Sunday, May 31, 2009

So what is Kim Jong-il really after?

North Korea's overwhelming interest is its own survival. Kim Jong-il’s only assets, in his impoverished country, are a massive conscript army and a rudimentary nuclear weapon. These are the only tools at his disposal to prevent the collapse of his power.

One can envisage manufactured border incidents with South Korea, military clashes between the two countries, and a deliberate escalation of tension with Japan. This would not be because North Korea actually wants to start a war it could not win. Kim Jong-il's calculation is that South Korea and, more importantly, America will make concessions to get it back to the negotiating table. It needs help to revive its hopeless economy. The regime also wants recognition of its legitimacy and permanence.

China and South Korea are concerned that the collapse of the regime could lead to millions of refugees pouring into their own countries. While the reunification of Korea would be the end result, North Korea is so backward and totalitarian that the integration of the two Koreas would make the reunification of Germany – still incomplete after 20 years – seem like child's play in comparison.

So how is this "elephant in the room" to be managed and pacified? The key is China, even more than the United States. The pressure that the Chinese might be willing to apply will be private. It is known to have done so in the past and may, for all we know, be doing it again at this very moment. Much of North Korea's trade is with China; its investment comes from either China or South Korea, and the regime would be in deep trouble if Beijing withdrew its diplomatic support.

[Excerpt of an article by Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, former British defense secretary and foreign secretary]

Friday, May 29, 2009

North Korean Defectors both puzzled and moved by Roh funeral

South Korea's emotional farewell to former President Roh Moo-hyun brought much of the country together - including Koreans who were not born in the South. For the 15,000 North Koreans who have defected to South Korea, the outpouring of public emotion brought reminders of how different their new life is.

For North Korean defector Kim Young Il, the death of Roh calls to mind the 1994 funeral of North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung - who is worshipped as a god by the North's official political philosophy. He says the North Korean government forced him to go to Kim's funeral. Schools and factories shut down in order to attend. But, here in South Korea, he says, nobody forced him to attend Roh’s funeral.

Kim says he feels sorry Mr. Roh was not more active on the issue of human rights for North Koreans, or of North Korean defectors.

Defector Cho Jae-jin is even more blunt. He says many North Korean defectors hate Roh Moo-hyun. However, he adds that Friday's emotional funeral proceedings have given them a fresh look at Mr. Roh, as a person with negative and positive traits.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A North Korea successor after '150-day battle'?

On the streets of Pyongyang, posters depict workers soaring into the sky alongside a long-range rocket , part of a 150-day campaign to spur North Koreans to work harder by instilling them with national pride. Some suspect the push is a political campaign designed to cement national unity as the regime sets the stage for the communist nation's next leader.

The five-month campaign is set to culminate in early October, about the time of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party. North Korea could then hold a national convention - its first in nearly 30 years - to announce a successor to aging leader Kim Jong Il, says Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, a South Korean security think tank. “I think the campaign is aimed at building up achievements that the successor can later claim credit for,” he said.

Kim Jong Il has not said publicly who will become head of the nation of 24 million. Most analysts, including Cheong, think Kim's youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, is his favorite and has the best chance of succeeding the authoritarian leader.

Cheong noted that North Korea founder Kim Il Sung arranged for his son to take credit for a “70-day battle” before he was tapped in 1974 to succeed his father. The succession decision was made public in a 1980 convention. Kim Jong Il formally assumed leadership upon his father's death in 1994.

Kim Jong Il was said to want to name his successor in 2012. But health concerns may have sped up the timing, analysts said, with the 2012 date moved forward to what's been billed in the North as a “150-day battle”.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

North Korean nuclear test as powerful as Hiroshima

The Guardian reports that Russian defense experts estimated the North Korean explosion's yield at between 10 and 20 kilotons, many times more than the 1 kiloton measured in its first nuclear test in 2006, and about as powerful as the bombs the US used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war. (One kiloton is equal to the force produced by 1,000 tons of TNT.)

The force of the blast made the ground tremble in the Chinese border city of Yanji, 130 miles away.

Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongkuk University in Seoul, told Reuters, "North Korea had been expecting the new US administration to mark a shift from the previous administration's stance, but is realizing that there are no changes. It may have decided that a second test was necessary.”

Analysts believe the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, hopes to use the test to shore up support from the military amid mounting speculation that he is about to name one of his three sons as his successor.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What next: High-level envoy to Pyongyang for negotiations?

Two hours after Monday's atomic test was conducted, which the U.S. Geological Survey initially registered as a 4.7-magnitude earthquake, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency declared that the regime had "successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of measures to bolster its nuclear deterrent for self-defense."

Kim Jong-il is again testing the resolve of the international community.Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he expected U.N. members to call for sanctions — but dismissed any punishment as "political theater" that would have little effect on a country already subject to numerous sanctions.

Peter Beck, a Korean affairs expert who teaches at American University in Washington, suggests, "Kim Jong Il is trying to demonstrate his virility and that they are a power to be reckoned with." And Paik Hak-soon of the South Korean security think tank Sejong Institute said North Korea is "putting maximum pressure" on the United States for direct, high-level negotiations resulting in a "grand deal" that would include aid, concessions and a normalization of ties.

Meanwhile, North Korea has custody of two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee — accused of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts" — who are set to stand trial in Pyongyang on June 4. Their case may serve as a face-saving way for the U.S. to send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang for negotiations, Paik said.

"Had it not been for the journalists, it could give an impression of yielding to North Korea's provocation if the U.S. sends a high-level envoy for direct talks with Pyongyang," he said.