of surprise,” says Petrov.

Though Kim’s style may be different, the substance of North Korea’s leadership has remained the same. The past two months have seen some of the most aggressive rhetoric ever from North Korea, including a threat of a preemptive nuclear strike on the US, though it is not believed to be technically capable of such an attack.

Kim’s international antics are doing nothing to bring it closer to making progress in improving North Korea’s woeful economy. If Kim genuinely wants to make progress on its professed goals, he says, the regime has to start looking inward.

“It’s time for North Korea to focus on its domestic affairs, particularly on its goals of becoming a state with both strong defense and a strong economy,” says Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean studies in Seoul.