Granted, I've never spent time with any senior North Korean officials or participated in high-level nuclear negotiations, but former President Jimmy Carter's New York Times op-ed today, "North Korea wants to make a deal," seems so bizarrely credulous that one hopes he had an ulterior motive in writing it.
Carter says that during his recent visit to Pyongyang in order to secure the release of U.S. prisoner Aijalong Gomes, he received assurances "clear, strong signals that Pyongyang wants to restart negotiations on a comprehensive peace treaty with the United States and South Korea and on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Here's how it went:
In Pyongyang I requested Mr. Gomes’s freedom, then had to wait 36 hours for his retrial, pardon and release. During this time I met with Kim Yong-nam, president of the presidium of the North’s Parliament, and Kim Kye-gwan, the vice foreign minister and chief negotiator for North Korea in the six-party nuclear talks. Both of them had participated in my previous negotiations with Kim Il-sung.
They understood that I had no official status and could not speak for the American government, so I listened to their proposals, asked questions and, when I returned to the United States, delivered their message to Washington.
They told me they wanted to expand on the good relationships that had developed earlier in the decade with South Korea’s president at the time, Kim Dae-jung, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.
They expressed concern about several recent American actions, including unwarranted sanctions, ostentatious inclusion of North Korea among nations subject to nuclear attack and provocative military maneuvers with South Korea.
Still, they said, they were ready to demonstrate their desire for peace and denuclearization. They referred to the six-party talks as being “sentenced to death but not yet executed.”
Yes, nothing like a good North Korean death sentence joke to set everyone at ease.
Carter acknowledges that North Korea continued to process plutonium during previous rounds of talks and that the most recent round of negotiations stopped in 2009, the same year that North Korea "conducted a second nuclear test and launched a long-range missile." Indeed, over the last two decades, Kim Jong Il has perfected a game of periodically promising a return to negotiations -- in return for aid or a loosening of sanctions of course -- while continuing to build a nuclear weapons program. Why is this time different? Carter doesn't really explain.
It's all the more bizarre that the former president would choose to carry Pyongyang's water, since he wasn't even treated particularly well during his visit. In contrast to the high-profile meeting between Kim Jong Il and Bill Clinton, Dear Leader hightailed off to China when Carter showed up, leaving him to meet with lower-ranking officials.
And as both Senator Joe Lieberman and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell have pointed out today, the fact that Carter doesn't even mention the recent sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan raises serious questions about his analysis of the situation.
It's also not quite clear what Carter's intentions are in putting in a good word for North Korea. If he's urging the Obama administration to resume negotiations with North Korea, that's already official policy. As Campbell says, North Korea's recent appeals for talks are already "well known to us."
There's not really any news here and in the end the piece reads like a defense of Carter's international relevance after a high-profile snub in Pyongyang.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
A light moment from yesterday's press briefing by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, responding to a question about North Korea firing about 130 live rounds into a disputed area of the Yellow Sea:
QUESTION: On North Korea. The U.S. has been urging the North Koreans to stop further provocation, but today, North Korean military fired more than a hundred rounds of artillery into borders (inaudible) - border of South Korea. So I can I ask a reaction to this particular incident?
MR. CROWLEY: I'm sure it resulted in a lot of dead fish and we certainly hope that PETA will protest. It is not a helpful sign by North Korea and this is exactly the kind of behavior we would like to see North Korea avoid.
It seemed for a while that there would be no repercussions for North Korea's national soccer team after their dismal performance in the World Cup earlier this summer. Of course, this being North Korea, the team -- and especially its coach -- have not gotten off lightly. In a six-hour "grand debate," the entire squad (minus it's two Japan-based players, who surely must think themselves two of the luckiest people on the planet) was berated by Sports Minister Pak Myong-chol, and were then forced to publicly denounce their coach. The manager, Kim Jong-hun, was accused of "betraying the young General Kim Jong-un," the son and heir apparent of Kim Jong-Il. He has reportedly been forced out of the Worker's Party and forced to work as a construction laborer.
It's not like North Korea ever had a chance of success. They were pitted in the "Group of Death" with Brazil, Portugal and Côte d'Ivoire, arguably the toughest group in the whole tournament (regardless of Brazil's early exit and Portugal's dull 1-0 loss to Spain). Holding Brazil to a 2-1 scoreline in their opening match should have been enough of a moral victory for Kim Jong-Il, but he doesn't see it that way. (Shocking.)
North Korea's subsequent 7-0 decimation at the hands of Portugal, the first ever sports program live broadcast on North Korean TV (and almost certainly last ever), surely raised the ire of Dear Leader. Of course, if he wanted to pin the blame, he should look in the mirror. Reportedly, it was his demand that the team play more aggressively that created gaps in the side's defense.
Perhaps, though, this is a sign of progress. A South Korean intelligence source told Chosun Ilbo, "In the past, North Korean athletes and coaches who performed badly were sent to prison camps." We'll see.
Michael Steele/Getty Images
While statues of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung are ubiquitous in North Korea, the regime has so far been reluctant to build a state of his son, the country's currently leader, Kim Jong Il. Until now:
North Korea has unveiled a statue of leader Kim Jong-il, probably the first in the communist country. "It is our highest privilege and good fortune to be able to unveil a bronze statue of our comrade commander for the first time in our country," Gen. Kim Jong-gak, a vice director of the People's Army's General Political Bureau, was quoted as saying by an army newsletter that also carried a picture of the statue.
Naturally, this is provoking a brand-new round of tea leaf reading on the Kim family's succession plans:
"The emergence of statues of a leader signifies the end of his reign," a South Korean intelligence official said. Statues of Kim Il-sung began to appear at the end of his reign and the start of Kim Jong-il's leadership.
The bronze statue may be a project by his son Jong-un, who is widely expected to inherit the North Korean throne. Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University, said Kim junior appears to be consolidating his succession by canonizing his father just as Kim Jong-il justified his rise to power through a personality cult of Kim Il-sung.
The statue -- the middle photo -- is a little hard to see in the newspaper above, but it does appear that the artist was awfully generous to Dear Leader.
Choson People's Army, the North Korean armed forces newsletter, via Chosun Ilbo
Given how stubbornly Kim Jong-Il appears to be weathering his reportedly grave illness, you might think North Korean healthcare is more or less intact -- even the Dear Leader must get a boost from modern medicine. But a chilling report released today by Amnesty International is an all-too-clear reminder that the luxuries (or in this case, just the bare necessities) of royal treatment in Korea are a far cry from the horrors of everyday existence: based on the accounts of 40 North Korean defectors and health professionals, Amnesty investigators reveal just how backward the country's healthcare system truly is.
Drained of the most basic -- and most important -- resources (everything from pills to power), hospitals in North Korea are barely functional. Doctors make their rounds by candlelight, and patients endure major operations without even the mildest anesthesia. And that's only if the ailing can make it to a hospital in the first place: many patients must make many-hour treks to consult with their inept doctors -- appointments that invariably spell further trauma. One interviewee describes his harrowing amputation (anesthesia-free, of course):
Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving. I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain," said the man, identified only by his family name, Hwang. "I woke up one week later in a hospital bed.
Under North Korea's official health care program, all citizens are entitled to free medical treatment -- and state officials insist they truly receive it. Yet World Health Organization figures give the country a failing grade: North Korea spends less than one dollar per person per year on health -- a meager sum that makes it the world's worst performer. First-person accounts in the report only confirm this picture. According to one defector and former doctor:
People in North Korea don't bother going to the hospital if they don't have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment.
Without the right bribes - cigarettes, alcohol, or just plain cash -- most Koreans don't stand a chance. In short, says the doctor: "If you don't have money, you die.''
PHILIPPE AGRET/AFP/Getty Images
North Korea continues to vehemently deny responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and hailed a U.N. resolution on the attack that noticably mentioned nothing about North Korean involvement as a "great diplomatic victory."
But the poster below, which was photographed in Pyongyan by a visiting Chinese businessman and published by Radio Free Asia sends kind of different message.
The caption reads: “If you come at us, (we will destroy you) with a single blow!”
Hat tip: DailyNK
How come the North Korean national team that managed to lose by only one goal to Brazil -- a win, essentially -- got beat down so brutally by Portugal? According to some sources,* Dear Leader himself may be to blame:
Quoting a source, RFA reported that after watching the match against powerhouse Brazil, in which North Korea recorded a respectable 1-2 loss with a tight defense strategy, Kim Jong-il said that although the team played the first half well, it lost because it only focused on defense in the second half. He then gave orders for the team's defenders to be positioned forward and even specified where each defender should be standing in the field.
According to the source, Kim "gave orders twice" to a responsible official dispatched to South Africa during the game against Portugal on June 21. The orders were delivered to North Korea manager Kim Jong-hun and implemented in the game. Despite the widening gap in the score, the North Koreans team stuck to their hopeless strategy and lost 0-7.
Perhaps he should stick to golf.
*All the usual caveats about wacky North Korea stories based on defector reports.
International condemnation for the sinking of the Cheonan and the disgraceful 0-7 World Cup defeat at the hands of Portugal seem to have unleashed a Pandora's Box of Kim Jong-Il wrath. Citing costs induced by six decades of American hostility, Jong-Il has rummaged up his calculator, revived his old grudges, and delivered a tab to the U.S. to the tune of $65 trillion -- plus tax.
KCNA, North Korea's official state-run news agency, has asserted North Korea's "justifiable right" to collect financial compensation from the U.S. for an alleged six decades worth of antagonism -- one trillion dollars for every year since the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945. North Korea ascribes most of the demands to U.S. war crimes committed in the Korean War. Though most peg the war's outbreak to a North Korean invasion of the south in 1950, Jong Il's regime maintains that capitalist South Korea and its U.S. and U.N. allies are to blame for the military conflict's onset.
KCNA broke down the aggregate cost as follows: 26.1 trillion from U.S. "atrocities," about 20 trillion from sixty years of economic sanctions, compensation for civilians killed, and a variety of smaller claims. And according to North Korea, these restitutions are not even as severe as they could be: they say the toppling sum ignores money lost as a result of the U.S. sanctions enacted in 2006, targeted at the communist country's developing nuclear program.
The real question is: if the world were flipped upside-down and North Korea were awarded this colossal fortune, what would Kim Jong-Il do with it? It's pretty safe to say that even with that kind of money in the bank, his first priority would not be converting those gulag-like labor camps into more humane jails, or supplying something other than potatoes to his 9 million starving countrymen. I wonder if he has already tabulated how many pairs of thick-rimmed, triangular sunglasses and ego-boosting elevator platforms-- I mean, "heightening loafers" -- $65 trillion could buy...
A heartwarming scene from The Red Balloon it was not: when South Korean schoolchildren launched fifty balloons into the sky on Thursday, no one stopped to oh and ah. The man who spotted the air-borne rubber fleet twenty miles outside the capital city Seoul mistook the colorful orbs for parachutes and instantly raised the alarm. A military and police investigation was quickly mounted, only to conclude that the would-be North Korean invaders were in fact the steadily deflating remains of a local school celebration.
The incident is one more laugh for international observers -- and one more sign of just how high tensions are running in South Korea in the wake of the March 26 explosion of the Cheonan. (This isn't the first false alarm on the Peninsula in recent weeks: the discovery of an abandoned diving suit on the heels of an unexplained coastal explosion set police on high alert. Thankfully -- or just embarrassingly -- investigators concluded nothing was awry.)
But for South Korean security officials, it's better safe than sorry: facing strong criticism within the country for their mishandling of the Cheonan incident, top military leaders stepped down, and remaining forces pledged to improve their level of responsiveness.
(Balloons have been the source of Korean controversy before: read about this defector's helium-powered propaganda.)
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
In the wake of the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan, Lee Myung-bak's government in Seoul threatened to resume propaganda broadcasts into North Korea, setting up loudspeakers along the demilitarized zone.
When the North reacted with fury, threatening to shell the speakers, many in the South had second thoughts, and the move was reportedly put on hold.
Now, some in the South Korean Defense Ministry are said to be proposing using "songs and music videos by manufactured girl bands such as Girls' Generation, Wonder Girls, After School, Kara and 4minute in so-called psychological warfare against North Korea," according to the Chosun Ilbo, a right-leaning South Korean newspaper.
It's clear from the official quoted in the story that no decision has been made, and in any case the girl groups would be just one of many measures directed across the border. But that didn't stop the paper from speculating that "the revealing outfits worn by the performers and their provocative dances could have a considerable impact on North Korean soldiers."
Maybe they should broadcast South Korea's World Cup matches, too?
As World Cup fever heats up around the world, there's huge interest in the tournament's biggest underdog: North Korea, which debuts against soccer juggernaut Brazil on June 15 in its first cup appearance since a Cinderella showing in 1966.
Kim Jong Il's squad, ranked 105th internationally, just barely qualified for the big show, and oddsmakers figure its chances of winning are about 1,000 to one.
Little is known about the players. There's Kim Myong Won, a striker known as "the Chariot" for his speed. But Kim will be restricted to playing goalkeeper due to a North Korean attempt to skirt FIFA rules. There's also Jong Tae-se, a stocky forward who was born and lives in Japan, where he is known as "the People's Wayne Rooney" for his resemblance to the English star. Jong scored both North Korean goals during a recent match against Greece, which ended in a 2-2 tie, and has vowed to score once in every World Cup game. The team's captain is Hong Yong Jo, who plays for FC Rostov in Russia.
The North Korean team has been cloistered since arriving in South Africa earlier this week. But one source of great speculation has been cleared up: The players will be wearing uniforms made by Legea, an Italian sportswear company that paid a reported $4.9 million for the privilege:
North Korea’s team is getting an amount similar to what might be paid to a low-ranking team in the English Premier League, the world’s richest soccer league, according to Simon Chadwick, a sports business professor at the U.K.’s Coventry University. Ri, in an interview in Tokyo last week, said it was hard to find a jersey sponsor as there’s “no market” for sports apparel in North Korea.
“If it doesn’t result in sales, there’s no point” for some sporting-goods companies, Ri said.
Legea will provide North Korea with branded World Cup jerseys and training gear, Nastro said. That will help raise the Italian brand’s international profile, although the marketing bet could backfire, Chadwick said.
Legea “will be working overtime to put clear blue water between the team and the regime,” Chadwick said. “It could get to the stage when people stop buying the brand if they’re being seen as propping up a dictatorship.”
As part of the deal, North Korea will get a 10 million-euro bonus if the team wins the cup.
In a week when international headlines are so dominated by one story -- in the case, the flotilla disaster -- it can be easy to forget that last week's major international crisis was never really resolved.
In the case of last week's tensions on the Korean peninsula, what seemed like a major international incident seems to have just quieted down on its own. The whole mess is largely out of international headlines and the Korea Times reports that President Lee Myung-bak is softening his rhetoric as well:
"When we say national security, words such as confrontation or face-off tend to come to our minds. I think now is the time for us to chart a security strategy that can usher the nation into reunification," he said.
Lee put priority on reunification, not confrontation, at a time when tensions are mounting on the peninsula.
Seoul also toned down the nature of the retaliatory U.N. Security Council (UNSC) measure it was seeking Wednesday by shifting its focus from opening both options of binding and non-binding measures earlier to a non-binding resolution.
The stance came a day after the Ministry of Unification eased sanctions on North Korea by allowing the shipment of four kinds of products, including garlic and garments, which were processed in North Korean manufacturing factories from North to South Korea.
The South has also put off plans to escalate its propaganda campaign by dropping leaflets and broadcasting radio messages into the North and despite earlier reports, the jointly staffed Kaesong industrial plant has remained open. The North Korean government has certainly been its usual bellicose self lately, but U.S. intelligence officials say they never actually saw any evidence of unusual North Korean troop movements.
So what exactly just happened? It's important to remember that the main crisis was set off not by the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan in March, but by the release of the South Korean report blaming North Korea for the sinking on May 20. With Lee's party seeming to gain from the "Cheonan effect" in today's local elections, it's hard not to be a little suspicious of the timing.
That's not in any way to say that the incident was manufactured. The evidence that North Korea was behind the sinking of the ship is pretty compelling. But it does seem like both governments seemed to gain from the affair. Lee's pro-American conservative party got a political boost, and Kim Jong Il got to show that he can take out a South Korean ship without serious consequences.
As the tensions dissipate, it's starting like these occasional blowup sare just a part of the status quo on the peninsula -- happening just frequently enough to keep a certain level of tension, but never getting serious enough to involve major violence. It might not be the healthiest arrangement, but it's one these two countries seem to have gotten used to.
Presidental House via Getty Images
A few weeks back, via Wired's Danger Room, I saw this truly weird story in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper about reports that the North Korean navy has a "human torpedo" unit that may have been involved in the sinking of the South Korea frigate, Cheonan. Yes, a human torpedo unit is what you think it is:
North Korea's human torpedo units belong to the 17th Sniper Corps and are deployed in both the East and West seas at the brigade level. The units are made up of elite soldiers, just like South Korea's UDT/SEAL teams, and were fed very well even when the rest of North Korea's people were starving due to economic hardships, according to defectors.
Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean poet who defected to South Korea, wrote recently on his blog that the human torpedo units "are treated better than submarine crew and their training centers around suicide bombing attacks." North Korea reportedly formed such squads in each branch of the military after leader Kim Jong-il said during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that no military in the world can defeat an army that can carry out suicide bombings.
But the human torpedoes not only use suicide bombing tactics but also launch attacks using semi-submersible vessels equipped with light torpedoes or other explosives, which are fired or placed on their intended targets at close range.
It seemed a little like one of the many too-weird-to-be-true stories that filter out through the South Korean media, but I see that in this recent interview, a former North Korean submarine helmsman captured in 1996 corroborates the existence of these units:
Lee also said he heard about human torpedo units, explaining, "They belong to the sea sniper brigades of the East Sea and West Sea fleets. Each fleet has one suicide unit. They travel on the submarine in the beginning but, from a certain point they ride on the torpedo and direct it to its target. Torpedo carriers are told that they can escape, however, in reality it is very difficult."
Yeah, I would imagine that might be difficult.
I'm still skeptical, but more curious. Lee also has some interesting (though similarly uncorroborated) things to say about how a North Korean sub might have gotten into South Korean waters undetected and what Kim Jong Il's motivations for the attack might be.
Hat tip: Asian Correspondent
When news broke earlier this week that one of the clues pointing investigators to Pyongyang's culpability in the sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean vessel that was sent to Davy Jones's locker by a mysterious explosion in late March, was a North Korean font, I was intrigued. What did that mean? I pictured something like what you might see in North Korean propaganda posters:
So I asked Martin Heijdra, a reference librarian and East Asian typography expert at Princeton (whose specialty, he told me, is actually Chinese), what he thought of the matter. Without having seen the text in question, here's what he emailed:
As one professor here once said: the footnotes of today (in this case, yesterday) are the headlines of tomorrow ... I can anticipate the following issues though, and would have a hard time coming up with any other:
(1) Yes, there are some consistent differences in certain letters between North Korean and South Korean practice (there is a difference between a Northern and Southern ? e.g.)
(2) The reported syllable, ? , however does NOT contain such letters.
(3) therefore, we get into stylistic differences. In the most commonly used styles, outside the letters noted above, differences would be, I would think, undetectable, just as they are between different font companies--the standard styles are, well, standard; the differences are elsewhere. Yes, the whole array of display/ornamented fonts is very different in North Korea and South Korea as far as I have studied them (not since 2006 or so!), but those fancy decorative fonts are unlikely to have been used on a torpedo.
(4) According to my Korean reference colleague, Hyoungbae Lee, photos of the alleged font have not been released. Some news actually states it was not a font at all, but handwriting.
(5) Moreover, North-Korean style fonts, whether produced in North Korea or by Korean companies in Japan, together with the software add-ons necessary to use them on computers, have been available for purchase in Japan, Singapore, China etc. (That's where I got some of my original information from).
(6) Hence, this piece of evidence is rather shaky.
Later, Lee chimed in with the photograph of the font, noting it is "handwritten with a marker" -- meaning, Heijdra said, that "all discussion of 'North Korean font' is useless." Here's the image:
Any other Korean font experts want to weigh in?
UPDATE: More on the font here:
After finding the “smoking gun” on Saturday, the investigators thoroughly examined and analyzed the piece. The marking appeared to be handwritten, and Army Brig. Gen. Yun Jong-seong, head of the scientific investigation bureau of the joint probe, said an analysis of the ink, although it will take time, may further reinforce the team’s conclusions.
“No country [other than North Korea] marks a torpedo component with a Korean letter,” General Hwang added.
Which interpretation of the (not-so-shocking) news that North Korea sank a South Korean warship is more troubling: that Kim Jong Il ordered the torpedo strike, or that he didn't?
The “cornered tiger” scenario is the only condition, beyond mental illness, under which Kim Jong Il would choose this option. One possible interpretation of the sinking of the Cheonan is that the situation in North Korea is so bad and the regime so desperate that it believes risking annihilation is its only option. But while it is hard to regard the situation in North Korea as rosy, it has been through worse times. With the currency reforms of 2009, the regime was able to win some time in its otherwise hopeless fight against the inevitable transformation of North Korea’s society when it expropriated the growing wealth from the newly emerging middle class and tried to partially demonetize the economy again. And as far as we know, prior to March 26, there was no intelligence pointing to unusual troop movements; no increase in communications that might have signaled something out of the ordinary was about to happen or signs that a change in the military’s alert status was about to take place.
Of all the possible scenarios for why North Korea would have been involved in the Cheonan incident, the one that should worry us the most is the possibility that it was NOT Kim Jong Il who gave the orders. While in 2008 one could have imagined, under certain circumstances, that a young recruit overreacted and shot a South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumgang, it is much less likely that the captain of a North Korean submarine had a short fuse and sank that corvette. He must have done so upon receiving orders, or at least a “go ahead” from someone above him. The higher up we move in the command chain, the stress motive becomes less likely. A lieutenant commander in his sub might think twice; a rear admiral will think ten times before pulling the trigger.
If the North Koreans torpedoed the ship, and if it was not done after a self-destructive order by Kim Jong Il, this may be proof of a destabilization of the current leadership in Pyongyang. Sinking the Cheonan without consent by the top leader would be an open act of insubordination. An autocratic leader who does not have his lieutenants under control becomes a liability to the system. It is fear and the unchallenged authority of the top that keeps an autocracy together. Many of us have argued that such considerations had allowed Kim Jong Il to take over power from his father so smoothly despite his very different personality: the elite knew that regime stability depended on a strong and undisputed leader, and he was the only realistic candidate for the job.
Yet, years have passed since 1994, and North Korea has changed substantially. A famine, a set of failed economic policies, and Kim’s obvious health issues have created a situation of frustration, insecurity, and nervousness. The Pyongyang elite will be holding their breath and watching closely how Kim Jong Il reacts. What if he does not succeed in creating the impression that sinking the Cheonan was his idea? Even if so, this is a catch-22 since it invites a potentially destructive counter reaction by South Korea and the United States. If it wasn’t done on his command, will Kim Jong Il conduct a major purge of the culprits like his father did in 1956, when a trip to Europe was used to launch a coup against him? If he doesn’t, then the vultures will get more courageous.
Frank worries most of all about a rapid and messy regime collapse, leading to "a humanitarian disaster, a last-ditch effort at a military solution, or the active involvement of superpowers like China."
There are clearly a lot of folks in the region who are also worried about this scenario. But it's worth noting that North Korea already is a humanitarian disaster. At some point, Kim Jong Il's regime is going to have to end before that situation changes. I don't see any signs that outside players, save perhaps China, have any hope of micromanaging some sort of smooth transition to a more decent government.
South Korea plans, on Thursday, to disclose the official results of its investigation into the sinking of the Navy frigate Cheonan, but the government seems to be gradually rolling out its findings. Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told assembled diplomats at an EU Chamber of Commerce luncheon that "it's obvious" that North Korea was behind the explosion that sank the ship. Later today, a senior South Korea official gave the Korea Times previewed some of the evidence:
Characters and numbers in North Korean fonts were found on fragments of what is believed to be a propeller blade from a torpedo that sank a South Korean frigate, a senior Defense Ministry official told The Korea Times, Wednesday.
"They were not Chinese characters or a serial number, but it was obvious that the lettering was North Korean," the official said on condition of anonymity regarding findings from a multinational investigation into the cause of the sinking of the ROK Navy's patrol boat Cheonan near the West Sea border with North Korea on March 26. [...]
The official said the torpedo in question was powered by two sets of propellers that rotate in opposite directions. He added that investigators conducted a computerized simulation and reached the conclusion that a 250kg, mid-sized sonar-tracking torpedo exploded underneath the gas turbine room of the 1,200-ton vessel.
The gas turbine has been found on the seabed and will be hoisted out of the water, according to the officials. Traces of explosives from the wreckage were also found to be similar to those from a North Korean torpedo found in the West Sea seven years ago, they said.
South Korea has certainly taken its time before making a formal accusation over the incident. The ball's in Beijing's court now.
This didn't get much attention yesterday, but there's been more tension along the Korean sea border:
South Korean Navy vessels fired warning shots, turning back two North Korean patrol boats that had entered South Korean territory, military officials said.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday that one North Korean Navy vessel crossed the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea and another entered South Korean waters 47 minutes later at the western sea border, Yonhap News service reported.
The separate incidents took place Saturday night, the first at 10:13 p.m., the second at 11:30 p.m.
Later this week, Seoul plans to submit a letter to the U.N. Security Council on the conclusions of its investigation into the cause of the sinking of the South Korean Navy frigate Cheonan on March 26.
Japan's Kyodo News has some good detail on Kim Jong Il's hush-hush train trip to China as well as some rare unstaged photos of the reculsive leader, who looks a lot more haggard than he does in all those inspection tour images.
Kim was seen today at a hotel in city of Dalian, near the Korean border, where he arrived by train and is later thought to have traveled to Beijing by car :
Highways linking Dalian to Shenyang and Beijing were blocked Monday afternoon, apparently to strengthen security for travels by Kim and his party.
While in Dalian, Kim's party is thought to have inspected a company or companies investing in North Korea.
The international train terminal at Dandong Station in Liaoning Province had been closed until around 5 a.m. Police deployed about 30 vehicles around the station and enforced tight security measures.
Yonhap reported the 17-carriage train arrived in Dandong around 5:20 a.m. All regular passenger trains from North Korea to Dandong arrive in the afternoon and usually have only four or five coaches, it said.
Kim is known to use trains when traveling abroad.
Dandong hotels where customers can see a steel bridge linking the two countries did not accept guests. The hotels, which are observation posts for trains traveling between the two countries, locked their entrance doors.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency has made no mention of the trip, though it is currently carrying an item on North Korean no. 2 Kim Yong Nam meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao last Friday. Also no word on whether presumed heir-to-the-throne Kim Jong Un accompanied his dad on this trip.
Nothing's confirmed yet, but this does not sound good:
A South Korean navy ship with about 100 personnel on board is sinking off the west coast near North Korea, possibly due to a torpedo attack, reports say.
The ship was sinking near Baengnyeong island, Yonhap news agency quoted navy officials as saying.
It also said another South Korean ship had fired shots toward an unidentified ship in the North. The involvement of North Korea has not been confirmed.
North Korea threatened the South with "unprecedented nuclear strikes" this morning over reports that Soeul was preparing for instability in the North. Such threats are hardly unusual, but if North Korea is indeed behind the sinking, that would be the biggest escalation of the conflict in years. With more reports of economic distress and internal strife coming out of the Hermit Kingdom, Kim Jong Il may have bargained that it was time to pick an international fight.
The rollout of Kim Jong-un as North Korea's new leader continues, with South Korean sources reporting that an official portrait of the heir apparent has been prepared for distribution. Then there's this:
Last month, the Radio Free Asia also reported the regime began to restrict the use of the name "Jong-un," instructing people with the same name to change it.
Jong-un has also reportedly been more actively involved in military matters lately.
The thing about wacky Kim Jong Il stories is that they're generally impossible to prove or disprove so it's gnereally best to treat them as little more than curiosities. That's certainly true of Kim's apparent taste for all things Austrian:
"He only ate foreign food," the colonel said. "In Vienna, there was a special attache, a friend of mine, who only procured special foreign food for the dictator."
Kim Il-sung's craving once led to a delegation of cooks being sent to Austria to visit renowned culinary schools and some of the country's finest restaurants to collect recipes. The colonel, who speaks German fluently, served as translator.
"'Learn everything' – that's what they were told," the defector said. "The crazy dictators heard rumours that Austrian cuisine was world-famous and that's why they wanted [the cooks] to come here."
No offense to the homeland of Mozart, Frued and Rilke but I'm not sure Austria would be my first choice for culinary delights if I were a dictator with unlimited resources.
While it's famously difficult to obtain information from within North Korea, author B.R. Myers has written a fascinating account based on DPRK propaganda, "North Korea's Race Problem," for the current print issue of FP. Hermit Kingdom poster art, it turns out, is chock full of such pastoral images as plump, happy cherubic children and leaders.
Meanwhile, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the reclusive government has recently released the results of a national census conducted in 2008. The picture that emerges is bleak. By the government's own admission, the population is considerably older and sicker than at the time of North Korea's last census in 1993. Some highlights:
North Korea's census said the country's population has proportionately fewer children and more middle-aged people than it did in 1993.
It also reported that people are less healthy.
Babies are more likely to die: The infant mortality rate climbed to 19.3 per 1,000 children in 2008 from 14.1 in 1993 ...
North Koreans are living shorter lives—average life expectancy has fallen to 69.3 years from 72.7 in 1993.
Poster art from North Korea courtesy of Melville House Publishing and B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race—How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.
It seems that North Korea's "50-day battle" against illegal economic activity (read: economic activity) is not surprisingly causing further instability. From the Times:
It was at the end of last November that the Government announced a drastic revaluation of the won in an apparent effort to crack down on the country’s burgeoning free market economy. All North Koreans were required to swap old won notes with new ones at an exchange rate of one to 100, knocking two zeroes off their value. Because of a cap of 100,000 won per family ((€526 at the official exchange rate), anyone with significant holdings of cash had their savings wiped out.
Since then, reports of inflation and food shortages have trickled out of the isolated country via traders and smugglers in China, as well as North Koreans close to the Chinese border who take the risk of keeping illegal mobile telephones. According to such informants, quoted anonymously in the Seoul-based DailyNK news website, there has been “an explosion in the number of casualties resulting from popular resentment at harsh regulation of market activities by the security apparatus across North Korea.”
Agents of the People’s Safety Agency (PSA), which is conducting a so-called “Fifty Day Battle” against illegal enterprise, were reported to have been attacked and driven away as they sought out market activity in the city of Pyongsung in North Pyongan province. In the once prosperous industrial city of Chongjin on the country’s east coast, a steel worker named Jeung Hyun Deuk was reported to have killed an agent of the National Security Agency named Cho.
Even Kim Jong Il acknowledged in a recent statement that there are "still quite a number of things lacking in people’s lives." If Dear Leader is indeed responding to popular resentment, things must be getting pretty bad.
The Hermit Kingdom is about to become even more cut off from the world than normal. Pyongyang's embassy in Beijing has, without explanation, stopped issuing visas to foreigners. South Korean media reports say the travel ban will last from Dec. 20 until early February:
Chosun said some experts believe the North is taking extra security measures before a cross-border visit by Kim, who is known to prefer train travel to flying.
Other analysts speculate the aim is to allow unrest sparked by the country's shock currency revaluation to die down.
Nighwatch's John McCreary comments:
In the NightWatch experience, a ban on foreigners has only occurred during semi-war alert conditions as a precaution in a crisis with the UN Command or during a major Allied military exercise; during an internal crisis, such as the revolt in 1995 by the now disbanded Sixth Army Corps; or to control an epidemic.
I was curious to see how the Korean Central News Agency, the official propaganda organ of Kim Jong Il's regime, would cover U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth's visit to Pyongyang. But aside from a one-sentence item announcing Bosworth's arrival, they seem to have completely ignored it. "Credentials of Hungarian ambassador accepted" got more play, not to mention "Potato starch used for dishes".
Not quite sure I understand the KCNA's news judgement. If I were doing publicity for a small despotic regime, I think I would want to publicize the fact that my country's most powerful enemy was sending a highly-ranked envoy to negotiate with us.
Update: They've posted another one-sentence item: "U.S. envoy Bosworth leaves"
The Financial Times reports on a new cottage industry in Korea -- matchmaking services pairing South Korean men with women who defect from North Korea:
Defying the gloom among small businesses in South Korea, Mr Hong predicts a rosy future for his enterprise, run from a small office in the suburbs of Seoul. Driven by a haemorrhaging economy, defections from the authoritarian North are soaring, and the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are women. Of the 2,809 defections registered last year – up from 1,043 in 2001 – 2,197 were women.
In 2006 Mr Hong was the second South Korean to open a specialist agency finding husbands for them, but his niche market is exploding. The 39-year-old has identified 10 competitors, most of them established last year.
Mr Hong’s own match certainly lends credibility to his business. His wife, Kang Ok-shil, defected from North Korea in 2002 and has a crucial foothold in defectors’ social networks. They have named their agency Nam-nam-buk-kyo, an ancient adage meaning “the south’s got the boys, the north’s got the girls”.
Mrs Kang, a 41-year-old former electrical worker, says many North Korean women see South Korean men as less domineering. “North Korean men are more authoritarian. North Korean men have the perception that men are the sky and women are the ground,” she says, quoting a famous Korean aphorism.
South Korea’s unification ministry offers less romantic reasons for the disparity. The men in the North are trapped in military service, often for 10 years or more. Women become the breadwinners and are increasingly involved in cross-border trading, presenting opportunities to defect. Many women are also trafficked into prostitution and hostess bars.
While South Korea has a skyrocketing divorce rate, the company claims that almost none of the marriages they have arranged have broken up. They attribute this to the fact that “North Korean women are more persevering."
In a somewhat garbled story in today's Financial Times, Christian Oliver speculates that one key motive for Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's recent visit to Pyongyang might be to get his paws on North Korea's vast mineral wealth.
Oliver cites a recent Goldman Sachs report (pdf) by analyst Goohoon Kwon, which values North Korea's mineral resources at 140 times its anemic 2008 GDP (about $20 billion), and projects that the economy of a unified Korea could rival Japan's in three to four decades.
Kwon predicts a "gradual integration between the North and South, rather than an instant German-style unification." Obviously, there are a lot of ifs involved, but it's an interesting finding nonetheless (leaving aside some ridiculous assertions in the report, such as the idea that perennially starving North Korea has "high human capital" -- a "well-educated labor force" that possesses a "sound work ethic and Confucian values").
As the report details, North Korea is particularly blessed with deposits of magnesite, used in various industrial applications, as well as coal, uranium, and iron ore. South Korea, in contrast, is extremely resource poor (though it does seem to have ample reserves of asbestos and kaolinite, a kind of clay).
What Kwon doesn't really address head-on are the problems that would be created by the vast gulf between North and South Korean economic cultures, incomes, and lifestyles. Think back to your high school chemistry class. Remember that chapter on stoichiometry? Well, we can't be certain that a chemical reaction between North and South Korea would create a balanced equation. It might just lead to an explosion.
And let's not forget the resource curse. Just because North Korean leaders are sitting on top of a gold mine doesn't mean they'd do the smart thing and gradually integrate their economy with South Korea. More likely, they'd hoard it and corruption in Pyongyang would reach new heights -- especially if they fear that unification would mean sharing their stuff with the South.
New documents obtained by Japan's Mainichi Shimbun appear to confirm reports that Kim Jong Il's son Kim Jong-Un is being groomed as his father's successor. These include a textbook for high-ranking military officials :
"Anyone who meets him (Kim Jong Un) is fascinated by him," the text says, as well as praising him as "a military talent who has genius wisdom and policy" and that he "resembles our great general (Kim Jong Il) so much in appearance."
The documents also state that Kim Jong Un commanded the air force as a "vengeful commander" when there were mounting calls in Japan and the United States for intercepting the North Korean missile in April, and that Kim Jong Il once joked that an enemy country would suffer if Kim Jong Un chose to counterattack.
A document apparently compiled by the North's secret police urges a prompt preparation for the succession of the leadership, saying, "It is hoped that our General Kim (Jong Un) is crowned as the successor of our dear leader General (Kim Jong Il) as soon as possible so that the burden of our dear leader is lessened."
Nightwatch's John McCreary comments:
The haste with which his completely fictitious leadership story has been concocted reinforces assessments that Kim Chong-il could die suddenly. Chong-un has lived in Switzerland and, like his father, has never served a day in a military uniform, except for playing dress-up.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
Two weeks ago, Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president and husband of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited North Korea. He met with dictator Kim Jong-il and secured the release of two American journalists who had been held there for months.
This past weekend, Sen. Jim Webb traveled to Myanmar on a trip through Southeast Asia. Webb -- who likely knows more about the region than anyone else on the Hill -- has long criticized U.S. sanctions on Myanmar. He met with the head of the country's military junta and leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. And he secured the release of an American who had been jailed for breaking into Suu Kyi's compound, where she is on house arrest.
The Obama administration and U.S. news outlets have described these two missions as "private diplomacy." Webb and Clinton are both foreign-policy heavyweights outside the administration. Their stature and connections provided them with the latitude to make entreaties to these rogue, adversarial governments. They offered nothing in terms of aid or support or promises of policy-change -- they did not represent the Washington, of course. But they offered good press and a thread back to the capital -- which proved enough for the strongmen, Kim and Shwe.
Clearly, though, the word "private" is not totally accurate here. Both did it with the administration's nod and help.
The Washington Post wrote of Clinton's visit: "The trip came about only after weeks of back-channel conversations involving academics, congressional figures, and senior White House and State Department officials, said sources involved in the planning. North Korea rejected the administration's first choice for the trip -- former vice president Al Gore." The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House approved Webb's mission -- and he used a military plane for the trips.
All of which leaves me a bit queasy, though ultimately hopeful, about this rash of private diplomatic missions.
Part of me thinks the White House shouldn't be in the lame business of disavowing trips it clearly had a hand in making. Further, I worry the United States gave up an opportunity to publicly demand something out of Yangon. Clinton herself has said the United States would consider trading an easing of sanctions for the release of Suu Kyi. Webb may have made some headway towards that goal. But to hear Clinton or Obama comment on it would have doubtless brought a sense of urgency to the issue and shined a brighter spotlight on what the junta needs to change.
On the other hand, both the United States and the rogue governments got what they wanted. The U.S. gave up virtually nothing, got its citizens back, and won some good press for its diplomatic successes. Myanmar and North Korea got, for a moment, to look magnanimous and reasonable -- tempered by the stories about their human-rights abuses, and the fact that Washington did not send interlocutors with actual foreign policy power (Clinton herself, or a committee chair, say) to confer with them.
I suppose these carefully charted and subtle missions proved to work fine. To consider them isolated incidences or unqualified successes (or failures) would be the worst misjudgment -- foreign policy is always about carrots and sticks, and back and forth. This White House gets that really well.
With all due respect to Henry the K., this is barmy:
A visit by a former president, who is married to the secretary of state, will enable Kim Jong Il to convey to North Koreans, and perhaps to other countries, that his country is being accepted into the international community -- precisely the opposite of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has defined as the goal of U.S. policy until Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons program.
Let Kim Jong Il do all the conveying he wants. The world is still going to see him as a bizarre, megalomaniacal tyrant -- and this episode makes only reinforces that perception. Grown-up nations don't take hostages.
As for the two journalists, they're now safe with their families. Here, I agree with the Carnegie Endowment's Douglas Paal:
Some commentators are suggesting that the Clintons’ actions showed American weakness by expressing regret to a ruthless dictator. These critics need to ask themselves: how would a more aggressive approach have gained the release of these two women from a sentence of 12 years of hard labor?
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