Survival Tactic

1 05 2009

By Mel Gurtov, Time Magazine, (30 Apr.  2009)

kji_groupNorth Korea’s rocket launch of April 5, the U.N. Security Council vote to condemn the launch and strengthen sanctions, and the North’s decision of April 14 to pull out of the six-party talks have thrown a monkey wrench into prospects for a negotiated resolution of Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapon and missile programs. On the surface it appears that North Korea is again embarked on a threatening course; it has vowed to continue work on its contested weapons programs. But on closer examination, the North’s weapons tests always occur at times of insecurity. Its tough posturing belies the tenuous internal and external circumstances in which it operates.

Far from seeking to create an international crisis, North Korea is acting defensively. This is a regime that above all else seeks to remain in power, to preserve its juche ideology of militant nationalism and self-determination, and to run its economy without following China’s advice about “reform and opening.” But the regime presides over a desperately poor country with few resources, very little international trade, an ever-widening gap between itself and South Korea, a calamitous public-health situation and a military that gobbles up the greater part of the budget. On top of all that, North Korea no longer can count on its Chinese and Russian partners for security, and not always for food and fuel.

To interpret the latest North Korean actions as provocations, pure and simple, badly misreads the message and the precarious position of its sender. An insecure regime with an economy that may easily descend again into widespread famine, and a leader, Kim Jong Il, who appears very ill, to judge from recent photos, is not bargaining from strength. Self-preservation is the name of its game. The leading decision-making body that Kim heads, the National Defense Commission, is filled with generals who most assuredly want to demonstrate that the regime still has muscle. These are people who know that war means their demise, whereas a bargain with the U.S., while it would require stopping nuclear-weapon and missile production, would give the regime legitimacy. It might also spare them from having to give up the six to 10 plutonium bombs they evidently have…

…The six-party talks, which began in 2003, have resulted in several improvements in the security situation on the Korean peninsula. The North has stopped plutonium production and completed several promised steps to disable the Yongbyon nuclear facility. (Though North Korea now says it is restarting that facility, U.S. experts who have visited the site say it will take considerable time and expense to do so.) South Korea has become an important trade and investment partner of the North. Some nongovernmental organizations, such as Mercy Corps, have had regular access to North Korea because they have delivered on meaningful development projects. If talks resume, they will surely be invited back. And China has moved from being a passive to an active player in the talks.

Some critics will say that a dictatorial regime such as North Korea, with all its human-rights abuses, does not deserve added security. But as former U.S. defense secretary William Perry said in 1999, on returning from Pyongyang: “We have to deal with the North Korean government not as we wish they would be, but as in fact they are.” Although the U.S. does not consider itself a threat to the North, Perry continued, Pyongyang believes the opposite. The North’s need of a deterrent, Perry said, has “a very clear logic.” The prescription seems plain: keep engaging the North while defanging it. If the other parties persist in engagement, North Korea will return to the negotiating table. It needs the six-party talks as much as anyone.

Mel Gurtov is professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University, editor in chief of Asian Perspective and the author of numerous books on Asia and U.S. policy

See the full text here…

Rule By The Dead

1 05 2009

By Christian Caryl and B. J. Lee, NEWSWEEK (Dec 8, 2008)

kumsusan-palaceIn 1994, the future looked dark for North Korea. The collapse of Soviet communism had eliminated much of itsoutside support, its people were starving and its economy was imploding. When the country’s leader, Kim Il Sung, died, many predicted his regime would soon follow. Kim Jong Il, his heir, looked like a lightweight who would be unable to hold things together.

The pundits were wrong, of course, and 14 years later Kim is still around. In what condition, however, has been a guessing game since August, when, according to Japanese and South Korean officials, a stroke partly incapacitated the 66-year-old Dear Leader. Now uncertainty about his health and his failure to appoint a successor has spurred another round of speculation about what comes next. Again, experts are predicting the regime’s collapse. Surely the end of the Kim dynasty will bring radical change to the land.

Or will it? It turns out that few hardened Korea watchers expect the Hermit Kingdom to transform itself soon, even if Kim dies. Moon Jong In, a former adviser to two South Korean presidents and a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, argues that “North Korea is run by a system, not a person.” Moon should know, since he attended the 2000 and 2007 North-South summits and has met most of Kim’s entourage. He doesn’t dispute that Kim is the supreme leader but is convinced that Kim’s underlings will keep the place running smoothly if their boss expires. Moon argues that Kim’s confederates, contrary to widespread belief, are savvy, well informed—”they read the South Korean newspapers more than their own”—and entirely capable of adapting….

…Some experts argue the real power broker in the North Korea today is the Army—the fourth largest in the world and a force that consumes about a third of the nation’s GDP. The National Defense Commission, which oversees the military, is chaired by Kim himself, and once he dies his generals will be well positioned to claim Kim’s mantle. As for what to expect from a military-led regime, analysts predict it would quickly try to demonstrate its importance by provoking a showdown with Washington or Seoul. Leonid Petrov, a Russian North Korea watcher based in the South, argues that that’s already happening, pointing to recent moves such as announced plans to shut down the North-South border and new restrictions on travel to China.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed, and if Kim manages to hang on for a few more years, he might be able to position one of his sons to take the reins as a true leader, not a figurehead. Until his stroke, it was widely believed that Kim planned to wait until 2012, the centennial of his father’s birth, to announce his successor. Should he recover, he could accelerate this process (until now, he’s basically kept his kids out of the limelight and prevented them from getting administrative experience). But that’s looking increasingly unlikely. South Korean government officials say in private that Kim’s initial stroke was serious enough to leave him unconscious for more than 24 hours, and that 40 percent of his body has been paralyzed since. That suggests that even if Kim does hang on, his ability to govern will be considerably compromised. All the more ironic, then, if the system he helped create manages to keep on going without him.

See the full text here…

China’s N.Korea Influence on Wane

6 04 2009

The Australian (April 06, 2009)

kimyongiihu-jin-taoBEIJING: North Korea’s rocket launch showed China did not have as much influence on Kim Jong-il’s regime as some believed, despite being its main economic and political ally, analysts said. Leading up to the launch, China came under widespread pressure to use its influence on its communist neighbour not to go ahead.

North Korea had said it was launching a communications satellite, but the US, South Korea and Japan were concerned it was actually a long-range missile and said North Korea breached a UN Security Council resolution.

China undoubtedly has more influence with North Korea than anyone else, as evidenced by Mr Kim’s visit to Beijing last month and other high-level contacts between the two countries. But John Feffer of the US-based Institute for Policy Studies said the secretive regime in Pyongyang did not in any way feel beholden to the leadership in Beijing. “The historical ties and ideological similarities no longer exert any influence,” Mr Feffer said. “North Korea is dubious of ‘older brother’ pressure” and “does not want a subservient relationship”.

Leonid Petrov, an associate researcher at the Australian National University, said China would have made its views about the rocket launch known to the regime in Pyongyang. “But (China) does it very cautiously out of fear of losing its remaining leverage on North Korea,” he said.  China wanted to keep its influence for a time when it was really needed to protect its interests.

The UN Security Council was due to meet overnight to discuss the launch, but experts said China, a permanent member of the council, was likely to veto any move for sanctions on its ally.

Mr Petrov said proof of China’s weak hand with North Korea came when Pyongyang conducted its first and only atomic test in October 2006. A Chinese envoy was the first foreign official to meet Mr Kim in Pyongyang soon after the test, which lifted North Korea’s nuclear programs to the top of the global political agenda. North Korea defied Chinese calls not to go ahead with the test and Pyongyang informed Beijing of the test only 20 minutes in advance, Mr Petrov said.

Analysts say one way China can exert some influence on the impoverished nation is through the delivery of food and energy. North Korea’s economy, ravaged by poor economic planning and international sanctions, is largely kept afloat by China. Last year, Beijing increased its exports to North Korea by 46 per cent to more than $US2billion ($2.79 billion), according to Chinese figures, accounting for a large proportion of the nation’s food and energy supplies. These deliveries have in the past been used by China to put pressure on Pyongyang.

“China has applied pressure in the past to get North Korea to come to the negotiating table and take more flexible positions,” Mr Feffer said. China is reluctant to use this leverage too dramatically because it dreads triggering an influx of refugees across its 1400km-long porous border with North Korea. “I am not sure if China has any significant level of influence over North Korea,” said Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia non-proliferation program at the US-based Monterey Institute of International Studies.


Latest threats may mean North Korea wants to talk

28 11 2008

By Choe Sang-Hun, International Herald Tribune (November 20, 2008)

dmzSEOUL, South Korea: For 10 years, South Korea has pursued a “sunshine policy” as its master plan for transforming North Korea. Under that banner, South Korea funneled billions of dollars to the North for new factories, hotels and food, and millions of South Korean tourists poured across the border.

But eight months after President Lee Myung-bak came to office here promising a harder approach, the once vaunted policy has unraveled. North Korea has cut off high-level dialogue with the South. It has severed Red Cross-managed telephone “hot lines” crossing the demilitarized zone. In July, a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist visiting its Diamond Mountain resort, leading to its closing.

The North is now threatening to shut down an industrial complex in the North Korean town of Kaesong, the best South Korea had to show for its 10 years of sunshine policy. During an inspection tour earlier this month, a high-ranking North Korean general turned to the South Korean factory owners and asked, “How soon do you think you can pack your gear and go home?”
“Obviously the North Koreans decided that they can sacrifice the sunshine policy and show to everybody in Seoul that they don’t care,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Meanwhile, we will see spring in the North Korea-U.S. relations.”

Perhaps the greatest current concern about North Korea’s recent moves, Korea experts say, is what they may signal about the internal dynamics of the regime. “The more intriguing issue is whether all these developments signal a growing role of the military,” said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. “And the tour of Kaesong by the military was troubling in that regard.”

The military is said to detest Kaesong and its capitalistic influence, as well as any deal that would deprive it of nuclear weapons. “It is the conservative mood that prevails in Pyongyang now,” said Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at Australian National University and a frequent visitor to the North Korean capital.

With all the speculation over the North’s motives, Lankov, of Kookmin University, said, one thing seemed clear. “The decision to close Kaesong is a very big decision that no one in North Korea can make without explicit approval from Kim Jong-il,” he said. “It is an indirect confirmation that he is in control.”

See the full text here…

North Korea in Black and White…

18 04 2008

Two Sisters

Chinese photographer Dong Lin has visited North Korea three times since 2002, each time finding access more difficult and restrictive.

He claims that North Koreans did not allow him to take pictures of people, particularly military people. That’s true but not only for North Korea. South Koreans too, especially those who live in provinces do not like to be photographed. Try to take a picture of South Korean soldier or a military installation near the DMZ and you will risk to lose your camera.

Many Koreans are shy and conservative by nature. Korea (both in the North and South) is still dominated by the lingering effect of the rampant civil conflict. When you visit Korea, a great deal of sensitivity is needed. When you photograph it, try to see why so many things are presented in black and white…

See colorful North Korea here.


“Sunshine Policy”: Las dos Coreas ponen en un congelador su política de acercamiento

8 04 2008

Anti-Kim Demonstration

Pyongyang amenazó con dejar en cenizas a su vecino, en respuesta a la línea dura del nuevo Presidente sudcoreano.


El Mercurio, SÁBADO 5 DE ABRIL DE 2008

Por su peor momento en años pasan las relaciones entre las dos Coreas. La política de acercamiento iniciada en 1997 —conocida como “Sunshine Policy”—, ha dado paso a la ira norcoreana, que ha amenazado a su vecino con “convertirlo en cenizas”.

¿Qué pasó? En los últimos diez años, Corea del Sur vivió bajo dos gobiernos liberales que buscaron un acercamiento con Pyongyang. Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) y Roh Moo Hyun (2003-2008) se reunieron con el líder norcoreano Kim Jong Il, y premiaron con ayuda humanitaria cualquier paso hacia un desarme nuclear de Pyongyang.

Pero el escenario cambió el 25 de febrero cuando Lee Myung Bak, apodado “el bulldozer”, asumió la presidencia sudcoreana. Lee propuso aumentar la inversión en Norcorea y ayudar a incrementar, en 10 años, el ingreso per cápita de ese país a US$ 3.000, desde los actuales US$ 500… pero sólo si el vecino del Norte abandona su programa de armas nucleares. De lo contrario, se acaba la ayuda.

Pyongyang no se ha guardado nada para expresar su desacuerdo con esta postura: realizó pruebas de misiles, expulsó a funcionarios sudcoreanos, lo amenazó con acciones militares y calificó a Lee de “traidor”.

“La política de Lee recuerda la que tenían los neoconservadores del primer gobierno de George W. Bush hacia Norcorea”, afirma Cheong Seong Chang, del Instituto Sejong de Seúl, refiriéndose a la negativa que tenía EE.UU. de conversar con Pyongyang.

Leonid Petrov, experto en Norcorea de la Universidad Nacional Australiana, afirma a “El Mercurio” que lo que busca Lee es “desestabilizar el régimen norcoreano y provocar un cambio. Esta política deja a Norcorea con una sola opción, la confrontación, porque en esta situación, ni la desnuclearización ni la democratización es aceptable para Pyongyang”.

Pero muchos expertos advierten que la política de Lee no tendrá éxito, y llaman a no olvidar que el régimen de Kim Jong Il ha sobrevivido al aislamiento internacional y a una hambruna que en los años 90 dejó unos dos millones de muertos. Afirman que Norcorea tiene algunas cartas por jugar. China no quiere una península coreana inestable que pueda generar una avalancha de refugiados hacia su territorio, menos en el año en el que el dragón asiático albergará los Juegos Olímpicos.

La furiosa reacción de Norcorea hacia la asunción de Lee esta estaría vinculada, según “The Economist”, con las elecciones parlamentarias sudcoreanas que se realizarán el 9 de abril. Pyongyang espera que los electores rechacen el Gran Partido Nacional (GNP), al que pertenece Lee.

Norcorea piensa que si con sus amenazas logra expandir el temor en la población sudcoreana, esto podría presionar a Lee para que suavice su posición y evite elevar la tensión y dañar el clima de inversión económica en Corea del Sur, ya que Lee fue elegido bajo la promesa de revitalizar la economía.

Pero Lee también tiene que cumplir su promesa de ponerse duro con su vecino. Lee tiene agendada una reunión con Bush el 18 de abril, en la que tratarán estrategias para lidiar con Pyongyang. “Norcorea está enviando una advertencia a EE.UU. y Corea del Sur con miras a esa reunión. Les intenta decir que la situación de la península coreana no se está desarrollando a su favor”, afirma Choi Jin Wook, del Instituto de Corea para la Unificación Nacional.

El diálogo a seis bandas sobre el programa nuclear de Norcorea quedó bloqueado después de que Pyongyang no declarara todos sus programas nucleares antes del fin de 2007, como se había comprometido. ¿Llegó a su fin la “Sunshine Policy”? Según Petrov, “permanecerá congelada por los próximos cinco años, hasta las nuevas elecciones presidenciales en Corea del Sur”, y advierte que se vivirán “algunos períodos de abierta confrontación en la relación intercoreana”.

Some people say that neither sticks nor carrots will work on North Korea

2 04 2008


Dear professor Leonid Petrov:

My name is Gonzalo Vega and I am a journalist in “El Mercurio” newspaper, one of the most important in South America. I am sending you this email because I am writing an article about the tensions between South and North Korea, and it would be very important if you could answer some questions about it. It won’t take you more than 5 or ten minutes and once the article be published, I could send you a copy of it to your email.

Dear professor, these are the questions that I want to ask you:
— The President Lee Myung Back has changed the south korean policy towards Pyongyang. He support a hard-line policy. What is he really looking for with this policy?
— Some people said that neither sticks or carrots work with North Korea. Do you share that opinion? Why?
— Do you think that this is the end of the Sunshine policy?

Dear professor, I hope you could participate in this article.
My best regards,

Gonzalo Vega Sfrasani
International informations
El Mercurio newspaper
Chile – South America

Dear Gonzalo,

I hope you have read my article “President Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea Policy” It has many answers to your questions but I’ll give you a little more information:

> The President Lee Myung Bak has changed the South Korean policy towards Pyongyang. He supports a hard-line policy. What is he really looking for with this policy?

– Lee Myung-bak represents the conservative Grand National Party (Hannaradan) which has never been friendly to the communist regime in North Korea. The hard-line policy towards the DPRK is aiming at destabilizing this regime and ultimately bringing about its change. Lee Myung-bak and the GNP perfectly know that the Pyongyang regime cannot survive denuclearization and democratization together, that it why they promise aid and cooperation only after North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions and improves its human right record. In other words, aid and cooperation will never be extended unless some major change happened in North Korea.

> Some people said that neither sticks nor carrots work with North Korea. Do you share that opinion? Why?

I don’t share this opinion at all. Only when both sticks and carrots are used actively and alternately, will North Korea be cooperative and demonstrate constructive approach. See Dr. Lankov’s article in Financial Times: “Both strategies should be used persistently. One should not dismiss the other.”

There should always be a choice between the two possible options (one with positive and the other with negative consequences) but both options should be more or less feasible and acceptable. The current Lee Myung-bak’s policy leaves North Korea only with one option – confrontation – because at the current stage neither denuclearization nor democratization is acceptable for Pyongyang.

> Do you think that this is the end of the Sunshine policy?

– For the next five years until the next presidential elections in South Korea the Sunshine Policy will be mothballed and shelved there. Lee Myung-bak’s conservative government will not resume it out of principle (it would be against their pre-election promises). We are likely to experience a deep freeze with some periods of open confrontation between the two Koreas, similar to what it was in the mid-1990s when President Kim Yong-sam was pursuing the policy of containment against orth Korea but strongly pro-American policy towards the United States.

Like it was then, the DPRK will probably improve its relations with the US. And who knows, maybe the new Democrat administration in Washington will start radiating Sunshine toward North Korea…


Cooking Oysters on Petrol in North Korea

2 04 2008

Making BBQ on car petrol might sound like a crazy idea: it’s dangerous and not healthy. But in North Korea, where firewood is a luxury, this method is the most popular way to have a picnic. All you have to do is to forget about the bitter lead aftertaste in your mouth and enjoy the atmosphere of friendship and hospitality…


Film Screening: “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” (2006)

1 04 2008

Schoolgirl’s Diary-With commentary from Suk-Young Kim, University of California at Santa Barbara
April 09, 2008 4:00 – 6:30pm
6th Floor Auditorium
Woodrow Wilson Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20004

Visit for more information, and to RSVP

The North Korea International Documentation Project invites you to attend a screening of the North Korean film “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” (Han Nyeohaksaengeui Ilgi) followed by commentary by Suk-Young Kim, assistant professor of theater and dance at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and an expert on North Korean propaganda.

The Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006, in Korean, no subtitles) is the story of a self-absorbed North Korean teenager, Soo-Ryeon, who yearns to move to an apartment from her home in the countryside and questions the values of her father and mother, a scientist and a librarian at the academy of sciences who put the good of the nation before that of their family. Soo-Ryeon realizes how selfish she is only after her mother falls ill and her father makes a major breakthrough in his research. The film’s screenwriters reportedly received guidance in drafting the script from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Suk-Young Kim is assistant professor of theater and dance at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently completing a book project titled Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, which explores how state produced propaganda performances intersect with everyday life practice in North Korea. Another book project, Long Road Home: A Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor (coauthored with Kim Yong) is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

“The Schoolgirl’s Diary” (2006) is, indeed, the most interesting piece of work recently produced by Pyongyang filmmakers. It looks like an attempt to depict the growing conflict between selfishness and self-sacrifice in North Korea. Echoing the Russian film Courier [Kurier] (1986), which hit the records of popularity in the Perestroika-stricken Soviet Union, this film employs the convenient method of viewing the grim reality of life through the eyes of a teenager. If something in the film is politically unpalatable, it is the immaturity of the main character that has to be blamed – not the film director (Jang In-hak or Kim Jong-il himself?).

The main character, Suryeon, gets increasingly frustrated with her poor and naïve parents who “foolishly” devoted themselves to the country and the people. Her protest may look unsophisticated but small details reveal political overtones. In one scene, where Suryeon is arguing with her younger sister over the quality of food in their lunchboxes, her blouse and skirt also show aggressive colours – namely stars and stripes (just like on the US flag). Is this a new vogue in modern Pyongyang? Or maybe the director’s tongue-in-cheek? Some people still argue that it were blue jeans and rock music that destroyed socialism in the USSR.

It looks like this film is trying to address the issues vital to North Korea’s survival. In the DPRK it was viewed by some 8 million people just in the first six months. Pretty Pictures bought the screening rights to show it in Europe last year. Who knows, maybe this film will open a new dimension of the “Hallyu” phenomenon? It would be interesting to hear the opinion of those who have seen it already.

Download this film for free here…



Lee Myung-bak’s “neo-engagement policy” toward NK

1 04 2008


After reading my article “President Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea Policy”, Professor Tae-Hwan Kwak wrote to the Nautilus Institute:

Mr. Petrov’s analysis of Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea policy is very informative and penetrating. I do agree on many of his major arguments.

In my view, Lee’s “pragmatic” North Korea policy based on some principles of South Korea’s previous governments’ engagement policy toward North Korea (i.e., the Sunshine Policy by President Kim and Peace and Co-prosperity by President Roh) does not totally reject the previous governments’ engagement policy toward the DPRK, but Lee’s major goals are the same, but he is using different policy instruments to achieve his goals.

It appears that a hard-line policy toward North Korea will not work. “Conditional economic incentives” in the “3000 Vision” initiative may not induce the DPRK to speed up the North Korea’s denuclearization process, but North Korea should not perceive them as Lee’s hard-line policy. In my view, Lee’ s new North Korea policy may be called as “neo-engagement policy” toward North Korea. It favors denuclearization and does not support a hard-line policy or “disengagement”. Therefore, the DPRK should correctly read Lee’s new policy toward it, and its cooperative behavior will insure Chairman Kim Jong Il’s best interests.

Dr. Tae-Hwan Kwak

Former President, Korea Institute for National Unification and
Professor Emeritus, Eastern Kentucky University

– Professor Kwak’s opinion is very interesting and insightful. Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea policy might look novel and may be dubbed the “neo-engagement”. However we should not forget that everything “new” is just a well forgotten “old”. Lee is risking to simply repeat the containment policy of former ROK President Kim Yong-sam. By emphasising the importance of ROK-US alliance and putting inter-Korean relations on a conditional footing (as it was in the mid-1990s), Seoul’s hard-won influence over Pyongyang soon will be forfeit to Washington. I don’t want to say that it will be a catastrophe (particularly if the new administration in Washington decides to cooperate with the DPRK) but it will certainly diminish Seoul’s influence upon future developments.


Here is a comment from Prof. Kim Myong Chol from the Centre for Korean American Peace in Japan:

Dear Mr. Leonid Petrov,

I have found your article in the March 9-13 Korea Times the best article proposing the most working solution to the nuclear crisis between the DPRK and the US. I express total endorsement to your article. I have found your article so good that I have referred it to Ambassador Pak Kil Yon in New York.

In my Feb 22 talk at Clumbia University Weatherhead East Asian Institute, I stated: “The iron rule of the nuclear agreement is action for action. The DPRK has disabled 90% of the nuclear facility and provided a list of the nuclear program, but the DPRK has received mere one fifth of the promised oil supply and has see no sign of its removal from the US terror list. We see no good reason to move farther. The US is in material breach of the nuclear agreement. We cannot trust the US and we see no good reason to reduce or renounce the nuclear weapons. We will continue building up the nuclear deterrence.”
One State Department official attended my talk. On March 6, Hill gave a talk at the same institute.

Best Regards,
Kim Myong Chol
Centre for Korean American Peace