As many as 200,000 men, women, and children reportedly languish in North Korea's vast prison camp system, jailed for defying the state's strict edicts on anything from possession of foreign media to petty theft. Even being associated with someone who has broken the law can be grounds for imprisonment. Now, new satellite imagery of two of North Korea's infamous gulags suggest that the prison population is growing.
Satellite imagery analysis commissioned by Amnesty International and released Thursday reveal new housing blocks and an expanded industrial zone in kwanliso 16, a camp three times the size of Washington, D.C. In 2011, the organization estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned in kwanliso 16. Another camp, kwanliso 15, is believed to have 50,000 prisoners; satellite images show that within the camp, housing blocks have been recently demolished and replaced. Both camps appear to exhibit significant economic activity, such as mining, logging, and the processing of timber in what appears to be a furniture factory.
The grave human rights conditions inside the camps -- forced labor, torture, rape, executions -- have been documented by eyewitnesses and former prisoners. Less well known is the extent to which activity within the camps benefits the national economy.
Elle magazine's creative director, Joe Zee, has been getting a lot of flack for characterizing a military-inspired runway trend as "North Korea Chic" in their August issue. The spread, which featured an assortment of olive drab menswear, a single gold stiletto, and a photo of a man in an approximation of a North Korean military uniform, read: "Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons. This time, it's edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring."
The Washington Post and ThinkProgress (among many others) were quick to attack Zee for invoking North Korea so casually and exploiting the country's notoriety to sell luxury goods. North Korea does, after all, have a horrendous human rights record and a reputation for military brinkmanship. The criticisms are certainly valid, but they miss another important point: Elle, a fashion magazine, got North Korean fashion totally wrong -- and no one even noticed! (Admittedly, that could be due to the fact that there is no internet in North Korea.)
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
When Jean Lee became the Associated Press's first North Korea bureau chief in 2012, she anticipated many of the challenges she'd face while in country: the trouble accessing places typically considered off-limits to foreigners, the constant scrutiny, the roadblocks to verifying information under a secretive regime.
What she didn't expect was the backlash, which came swift and harsh from those who questioned the news agency's decision to play ball with one of the world's most repressive governments in exchange for access (the Wall Street Journal headlined one op-ed about the bureau "Associated Propaganda").
"The lack of support for what we were trying to do … was a bit tough to stomach," says Lee, an American journalist of Korean descent who was the AP's Seoul bureau chief before expanding her coverage to North Korea. "The pressure … and the criticism from other journalists for opening up a bureau when frankly, as journalists, I do think it's our imperative to try to get on the ground and to try to write from as many angles as we can. For so long we and so many other Western media have had to cover this country from the outside -- it was a really bold bid to try to write about it and report on it in a different way."
The AP announced this week that Lee is stepping down as Pyongyang bureau chief (to be replaced by Tokyo news editor Eric Talmadge) and is taking on a new role based in Seoul where she will write in-depth stories about the Korean Peninsula. Lee spoke to Foreign Policy about the role she played in the first chapter of the AP's great Hermit Kingdom experiment, reflecting on one of the most enviable -- and difficult -- journalism jobs on the planet.
North Korea is getting the Hollywood treatment yet again. But this time, instead of puppets, actors Seth Rogen and James Franco are taking on the Hermit Kingdom in a film entitled The Interview.
"James and Seth play reporters who get an interview with the dictator of North Korea and the CIA asks them to kill him," producer Evan Goldberg told E!Online during this week's premiere of This Is the End. "They're going to play a--holes."
And Hollywood isn't going to create any old fictional North Korean leader.
"It's Kim Jong-un. Literally King [sic] Jong-un in the movie. We figured it's North Korea, you might as well make it Kim Jong-un," Rogen told E!
But that's about as close to reality as the movie gets (this is Hollywood, after all). In March, the Hollywood Reporter noted that Columbia Pictures expects to spend around $30 million to make the film. But Rogen and Franco won't be getting anywhere close to Pyongyang. "We're going to the foreign land of Vancouver, Canada," Goldberg admitted.
And the premise is pretty shaky as well. As far as we can tell, no reporter has ever interviewed Kim Jong Un, let alone one from a Western news organization. The Associated Press did open a bureau in Pyongyang in January 2012, but operating a bureau in a place that ranks 178th out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders's Press Freedom Index (Eritrea has the dubious distinction of placing last) comes with many challenges, including using office space that is hosted by the Korean Central News Agency, as my colleague Isaac Stone Fish pointed out in an article last year. Many journalists who have written about life in North Korea have had to rely on accounts from defectors.
The closest any American journalists have gotten to Kim Jong Un in recent months was during Vice's highly publicized basketball diplomacy campaign in North Korea with Dennis Rodman in February. Vice's Ryan Duffy has said he found Kim Jong Un "socially awkward," and that the North Korean leader avoided eye contact while shaking hands. (Rodman, for what it's worth, described Kim as a "cool guy" who wears "regular clothes" and is "not one of these Saddam Hussein-type characters that wants to take over the world.")
Suffice it to say the actor who ends up playing Kim Jong Un for The Interview will have a lot of creative license for his portrayal.
It's a surreal scene: three Harlem Globetrotters, in red, white, and blue jerseys, performing ball-handling tricks to their signature cheerful whistling song -- in front of a stadium full of North Koreans dressed mainly in gray.
As the demonstration starts, the applause from those in the stadium sounds distinctly apathetic. But by the end, the North Korean spectators seem to have been genuinely won over -- particularly after a Globetrotter pulls a young woman out of the audience and places a spinning basketball on her extended finger.
Footage of the now-famous basketball exhibition game -- all 1 hour and 32 minutes of it -- that brought Dennis Rodman to the Hermit Kingdom back in February (and won him a friend, in Kim Jong Un, for life) was briefly posted on YouTube this week for what appears to be the first time by Uri Tours, the U.S.-based tour group that helped arrange Rodman's visit. Uri Tours says the footage is from North Korea's news agency KCNA -- obtained, according to Chief Operations Officer John Dantzler-Wolfe, through the tour group's connections with the news agency.
But alas, the debut was short-lived. The video was taken down Wednesday afternoon at the request of Vice media company, Dantzler-Wolfe said. He added that Uri Tours and Vice will be discussing use of the footage soon, after which the video could potentially be made public again.
Vice, which helped arrange Rodman's trip to North Korea, will be airing a show about the bizarre experiment in basketball diplomacy on HBO on June 14.
In the meantime, FP managed to catch a sneak peek of the video before it was set to private. Here are some of the highlights:
We're hoping that the full game gets put back up. But in the meantime, you can get your North Korean basketball fix with this video -- also from Uri Tours -- of mixed scrimmaging in an empty stadium that includes both Globetrotters and North Korean players.
You can also catch some of the Globetrotters' pre-game demonstration in this video. Alas, the video cuts off before the game itself gets started.
If Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is to be believed, Russia has stopped worrying about U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. In a speech delivered Tuesday at the Russian embassy in London, Rogozin claimed that the American missile shield no longer poses a threat to his country -- a statement that contradicts years of Russian officials howling about the presence of U.S. missiles near the Russian border.
"We have solved the issue of penetrating the missile shield," Rogozin said, according to RIA Novosti. "We regret that the United States waste their money on missile defense and compel us to do the same. The missile shield is nothing for us, it's a bluff. It poses no military threat, but remains a political and economic problem."
American officials have repeatedly tried to assure the Russians that the missile defense system is intended to counter the missile threat from Iran, but this has done little to assuage the Russians. In his remarks Tuesday, Rogozin called the system "excessive" and "provocative by nature" -- attributes that made Russia feel "compelled to search for a wise and asymmetric response."
Could it be that Russia has found a way to circumvent the missile defense system?
If so, Rogozin would certainly be in a position to know. Prior to his elevation to deputy prime minister, Rogozin served as the Russian envoy to NATO and as President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the alliance on missile defense issues. In his current role, Rogozin oversees the Russian defense industry, a position that would certainly give him the insight to comment on innovations in Russian missile technology.
While Rogozin's comments may amount to nothing more than bluster, he has previously alluded to Russia's desire to create an effective military counterweight to U.S. missile defense systems. In February, he replied to comments by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen defending the alliance's missile shield by writing on Twitter that "we also feel responsibility for protecting our population from your missile threat and will create a reliable air and space defense." In June, 2011, Rogozin wrote in the International Herald Tribune that for "Russia it is a matter of principle to remove any threat to its strategic capabilities, which guarantee our sovereignty and independence."
But until now, there has been no indication from Russia that it has found a way to counter U.S. missile defense systems through technical means.
Interestingly, when in March the United States chose to bolster its missile defense systems in the Pacific region in response to threats issued by North Korea, it effectively canceled the final phase of the missile system the Russians opposed. That development led to hopes that Russia and the United States might reach a rapprochement on the issue -- one that did not appear.
Perhaps that was because Russia has been waiting to unveil a military breakthrough to render the issue irrelevant.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
"Leader, Just Give Us Your Order" KCNA
North Korea's threats have dominated international news over the past month. But a quick scan of North Korea's state-run news agency KCNA suggests we've been missing something: Pyongyang's unique literary approach to bellicosity.
Every few days, it seems, KCNA publishes an article detailing songs and poems performed at official events -- remarkably literal titles that give you a sense of what it might sound like if Kim Jong Un adapted his provocations as a musical. Here are some of the top songs:
When it comes to poetry -- a literary form loathed by high schoolers the world over for its mind-numbing level of abstraction and obfuscation -- the North Koreans might be on to something with titles like:
If these are a little somber for your taste, there's always the poem that kicked off today's event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's election as the DPRK defense commission chairman -- the idyllically titled, "Great Joy in April."
For those who listened to "Leader, Just Give Us Your Order" and still want more, here are "We Will Defend General Kim Jong Un at the Cost of Our Lives" and "Provokers Are Bound to Meet Death":
We may not know much about the man currently plowing full speed ahead toward international nuclear crisis, but one thing we do know for sure is that he is young -- 29 or 30. And this, most news outlets seem to agree, is an important factor in understanding how we wound up where we are today -- and where we may be headed. CNN calls Kim Jong Un "a rash young leader." "Young, reckless, without great political savvy," writes the Christian Science Monitor. The Daily Mail calls the North Korean supreme leader a "boy despot."
It's conventional wisdom that age and experience are calming forces in international relations -- that with a few gray hairs comes the moderation and wisdom to avoid, say, calling other, much larger states, "boiled pumpkin[s]." But one academic study on the question finds the connections between age and political crises to be a little more nuanced. For every brash, brassy Louis XIV -- who, at 29, invaded the Spanish Netherlands in 1667 and was forced to give almost all of it back a year later -- there is a Nikita Khrushchev placing missiles on Cuba in his late 60s.
A 2005 study from the Journal of Conflict Resolution examined the ages of the leaders involved in 100,000 interactions between states from 1875 to 1999, and found that, in fact, the older the leader, the more likely he is to both initiate and escalate conflicts. Having an experienced counterpart on the other side of a dispute didn't seem to help much either. The study found that the risk of escalation -- to use of force, and then to all-out war -- also increases as the age of the leader in the second state goes up.
What's going on? The authors of the study, "Leader Age, Regime Type, and Violent International Relations," speculate that older leaders may have fewer institutional constraints on them, having gained credibility and freedom to act by virtue of their experience:
One example of this is the presidency of George H.W. Bush in comparison to the presidency of Bill Clinton. Bush, as a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an ambassador, and a vice president, had amassed an enormous amount of institutional credibility ... that gave him a greater latitude to direct U.S. military policy.
In addition, the authors reason, the shorter time horizons of aging leaders may prompt them to take greater risks in the hopes of building a legacy.
So does this mean that we should all take a deep breath and relax about North Korea -- that young Kim is exactly who we want in charge in this situation? Not quite. The authors go on to look at how the relationship between age and leadership changes when the data set is reduced to just "personalist regimes" where power is concentrated in the hands of a single leader. Here, they find that the relationship is turned on its head: younger leaders are actually slightly more prone to initiate and escalate crises. Why? The authors hypothesize that young autocrats may face fewer institutional constraints from the get-go.
This is important to note when looking at Kim's behavior, because most North Korea watchers believe North Korea's institutions don't restrain Kim's behavior; if anything, they drive him to be more aggressive, as the only institution whose voice really matters in the Hermit Kingdom is the military (not an uncommon situation in many autocratic regimes -- perhaps suggesting that young despots beholden to the military are just as institutionally constrained as their counterparts in democracies, but pushed toward aggression rather than peaceful behavior).
The authors do close on a somewhat reassuring note -- they encourage further study of the effect having children has on leaders' aggression: "Testosterone concentrations ... [are] lowest in the new father population immediately after their wives" give birth, they write.
Good news for those of us who want peace on the Korean peninsula: Kim Jong Un is rumored to be a new father.
Dennis Rodman, the retired Chicago Bulls star, rabble-rouser, and all-around weird guy got the red-carpet treatment on his bizarre trip to North Korea, improbably becoming perhaps the highest-profile American to meet with new leader Kim Jong Un, apparently a big roundball fan.
Vice, the magazine that sponsored this fantastic voyage, has already written up a brief and possibly drunken account of an exhibition game played by a couple Harlem Globetrotters and some North Korean stars, noting, "Following the game, Rodman gave a stirring speech that extended an olive branch to the Hermit Kingdom. The VICE crew is currently having a reception at the Supreme Leader's house, and Duffy has invited Kim Jung-un to America for a tour of the VICE offices."
And now, the North Korean state press has weighed in. Here are some shots from Rodong Sinmun, better known for its grandiloquent denunciations of U.S. imperialism and threats to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. It seems a good time was had by all:
According to the Washington Post's Chico Harlan, the headline reads, "Roughly, the great KJU watched a basketball game of mixed teams and then met former NBA star(s)." And the account says, "Rodman went up to the auditorium to bow to Kim Jong Un. Warmly welcoming him, Kim Jong Un let him sit next to him. ... The players and audience broke into thunderous cheers, greatly excited to see the game together with Kim Jong Un."
At the reception, it looks like Rodman, ever the clothes horse, embraced the crowd's uniform attire of black with pink accents (and is that a Cosmo to match the Worm's scarf?).
Interestingly, North Korea watcher Adam Cathcart notes, seated two seats away from Rodman in the top photo is Kim Gye-gwan, North Korea's top nuclear negotiator. What that portends is anyone's guess.
President Barack Obama has taken some heat over the news that his administration may cut America's nuclear arsenal by "at least a third," according to FP contributor R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity. As Republican operative Michael Goldfarb tweeted, "Good timing for Obama's State of the Union announcement of unilateral nuke cuts." Just after the test, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte issued a press release headlined "Now Is Not the Time to Reduce Our Nuclear Deterrent," and a few other senators made the same link in Tuesday's Senate committee hearing vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense.
And indeed, the timing for such an announcement didn't seem politically wise, given that North Korea just tested its own nuclear device -- which may explain why the president didn't mention the cuts on Tuesday night, aside from a vague pledge to seek bilateral reductions with Russia.
But what about the substance? Just how does Obama's pile of nukes stack up against Kim Jong Un's? I asked Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, which tracks these issues closely. Here's what he said:
The total combined yield of all the warheads in the US nuclear stockpile is an estimated 1,400 Megatons. Warhead yields range from 0.3 kilotons to 1.2 Megatons per warhead.
North Korea doesn't yet have an "arsenal" in the form of deliverable warheads, but might have enough fissile material for less than 10 weapons. If their three tests are an indication, then an estimated combined yield of 20-50 kilotons might be a reasonable estimate. That is assuming yields of 4-6 kilotons per warhead.
Here's what that looks like in one handy chart:
Call me crazy, but I think we can handle the cuts.
With a North Korean nuclear test looming imminently on the horizon, the nation's propaganda machine appears to be in full 1980's-pop-swing. Last weekend, the government uploaded a video to its official website depicting a young Korean man falling asleep beside a telescope --don't we all?-- and dreaming happily of a rocket circling the globe. As an instrumental variation of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie's hit charity single from 1985, "We are the World," plays in the background, viewers are treated to images of celebrating North Koreans before the video takes a more ominous turn, depicting a war-torn U.S. city-scape, (incidentally lifted from the video game, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3). The captions running across the screen confirm the video's threatening intentions:
"Somewhere in the United States, black clouds of smoke are billowing," runs the caption across the screen.
"It seems that the nest of wickedness is ablaze with the fire started by itself," it added.
The video ends with the young man concluding that his dream will "surely come true".
"Despite all kinds of attempts by imperialists to isolate and crush us... never will anyone be able to stop the people marching toward a final victory," it said.
This isn't the first time the U.S. has been the target of North Korean propaganda. With some of the country's most popular cartoons depicting similarly chilling themes, is it any wonder this young man started dreaming about it?
The new user-generated Google Map of North Korea unveiled with some fanfare on the company''s blog Monday is a bit less than it initally seems. It isn't the most detailed publicly available map of North Korea. It's not even the most detailed map produced by Google -- that title belongs to the North Korea Uncovered project, produced by Google Earth, which has truly extensive mapping of the isolated country from its dams to its power stations and even its restaurants. (The head of that project, Curtis Melvin, comes off a touch bitter about all the attention the new Google Maps project has received in this Wall Street Journal story).
Where Google Maps does win out, however, is in easy accessibility (North Korea Uncovered requires a few downloads before it's usable). As an added bonus, the user review feature has produced a bit of a snarkfest. Users have left reviews on North Korean landmarks ranging from parks and monuments to gulags and nuclear testing facilities. While some are earnest, the vast majority are decidedly not. Here's a sampling of what's been posted:
Nuclear Test Facility, North Hamgyong, North Korea
Of all the barren, post-nuclear, wastelands I have visited this was by far the best. Of course Los Alamos is the classic, but no where else do you feel the warmth of the radioactive decay take you in its soft embrace quite as vividly as in the Hamgyong Nuclear Test Facility. However, be warned, reservations are required, as Hamgyong, is very exclusive. In fact, it is not uncommon to encounter the upper echelons of North Korean society. Once, I even met the North's biggest film star, Zao Xioping, who has stared in such famous films as, "Glory to the Industrial Proletariat in Their Moment of Triumph Over the Decadent Capitalists," and of course who could forget his appearance in the 2010 classic "Kim Il Sung and the Temple of Doom." If you're visiting the nearby Hamgyong Concentration Camp, the Nuclear Test Facility is a must!!
Whilst it doesn't have the international reputation of Bukchang, Hwasong is certainly worth a visit for any gulag enthusiast.
Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Pyongyang
I found the fish tacos to be really underwhelming
East Pyongyang Market, Pyongyang
Service is good, but selection is sub-par.
Just a handful of what's out there, and there will surely be more to come
It's an odd match, to be sure: a country with some of the most restrictive internet laws in the world (not to mention its other laws), and a company that still claims "Don't be evil" as its motto, and has been burned by authoritarian governments before. But the AP is reporting that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea soon -- possibly as early as this month -- accompanied by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
The news comes a day after a rare New Year's Day speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that called for a "revolution" in science and technology in the poverty-stricken Hermit Kingdom. But it also comes just a few weeks after the country received international condemnation for a sneakily-timed rocket launch.
Google didn't officially confirm the story to AP and Schmidt has yet to make a public statement on why he's visiting the isolated country, which does hardly any business at all with U.S. companies. Also, it's not yet clear who exactly Schmidt and Richardson will be meeting with once they arrive. However, Schmidt has been working with former State Department Adviser Jared Cohen on a book called "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business," and has long been an advocate of the power of internet access to improve quality of life and openness.
Still, North Korea controls its internet with a far heavier hand than China, which Google has tangled with in the past. Those who have computer access mostly log on to a system known as the Kwangmyong, essentially a country-wide intranet run by a lone, state-run ISP provider (the BBC story linked to above includes the amazing detail that any time Kim Jong Un is mentioned on this intranet, his name is displayed slightly larger than the text around it). Just a few dozen families have unfiltered access to the real thing.
Can the power of "connectivity for the individual" be harnessed in a country where the government still cracks down on cell phones that can dial the outside world? Here's hoping Schmidt speaks up soon so we can hear what exactly he has in mind.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
North Korea's women's soccer team walked off the pitch yesterday after players' faces were mistakenly projected next to the South Korean flag. The angered team refused to return until the image had been corrected, delaying the game substantially before returning to defeat Colombia 2-0. North Korea's coach Sin Ui Gun defended his teams decision, telling BBC news "If this matter had not been solved, continuing would have been a nonsense."
The incident is just another on the growing list of Olympic gaffes. The Council for British-Arab Understanding has mocked new Arabic security posters as "gibberish," noting that the posters had been printed in the wrong alphabet and individual characters reversed. As the Passport reported earlier, confusion over athlete's birthplaces led to several independent states being listed as Russian in an accidental return to Soviet geography. Olympic officials proved they did not, however, discriminate, and in a slew of mistakes struck closer to home. The Great Britain team program incorrectly listed Swansea City's Welsh midfielder, Joe Allen, as English -- just a day after a press release congratulated the British women's team under the banner "England women on their way."
For their part, Scottish officials have pointed the finger to London over the North Korea episode, claiming that the Glasgow stadium was displaying a video produced by a capital organizer and highlighting that the correct flag was flown from the stadium's top tier. Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters "This was an honest mistake, honestly made" before pleading: "We shouldn't over-inflate this episode -- it was unfortunate, it shouldn't have happened and I think we can leave it at that."
The North Korean team accepted the official apology before retreating to hotel seclusion. Though state media carefully avoided mention of the flag dispute, Coach Sin Ui Gun warned "winning the game can't compensate for the mistake." We'll see if the upcoming men's table tennis match between South Korea and North Korea changes his mind.
IAN TIMBERLAKE/AFP/Getty Images
The agreement announced yesterday between the United States and North Korea has been greeted with both cheers and jeers. Optimists see this latest development as a small, necessary first step on the path toward a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons -- and this, for a relatively modest amount of aid. Pessimists see it as just more of the same -- yet another ploy by a corrupt, failed and cynical North Korean leadership making meaningless commitments in exchange for badly needed food.
Here is a guest post from Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund and a former advisor to the State Department during talks with North Korea from 1998-2001. Yun sees the significance of the agreement in the surprisingly number of differences in the statements issued by the United States and the DPRK.
Normally, the U.S. State Department announcement and the DPRK Foreign Ministry statement should be almost the same, as language and details are typically coordinated before final announcements are made. The two documents' striking discrepancies and omissions in significant places making me wonder if a "meeting of the minds" actually took place:
"While productive dialogues continue." The DPRK agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile activity, and uranium enrichment activity at their main reactor site in Yongbyon, as well as IAEA monitoring of uranium enrichment activities "while productive dialogues continue." The U.S. statement makes no mention of this qualifier. Did North Korea just add this unilaterally?
No starting date. The three moratoriums are potentially significant because they concretely limit North Korea's ability (for as long as the moratorium is in place) to produce more fissile material, improve its weapons design through miniaturization and refine its weapons delivery systems. In exchange, the United States agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of nutritional biscuits. But when do the moratoriums take place? And how will the food be delivered and under what conditions? The U.S. statement specifically refers to "intensive monitoring" of this aid, but the DPRK statement bears no mention of such monitoring.
What about the other facilities? Many experts believe that North Korea has uranium enrichment facilities in other locales, but an initial reading of the statements appears to apply the moratorium to Yongbyon only. Were there any understandings for other locations? If limited to Yongbyon (which is start, but access to other sites inevitably remains a major issue for both the United States and the North), when will the IAEA go to Yongbyon and under what conditions?
What about that light water reactor? The DPRK statement raises the issue of light water reactors (LWRs). The State Department's version doesn't mention LWRs. The DRPK has been persistent through the years about its demand and right to have an operational LWR, which the United States since 2003 has resisted or ignored -- LWRs were central to the U.S.-DPRK nuclear deal of 1994 and a significant sticking point in negotiations of September 2005 Joint Statement. Does this new agreement require North Korea to stop its ongoing construction of a light water reactor at Yongbyon, which according to the North, is for the production of electricity? Last year at Fukushima we saw what can happen to a nuclear plant built with the best materials and to the highest standards. Yongbyon is being constructed with far lower standards: a similar disaster would be dire.
Will there be a peace treaty? Both statements contain a reference to the 1953 Armistice Agreement. The State Department and DPRK versions both say that they recognized the Armistice as "the cornerstone of peace and stability;" but the DPRK added, "until the conclusion of a peace treaty." The subject of a peace treaty and its impact has posed a whole series of long-standing issues military, legal and otherwise. This difference just adds to the overall need to clarify what exactly was agreed to between the United States and the DPRK.
This latest news could be a very good sign that North Korea's leadership is willing to make commitments. So long as China continues to shield North Korea as it has, a concerted, sustained and focused diplomatic push with North Korea appears to be the only way to move forward. Having IAEA inspectors on the ground in North Korea would especially be extremely useful -- rather than speculating about North Korean activity and relying on rumor, we would have something more concrete to consider. However, if progress is to be made, we have to avoid unpleasant surprises. The U.S. must figure out a way to patch the holes that still seem to exist between the two negotiating parties or this latest development may once again set expectations too high. In short, the devil is in the details - and we had better find out quickly what they are.
Your news, should you choose to believe it, came in from unnamed "dependable sources:"
"On the morning of February 10th at 2:45 pm, unknown persons broke into the residence of the highest leader North Korea Kim Jong En and shot him dead."
Suspicious traffic patterns had been seen outside of the North Korean embassy in Beijing, and this explanation, it appears, seems as good as any: Users of China's Sina Weibo, the local Twitter clone, forwarded the message more than 10,000 times. One user posted a picture of what Kim Jong Un would look like arrested. Another commented "in this weird country, that's not even strange."
The chained Chinese media universe means that Weibo rumors are a lot more trusted than their Twitter counterparts. Chinese media coverage of sensitive subjects is often deliberately obfuscating, and Chinese viewers know it. A few days ago, Wang Lijun, one of China's best known gangbusters and the right-hand man of powerful politician Bo Xilai appeared to try to defect at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. While official Chinese media covered the defection, they mostly copied the official Xinhua report, which failed to mention the most important point: how it affects Bo's chances of promotion.
Chinese official media reporting on North Korea is often further removed from reality than the way China reports on its own political process. (My favorite English-language example is a Xinhua article that compares nightlife in Pyongyang with New York and Tokyo.) Besides, North Korea itself is a black box: Even the best American articles often depend on rumors and hearsay to cobble together a portrait of the closed country.
All these factors combine to give the Sina Weibo rumor -- started, it appears, by a random user with less than 200 followers -- enough traction in China to land on this side of the world wide web and into the pages of Forbes, MSNBC, and Huffington Post.
It is possible that this Weibo user broke the story of a successful coup in North Korea, though it's extremely unlikely. My favorite explanation on the Twitter side of things comes from Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent for the Independent, who wrote "Possible that someone said he 'murdered an enormous family-sized bucket of fried chicken,' and something got lost in translation."
Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford University, tried to create an account of the mental life of the citizens of Pyongyang with his new novel, The Orphan Master's Son. It is the story of the many vicissitudes of a North Korean everyman, Pak Jun Do: raised as an orphan, he enters the army, joins a special forces team to kidnap Japanese, learns English, and gets sent to a gulag, from which he mysteriously emerges as a high-ranking official.
Two months into the reign of Kim Jong Un, North Korea remains impenetrable. "I'd much rather trade my story for a North Korean telling his own story," said Johnson. "We won't know if my version is right until North Koreans are able to tell their own stories."
What follows is an interview with Johnson about the gulags, fictions, and lacunas of North Korea, edited and condensed for clarity:
"In the stories we tell ourselves in the West, we expect to be the central character in our own narrative; we are a society of individuals and no matter how much we love others, they're secondary characters. The DPRK is exactly the opposite. There's one national narrative, tailored and maintained by script writers and censors. In a totalitarian world that script writer is responsible for everything that happened.
If you're a secondary character in North Korea, your aptitude for certain things and your class background sends you down paths, maybe to be a doctor, or a peasant farmer, or a soldier, or a music player. Your own wants and desires are only going to get in the way of the role you've been given and that you have to play if you're going to survive.
We have pretty clear information about citizens outside of the capital. We know how much food they eat, how much they ‘volunteer,' how much propaganda they consume; we have a portrait of the average person. Pyongyang is the mystery. Residents of Pyongyang tend not to defect because they're the top 3-4 percent of the nation. If you're in Pyongyang you've made it. These people are the unknowns.
It makes me dubious about people claiming to be experts there. Maybe they're getting briefings-but what we have publically is testimonies from defectors that are completely unverifiable.
Put your phones and personal electronics away in North Korea, or risk a messy ending. The Telegraph reported this morning that cell phone users in North Korea will be deemed "war criminals," as part of the new rules being implemented for the 100 days of mourning following former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death.
Of course, it's easy to see why the regime is becoming so antsy about cell phone usage. The Arab Spring protests were energized by Twitter and Facebook via cell phones, and other mass movements including the Occupy protests were spread through this medium as well. But the more pertinent question is, how effective will this crackdown actually be?
As Peter Beck wrote in 2010, there were over 300,000 cell phone users in North Korea, all on a network developed by Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom. Reuters reported last November that the number has since grown to nearly a million people on the 3G capable network. Analysts at the time said that the network posed little of a threat to the regime, mainly because officials had controlled outside information so tightly. Additionally, severe limitations on the internet restrict access to any domain except a handful of historical sites that are accessible to a select few people. However, as the Nautilus Institute's Alexandre Mansourov said in a report, "The DPRK mobile communications industry has crossed the Rubicon and the North Korean government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price."
Of course, its not to say that the North Koreans won't try their hardest to ban the technology. They did it in 2004 following the explosion of a passenger train, which officials suspected was due to a bomb controlled via a cell phone. To the regime's chagrin, cell phone usage continued to grow in the expanding North Korean black market, with relay stations set up on the Chinese border that connected North Koreans with their counterparts in the South.
Feng Li/Getty Images
The outpouring of grief in North Korea over the death of Kim Jong Il -- captured in an FP slideshow today -- has many people asking the same question: Are the copious tears shed for the authoritarian ruler real, staged, or -- more unsettling yet -- a product of brainwashing?
We can't know for sure, of course. But there's plenty of speculation. Reuters notes that while grieving has been coordinated in North Korea, there have also been reports of spontaneous outbursts of sorrow at gymnastics competitions and village loudspeakers. The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott thinks many of the tears, like those following the death of Josef Stalin in Russia, are genuine -- the products of concern about stability and continuity, "mass hysteria," and the inability to "conceive of life without the Dear Leader."
Others are more skeptical, however. In an appearance on PRI's The World last night, British professor Hazel Smith, who lived in North Korea for two years, suggested that those doing the crying represent the minority who've benefitted under Kim Jong Il's rule, pointing to footage broadcast by North Korean state media of wailing students from Pyongyang's No. 1 Secondary School as evidence:
Pyongyang No. 1 Secondary School is where the elites go to school and where they would have been filmed by the North Korean TV to show all this grief in order to put on a show for the world. So the main question is what about the rest of the people? Most people think that Kim Jong Il doesn't provide them with a decent life, enough food to eat, that they've suffered a calamitous degradation of their lives economically over the past 20 years.
So what has mourning in the impoverished country looked like? The first instance of public grief came on Monday morning in North Korea, when a television presenter dressed in black haltingly announced Kim Jong Il's death:
Over the past two days, the state-run Korean Central News Agency has released a series of videos showing the North Korean people -- mainly those in the capital -- "overcome with grief." In the clip below, employees of the Kwangbok Area Supermarket in Pyongyang -- which Kim visited during a "field guidance" tour only days before his death -- rush to a stage where the North Korean leader's picture is displayed, fall to the floor, and weep hysterically. One worker says she welled up with tears when she caught a glimpse of Kim's "haggard face" during his visit to the supermarket, according to a KCNA translation.
In another video released today, North Koreans young and old weep before a photo of Kim Jong Il at the April 25 House of Culture in the capital. "I can hardly believe his demise," one young woman shrieks. Another woman, the curator of the Jonsung Revolutionary Museum, adds that Kim "did not even allow the people to erect his statue and monument." She pledges fealty to Kim's revolutionary cause and to the leadership of his son and successor, Kim Jong Un.
KCNA is publishing article after article about the country's "veritable sea of mourners" (5 million strong in Pyongyang alone, per the news agency) whose "wailing voices are rocking heaven and earth." This Russia Today montage captures some of the other scenes that have been playing on North Korean television, including that shot referenced above of students from No. 1 Secondary School (at 1:00):
In another instance of grieving today, Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance since his father's death, visiting Kim Jong Il's coffin and saluting military officials in what smacked of a symbolic transfer of power:
What's perhaps most striking about all the images above -- the hysterical, collective weeping, the ascendant son visiting his father as he lies in state -- is how closely they mirror the scenes that came out of North Korea in 1994, when Kim Il Sung died and Kim Jong Il assumed power. Check out this footage from that period:
"He is the eternally immovable mental mainstay of the Korean people," KCNA declares today of Kim Jong Un. One can't help but feel like history is repeating itself.
Update: In an analysis on Wednesday, the New York Times notes that the convulsive grieving in North Korea is "an accepted part of Korean Confucian culture," a practice compounded by coercion and Kim Jong Il's cult of personality. "Not hewing to this tradition would invite social and state opprobium," the paper writes. Indeed, according to ABC News, a North Korean defector once wrote that in the wake of Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, "The party conducted surveys to see who displayed the most grief, and made this an important criterion in assessing party members' loyalty."
Can North Koreans living and working abroad possibly have it worse than those citizens who stay home? From waitresses who work in government-run restaurants across Asia to seamstresses essentially enslaved in the Czech Republic to the well-documented North Korean football team publically shamed after its World Cup loss, it's obvious that the regime's brutality doesn't stop at the border. Now, the estimated 200 North Korean citizens living in Libya have been banned from returning to North Korea, due to fears that news of the Arab Spring will leak to the country's 23 million subjugated inhabitants.
As the Telegraph reports, Kim Jong Il's regime had a close relationship with Muammar al-Qaddafi -- the North Koreans sent doctors, nurses, and construction workers to Libya, earning hard currency needed to buy missiles and equipment for North Korean's nascent nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans in Libya join other nationals who had been working in Tunisia and Egypt not allowed to return home.
According to the Telegraph, North Korean media hasn't reported on Qaddafi's death and only about one percent of North Koreans are even aware of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa -- mainly government officials and a few citizens who travel to China for business.
As an editorial in the Korean Herald says:
Pyongyang's silence about the fall of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and the bloody death of Gaddafi reveals Kim Jong-il's awareness of the vulnerability of his regime in the process of a third-generation dynastic succession of power. Despite their boasting of the perfect loyalty of the 23 million people to the party and the leader, the ruling elite are afraid of what effect the information on the fates of the overseas dictatorships will have on the oppressed people of the country.
orean Central Television/Yonhap via Getty Images
Next April, North Korea plans to partially open the Ryugyong Hotel, a quarter century after ground was first broken for its construction. The new opening date coincides with the 100th birthday of North Korea's founding father, the late Kim Il-sung.
The Ryugyong has been referred to in the international press as the 'Hotel of Doom' and "the worst building in the world". During its intitial construction phase, which began in 1982, the clunky but imposing outer space pyramid dwarfed its neighbors on the Pyongyang skyline and had been honored on stamps. But by 1992, continuing to mirror the state of North Korean affairs, the completed but empty 1,080 foot shell was underfunded, abandoned and airbrushed out of official photos.
Through the years of neglect, the 105-story Ryugyong's potential as the highest hotel in the world was surpassed four times by taller (completed) hotels and, though it once might have been the 7th largest skyscraper, it currently ties at #40.
The resurrection of the Ryugyong is said to come as a result of resumed funding by the Egyptian Orascom Group. It's been reported that new construction has already begun and that the forthcoming hotel might boast as many as five rotating restaurants. Critics may argue that North Korea could make better use of the 2 billion dollars it could cost to bring the Ryugyong back to life. But if all goes according to plan this time, the Ryugyong Hotel will soon be an enigma in a country not especially known for its hospitality industry.
Feng Li/Getty Images
It's been a very public few days for Kim Jong Il's 16-year-old grandson, Kim Han Sol.
On Friday, the United World College's (UWC) Bosnia-Herzegovina campus, one of 13 UWC international schools globally, announced Kim Han Sol's acceptance. Board chairman David Sutcliffe explained that the decision "understandably generated surprise and comment, some of it critical." But, echoing the school's mission statement, he went on to say that the UWCs "exist in order to cross new frontiers in international education.… The opportunity of taking a first step in bringing North Korea into the international community, through youth, is one to be cherished."
Three days after the UWC announcement, the Korean Daily News discovered what's believed to be Han Sol's Facebook page as well as the page of his father, Kim Jong Il's eldest son, Kim Jong Nam. If it is really him, then one picture shows Han sporting dyed blond hair and posing with a girlfriend. His favorite movie, according to the page, is Love Actually. Notably for the grandson of one of the world's most brutal tyrants, the page includes an encyclopedia definition of democracy. He also reportedly polled his friends on whether they preferred it to communism, as he did.
In this way, Kim Han Sol would resemble his father, whose talk of reform within North Korea (and being caught with a fake passport with the name "Fat Bear" en route to Tokyo Disney Land) cost him his position in line for the throne. Kim Jong Nam has lived in exile in China and Macau since 2001. What's believed to be his own Facebook page criticizes both his father and the North Korean establishment including his half brother, heir apparent Kim Jong Un.
In any event, it doesn't seem like there's much future for Kim Han Sol in the family business.
Photo by Gawker.com
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il traveled to Russia this week, his first visit to his country's former Cold War ally in nine years. Kim rode an armored train to eastern Siberia to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, crossing the Russian border on Sunday, Aug. 21, touring the Bureyskaya hydroelectric power station, and meeting with Medvedev on Wednesday. Medvedev flew 3,500 miles across Russia to a Siberian military base for the meeting.
Kim promised Medvedev a moratorium on the production and testing of nuclear weapons, a move that could help restart nuclear disarmament talks, stalled in 2009. North Korea has been isolated both economically and diplomatically since March 2009, when it conducted a second nuclear weapons test. Both the United States and South Korea demand concrete action from North Korea before they return to the six-party talks.
Kim's weeklong trip to Russia is also expected to focus on trade talks and gaining economic and political support from Russia. North Korea is facing chronic food shortages and factory closures thanks to punishing international sanctions. Russia pledged 50,000 tons of wheat to North Korea and also discussed energy and infrastructure projects, including a pipeline carrying Russian gas to South Korea through the North.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Kim is also concerned about the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and Middle East unrest in general. While North Korean media has not been reporting on the Arab Spring, news of the uprisings has been spread through radios and word of mouth from people who have illegally crossed into China and back. "That dynamic is probably much more alarming to Kim Jong Il than anything else," Lee Jong-min, dean of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the Monitor. "He's prompted by the need to bolster his power."
Kim has visited China five times since 2002, the year of his last trip to Russia, when he met with then-President Vladimir Putin.
More photos below the jump:
What is it this summer with East Asia and contested islands? June and July saw the resumption of a longstanding dispute involving China and a handful of Southeast Asian countries over the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea.
Now, it's Japan and South Korea who are feuding. Yesterday, South Korea barred entry to three Japanese lawmakers who flew into Seoul to travel to the Liancourt Rocks, a chain of volcanic islets between the two countries under dispute since the end of World War II. The politicians, all members of the Japanese diet, had announced their trip in late July, a month after Korean Air routed a test flight of a new aircraft over the island chain. Japan responded at the time by instituting a one-month boycott of Korean Air flights among its diplomats, and the latest trip had been intended as a means to reassert Japanese sovereignty over the islands.
Provocations over the Liancourt Rocks dispute are a fairly regular gesture from South Korean and Japanese politicians looking to curry favor among nationalists at home. But South Korea's posturing also attracts support from a surprising source: North Korea. Kim Jong-Il's regime tends to echo its neighbors to the south when the Liancourt Rocks dispute crops up, according to the Diplomat.
This time was no different. On July 20, a characteristically thundering commentary on Uriminzokkiri, North Korea's official website, condemned Japan for its latest plans to infringe upon Korean sovereignty. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency translates from the statement:
"We are determined to take 1,000 times our people's revenge for Japan's reactionary moves, which, far from apologizing or compensating for the immeasurable unhappiness and pain inflicted upon our people, only scheme to take away our land....
"The entire people must unite to resolutely crush the scheme to seize Dokdo, in order that the Japanese reactionaries may never again set sight on our land. This is our generation's demand and the call of the people."
The lawmakers' actual visit occasioned a reiteration of the North Korean stance from the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea. The committee also takes a swipe at South Korea's "passive approach" in resolving the dispute. Once again, from Yonhap:
"The Japanese reactionaries' recent moves are serious issues not to be tolerated by the Korean nation as they revealed once again their ambition to seize Ullung Island and Tok Islets, inalienable parts of the territory of Korea. ...
"It is due to the present South Korean ruling forces' servile attitude toward Japan ... that the Japanese reactionaries are set to visit the Tok Islets like their own land."
Also going down in the annals of uncharacteristic recent behavior from North Korea: After allowing the establishment of an AP bureau in Pyongyang earlier this year, the North Korean government allowed two AP photographers unusually wide access to tour both Pyongyang and the North Korean countryside, albeit with minders. The Atlantic has culled the best of their photos here and they're worth a look.
North Korea won't tell its citizens this, but the Hermit Kingdom is broke. Luckily, ever-ingenuous Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il and his government have a new plan -- sell carbon offsets for cold hard cash. The isolated Stalinist enclave has a series of hydropower projects that it hopes to leverage with the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) scheme, which allows developing countries to partner with typically richer countries looking to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. The industrialized countries (or companies from such countries) earn carbon credits, while the host country gets cash from the sale of these credits.
Since 2006, over 2,000 projects have been approved -- according to the New York Times, 40 percent of the projects are located in China and most involve hydropower. In 2008, carbon credit transactions totaled close to $7 billion.
According to Reuters, North Korea is looking to get approval for three hydro power plants of 7-8 megawatts in the northeast part of the country.
North Korea -- currently facing sanctions over its nuclear weapons program -- faces serious challenges in selling carbon offsets. Aside from serious economic mismanagement, Reuters lists a whole host of reasons why these projects might not make it past the brainstorming stage:
"Even if they open up, who in the world wants to pay for North Korea that is blamed for its nuclear weapons programme?" said Choi Soo-young, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Cho said the UN needed to prevent outside cash going into its nuclear development activities, while Luckock, of global law firm Norton Rose, said: "Their limited access to hard currency has to be a concern for buyers - the damages clauses will carry limited weight without some security there."
Another challenge is that North Korea would have to make public its energy consumption and generation data and disclose information on the amount of energy linked to the hydro project.
"Annual inspection, constant measurement and energy flow posting on the [UNFCC] website - all these things are new for North Korea," [Bernhard] Seliger [of the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany] said.
North Korea has a history of serious flooding disasters, although these might be better solved through fixing the country's drainage systems and reversing the effects of enormous deforestation.
Of course, enabling North Korea's nuclear program might be good for the environment in other ways: NASA recently used computer simulations to prove that a "limited" nuclear war might temporarily halt global climate change.
Future trivia question: What multicultural British sports comedy was the first Western-made film shown on North Korean television? Answer:
[O]n Sunday, The Associated Press reported, North Korean television audiences were given a rare break from this routine when the British comedy “Bend It Like Beckham” was shown there. The film, which stars Parminder Nagra as a young woman from a Sikh family with dreams of soccer stardom; Keira Knightley as her best friend; and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the dreamy coach they both have eyes on, was shown over the weekend by the arrangement of the British Embassy. According to the BBC, a message was shown during the film saying that the broadcast was done to mark the 10th anniversary of diplomatic ties between North Korea and Britain.
In a message on his Twitter account, Martin Uden, the British ambassador to South Korea, wrote: “Happy Christmas in Pyongyang. On 26/12 Bend it like Beckham was 1st ever western-made film to air on TV.” The A.P. said the North Korean broadcast of the two-hour movie was only an hour long, so please, no spoilers about the film’s subplots about religion and sexuality, or which of the women Mr. Rhys Meyers character ultimately chooses.
Kim Jong Il is reportedly a huge movie fan himself, with a collection of over 20,000 videos, none of which are typically available to North Korean citizens. He's also written a book on the art of directing and produced -- with kidnapped South Korean talent -- a socialist version of Godzilla.
Hopefully, more foreign titles will soon be available to North Korean audiences, though I wouldn't hold out too much hope for a Team America screening.
Almost every day, there's a completely bonkers, factually dubious story in the South Korean press about North Korea (which admittedly is a pretty strange place). Today is no exception. Here's Joong Ang Daily with an article about how a train supposedly bearing birthday gifts for Kim Jong-un, the heir to the Kim family dynasty, went off the rails:
The train was comprised of more than 40 train coaches, and eight of them were derailed, the radio station [Open Radio for North Korea] reported. The train was filled with presents for Jong-un’s upcoming birthday, which falls on Jan. 8, including luxury goods such as wristwatches and televisions in bulk, it said.
And here's a story in Yonhap, the South Korean wire agency, about the latest consumer crazes up north:
Skinny jeans, blue crabs, pig-intestine rolls and even human manure were some of the hottest items among North Korean consumers this year, according to a South Korean professor who has interviewed recent defectors from the communist country.
Kim Young-soo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sogang University, said in a conference on Tuesday that adult movies, television dramas and instant noodle "ramen" made in South Korea are also selling "like hot cakes" in North Korea.
South Korea's KBS television is reporting, via Chosun Ilbo, that the Kim Jong Il's oldest son Kim Jong Nam may be speaking out against his increasingly belligerent little brother. (The running caveat emptor warning for unsubstantiated Kim family news in the South Korean media applies here.)
The broadcaster cited a close associate of Kim Jong-nam's in China as saying when Kim Jong-il visited China, Kim Jong-nam went to his hotel room and told him Jong-un was behind the Cheonan incident to make up for a botched currency reform late last year he had also pushed. "Why are you condoning this when nobody even knows who Jong-un is?" the associate quoted Kim Jong-nam as saying.
He said Kim Jong-nam told his father to stop condoning Jong-un's behavior and warned if the 27-year-old heir apparent keeps misbehaving, then Jong-nam would go his own way too. He added the mysterious delay of an extraordinary Workers Party congress in September was due to Kim Jong-nam's protest. "There are many supporters of Kim Jong-nam in China and North Korea," the associate said.
The associate also claimed that Kim Jong-il worries about a brewing feud between the two sons. Kim Jong-un tried to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in Macau but failed when Chinese authorities found out. "Later, Kim Jong-il personally asked Chinese President Hu Jintao to ensure Jong-nam's safety and got the promise," he said.
Kim Jong Nam, who was North Korea's heir apparent until an ill-fated trip to Disneyland in 2001, certainly has reason to resent his little brother. But all indications so far have been that the first son prefers gambling and partying in Macau to Pyongyang power politics.
But who knows? Maybe "Fat Bear" has more bite than we thought.
JoongAng Sunday/AFP/Getty Images
Is China through with North Korea? That's the Guardian's takeaway from the exchanges between American diplomats and their Chinese and South Korean counterparts in the first batches of State Department cables released by Wikileaks on Sunday and Monday. "China has signalled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime," Simon Tisdall writes, and goes on to note evidence of "China's shift:" Nods of approval from Chinese officials for a single Korea governed from Seoul, expressions of alarm from Beijing about Pyongyang's 2009 missile tests, and a Chinese official's complaint that Kim Jong-il's regime is behaving like a "spoiled child."
It's all in there -- but sifting through the Wikileaks cables, that reading strikes me as a bit breathless. It's true that there are a couple of significant nods toward the idea of reunification. One comes in a 2009 meeting between Richard E. Hoagland and Cheng Guoping, respectively the American and Chinese ambassadors to Kazakhstan, at a hotel restaurant in the capital city of Astana. (Hoagland, incidentally, is a great reporter -- his account of the meeting is some of the best reading in the Wikileaks files.) "When asked about the reunification of Korea," Hoagland writes, "Guoping said China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term."
The other is some intelligence relayed from South Korean then-Vice Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, who told U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens that Chinese officials "would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a ‘benign alliance' -- as long as Korea was not hostile towards China." The breaking point, Chun reportedly told Stephens, was North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, after which Chinese officials were increasingly willing to "face the new reality" that North Korea had outlived its usefulness as a buffer between Chinese and American forces. Chun (in Stephens's paraphrase) notes that the "tremendous trade and labor-export opportunities for Chinese companies" in a newly opened North Korea might would make reunification easier to swallow, and points out that in any case, "China's strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea -- not North Korea."
Otherwise, Beijing's sharpest words -- such as Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei's remark that the Kim regime is acting like a "spoiled child" trying to get the attention of the "adult" United States -- came mostly in the wake of Pyongyang's April 2009 missile test, in the context of Beijing's efforts to engage Washington in bilateral talks with Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il's principal diplomatic goal at the time. Beijing's emissaries mostly just seem to be trying to keep the Americans at the table.
David E. Sanger's take in the New York Times better captures the essence of the cables, which is to say their ambiguity -- based on the selective evidence here, Beijing seems only somewhat less in the dark about what exactly is going on in Pyongyang than North Korea's enemies. Other corners of the Wikileaks trove are rich in plot and detail: the Obama administration's slow disenchantment with Turkey, byzantine Azeri-Iranian money laundering schemes, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh's entanglements with the U.S. military. The North Korean cables are mostly a lot of chatter around the edges of a giant question mark. As Sanger writes, they "are long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia." The dominant mood of the Chinese diplomats who appear throughout them is exhaustion -- a sense, plenty familiar in Washington and Seoul, that no one really knows what to do next.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
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