Monthly Archives: December 2012

Cautious South Korea appears open to dialogue with North

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Emerging from victory, Park Geun-hye who will become the next, and the first woman, president of South Korea. Concerning North Korea, Park has said she will try to find a middle ground between the two much-criticized approaches of previous presidents — Roh Moo-hyun, who showered North Korea with unconditional aid, and the outgoing Lee Myung-bak, who treated the North as an adversary.

Pyongyang managed to exploit both approaches, continuing with its weapons program — and conducting its first nuclear test — during a long period of South-led engagement, and later turning more violent, launching two fatal attacks on the South, when that engagement was yanked away.

Park has stressed that she will use “robust deterrence” to counter the North Korean military threat. But she says she is also open to meeting with 29-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “if it helps in moving forward North-South relations.”

Three in five Koreans, according to a recent government poll, believe that Lee took too hard a line against the North during his soon-to-end five-year term. He ended almost all humanitarian aid and economic projects, saying everything would be restored if the North gave up its weapons. He also talked often about the “inevitability” of unification, hinting that the North was unstable and soon to collapse.

Lee had hoped his stance would pressure the North, turning it desperate and compliant. Instead, the North drastically increased its ties with China and continued with its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches, the latest coming earlier this month.

Park’s approach is more dovish than Lee’s but still much more stern than the “Sunshine Policy” — introduced by Kim Dae-jung in 1998 and continued by Roh — that liberal candidate Moon Jae-in promised to reinstate. No matter the North’s behavior, Park says, she will resume political dialogue and provide some sort of humanitarian aid. She also plans to restore some small-scale economic projects and cultural exchanges, although she has stayed vague about specifics.

But for the South to provide anything more significant, Park says, the North must begin to dismantle its nuclear weapons — something it has vowed will never happen.

North Korea policy of new South Korean President Park Geun-hye

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Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye,  the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, claimed victory Wednesday in South Korea’s presidential election, a result that will make her the country’s first woman president. Park will assume office in February 2013, in a country grappling with income inequality, angst over education and employment prospects for its youth, and strained relations with North Korea.

Polls showed that North-South relations ranked fifth in the most salient issues to the Korean public, falling far behind job creation, economic issues and education.

Less than 10% prioritized relations with Pyongyang, according to polls. “Threat perception overall toward North Korea has somewhat waned,” said Jong Kun Choi, an associate professor of political sciences and international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

After the announcement of North Korea’s missile launch, about half of the respondents in a poll said they expected the rocket to have no effect in the election. “It used to be the case that a major blow from North Korea would critically affect South Korea’s election. However, this may not have a major impact as it used to be, because first of all, we are so used to it,” Choi said.

Steve Chung, who has examined the North Korean factor in South Korean presidential elections in the last two decades, said he observed that the regime is “less and less important” in this election compared with previous ones. “This year, the inter-Korea atmosphere is not as strong,” said Chung, a PhD candidate in the department of Korean studies at the university of Sydney.

South Koreans have become used to provocation from their neighbor, said Choi. “It’s been going on for the last 20 years, despite so many sporadic skirmishes, virtually nothing has happened,” he said.

Park’s policy of engaging with North Korea may not differ much from Lee’s, said Christopher Green, manager of international affairs for DailyNK, which covers North Korea. Even if Seoul was to implement a policy of unrestricted aid for North Korea, there is little guarantee that the regime would respond.


North Korea displays Kim Jong Il a year after his death

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North Korea unveiled the embalmed body of Kim Jong Il, still in his trademark khaki jumpsuit, on the anniversary of his death as mourning mixed with pride over a recent satellite launch that was a long-held goal of the late authoritarian leader.

In the Kumsusan mausoleum, a cavernous former presidential palace, Kim Jong Il was presented lying beneath a red blanket, a spotlight shining on his face in a room suffused in red. Wails echoed through the chilly hall as a group of North Korean women sobbed into the sashes of their traditional Korean dresses as they bowed before his body.

North Korea also unveiled Kim’s yacht and his armored train carriage, where he is said to have died. Among the personal belongings featured in the mausoleum are the parka, sunglasses and pointy platform shoes he famously wore in the last decades of his life. A MacBook Pro lay open on his desk.

At a memorial service on Sunday, North Korea’s top leadership not only eulogized Kim Jong Il, but also praised his son. Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of North Korea’s parliament, called the recent rocket launch a “shining victory” and an emblem of the promise that lies ahead with Kim Jong Un in power.

Recent high-profile appointments made by Kim Jong Un

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Last July, Kim Jong Un dismissed military chief Ri Yong Ho, who was seen as one of his key mentors, and named little-known vice marshal Hyon Yong Chol as his new General Staff chief.

In April, Kim reshuffled top Workers’ Party posts by taking on top party posts held by his father and giving other high-level posts to close associates. In recent months, North Korea has also reshuffled top Cabinet members such as the ministers of sports, electronics industry and agriculture, according to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.

More recently, North Korea replaced its defense minister with a hard-line military commander believed responsible for deadly attacks on South Korea in 2010. Diplomats in Pyongyang told the Associated Press that they were informed that Kim Jong Gak had been replaced as armed forces minister by Kim Kyok Sik, commander of the battalions linked to two deadly attacks in 2010 blamed on North Korea.

That move came amid speculation that North Korea was preparing a long-range rocket launch, which it has since successfully launched. The appointment of a hawkish general could mean North Korea wanted to show a tough face to Washington and Seoul, said analyst Hong Hyun-ik at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

Baek Seung-joo, an analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for Defence Analyses in Seoul, adds that Kim Jong Un is trying to put his stamp on the military by building loyalty with troops and also by creating tension among generals through personnel changes.


A death knell for the North Korean regime?

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A New York Times excerpt on how a typical North Korean might react to a visit to a border city in China:

The lucky few North Koreans who make it to Dandong [a large Chinese, border city across the Yalu River from North Korea] are stunned by what they find: the car-choked streets, hot showers and the ability to speak out without fear.

But mostly, they are overwhelmed by the array and abundance of inexpensive food.

While her compatriots said they stuffed themselves with meat-filled dumplings and rice, Mrs. Kim ate only apples for the first five days. She said she had not eaten them since childhood.

“I thought our country lived well,” she said, “but I was mistaken.”

The more North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-Un opens his country up to the outside, the more people will find that that they have been told for half a century now is a pathetic lie. What that means for the future of the regime only time will tell, but as we’ve seen elsewhere in the world openness to the outside is often the death knell for dictatorships.

Kim Jong Un and the show of North Korean military might

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Kim Jong Un gained power by birthright, and the world is watching as he attempts to rule in his own right.

His grandfather, the “Great Leader”, passed power to his “Dear Leader” son, the erratic, eccentric Kim Jong Il. And he in turn passed power to a third generation Kim, the so-called “Supreme Leader,” not yet 30.

“He is the youngest head of state in the world,” said analyst Patrick Chovanec. “There’s still a lot of debate about how much power he has, whether other family members are in control or the military.”

Before Kim Jong Un is one of the largest armies on the planet. It is a war machine, still fighting a battle from more than half a century ago. They move in lockstep, legs kicking and arms swinging as one, discipline and focus measured in millimeters. A vast arsenal of weapons, missiles and tanks, paid for by the suffering of the people it is primed to defend.

Kim Jong Un may struggle to emerge from the shadows of his father and grandfather, but the gun here looms even larger. As young and green as he is, he knows this much: Without it, his rule and the regime itself will not survive.

North Korea rocket system based on old Soviet technology

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The missile that North Korea fired Wednesday appeared to be a four-stage rocket based on old Soviet technology, much less advanced than the rockets being used across the border in China, said Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer and the author of “Rocket Boys.”

“What the North Koreans have done is taken the technology the Russians developed 50 years ago and upgraded it a little bit and they’re trying to use that old technology to cause a splash in the international scene and to get paid attention to,” he said.

And it seems to have worked.

Chung Min Lee, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University, says the launch was designed to send a message to the United States and China. “Kim Jong Un has told President Obama and Xi Jinping, ‘I am not going to do business as usual. I’ll go down this particular path, come what may.’”

So after 14 years of painstaking labor, North Korea finally has a rocket that can put a satellite in orbit. But that doesn’t mean the reclusive country is close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Experts say Pyongyang is years from even having a shot at developing reliable missiles that could bombard the American mainland and other distant targets, though it already poses a threat to its more immediate neighbors.

The cost of the North Korean rocket launch

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While only the highest echelons of North Korea’s opaque leadership will know the full financial cost of Wednesday’s launch, South Korea’s government estimates Pyongyang spent $1.3 billion on its rocket program this year.

Though the price of North Korea’s rocket launches might be lower because North Korean workers earn much less than their southern neighbors, says Cheong Wook-Sik, Director of South Korea’s Peace Network in Seoul.

According to an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the two rockets launched this year — this week’s mission and a failed attempt in April — cost $600 million, while the launch site itself is estimated at $400 million. Other related facilities add another $300 million.

[$1.3 billion] is equivalent to acquiring 4.6 million tons of corn,” a South Korean official said. “If this was used for solving the food shortage issue, North Koreans would not have to worry about food for four to five years.”

But the financial cost and any risk of further sanctions may be a tradeoff for internal political gain as leader Kim Jong-Un tries to solidify his grip on power. Cheong Wook-Sik, Director of South Korea’s Peace Network in Seoul, said, “If North Korea succeeds in launching a satellite, North Korea propaganda may spin this by saying the country has become a prosperous and strong nation. That will help Kim Jong-Un both consolidate his power and help maintain the legacy of his father.”

If there is a message to the international community, adds Cheong, it may be that North Korea is implying “our satellite launch means we have nuclear weapons, we have a delivery system.”

Whatever the cost, what is known is that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with an economy worth just $40 billion, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Successful North Korean rocket launch

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North Korea fired a long-range rocket Wednesday morning and declared the launch a success. A similar launch in April broke apart shortly after liftoff.

North Korea says the purpose of the rocket launch was to put a weather satellite in orbit but critics say it is aimed at nurturing the kind of technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile. North Korea added that it chose a safe flight path so debris wouldn’t endanger neighboring countries.

The launch had been timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong-il. This year is also the centennial of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

North Korea is banned from testing missile or nuclear technology under U.N. sanctions imposed after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear weapons tests.

The curious timing of North Korea’s rocket launch

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The curious timing of North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket launch, outside of its usual spring-summer launch window, raises questions about the political motivations behind Pyongyang’s attention-grabbing move.

On Wednesday morning, just before 10 a.m. local time, South Korean news agency Yonhap and the Japanese government reported that the rocket had been launched. It came just days after North Korea extended the launch window due to technical issues.

Taking heed of launch and the usual caveats about reading North Korean government behavior, we can discern three motives underlying Pyongyang’s latest move: international bargaining, domestic legitimacy and strategic leverage.

With Barack Obama’s re-election in Washington and Xi Jinping named as the new Chinese President, the region awaits the outcomes of the Japanese election on December 16 and the South Korean presidential poll on December 19. Proliferation-related negotiating activity is on hold, leaving a diplomatic vacuum until the new governments are settled.

External aid fills gaps in the domestic economy and satisfies vital needs such as food and energy that the regime cannot provide for indigenously. The gambit fails if there are no negotiations. While North Korea appears to have no intention of relinquishing its nuclear or missile capabilities, its habitual tactic of engineering crises to leverage aid from the international community in exchange for de-escalation or proliferation freeze agreements is predicated on negotiations actually taking place.

A December rocket launch sends a strong signal from Pyongyang to its regional interlocutors to ensure that North Korea does not get overlooked amid the bureaucratic maelstrom that usually follows changes in government.