China-North Korea relations still strained a year after Jang Song-thaek’s death

It wasn’t welcome news for China last year, when it heard North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un purged his uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

Jang was well known for supporting closer ties with China, especially for Beijing-backed economic reforms.

A year has passed, but China and North Korea relations are still feeling the strain from Jang’s execution. The number of political exchanges between the two countries has fallen sharply. In July, the Chinese president visited South Korea first, skipping a traditional stopover in Pyongyang.

As for their economic ties, the two countries were looking to develop North Korea’s Rason and Hwanggumpyong special economic zones. However, these projects also hit a major speed bump after Jang’s death.

In numbers, China’s trade with North Korea still accounts for most of North Korea’s foreign trade.

As for North Korea’s nuclear test threats, Beijing was unusually bold in its criticism. It agreed to tighten UN Security Council sanctions on the regime.

But while North Korea may be losing China, it’s making friends with Russia.

[Arirang News]

UN Security Council members push to put North Korea rights on agenda

A U.N. Commission of Inquiry report in February detailed abuses in North Korea that it said were comparable to Nazi-era atrocities, and a U.N. committee last month urged the Security Council to consider referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) alleging crimes against humanity.

China, likely supported by Russia, would probably veto any referral to the international court based in The Hague, diplomats say, but it cannot block having the rights situation added to the council agenda.

Ten of the Security Council’s 15 members – Australia, Chile, France, Jordan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, South Korea, Rwanda, Britain and the United States – signed a letter drafted by Australia asking for the council to be briefed by U.N. officials on the human rights situation in North Korea.

“We are particularly concerned by the scale and gravity of human rights violations detailed in the comprehensive report” by the Commission of Inquiry, said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

Majority support is needed to add a new item to the U.N. Security Council agenda and such a move cannot be blocked by any of the five veto-wielding powers – the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China, diplomats said.

Once an issue is on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council it can be discussed by the body at any time.

[Reuters]

Meet North Korean refugee Jee Heon-a

A United Nations inquiry held in Seoul, chaired by former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, produced a massive, 400-page report detailing North Korean atrocities. Kirby explained to Reuters that the report was compiled from testimony given by former inmates and North Korean exiles at hearings in Seoul and Tokyo.

Pyongyang furiously denounced the report as a “fraud” and a tactic of “the frantic human rights racket” and labeled the witnesses who had come forth as “human scum.” But all the testimony, given in public, is now on the public record, on the UN website, for all to see.

For example,  the story of Jee Heon-a, who was arrested during the government-induced famine in 1999 for the crime of collecting grass to eat!

Together with a younger girl who was caught with her, Jee Heon-a’s punishment was to be forced to eat clods of grass covered in soil. The other girl was immediately gripped by diarrhea, she said: “Suddenly she couldn’t get up or turn over. She died with her eyes open because she didn’t have the strength to close them.”

Jee also told of how she witnessed a mother giving birth in a prison camp and being forced by guards to drown her own baby in a bucket of water.

Jee eventually managed to flee to South Korea.

[Sydney Morning Herald]

North Korea beginning Chinese style reforms – Part 1

[Excerpts of an opinion piece by Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul]

There is big news coming from North Korea recently, though it has gone largely unnoticed. The so-called “May 30th Measures”, jointly issued early this year by the North Korean cabinet of ministers and the Central Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party, is revolutionary.

It seems that, at long last, North Korea has decided to begin Chinese-style reforms. Kim Jong-un is … attempting to transform his country into a developmental dictatorship, largely similar to present-day Vietnam or China.

This decision did not come out of the blue. Indeed, it agrees very well with what Kim Jong Un and his advisers have quietly been doing over the last three years – albeit the slow-motion transformation of the country has attracted little attention from outside world.

The first significant step was the introduction of the so-called “June 28th Measures”. These measures were introduced in 2012, allowing North Korean farmers to create their own production teams of five or six people, … a signal that individual households should register as “production teams”. Such teams were given a plot of land, the assumption being that they would toil the same area for several consecutive years. The produce would henceforth be split 70:30 between the state and the production team (ie the family). Up until then, North Korean production teams had been much larger, and all produce had to be submitted to the state in exchange for a fixed daily grain ration that was allocated to every farmer.

In essence, this reform marked a seismic shift: It marked the first step towards the reprivatisation of agriculture. The year 2013 (the first year that the reforms were fully in force) brought the best harvest that North Korea has seen in decades. The world media, predictably enough, missed the entire story, but in 2013, North Korea, for the first time since the late 1980s, produced almost enough food to feed itself.

[continued]

North Korea beginning Chinese style reforms – Part 2

[Excerpts of an opinion piece by Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul]

From 2015 according to the “May 30th Measures”, North Korean farming households (for ideological purposes still branded “production teams”) will be allocated not 30 percent but 60 percent of the total harvest. Additionally, farming households will be given large plots of land – some 3,300sq m – to act as their kitchen gardens. Until now, North Korea never tolerated private agriculture to any significant degree.

And now the North Korean leadership has set its sights on reforming the moribund and hollowed out state industrial sector. Under the new system, factory directors will have the freedom to decide how, when and where they purchase technologies, raw materials and spare parts necessary for their enterprises. They will also be allowed to decide who to sell to. They are also given the right to hire and fire workers, as well as to decide how much to pay for a particular job. Under the new system, there is a tacit assumption that directors will be able to reward themselves generously for their own work – a feature that makes them virtually indistinguishable from private entrepreneurs in market economies.

There are however serious problems that the North Korean economy will have to overcome in the future, above all, the severe shortage of foreign investment. Due to the remarkably bad track record of North Korean companies in dealing with foreign investors, international sanctions, and the country’s dubious reputation, foreign investors will be wary.

It would also be naive to expect a reforming North Korea to become either significantly more liberal or to jettison its nuclear programme. The North Korean government is only too aware that their people face a highly attractive alternative that is South Korea, right next door. The government is not enthusiastic about an East German-style revolution. Hence, they are likely to remain highly repressive in their domestic policy, and they are also likely to maintain their nuclear potential in order to ward off possibility of humanitarian intervention.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to believe that the new system will deliver impressive results. North Korean agriculture is already doing better than ever. One should expect that industry will start to catch up once capitalist (or if you prefer, “market”) system is introduced formally into the state sector. At the end of the day, this is good news for everybody in and outside North Korea, though one should not expect an overnight transformation.

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North Korea “the most dangerous place on Earth”

Along the so-called Demilitarized Zone that divides South Korea from North Korea, only about 2,000 yards of wasteland separate hundreds of thousands of battle-ready troops backed by enough artillery to obliterate each other within a few hours.

Over the decades, sporadic gun battles have taken the lives of scores of soldiers on both sides. The Communist regime still sends spies and saboteurs and now drones south, keeping the war at a low boil. Naval and air clashes regularly erupt. Just south of the DMZ, South Korea keeps finding tunnels big enough to rush thousands of Communist soldiers south in an hour.

“The most dangerous place on Earth,” President Bill Clinton once called the Korean Peninsula, and it’s probably gotten more dangerous since he said that two decades ago. Following a searing U.N. condemnation this month of its Soviet-style gulags and other human rights outrages, Pyongyang threatened a fourth nuclear weapon test.

Such grandiose brinksmanship is typical of the regime. Last year, North Korea rattled its missiles at Hawaii, Guam and Washington, D.C. (no matter that it can’t yet reach them) as well as South Korea.

Faced with such threats over the years, the U.S. has embraced its own doomsday scenario. After meeting with the U.S. commander in South Korea when he was defense secretary in 2012, Leon Panetta said he had a “powerful sense that war in that region was neither hypothetical nor remote, but ever-present and imminent,” he recalls in his memoir. If the Communists invaded en masse, he wrote, the U.S. would use “nuclear weapons, if necessary.”

All of which makes Korea a kind of Cold War theater of the absurd, frozen in amber. Outright war is unthinkable, suicidal. Yet both sides talk about a future “reunification” based on the triumph of one side over the other.

Most observers think China will never permit a North Korean collapse, in part because it would propel millions of refugees into its territory, not to mention open the gates to a U.S -South Korean advance to its doorstep. Nevertheless, officials in Seoul recently showed off its Ministry of Unification, which has an annual budget of about $180 million and 200 staffers (augmented by 600 government advisers) dreaming about the future, “so people won’t be caught off guard when it actually happens,” as a slideshow there instructed the visiting reporters. Plus, according to South Korea’s JoongAng Daily, the government has budgeted as much as $500 billion for “a possible sudden collapse of [the North Korean] government or another kind of rapid and unexpected reunification.”

[excerpted from Newsweek]

North Korea’s sea-based nuclear deterrent

Recent reports that North Korea is developing submarines based on obsolete Golf-II class Soviet-era submarines has gained worldwide attention. However obsolete, it is reported that North Korea had invested its time in “examining and replicating” the missile-launch system of the Soviet-era subs.

Reports confirm that Pyongyang already is developing a vertical-launch system for submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Raising further concerns about that is the fact that North Korean ballistic missiles could be armed with nuclear warheads.

Reports also have confirmed that Pyongyang does have the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, which could further enable them to fit nuclear-capable submarine launched ballistic missiles on those submarines. Though the submarines at present may not be able to launch missiles that could hit targets in the United States, the missiles could possibly target forward-based U.S. forces in the Asia Pacific Region.

[read full USNI News opinion