The world has been waiting for days for news of ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's health. A rumored "important announcement" about Dear Leader's condition yesterday never materialized. Now, the Japanese paper Mainichi Shimbun has the first reported story of Kim's activities in days and it's characteristically weird:
Kim was watching a special match between Kim Il-sung University -- his own alma mater, which was celebrating its 62nd anniversary -- and Pyongyang University of Railways. According to an insider, after realizing that several of the Kim Il-sung University players were sporting long hair, Kim declared it to "look disgusting," and said "I can't tell if this is men's soccer or women's soccer."
His mood grew steadily worse until the end of the first half, at which point he announced he would not be watching the rest of the match. Whether he was actually watching from the stadium or on television is unknown.
Shortly after the incident, a notice was posted in workplaces across the country banning long hair for men. Staff at Kim Il-sung University were witnessed carrying out particularly stringent checks.
The entire story comes from one anonymous North Korean source so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but this isn't the first time that Kim has tried to ban long hair. Frankly, considering the bouffant and ladies' sunglasses look that Kim has been rocking since the '80s, I don't think he's really in a position to be criticizing anyone's style.
Now, we hear that the man who has held his country hostage since assuming power from his father in 1994 is on the mend. Granted, that last bit of news is coming from the country's propaganda-peddling press officials.
Whether or not this latest North Korean pushback is bogus, the Hermit Kingdom can't delay its post-Kim fate forever. But what will it look like? A younger Kim stepping up to take his father's place? Mass chaos and refugees fleeing across the Chinese border? Reunification with South Korea? It's anyone's guess.
Some guesses are more educated than others, though. So I asked a man who knows the regime well to describe what he thinks is going on behind the scenes right now. Kim Hyun Sik, Kim Jong Il's former Russian teacher and author of a powerful essay about Kim in the current issue of FP, explains that the jostling for power may not involve the usual suspects:
If proven true, the latest news that Kim Jong Il is seriously ill, perhaps having suffered a stroke, will bring significant changes to North Korea. Should Kim suffer an extended bout with illness and be unable to govern, the most likely candidate to fill the ensuing power vacuum right away is -- contrary to widespread speculations of another father-to-son succession -- Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Sung Taek, 62. For long, Jang stood at the epicenter of Pyongyang politics as Kim Jong Il’s right-hand man.
Jang's influence grew so strong that he was purged nearly five years ago. But last year, Jang was restored to his former position as a key decision-maker on personnel. His two brothers hold power over the military and oversee the state's most sacred site, Kim Il Sung's mausoleum. Jang enjoys a good reputation among ordinary North Koreans and is widely respected even by defectors. Jang may even choose, as a "regent" to groom in the short term, either Kim Jong Il's eldest or second son. But, for now, in the "day-after" scenario, the world can expect to see Jang in the spotlight.
We'll definitely be watching. Stay tuned.
There's something your taekwando teacher never told you. Turns out the sport's global body, the International Taekwando Federation (ITF), was once infiltrated by North Korean spies and assassins.
For the last 34 years, Choi Jung-hwa, the son of ITF founder Choi Hung-hi, has lived abroad, guarding the family secret. The father fell out with the South Korean regime in the 1970s, fleeing to Canada. But it was his son who was recruited, along with other master fighters, to assasinate then South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan in 1982. Luckily, the plot was foiled Now, Choi Jung-hwa is back in South Korea for the first time in decades to recount the tale.
While he was away, a new World Taekwando Federation was founded and adopted as the Olympic standard. So even if Kim Jong Il is out on sick leave for now -- reports today suggest the leader might be quite ill indeed -- make sure that it's the WTF that you sign up for at the gym.
Living under a totalitarian regime requires a daily suspension of disbelief. Nowhere is that more true today than in North Korea, where otherwise ethical people contort themselves into untenable moral positions because they’ve bought into the oft-repeated notion that their country is “Paradise on Earth.”
That's just a snippet of Kim Hyun Sik's fascinating secret history of Kim Jong Il in the latest issue of FP. As the Dear Leader's former teacher, Kim offers a rare portrait of the dictator as a young man, and the suspension of reality that he demands his countrymen participate in every day.
An important element of that effort is, of course, fear, but also a bombardment of propaganda. The California Literary Review recently published a handful of incredible propaganda posters from North Korea, and you might imagine that there's a common theme: Death to the United States. More posters have recently been compiled in this volume by art collector David Heater.
Here are some of the best posters from the CLR's collection with translations:
“When provoking a war of aggression, we will hit back, beginning with the US!”
“Let’s extensively raise goats in all families!”
“Do not forget the US imperialist wolves!”
Although relations have warmed somewhat between the two Koreas in recent years, that trend appears to be retreating -- rapidly.
Last month, a North Korean soldier shot an unarmed South Korean tourist while she was visiting Mt. Kumgang, a tourist area in the North operated by a South Korean company (shown at right). In response, South Korea suspended future tours to Mt. Kumgang and ordered all South Korean residents to leave the resort.
Now, the North Koreans have returned the favor, changing the wording on their official invitation to South Korean tourists. Chosun Ilbo's editorial board has more:
The words 'We invite' and 'guarantee the safety' of the visitor has been changed to 'agree' (to the visit) and 'offer accommodation.'... Without a formal safety guarantee, whether it is for Mt. Kumgang or Pyongyang, it has become dangerous for South Koreans to set foot on North Korean soil simply hoping that nothing will go wrong."
I guess it is now, if not impossible to travel to Mt. Kumgang, at least highly inadvisable.
While Kim Jong Il tries to throw his weight around on the world stage, one North Korean has actually done it. Today, Pak Hyon Suk won her country's first Olympic gold medal in Beijing, beating out the favorites in the 63 kg women's weightlifting category. This is the first time a North Korean has won a gold in women's weightlifting since the event started in 2000 (China, by contrast, has swept all five of the weightlifting categories it has entered in these games).
Pak was nearly eliminated after failing at her first two attempts. But, with a little help from "Dear Leader" (who declined an invitation to attend the games), she made it through. Says Pak:
[W]hen I was about to do my third attempt, I kept in my head the thought that my dear general's eyes will be upon me ...And that thought by itself was great encouragement, and that's how I managed to lift the last weight."
Pak may be the first North Korean on the medal stand this year but her country has picked up eight golds over the years, putting it well ahead of the chronic Olympic underperformers on FP's recent list. At least India finally broke its gold medal curse with a win in 10-meter air rifle on Monday.
The Hoover Institution, the conservative-leaning think tank located at my alma mater Stanford University, is finding itself in a bit of hot water over some 7 million pages of Baath Party records that both Iraqi and American archivists now say were taken by an "act of pillage" and must be returned to Iraq immediately.
The documents came to Stanford as part of a deal with the Iraq Memory Foundation, a nonprofit group run by Kanan Makiya (above left) -- an Iraqi exile known for his outspoken advocacy for the war in Iraq. Makiya, who stumbled upon the documents during the invasion's nascent period in 2003, maintains the information they contain is too dangerous for general view because they explicitly mention individuals who collaborated with the Hussein dictatorship:
This was not stuff for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to have access to," he said in a recent interview. "This stuff was dynamite."
While the last thing Iraq needs is more dynamite, this episode is yet another example of the United States and a certain cabal of Iraqi exiles thinking they know what's best for the country. As long as there's a reasonable enough guarantee that the documents will be safe, I agree with Jon Weiner's op-ed in Friday's Los Angeles Times: "It's up to the Iraqis to decide what to do with them."
Speculation is growing that Kim Jong Il will soon make a few pitstops around the Pacific. First up for the North Korean president? Beijing. China's Vice President Xi Jinping, who visited Kim in Pyongyang last week, reportedly asked Kim to attend the Olympics opening ceremony -- though there's been no word yet on Kim's response. Another unconfirmed Kim stop is Vietnam, where North Korea's ties have grown closer in recent months.
For Dear Leader, Beijing probably looks like a good platform for improving his global image and expressing support for China, his chief patron. And U.S.-North Korean relations, which have warmed of late, could be advanced by a hint of greater openness from Pyongyang. (Wouldn't it be interesting if Kim rubbed elbows with Dubya at the games?) There's even talk of the two Korean teams marching together at the opening ceremony in a "gesture of peace."
I'm guessing that Kim's real motive would be aid, much of which comes from China and Vietnam. Food shortages have prompted Kim and Co. to slash citizens' rations in recent months, prompting fears of massive starvation. Kim's recently strained relations with South Korea, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars of yearly aid to the North, certainly makes it necessary for the despot to seek help elsewhere.
As if North Korea could be any less tourist-friendly (see a recent FP list on the subject), today a North Korean soldier reportedly shot and killed a 53-year-old South Korean woman vacationing in the scenic Diamond Mountain region. The woman apparently entered a fenced-off area near the popular Mount Kumgang resort, which more than a million South Korean tourists have visited since its opening in 1998.
In response, South Korea has ordered the nearly 1,300 tourists who were staying at Mount Kumgang to pack their bags and come home. This is bad news for the impoverished North, as tourists are one of its few legitimate sources of foreign currency.
South Korea has handled the shooting pretty poorly. The South Korean government reportedly got word of the affair late Friday morning but didn't make an official announcement about it until 4 p.m., Seoul time. Problem is, the announcement came after President Lee Myung-bak gave a 2 p.m. address about his plans to resume talks with North Korea and didn't mention the shooting, though he already knew about it. That's not the sort of thing you want to do when one of your citizens has just been shot by your chief adversary.
As the Chosun Ilbo put it, "The incident could prove disastrous for inter-Korean ties." But it could also prove disastrous for the increasingly unpopular Lee Myung-bak, coming on the heels of the massive protests against his decision to resume imports of U.S. beef. Watch this space.
Yesterday, Pyongyang submitted a long-overdue declaration of its nuclear programs to China, in accordance with agreements made during the six-party talks. U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed the move as "one step in the multi-step process laid out by the six-party talks," immediately lifted the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act, and notified Congress of his intent to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
What does all this mean in practice? The Bush administration's moves are highly symbolic, and unlikely to have any immediate, practical impact. Most U.S. sanctions based on the Trading with the Enemy Act (pdf) were already lifted in 2000, and most of those still in place are authorized by an overlapping hodgepodge of other laws and regulations. Minor changes will go into effect -- for instance, some imports from North Korea will no longer require licenses -- but for the most part trade policies will remain unchanged.
Bush's intention to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terror list is a similarly symbolic gambit; the actual removal cannot go into effect for 45 days after the notification to Congress, and in any case it is probably contingent on verifying North Korea's nuclear declaration. Countries on the terror list cannot receive, among other things, U.S. economic aid or loans from the World Bank and other financial institutions. Removing North Korea from the list may allow more money to flow in, but, as a U.S. Treasury spokesman noted yesterday, sanctions aimed at preventing money laundering, illicit finance, and weapons proliferation will remain firmly in place.
Practicalities aside, this development has rightly been hailed as a diplomatic success; the New York Times today declared it a "triumph." The path to a denuclearized North Korea is still long and the process could easily be derailed at any point, but it is nice to finally have some reason, however slight, for optimism.
You're going to hear a lot in the coming days, I expect, about how the "North Korea model" can be applied to negotiations with Iran. Forgive me for raining on the parade here, but there are some important differences that we need to keep in mind.
In an op-ed he coauthored in Monday's Wall Street Journal Asia, McCain placed himself to the right of President Bush's policies on North Korea:
We must use the leverage available from the U.N. Security Council resolution passed after Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test to ensure the full and complete declaration, disablement and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear facilities, in a verifiable manner, which we agreed to with the other members of the six-party talks.
The key words here are "full and complete," since the Bush administration has shown flexibility on that front. And as Glenn Kessler notes, "leverage" in this instance is code for "threaten sanctions," an approach the Bush team abandoned in favor of direct diplomacy. Conservatives are increasingly critical of the current plan, under which Pyongyang would merely acknowledge U.S. concerns about uranium enrichment but admit to nothing.
In his speech in Denver Tuesday, McCain again took a hawkish line, saying, "It is a vital national interest for the North Korean nuclear program to be completely, verifiably and irreversibly ended."
Matt Yglesias thinks this illustrates that, "on national security policy, McCain is, if anything, more hard core than Bush." But I don't think he's so easy to pigeonhole. The candidate's speech is sprinkled with words like "multilateralism" and "allies" often enough to make Charlie Kupchan's heart flutter. He even spoke about working more closely with Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles. That doesn't sound like Bush 2.0 to me.
Think your job sucks? Try walking a mile in the shoes of Christopher Hill, who has been the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks since February 2005. For more than three years, Hill has been trying to convince North Korea to shut down its nuclear program and come clean about its nuclear activities.
He's had some success at the former, with the North Koreans agreeing to the dismantling of their plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. But Kim Jong Il's irascible regime has been notoriously coy about acknowledging just what it's been up to on the uranium and proliferation fronts. So, Hill negotiated a delicate workaround: North Korea would acknowledge U.S. concerns but admit to nothing. Then, the United States would remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that has all kinds of other legal and financial ramifications. On balance, it seemed like a good idea to at least mothball Yongbyon and learn as much as possible about the nuclear program. Why let the perfect become the enemy of the good? And on a factual level, North Korea hasn't actually sponsored terrorism since 1987.
But now, Hill's careful game of diplomatic Jenga may be coming apart. For months, North Korea has stalled, appearing to want to wait for a better deal from the next president. Last week's allegations about North Korea's nuclear cooperation with Syria appear to have only inflamed building congressional anger against the deal. And it's not just Republicans who were upset. Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously to require that the White House certify it has gotten a "complete and correct declaration" from Pyongyang. Hill's plan was, to be frank, to fudge it.
One congressional staffer told the Financial Times the White House would go "ballistic" over the committee's move, but the Bush administration still has a chance to convince the full House and the Senate to scuttle it. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed, however, that the White House has let Chris Hill run point on these negotiations for a reason. If things fall apart -- as it seems they might -- he can be hung out to dry and blamed for the failure. That would be a shame, because Hill is a real star of the diplomatic corps and somebody America needs to keep around.
Many commentators have wondered why the Bush adminstration chose last Thursday, of all days, to disclose the intelligence community's findings on North Korea's nuclear collaboration with Syria. Well, Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright of the Washington Post have an answer:
Key lawmakers nonetheless made it clear that unless the intelligence about Syria was described to them in detail, they would block funding for the deal and oppose a key waiver of a law preventing U.S. aid to a country that detonates a nuclear weapon.
Officials said the timing of the administration's disclosure was also influenced by a provision of the U.S. law governing state sponsors of terrorism, a list that has long included North Korea. Under the proposed nuclear disarmament deal, Washington has agreed to remove North Korea from the list, but the law requires that it first demonstrate that North Korea has not assisted another country on the list for at least six months. The intelligence presented this week indicated that North Korea helped Syria in removing equipment from the site through early October, meaning the six-month window only recently closed.
Far more often than they get credit for, U.S. officials do things that seem mysterious to outsiders when in reality they're just following the law. In this case, the aim was ostensibly to move North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism so that a deal could go forward. The irony is that with this disclosure, Republican lawmakers may be much less inclined to give North Korea a pass, and even leading establishment figures want the Bush administration to teach Kim Jong Il a lesson. What seems especially damning is the intelligence showing that North Korea has been dealing with the Syrians all along while pretending to negotiate in good faith.
As an aside, I owe Kessler an apology for this post and this one questioning his early reporting on the Syrian nuclear site. It turns out Kessler's reporting was spot-on and appropriately caveated, and continues to be invaluable. His biography of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is excellent, too.
Earlier this week, intelligence officials released new evidence confirming that the "Box on the Euphrates" near al-Kibar in Syria was in fact a nuclear reactor. They also released photographs that they used to argue that North Korea was providing significant levels of assistance to the reactor project in Syria.
The Syrian facility apparently contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor (a derivation from the Calder Hall design) extremely similar to the reactor at Yongbyon. It's a relatively simple design, extensively described in the public domain, and one that's capable of producing plutonium useable in nuclear weapons. Despite the surfeit of publicly available information on the reactor, the intelligence community firmly asserts that, in this case, the design information came from North Korea.
Noting that the Syrian reactor seemed ill-suited to electricity production (not least because there were no detectable power lines leading away from the site), intelligence analysts also concluded that it would have few uses other than for producing plutonium for an illicit nuclear weapons program. Israel came to a similar conclusion and, judging this to be a potentially existential threat, bombed the reactor as a result.
These revelations raise more questions than they answer. For instance, why release this evidence now? The analysts said it was hoped that, among other things, releasing this information would prod the North Koreans to be more forthcoming in the six-party talks. It seems just as likely that they may just be infuriated and walk away from negotiations (there is no public sign of such a reaction yet, though).
Perhaps most notable in the briefing on Thursday was how coy the analysts were being about the possibility that Syria has a covert nuclear weapons program. They noted very specifically that "there is no reprocessing facility in the region of al Kibar," but refused to elaborate when asked whether the Syrians might be building such a facility elsewhere. They also refused to comment on how Syria might have been planning to acquire the natural uranium required to fuel the reactor and they dodged a question about how North Korean diplomats have so far reacted to this disclosure.
These omissions could be designed to minimize diplomatic blowback -- perhaps the administration simply hoped to nudge the North Koreans gently, rather than shove them -- or perhaps the spooks simply don’t have much more information. Hopefully the North Korean and Syrian reactions over the next week or so will provide more insight. Watch this space.
Coupled with missile tests and diplomatic maneuvers, these comments are worrisome but not necessarily out of the ordinary for Pyongyang. Nevertheless,
If "everything" means all of
Very little reliable information exists, but based on aggregated seismic data from North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, Harvard analyst Hui Zhang estimates (pdf) that the yield of that explosion was between 0.5 and 2 kilotons (for comparison, the yield of the weapon used at Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons, while other countries' first nuclear tests generally yielded 9 kilotons or above). For simplicity’s sake, let's assume
As for the number of weapons,
If, on the other hand,
I've seen this man protesting outside the Sudanese Embassy, just up the street here on Massachusetts Ave. Apparently, his name is "Start Loving":
An anti-war protester who identified himself as Start Loving takes part in a demonstration titled 'March of the Dead' near Arlington Cemetery's Women's Memorial, March 19, 2008, in Arlington, Virginia.
Over at Democracy Arsenal, a blog about foreign policy from a Democratic perspective, Michael Cohen says he thinks all the excitement over the New York Philharmonic's trip to Pyongyang is a bit ridiculous:
Look, I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon... but I really don't see how this event does anything to impact the terrible existence of the North Korean people. It seems instead to me as if the Philharmonic (well meaning as they certainly are) was played for a patsy.
That's certainly the tenor of comments you'll get from folks like Brian Meyers, the dean of international studies at Dongseo University in Pusan, who believes the trip was a propaganda boon to Kim Jong Il's regime.
I wonder, though, who was really making the claim that the trip would help the North Korean people? The question at hand is whether the Philharmonic's performance could somehow help move the nuclear negotiations along. For some answers on that front, check out FP's interview with Nam Sung-wook, a top "North Koreanologist" at Korea University in Seoul.
I had an interesting discussion earlier this week with Michael Goldfarb, my counterpart at the Weekly Standard, regarding growing speculation about a North Korean collapse. You can catch my Bloggingheads.tv debut here, in which we also chat about missile defense, Iran, neocon dreamboat John McCain, the next U.S. president's Bush-like foreign policy, and the possibility of a coup in Pakistan (I'm the handsome, if orangish-looking fellow on the left).
In the "diavlog," I mention an interesting article in Military Review (pdf) that argues that the Chinese are making aggressive, serious contingency plans for the fall of Kim Jong Il's regime.
Since our discussion, Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shumbun has looked into the matter further and has this to report:
Security specialists of the Chinese People's Liberation Army have been discussing the possibility of sending troops to North Korea should the present regime of Kim Jong Il collapse, to prevent armed refugees from entering the northeastern part of China, sources close to China-North Korea relations revealed Monday.
China fears that, in addition to ordinary North Korean refugees, armed members of the country's military and security forces might also become refugees, entering the border area in the northeastern region in China. Chinese troops sent to North Korea would help maintain security and safeguard the country's nuclear facilities.
According to the sources, China considers the situation in North Korea to be stable for the time being, but is hastily formulating emergency measures to cope with unexpected circumstances nonetheless.
How likely is a North Korean implosion? Who the heck really knows? But the regime is definitely under a lot of stress lately, so it's a situation that bears close watching. I hope smart people at the Pentagon are thinking hard about the possibility.
Do also check out Andrei Lankov's memo to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "How to Topple Kim Jong Il." Folks tell us it was making the rounds at the State Department back in March 2007 when it was first published, though we can't say for sure whether Condi herself read it.
If you took the FP Quiz in our November/December 2007 issue, you would know that 23 countries maintain embassies in North Korea. But in how many countries does the Hermit Kingdom maintain an embassy? According to the listings for North Korea on the Embassy Information Web site, the answer is currently 56. Ask that same question at end of this month, however, and the answer will drop to 55.
North Korea's embassy in Australia is slated to close at the end of January because the country can no longer afford it. North Korea's most senior diplomat in Australia, Pak Myong Guk, blamed the high cost of the recent flooding in North Korea for the closure, and said that "When our financial situation is... resolved, then I think our embassy will be re-established again here in Canberra."
It's a plausible reason, but as an Aussie, my instinct is to wonder: Why Australia? Why not, say, Austria, given the relative strength of the euro? In any case, I'm surprised that North Korea is in financial trouble. With all the business opportunities offered by the country, you would think the won would be rolling in.
North Korea is not a normal country. Its leaders and state mouthpieces rarely directly say what they mean. Instead, they resort to the same sorts of tactics a truculent toddler might use to get what he wants: screaming, refusing to budge, and so on. The latest? The country threatened to bolster its "deterrent capabilities" to counter "U.S. attempts to initiate nuclear war."
Faced with such bizarre outbursts, many reporters seem mystified as to why Kim Jong Il's regime would suddenly appear to renege on its commitment to disclose all of its nuclear programs. Just being fickle and untrustworthy? But when it comes to North Korea, there's always something else going on behind the craziness. Facing rising inflation back home, China has cut off food exports to the struggling North Koreans:
In Dandung, Liaoning Province, near China’s border with North Korea, food exports to the impoverished country have been completely suspended. Up until now, an average of approximately 1,200 tons of food has crossed the border every day, but as of the beginning of the year, the Chinese government has not issued any new permissions for exports. [...]
China began blocking grain exports in late December of last year in order to stabilize domestic food prices. On December 20, 2007, Beijing suddenly abolished tax incentives for grain exports. Since then, food assistance to North Korea has been completely stopped. As China has refused to permit food exports, officials are finding it useless to try to pay duties on grains.
Not knowing any other way to communicate, the North Koreans tend to lash out when their food supplies run low. And we could be talking about a humanitarian catastrophe soon:
Almost 80-90 percent of food aid to North Korea is delivered via Dandung. If the current situation continues for an extended period of time, North Korea’s food supplies are expected to deteriorate quickly.
The official in Dandung noted that the demand for food will climb in North Korea owing to what is anticipated to be another season of poverty in the spring. "If external shipments of food aid are blocked, North Korean residents will be forced to depend on smuggling or flee the nation," the official added.
Perhaps there's something more nefarious going on, but Occam's Razor suggests that an impending famine is the main reason for the North's latest tantrum. Until the country's leaders learns how to address such problems in a forthright manner, I'm afraid, this is the kind of thing we can expect.
Are you looking for a hot new business opportunity that's sure to excite? Look no further than... North Korea.
According to the Official Business Webpage of the DPRK, North Korea "will become in the next years the most important hub for trading in North-East Asia." Forget China. North Korea not only provides the lowest labor costs in Asia (which is quite simple when your economy is impoverished and that pesky business of human rights protection is completely out of the picture), the government also ensures that foreigners will not have to deal with middlemen: "All business made directly with the government, state-owned companies." Moreover, North Korea offers tax incentives, particularly for high-tech operations, and a "stable" political environment (one of the benefits of a strong-fisted dictatorship) that claims to be corruption-free.
So what type of products does the DPRK sell abroad? The country's exports in goods include ship parts, computer machinery, cosmetics, garments, vehicles, and more. North Korea also offers services internationally, sending IT engineers and programmers, historical site restorers, construction workers, doctors, and "organizers of mass gymnastics" abroad. Examples of business success stories working with the North Koreans include the export of ginseng to Spain and the United States, the production of a cartoon series for Denmark, and V.I.P. tours from the Netherlands.
The strangeness of some of the country's specializations aside, this effort by North Korea to open up (albeit slightly) economically and engage the international business community may just be a positive development for the country and the region. Even if skeptics of "constructive engagement" are right and these business links don't lead to political and regime change, there's still the hope that any increase in employment in North Korea will help the general population. As many as two million North Koreans died during the famine a decade ago in the Hermit Kingdom. Opening up is surely a better option. And with progress being made on the nuclear front, will it simply be a matter of time before North Korea sheds its pariah status?
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, speaking in Seoul on Friday, had this to say about sanctions levied against North Korea for its nuclear test last year:
The sanctions are there until the DPRK (North Korea) gets out of the nuclear business. That is when they ought to be revisited.
Taken at face value, Hill's comments are an enormous hedge on the agreement with the North. The sanctions will stay in place at least until North Korea's nuclear program no longer exists—a process that could take years. A U.S. team is beginning to disable North Korea's Yongbyon reactor today and is expected to complete its work by the end of 2007, but "gets out of the nuclear" business is a broad phrase that could be interpreted any number of ways.
There is also some interesting subtext to Hill's quote. In early September, Israel destroyed an alleged Syrian nuclear facility that was thought to have been built with North Korean help. It looked to many like the North Koreans were negotiating with Hill in bad faith, threatening to torpedo the six-party talks. But anonymous Bush administration officials told the New York Times last week that the Syrian site had existed as early as 2003; hence, cooperation between Syria and North Korea existed long before the current diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang. As the Times' William J. Broad and Mark Mazzetti put it:
If North Korea started its Syrian aid long ago, the [Bush administration] officials could argue that the assistance was historical, not current, and that diplomacy should move ahead.
This hasn't been enough to ease concerns that the United States is treating Pyongyang with kid gloves. Hill's comments might be an attempt to assuage critics of the North Korea deal. First, they make clear to North Korea that providing nuclear assistance of any kind would violate the deal. Second, Hill implies that sanctions will not go away until Pyongyang's nuclear program is completely nonexistent—and even then, the sanctions will merely be "revisited," not lifted automatically. Whether this will be enough to reassure those who believe the United States is taking it easy on North Korea is unclear. I get the sense that some people in the U.S. government won't be happy until the deal with North Korea is dead and buried.
I'm growing more convinced that Syria was up to something, possibly an embryonic nuclear program. This huge New York Times story by William Broad and Mark Mazzetti advances what we know considerably:
New commercial satellite photos show that a Syrian site believed to have been attacked by Israel last month no longer bears any obvious traces of what some analysts said appeared to have been a partly built nuclear reactor.
Two photos, taken Wednesday from space by rival companies, show the site near the Euphrates River to have been wiped clean since August, when imagery showed a tall square building there measuring about 150 feet on a side.
Jeffrey Lewis raises some important points, though:
- The people leaking are those dissatisfied with US policy. "A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration," Mazetti and Helen Cooper reported, about "whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House … was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations." Obviously, that rethinking hasn't happened yet. The people who lost that debate are leaking national security information, appealing to the press. That is precisely why Hoekstra (R-MI) and Ros-Lehtinen called for more information — this is about North Korea, not Syria.
- We haven't heard from the people who, as Mazetti and Cooper reported, were "cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings" or "remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat." They might have important information to add, were they willing to leak it.
Look for clues in tomorrow and this weekend's papers, when we may find out if the cautious types are going to push back against this story.
We've all seen photos of the slightly mind-boggling displays of North Korean propaganda known as the Mass Games. Here's this week's installment taken from Wednesday's event, which had special guest South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in attendance.
And if you're like me and curious as to whether they teach new formations for each and every event, the answer is no. I stumbled upon a repeat from 2002 while reading up on recent games. Not that repetition makes this any less insane.
Earlier this week, Passport speculated as to why the mood of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il improved so dramatically from Tuesday to Wednesday during his summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. On Tuesday, Kim looked sullen and glum, but on Wednesday, he was all smiles, even asking Roh if he wanted to extend his stay for a few more days. Was Kim putting on a show for the international community? Was he happy about the agreement to end the decades-long Korean War, or relieved about the agreement to dismantle nuclear weapons?
None of the above. Knowing Kim is a film buff, Roh gave him a stack of DVDs of South Korean movies and television shows. One was "Jewel in the Palace," a television show about a cook for the Korean royal family back when the peninsula was unified. It stars Lee Yong-ae, rumored to be Kim's favorite actress. For a guy who loves movies so much that he once kidnapped a director and actress and forced them to fulfill his cinematic vision, it's a nice gift.
It's also ironic, considering Pyongyang prohibits DVDs from the South. Here's how the government enforces the ban, according to Reuters:
A routine tactic used by North Korean police is to cut the electricity to apartment blocks before a raid and then go to each home to check what is on video tapes or DVDs that have become stuck inside players.
The downside for Kim is that he's going to have to enjoy his DVDs on an old television. It was rumored in the South Korean press that Roh would present Kim with a flat screen TV. That idea was scrapped - the TV would have violated UN sanctions prohibiting luxury good exports to the North.
The summit between North Korea and South Korea took a strange turn today when news of an offer by the North's Dear Leader Kim Jong Il to extend the conference by two days emerged. The offer—quickly rejected by South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun—came a day after Kim greeted Roh coldly, seemed disinterested in the talks, and appeared ill. But on Wednesday, reports indicate Kim was in good spirits, smiling occasionally, and engaging Roh in conversation. See for yourself:
On Thursday, the two are expected to issue a joint declaration and unveil a so-called "mystery package," rumored to include plans for increased economic cooperation and a peace plan that could be the first step towards officially ending the Korean War.
Was Kim's improved mood behind the breakthrough and the invitation to stay a few extra days? Was he happy he had finally reached an agreement to dismantle his nuclear weapons? Did he realize he's in a tight spot with this Syria situation, and hoped a little hospitality might help his international image? Or did Kim ask Roh to stay because he's "a rittle ronery" all by himself Pyongyang?
A number of reports out of Asia today add precious little clarity to what is becoming a growing international story: Israel's alleged bombing on September 6 of nuclear materials of North Korean origin in Syria. First, South Korean and Japanese officials mysteriously said that the next round six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear program, which had been scheduled for September 19, are being delayed. Japanese officials told the Associated Press they did not know why Pyongyang delayed the talks. However, AFP reported that South Korean officials said the talks were pushed back because the Chinese had yet to deliver 50,000 tons of fuel, as they agreed to do in February. An unidentified South Korean foreign ministry official said:
It appears the North's refusal is a simple protest against something it is not happy with, rather than to squeeze more out of the others.
News of the delay was unexpected, given Kim Jong Il's recent cooperative moves. It's also suspicious, as the most likely reasons for a delay would seem to be related to the charge North Korea was providing nuclear assistance to Syria. That connection was disputed by Joseph Cirincione here, but the story continues to gain traction in the British press, with detailed new reports over the weekend alleging the North Korea-Syria axis. On Saturday, U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill didn't directly address the allegations, but told reporters the plan in any case was to press ahead with the six-party talks. On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Gates neither denied nor confirmed the allegations, but said that the U.S. was watching both North Korea and Syria closely.
Then on Monday morning, Seoul's foreign minister dismissed any nuclear connection between North Korea and Syria. Granted, this could be an effort by the South Koreans to salvage the talks the progress made in the last year, and the upcoming summit between the two Koreas. But given the sensational quality of the reports—clandestine air strikes, dumped fuel tanks on the Turkish border, secret nuclear caches and such—this story is not likely to disappear.
I think we know what side of the burgeoning "bomb Iran" discussion Bob Gates is on. Speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, who asked about comments by Gen. David Petraeus about Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases thought to be supplying arms to Shiite militants in Iraq, the U.S. secretary of defense indicated that diplomacy remains the Bush administration's preferred approach to the Islamic Republic. My transcription:
Wallace: As the general's boss, why not cross the Iranian border to take out these camps that are endangering U.S. soldiers [in Iraq]?
Gates: Now, first of all, there's a question of just how much intelligence we have in terms of specific locations and so on. But beyond that, I think that the general view is we can manage this problem through better operations inside Iraq and on the border with Iran—that we can take care of the Iranian threat or deal with the Iranian threat inside the borders of Iraq, and don't need to go across the border into Iran.
Wallace: Let me ask you a more general question, because there's a lot of chatter in Washington now that the administration is more actively considering various plans to take military action against Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program. First of all, is that true, and secondly, can you promise that the president will consult, will go to Congress for approval before he would ever take any such action?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about what we may or may not do. I will tell you that I think that the administration believes at this point that continuing to try an deal with the Iranian threat, the Iranian challenge, through diplomatic and economic means is by far the preferable approach. That's the one we are using. We always say, "All options are on the table," but clearly, the diplomatic and economic approach is the one that we are pursuing.
Wallace: That's on the front burner still?
Wallace then turned to another, possibly related subject of Washington chatter: the recent Israeli air strikes on Syria. Many analysts view the strikes as a pointed warning from Israel to Iran; some administration officials say they were aimed at North Korean nuclear materials. Gates was cagey:
Wallace: Let's turn to another part of the world. Is Syria involved in a covert nuclear program with North Korean assistance?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into things that may involve intelligence matters, but all I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully.
Wallace: How would we regard that kind of effort, both in terms of the Syrians and the North Koreans?
Gates: I think it would be a real problem.
Gates: If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern, because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts and obviously, any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern for us.
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