Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Possible successors to Kim Jong-il

The dark horse in the family succession stakes is Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek. He has two major factors in his favor - he is more mature in years than his nephews and he runs the country's internal security system.

Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam, 37, would usually have been regarded as the natural successor under Confucian tradition. But the playboy with a penchant for discos, casinos and brothels caused an embarrassing scandal for Pyongyang when he was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a fake Dominican passport in 2001.

His other two known sons are Kim Jong-chol, 27, and Kim Jong-Un, 25, the children of the Japanese-born star of Pyongyang's most famous song-and-dance troupe. (Kim Jong-il's former sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto, who defected to Japan, has said that Jong-un is the most favored of the three sons because of his striking resemblance to his father - a serious advantage in the eyes of a famously vain figure.)

But neither has any public profile or is known to have held any significant positions in the military or party. And in a society that places high importance on age and wisdom, it is unlikely that such young men could fulfil even a symbolic leadership role.

In a worst-case scenario, different Kim relatives could be backed by rival factions. In 2006, South Korea's intelligence service, which has a network of well-placed informants in Pyongyang, predicted that when the dictator died, a power battle would break out between top military officials - in partnership with the dictator's sons.

[Excerpt of an article by Philip Sherwell and Stanlislav Varivoda, The Telegraph]

Monday, September 29, 2008

Kim Jong Il succession emerging?

As a successor to Kim Jong Il , analysts have begun looking at the North Korean leader's brother-in-law. But if Mr Jang Song Taek were to emerge on top, it would likely be as the head of a collective leadership, rather than as an absolute ruler like Mr Kim Jong Il or his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, experts in Seoul say.

They say no single person in the communist dictatorship is poised to take over as smoothly as Mr Kim - groomed for 20 years - did after his father died in 1994. But the 62-year-old Jang, husband of Mr Kim's younger sister, is seen as a potentially critical player. Mr Jang heads the administrative department of the all-powerful Workers' Party. More importantly, he oversees the intelligence agency and other military-related institutions, analysts say.

Other senior figures in a collective leadership would likely include Defence Minister Kim Il Chol and other top military and party figures, the analysts said.

The regime's abandonment of the painstakingly crafted disarmament-for-aid deal after steadily disabling the programme since last November has raised speculation that if Kim is ill, the hard-line military is quietly pulling the strings, characteristic of Kim's 'typical brinkmanship strategy' during diplomatic talks.

[Straits Times]

Friday, September 26, 2008

North Korean Defector says Sunshine Policy driven by ignorance

Hwang Jang-yup, a former secretary of the North Korean Worker’s Party who defected to the South, said Thursday the Sunshine Policy was “a very wrong policy made by those who had no knowledge about the North at all.”

Hwang slammed the Sunshine Policy of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. “South Korea’s policy towards the North so far has been wrong because the South has no idea of how the North Korean regime brainwashes its people,” he said. “Proponents of the Sunshine Policy say increasing contact with North Koreans in places like the Kaesong Industrial Complex will lead to reform and opening of the country and ultimately dismantle the North Korean regime, but that would probably take 200 years.”

“Equally, saying that the deterioration of Kim Jong-il’s health might bring a coup d’etat betrays ignorance on North Korea.”

Hwang also claimed that restarting the operation of the Yongbyon plant and exploding the cooling tower are North Korea’s strategy to gain the advantage in the negotiation process. In reality, he said, the Yongbyon plant is merely a pile of iron scraps.

[Chosun Ilbo]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Inspectors barred from North Korean nuclear plant

The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna announced that North Korea had barred international inspectors from a reprocessing plant at its nuclear reactor complex in Yongbyon. The agency said that North Korea, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006 and is believed to have enough plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs, intended to resume production of nuclear weapons-grade fuel there within a week.

North Korea's move to resume the reprocessing of plutonium left the country on the verge of restarting a nuclear weapons program whose shutdown had been portrayed by the White House as a significant diplomatic achievement. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States still hoped to preserve a hard-won agreement that called for the North to dismantle its nuclear reactor.

While reversible in theory, any resumption of nuclear work would violate the terms of the agreement, which was announced with fanfare in June and solidified, it appeared, by North Korea's public demolition of a cooling tower at Yongbyon.

North Korea's actions have at best returned negotiations to where they stood months ago, leaving little time for a resolution before the next American administration takes office in January.

[International Herald Tribune]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

US Senate approves North Korea rights bill

The U.S. Senate has given final approval to legislation reshaping the job and duties of the U.S. human rights envoy for North Korea.The bill already has been passed by the House of Representatives.

It is raising the current envoy's position to a full-time job at the rank of ambassador and upgrading his authority.

The bill also urges the U.S. State Department to improve services for refugees from North Korea.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the bill's sponsor, noted Tuesday that the United States has resettled about 150,000 refugees since passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004. However, fewer than 70 of those came from North Korea, which Ros-Lehtinen described as "among the most cruel and inhumane" countries.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Report faults North Korean human rights

An independent report released Monday urged the United Nations and international nuclear negotiators to more strongly confront what was described as North Korea's dismal treatment of its citizens. The report, commissioned by the former leaders of the Czech Republic and Norway and a Nobel peace laureate, said the world has shied away from criticizing the North's human rights because of fear of its nuclear weapons.

"The international community has far too long neglected the human rights situation in North Korea because of the nuclear threat," former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel said in the report.

North Korea rails against any criticism of its human rights record as a U.S.-backed effort to seek the overthrow its government. Harsh criticism of the North's human rights by U.S. lawmakers has often stood in stark contrast with the careful language favored by U.S. diplomats working to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons.

The report recommended that the U.N. Secretary-General appoint a group of experts to report on whether North Korea has violated international human rights law. It also urged the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korean human rights to insist on visiting the North. The report also urged the world to insist on "immediate, safe and unhindered access to all of North Korea for purposes of ensuring food distribution to the most vulnerable groups of the population.

[Excerpt of an International Herald Tribune article]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

We may miss Kim Jong-il

When the news filtered out of the black hole of North Korea that Kim Jong-il likely suffered a stroke, no one in the Bush administration rushed out to buy a get-well-soon card. This is, after all, a man President Bush has described as a "tyrant," a dictator who starves his own people, and, according to some Senators, a "pygmy"--the biggest insult for a guy who keeps a lot of elevator shoes in the presidential closet in Pyongyang.

But whatever names he is called, there was a surprising ambivalence in official Washington about the news--more than a whiff of reluctance, in fact, to lose Mr. Kim at the helm just now. This was true especially among intelligence officials, who wake up every day worried about what happens when states implode, and whether there will be a free-for-all for their weapons.

Oh, for the simple days of President Bush's formulation of "with us or against us." To experts in his own administration, what's happening today in countries like North Korea poses a far higher statistical risk of letting loose nukes out the door than Iraq ever did.

The Pentagon has a stock answer to questions about it. It boils down to this: There is little reason to worry as long as the military remains in charge. Their reason: A strong military with a well-honed sensibility about survival.

[Excerpt of an article by David E. Sanger, NY Times]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

South Korean aid workers to visit North Korea

A group of South Korean aid workers left for North Korea on Saturday to attend the opening ceremonies of medical facilities they helped build in the reclusive communist country.

The trip by 135 people, including about 10 journalists, is drawing attention because the secretive North agreed to accept the visitors at a time of widespread speculation about the health of its leader Kim Jong Il.

The group is scheduled to attend the opening of two medical facilities - a quality control room at a pharmaceutical plant and a surgery theater at a hospital - in Pyongyang, said Hong Sang-young, an official with the Korean Sharing Movement, the South Korean aid group that organized the trip. Their itinerary also includes a tour of the city and its educational facilities, he said.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

North Korea begins its annual harvest

North Korea has begun this year's autumn harvest, state radio said Thursday, amid chronic food shortages in the communist state.

"Rice harvest has begun in farm villages in (the southwestern province of) South Hwanghae," as monitored by Yonhap news agency.

Chronic food shortages worsened this year following floods and shortages of fertilizer last year.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) says hunger is at its worst since the famine years of the 1990s, with up to six million people in immediate need out of a population of 23 million.


US issues first green card to a North Korean defector

For the first time, the United States has granted a North Korean defector permanent residence status.

She is a female in her late 30s, currently living in Virginia, who arrived in the United States in May 2006 via Thailand, one of the first North Korean defectors to enter the United States.

“She is the first to receive a green card since the United States opened its doors to North Korean refugees after the North Korean Human Rights Act was legislated in October 2004,” said her lawyer. “It will be the starting point for North Korean defectors in the United States to live happy lives and give hope to other defectors.”

As of yesterday, 63 former North Koreans have entered the United States. Some of them have already applied for green cards. But the law allowing for refugee status expires at the end of this month.

[JoongAng Ilbo]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

China’s influence on North Korea: Senior North Korean Defector

Hwang Jang-yup, a former secretary of the North Korean Worker's Party who fled to South Korea in 1997, reportedly said that if Seoul had a free trade agreement with Beijing, China would not recklessly interfere if North Korea collapses.

Hwang said China is chiefly interested in economic profits, and China holds the key to all North Korean issues, so if Seoul and Beijing grow closer, it could be possible to persuade North Korea to open up and reform in the way China has.

Hwang said Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il's eldest son, was likely to inherit power, considering that the Chinese government has looked after him and Chang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law who heads administrative affairs at the North Korean Workers' Party, is supporting him.

Chang fell out of favor with Kim Jong-il in 2004 but made a comeback in 2006. Since then, he has been in charge of powerful agencies such as the Ministry of Public Security and the State Security Department, the People’s Safety Agency and the prosecutors' offices.

In a post-Kim Jong-il era, freed from the personality cult, North Korean leaders are likely to open up and reform along Chinese lines, Hwang said, and with time, North Korea will naturally achieve democratization. However, the senior defector warned of Chinese resistance if South Korea or the U.S. aggressively intervene during the transition period in North Korea.

Hwang said, "Even if Kim dies, there will be neither civil war nor anarchy, because his close aides have already established themselves in key positions and they are in the same boat."

[Chosun Ilbo]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam

Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam, 37, would usually have been regarded as the natural successor to his father under Confucian tradition. But the playboy with a penchant for discos, casinos and brothels caused an embarrassing scandal for Pyongyang when he was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a fake Dominican passport in 2001. He then spent time partying and gambling in the former Portuguese Chinese enclave of Macau. Nonetheless, if he is seen subsequently to have atoned and repented, he could still be rehabilitated.

In his 20s, he seemed to be on the fast-track to succeed his father after he was appointed to a senior post in the domestic intelligence agency where, according to defectors, he oversaw a major purge that ended in dozens of executions. He also held positions in the secret police, army and Workers' Party, and known as "Comrade General" after his father promoted him to that rank at age 24.

Travel restrictions did not apply to him and he was believed to be regular visitor to Japan, where he developed his interest in information technology. But later in 2001 came the incident at Narita airport that began his fall from grace. His wayward reputation was sealed when Japanese media published an interview with a prostitute who said he visited her brothel and had a huge tattoo of a bear on his back.

But Kim Jong-il himself has often also been described as a communist playboy with a taste for expensive cognac and Western movies, so his oldest offspring's behaviour may not count against him in perpetuity.

[Excerpts of a Telegraph article]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Collective leadership next for North Korea?

North Korea is inevitably headed toward a collective leadership as Kim Jong-il's poor health will prevent him from resuming full control over state affairs. That is the analysis offered by influential North Korean expert Kang In-duk, a former unification minister under the Kim Dae-jung government and director of the Institute for East Asian Studies in Seoul. Kang believes Kim will gradually lose control and be unable to make a comeback.

Kim's one-man rule is expected to be naturally replaced by a collective leadership centered around the country's National Defense Commission, according to Kang.

Kang based his assessment on the fact that the five most powerful decision making-bodies in Pyongyang pledged allegiance to Kim Jong-il on the eve of nation's 60th foundation anniversary on Sept. 9. This is indicative of a future collective leadership structure.

The five bodies are the Central Committee and the Central Military Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, the National Defense Commission, the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and the Cabinet.

Kang believes the new collective leadership, whether made up of hardliners or moderates, will be forced to pragmatically adopt economic reform measures to ensure the country's survival. The new leadership will follow the China model where the communist party holds power and markets are opened.

[Korean Herald]

Sunday, September 14, 2008

US and China in secret talks on North Korea after Kim Jong-il stroke

The world's most unpredictable nation is thought to be heading for a succession crisis involving the three pillars of state - the Kim dynasty, the military and the Workers' Party.

Veteran generals and party technocrats are expected to install one of Kim Jong-il's sons or his brother-in-law as a figurehead for a collective leadership if the ailing 66-year-old "Dear Leader" is incapacitated or dies, US and South Korean intelligence believe.

But Kim's protracted recovery and his failure to groom an obvious successor - in contrast to the way he was prepared for power by his father Kim il-Sung, the nation's founder - have heightened fears of a political vacuum and in-fighting.

And North Korea's recent failure to complete two accords that would require Kim's approval - verification of nuclear disarmament and an agreement with Japan on abductions of citizens - is a sign that decision-making may already be crippled.

Although Beijing is regarded as an ally of Pyongyang, it does not want its impoverished neighbor to implode, potentially creating a wave of refugees trying to reach China.

US intelligence believes that Kim suffered a major stroke and that, with a family history of diabetes and heart disease, he is a prime candidate for another attack that could kill him. It believes he is able to talk and walk, but is very weak and his recovery could at best be slow.

[Excerpt of an article by Philip Sherwell and Stanlislav Varivoda, The Telegraph]

Saturday, September 13, 2008

South Korean Pop Culture Reaches Into North Korea

The popularity of South Korean movies and dramas has spread throughout Asia - including North Korea, which strictly bans watching foreign television programs.

Byun Nan-hee is a North Korean refugee who has lived in Seoul since 2002. In the North, she says, television programs did only one thing: glorify the government and its leaders. Twenty-eight-year-old Byun says the government uses the media to brainwash people by painting a picture that the outside world is much poorer than they are.

But her indoctrination began to unravel in 1997, when she and her two brothers crossed the border into China, in search of food and medicine. There, for the first time, she watched South Korean television. Byun could not believe what she saw. She says she had never intended to go to South Korea. But after seeing the TV programs, she changed her mind.

With the help of a South Korean human rights group, she was smuggled through China to Thailand, and finally to South Korea.

Now North Koreans are not only exposed to South Korean media while in China, but also in their hometowns. North Korean TV sets and radios are fixed to receive only government channels. But smuggled in videotapes and DVDs are hot commodities on the black market.

[Excerpt of an article by Jason Strother,Voice of America]

Friday, September 12, 2008

The misery that is North Korea

On a recent trip to the North Korean capital, aid worker James Lim saw a group of children cleaning the streets. But when they got nearer, he noticed that three of the male cleaners had facial hair.

These were not children at all. They were adults stunted by malnutrition. Their heads came only as high as his chest. One of them said he was 30 years old. Another cleaner, a woman who said she was 19, was about the size of an average second-grader. Some appeared to be mentally, as well as physically, delayed.

Mr. Lim, a Korean-Canadian Christian who is a veteran of aid work in dirt-poor Afghanistan, says he has never experienced anything quite like the misery of North Korea, which he has visited seven times over two years. Fellow aid workers have seen bodies floating in the rivers - victims, it's thought, of a renewed food shortage. Whole mountainsides are said to have been turned into mass graves. The average North Korean seven-year-old is estimated to be nine kilograms lighter and 20 centimetres shorter than her southern sister.

The United Nations says the food crisis is the worst since the 1990s, when a famine killed as many as two million North Koreans. People are once again seen foraging for edible roots, grasses and other "wild foods." Those who flee across the border into China, as hundreds of thousands have done, are forcibly repatriated to North Korea to face beating, imprisonment and even execution. Human-rights groups say that women who become pregnant during such absences are often subjected to forced abortions.

[Globe and Mail]

Thursday, September 11, 2008

North Korea politics ouija board

"Trying to figure out North Korea politics ... is like playing with a ouija board. There's no set line of succession like we saw in 1994," said Dr. Michael G. Kulma of the Asia Society in New York.

And the lack of a clear successor in a nation that has made a cult of [father and son] raises the question of what will happen to the world's most isolated country if Kim Jong Il dies suddenly at a time of sensitive international nuclear negotiations.

"The immediate impact is that it puts things on hold on the nuclear front ... but really it depends on who takes over: A hard-line faction? A moderate faction? A military collective? One of his sons?" Kulma said.

Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University, predicted that top military leaders will collectively run the North if Kim is as ill as reported.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kim Jong Il health issues

The absence of the North Korean president from Tuesday's parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Communist nation has revived questions about Kim Jong Il's health.

A U.S. intelligence official told CNN that Kim has been suffering from serious health problems, and may have had a stroke.

There have been reports that Kim suffers from heart disease and diabetes but he has denied these.

Filling in for him at the parade was the second-in-command of The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Yong Nam, said Naoko Aoki of Japan's Kyodo news agency, who reported from the event.

Kim was also absent from events on the eve of the anniversary, including a meeting of government officials, Aoki said.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

UN Official Decries Starvation in North Korea

The chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, visited Seoul to discuss the North Korean defector problem with the South Korean government.

Lubbers, who served as prime minister of the Netherlands for 12 years, recalled that when he first took up his post at the UNHCR in January 2001, he was shocked that China forcefully repatriated North Korean refugees in China back to North Korea. Lubbers said that he recently succeeded in getting the Chinese authorities to promise not to.

Lubbers called North Korea a "nation that mass produces refugees," and added that the increasing number of defectors who risk their lives to cross borders indicates that the economic situation in the North is worsening. He called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's regime dishonorable to be imposing such harsh punishments on those who leave the country in search for food.

[Chosun Ilbo]

Monday, September 08, 2008

September 9th marks North Korea’s 60th Anniversary

The 60th anniversary of North Korea’s communist regime will be marked by a series of large-scale ceremonies to take place in and outside Pyongyang.

Prior to North Korea’s independence declaration on September 9, 1948, then leader Kim Il Sung founded the North Korean People’s Army first to unify the Korean Peninsula under communism. From its birth, the communist regime put priority on military power, something which got strengthened when Kim Jong Il took over after his father died in 1994.

The North’s top military brass forms the inner circle of the regime and enjoys a host of privileges. This military priority, however, deprives North Koreans of food and accordingly imposes hardships on them such as chronic malnutrition and starvation. According to the U.N. relief agency, today more than 60 percent of North Koreans, mostly in unprivileged demographic regions, subsist on two meals a day. In other words, the situation is worse there than in Bangladesh.

North Korea has maintained a military machine consisting of 1.2 million active solders and 1.8 million reserve forces which takes more than 60 percent of the country’s budget. Pyongyang has also spent billions of dollars to develop nuclear weapons. Had the regime bought food with the money, it could have fed its people.

[Dong-a Ilbo]

Saturday, September 06, 2008

North Korea rebuilding nuclear plant, or negotiating?

South Korea has accused its northern neighbor of violating a nuclear disarmament pact, saying Pyongyang had begun working to restore its nuclear facilities. South Korea's foreign ministry says that the North had taken steps to rebuild its Yongbyon nuclear plant and expressed regret over the move.

The US played down Seoul's allegations, saying North Korea had only moved some equipment out of storage from its ageing nuclear plant in Yongbyon.

US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they viewed North Korea's moves more as a negotiating tactic.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

3000 North Koreans expected to defect South this year

The number of North Korean refugees to head to South Korea this year is expected to exceed 3,000 for the first time in history.

The Unification Ministry of South Korea said 1,748 North Korean defectors made their way south in the first half of this year, up 42.1 percent from a year ago. At this rate, the figure is expected to exceed 3,000 by the end of this year.

[Chosun Ilbo]

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

UN plans major food relief program to North Korea

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) announced today that it is launching a major relief campaign to help more than 6 million people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is experiencing its worst food crisis in a decade.

Nearly $8 million will be needed every week to meet emergency food needs. In total, WFP expects it will have to spend around $500 million to fight off widespread hunger, where a combination of successive poor harvests, soaring food prices, reduced imports and the effect of flooding last year have an estimated 6.2 million people in need.

The agency plans to deploy an additional 59 staff across the country to support the newly expanded operation.

Today’s announcement follows an assessment mission by staff with WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in June, which found that more than three quarters of all households in the country had reduced their food intake and at least half were eating only two meals a day.


Monday, September 01, 2008

North Korea/South Korea: Differences in the sexes

“[North Korean] women who participated in a study say they like South Korean men, whom they find considerate compared to their northern counterparts,” former North Korean refugee Oh Se-Hyek, 31, of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, was quoted as saying.

North Korean men say they are often appalled by [South Korean] women who speak out and act according to their own will. “South Korean women are not very womanlike. North Korean women are calm and keep things to themselves in a graceful way. But women here like to speak their mind and act like men,” said one male respondent.

North Korean women said they welcome the additional freedom in the South but find that some men are less serious about relationships. “Male students I meet here are mostly considerate. Men in the North try to make women feel inferior,” one said.

Another said South Korean men are “not as committed to relationships as they are open to sex. The difference is that North Korean men take responsibility for what they do.”

[Excerpt of an article in The Peninsula (Qatar)]