Archive for North-South

Somehow, I don’t think this will encourage Kim Jong Un to engage with us.

I think Marzuki Darusman is a good man who means well, but it’s difficult to derive a coherent policy from this:

“This is a new thing, spotlighting the leadership and ridiculing the leadership. In any authoritarian, totalitarian system, that is an Achilles’ heel,” Darusman said in an interview in Tokyo, where he held talks with the government on an investigation into North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.

If this kind of ridicule seeps into North Korea, it could become lethal for the regime, he said. “If they want to preserve their system, the only way to do that is not to close themselves off from the international community but to actively engage,” he said. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

OK, so they need “engagement”–presumably, trade–to preserve the system, which we all agree should not be preserved. So should we cut off trade?

But the world also should be actively engaging with the Kim regime to draw it out of its self-imposed isolation, Marzuki Darusman said Friday, calling the United States’ increasingly aggressive approach toward North Korea “unfortunate.”

“In the overall picture, I think much hinges on the way the U.S. acts,” said Darusman, a former attorney general of Indonesia. A harder line against North Korea could “stall or delay the process that needs to be put into place,” he said.

I don’t get it. If ridicule of His Porcine Majesty scares the bejeezus out of the little gray men in Pyongyang, and if we’re supposed to use engagement to mock His Porcine Majesty mercilessly, why does Marzuki suppose that Kim Jong Un would widen engagement rather than stick with the current, controllable kinds of engagement that are serving North Korea’s priorities rather nicely? Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un continues to succeed at smothering the penetration of real capitalism.

Marzuki is a distinguished jurist who has done a great service to humanity by the facts he’s helped to establish. Maybe that’s enough for one man for one lifetime.

U.S., S. Korea reject N. Korea’s nuke test offer

North Korea has offered to stop testing nuclear weapons — something that several U.N. Security Council resolutions already prohibit — if President Obama cancels annual military exercises (full KNCA article below the fold.) Which sounds something like a bank robber promising to stop robbing you if you disable your alarm system and leave the safe unlocked.

Which is almost exactly what the Korean Defense Ministry thought. To his credit, President Obama saw this for what it was:

“The DPRK (North Korea) statement that inappropriately links routine U.S.-ROK (South Korea) exercises to the possibility of a nuclear test by North Korea is an implicit threat,” a State Department spokesperson said on condition of anonymity.

[….]

“Our annual joint military exercises with the Republic of Korea are transparent, defense-oriented and have been carried out regularly and openly for roughly 40 years,” the spokesperson said.

North Korea should “immediately cease all threats, reduce tensions and take the steps toward denuclearization needed to resume credible negotiations,” the spokesperson said. [Yonhap]

Sounds kind of like they want to test a nuke, huh?

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Really? Just 15% of S. Koreans support humanitarian aid to N. Korea?

Yonhap reports that, according to a poll commissioned by the Database Center for North Korean Human rights, 73.1% of South Korean adults surveyed support approval of a human rights law. That would be even better news if the respondents actually knew what the law would do; I can’t say I do.

(While you’re at NKDB’s site, be sure to have a look at their Google Earth Visual Atlas.)

It’s also good news that less than 20% opposed “meddling” in the “internal” issue of North Korean human rights. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said they were interested in the issue. Asked how to address it, 40% said international pressure, and 32% said dialogue.

The findings fuel my suspicion that nothing has been quite so influential within South Korean society about human rights in the North as peer pressure.

Even assuming that the methodology of this poll is solid, I’m not aware of any base line for those numbers allowing an apples-to-apples comparison showing how the trends have changed. Still, my guess is that these numbers are less sympathetic to Pyongyang than they would have been ten years ago. They also fit with the trends I identified in this post. See also this and this.

By a narrow margin, 50% said that sending propaganda balloons across the DMZ was “not necessary,” while 45.6% said it was. What I wish the respondents had been asked was whether they thought North Korea’s threats of violence were an appropriate reason for the South Korean government to block the launches with the force of law.

The Korea Times, reporting on the very same survey, found that a surprisingly low 15% of South Koreans agree with continuing humanitarian aid to the North, because they don’t believe it’s effective. Can that possibly be right?

Asked whether human rights conditions in the North are getting better or worse, 40% said “worse,” 45% said they’re staying the same, and just 6.5% said they were improving. So much for the Sunshine Policy.

The Korea Times also reports that nearly 40% of South Koreans would like the South Korean government to allow only certain North Koreans to cross the border in the event of regime collapse, and that another 9% would exclude them completely.

The Korea Times spins this as indicative of an unwelcoming attitude by South Koreans toward their brothers in the North, but I might well be among the 9% myself, at least initially. There would be very good reasons to keep North Koreans in place in the event of a collapse. Encouraging hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people to move around an unstable country and across international borders would dramatically complicate the process of providing them with food, clean water, shelter, and medical care. It could spread infectious disease, and would also complicate the reestablishment of security. For more on that topic, read this.

President Park’s unification plan is missing a Phase 2

For months now, we’ve heard Park Geun Hye telling us about how reunification would be a “jackpot” for both Koreas, but we’ve never heard her explain just how she intends to achieve this result. This left some rather important questions unanswered.

Having heard so much from President Park about Phase 3 (profit!) and so little about Phases 1 or 2, at least we know that she’s asking us to resume the collection of underpants:

South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said Wednesday that Seoul and Washington should make greater efforts to engage North Korea, saying that dialogues would make pressure on the communist regime more effective. [….]

Until now, Seoul and Washington focused on inducing Pyongyang to change by cooperatively putting pressure upon it. [Yonhap]

Oh, no they haven’t. They’ve simultaneously pursued the mutually inconsistent objectives of economic sanctions and economic subsidies, chasing talks without acquiring the leverage for those talks to succeed.

However, to make the pressure more effective, dialogues and cooperation are also necessary,” Ryoo said during the forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Wow. I can’t believe no one ever thought of that.

“Our two countries should therefore strengthen our coordination for engagement as well. We will need to show Pyongyang clearly what it can earn by giving up the path of provocation and isolation and choosing the path of dialogue and cooperation,” he said.

WADR, Minister Ryoo, I think the North Koreans know exactly what they’d earn, which explains why they continue to choose the path of isolation.

Well, I’ll say this much—I understand Park’s plan better now; after all, how different is it from the same plan we watched Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun waste a decade and seven billion-plus dollars on? And just look how far that got us. Of course, some of us observed these Sunshine Lite ideas in Park nearly a decade ago, and her North Korea policy has been a triumph of maddening consistency over experience. I’ll predict, with high confidence, that these plans will end just as well as they have before.

I don’t disagree that the efforts of the U.S. and South Korea to engage the North have often been poorly coordinated. I’m not opposed to bilateral or multilateral talks with North Korea, so long as the terms are strictly coordinated among allies, the positions firm, and the expectations realistic. I’m all for engagement — so long as it doesn’t profit the regime we’re ostensibly pressuring — although I think we’ve mostly been engaging the wrong people and wish we’d engage the right ones.

My suspicion (you could even say hope) is that Ryoo’s position isn’t really about those things, and that it’s really about Park’s current political weakness, and her desire to protect her political flanks from the Northern Wind ploy, than it is about having a coherent vision for changing North Korea’s behavior.

Ryoo also said that it is important to help North Korea actually see the benefits of cooperation with the outside world. That will be a way to “pragmatically improve the quality of life and the human rights situation of the North Korean people,” he said.

What do you mean? They have ski resorts! Problem solved!

Ryoo arrived in Washington on Thursday on a trip aimed at broadening U.S. understanding of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s trademark push for preparations for unification with North Korea. He is the first South Korean unification minister to visit the U.S. since 2011.

But on the other hand, if Park’s true goal was to tell a weary domestic audience what it wants to hear, why would she send Ryoo to deliver these remarks in Washington, while calling on our government to support this wildly unoriginal vision?

On the face of it, the Obama Administration sounds supportive, except for the immovable object that stands in the way of everything:

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel expressed staunch support for Park’s unification vision, saying it provides a vivid picture of the benefits the North could reap from reconciliation and denuclearization, as well as the benefits that reunification will bring to South Korea and the region as a whole.

“The U.S. firmly supports this vision. We will never accept a permanent division of the Korean peninsula,” he said. “The ROK (South Korea) and the U.S. will continue to do everything we need to do to keep the peace on the peninsula through a combination of deterrence, and a strong allied defense.”

He also urged the North to give up its nuclear program, stressing that Pyongyang won’t be able to achieve security and prosperity it wants while pursuing nuclear weapons. The North’s “byeongjin” policy of simultaneously seeking economic and nuclear development will never succeed.

“It’s not a policy. It’s a pipe dream. It will not happen. North Korea can’t have its cake and eat it too,” Russel said of the North’s policy. “Our strategy raises the cost of continued defiance and ultimately leaves the DPRK no viable alternative but to honor its commitments and to come into compliance with its international obligations, first and foremost, with its obligations to irreversibly and verifiably denuclearize.”?  [Yonhap]

Is there a single politician in South Korea who remains in firm contact with reality? Unfortunately, U.S. policy toward North Korea has almost always been deferential to Seoul. It’s not hard to guess why that might be.

Max Fisher’s criticism of the Sunshine Policy is spot-on

Washington Post alumnus Max Fisher, now writing at Vox, presents a graph and data showing how, despite all of its abhorrent behavior, North Korea’s trade (most of it with China and South Korea) has grown, and how that leads to more abhorrent behavior.

The way it’s supposed to work is that North Korea’s belligerence, aggression, and horrific human rights abuses lead the world to isolate it economically, imposing a punishing cost and deterring future misdeeds. What’s actually happening is that North Korea is being rewarded with more trade, which is still extremely small, but growing nonetheless, enriching and entrenching the ruling Kim Jong Un government, even as it expands its hostile nuclear and missile programs. [….]

But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota.

The Sunshine Policy ended in 2007, correctly rejected as a failure by South Korean voters. But the trade continued, as did the work at Kaesong. South Korean corporations, which have even more political power there than do American corporations in the US, have come to enjoy this trade as a source of revenue and cheap labor, and push to maintain it. That drop you see in 2013 is actually because North Korea shut down Kaesong for a time as a political provocation — it was the South Koreans, paradoxically, who wanted to reopen the facility that directly funds the North Korean weapons occasionally used to kill South Koreans. [Vox, Max Fisher]

Those South Korean corporate profiteers have since allied themselves with “progressive activists,” who vary from the anti-anti-North Korean to the pro-North Korean, to call on President Park to lift sanctions on the North. It must be the most unlikely alliance since 1939.

I’m not sure how Fisher’s analysis of the problem could have been better, unless he’d driven home the point that the Sunshiners justified their policy by predicting that this preferential trade would catalyze economic reform and liberalize North Korean society. Clearly, that hasn’t happened; in fact, I could make a strong case that the opposite is closer to the truth. In their desperation to catalyze reform, Sunshiners have perpetuated the status quo instead.

This is why no rational person would invest in Kaesong

North Korea has unilaterally raised those “wages” that South Korean companies pay the North Korean regime for labor at Kaesong—wages that the workers probably never see, and that for all the Unification Ministry knows, are used to buy iron maidens, centrifuge bearings, and 300-millimeter rocket fuses. The Unification Ministry isn’t happy, but only because wage hikes are bad for business:

“Our firm position is that it’s impossible to revise the wage system without consultations between the South and North,” the unification ministry official told reporters on background. The government will soon deliver the position to the North in writing, he added. He pointed out that wages are an important element of the complex’s competitiveness. [….]

The two sides have a 49-point agreement on the working conditions for them. The North abruptly informed the South of its plan to revise 13 of the stipulations last week. The measure includes the scrapping of a 5-percent cap on the annual increase rates in their minimum wages and hikes in overtime payment. [Yonhap]

Remember, these are the people our State Department expects to make and keep a nuclear freeze deal.

I can’t imagine why any sensible investor, lured by the promise of low wages and taxes, would plow his money into one of the world’s most politically risky places, knowing full well that those low wages can unexpectedly turn not-that-low, that the taxes can unexpectedly turn high, and that the products can’t legally be imported into the United States. Knowing all that, doesn’t choosing Kaesong over Thailand or the Philippines seem rather irrational?

Oh, so this is what pissed the North Koreans off.

Speaking at the International Democrat Union last Friday, Park said this:

In a luncheon meeting with the party leaders, President Park Geun-hye said North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons had resulted in the country’s isolation and dire human rights conditions.

“Now the North Korean people are faced with hunger and a tragic humanitarian situation as the North sticks to the path of… isolation by developing nuclear arms,” Park said during the luncheon at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

“I request consistent attention and support from IDU members as international support and cooperation are vital for improving the North Korean situation and bringing about unification of the two Koreas,” she said. [Yonhap]

So that explains that.

Suki Kim recalls a “good student” in Pyongyang

Writing in The New York Times, Kim recalls a young North Korean student who made her uncomfortable with his risky questions about government in America:

What I had just described was, more or less, democracy. I could not read his expression, but he thanked me and excused himself.

That evening, I discussed my growing fears about the student’s motives with my teaching assistant. There was nowhere we would not be overheard, so we took a walk around campus, hoping it would look as though we were discussing the day’s lesson, stopping occasionally to take pictures of each other. Maybe, I said, he was on a mission to earn some sort of reward by trading information about us.

“But what if that’s not the case?” my assistant asked. “What if he’s genuinely curious?”

The second possibility made us both grim. What if we were the instigators of his doubt? What if he was starting to think that everything he had known thus far was a lie? [N.Y. Times]

If the student wasn’t a counterintelligence plant, Kim would make one of the more credible cases I’ve yet seen for permissive engagement. Still, there must be other ways of reaching young North Koreans–both inside Pyongyang and beyond–that are less risky for both the teachers and the students.

To know whether the benefits of PUST are worth the risks, I’d have to know how much money PUST is pouring into the regime’s bank accounts, how many other teachers are propagating equally subversive views, how many students get to hear those views, and just how open the students really are to different forms of government. All of those things are unknowable to us.

It’s hard to imagine that PUST has a more favorable cost-benefit ratio than leaflet balloons, much less radio broadcasting.

Another Kaesong firm folds

An unidentified small manufacturer for watch and mobile phones cases on Wednesday submitted an application for dissolution to the committee handling affairs at the joint park, according to officials from Seoul’s unification ministry.

It marked the second case since June 2009 that South Korean firms operating at the Kaesong Complex have closed their businesses. It also marked the first time since the operation of the park had been halted briefly last year.

The company, which had employed about 100 North Korean workers, has been suffering from business setbacks since 2012 as its annual sales fell to US$300,000 from its peak of some $700,000. [Yonhap]

The other firm referenced is Skinnet, an apparel manufacturer. Another company, LivingArt, the maker of the much-ballyhooed “peace pots,” went bankrupt in 2006. Its head was subsequently indicted for embezzlement.

Overall, I don’t see much evidence that Kaesong is growing, attracting significant foreign investment, or declining. The reports about the health of its rebound from the 2012 shutdown have conflicted, but I’m always suspicious that the South Korean Unification Ministry has spun reports from Kaesong to make it look more successful than it is, in order to entice more third-country hostages to the complex. My best guess is that it has bumped against its ceiling, but I’ve been surprised by its resiliency. I guess subsidies will do that.

Sue Terry v. John Delury and Moon Chung-In, on reunification

Although Delury and Moon may not like the idea of North Korea’s collapse, that is a far more likely scenario than their fantasy of “the gradual merging of North and South.” South Korea has tried to make that dream come true before, through the so-called sunshine policy it pursued from 1998 to 2008, and the result was unambiguous failure. During those years, South Korea gave North Korea $8 billion in investment and assistance. In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung even handed Kim Jong Il $500 million in cash to stage a summit (an act that earned the former the Nobel Peace Prize). In return, Seoul got, well, nothing. Pyongyang advanced its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, and remained as repressive and dysfunctional as ever. Delury and Moon make no case for why a new sunshine policy would work any better. [Sue Mi Terry, Foreign Affairs]

Granted, arguing with John Delury might sound a bit like Thai boxing Stephen Hawking, but it still shames me a little when a non-native speaker like Terry writes and argues better in her second language than I write in my first. Read the rest on your own. Background here.

Silencing Park Sang-Hak won’t end North Korea’s threats (updated)

For the first time since 2010, North Korea has fired across the border into South Korean territory, this time with 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The North Koreans were shooting at the second of two launches of balloons carrying a total of 1.5 million leaflets, by North Korean refugee Park Sang-Hak and the Fighters for a Free North Korea.

The North Koreans didn’t respond to the first launch of 10 balloons at noon, but at around 4:00 in the afternoon, they fired on a second group of 23 balloons. Thankfully, no one got hurt, at least on the southern side. It’s not clear whether the North Koreans hit any balloons, although the 14.5 ammunition probably cost more than the balloon and its cargo. A few rounds landed “near military units and public service centers in Yeoncheon County,” near the DMZ, and one of them did this:

14.5mm hole

[via Yonhap]

The Soviet-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft gun comes in 2- and 4-barrel variants, as this quaintly aged U.S. Army training film shows.

True to their word, the ROKs shot back. They used K-6 machine guns, which are similar to the American M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, a slightly smaller caliber than the 14.5. Despite Park Geun-Hye’s public instructions to return fire without waiting for her permission, the ROKs didn’t shoot back until 5:30, about 90 minutes after the North Koreans fired. This time lag suggests that the front-line soldiers held their fire until they received orders from higher up their chain of command, although it’s not clear how high.

Rather than give the ROK Army the last word, the North Koreans fired again after this.

In launching the balloons, Park Sang-Hak and his compatriots defied threats from North Korea, because if you have the brass to sneak across the border into China and make it to South Korea, and if you’ve already survived one assassination attempt, you’re no ordinary man, you’re a honey badger who learned to shave, dress himself, and speak Korean.

Needless to say, the South Korean government’s “call for restraint,” to avoid harming “burgeoning fence-mending between the Koreas,” has no effect on such beings:

“We, defectors, run toward the frontline of freedom and democratic unification to end Kim Jong-un’s three-generation power transition in order to fulfill Hwang’s lifetime goal of liberating North Koreans and democratizing the country,” read the leaflets, which were launched with one-dollar bills and other pamphlets.

“In the North, Hwang is known to have died tragically. This campaign is meant to let North Koreans know he is buried in the South Korean national cemetery.” Park Sang-hak, the head of the activists group, said. [….]

Continuing its previous statements, Pyongyang warned through its official Korean Central News Agency a day earlier that Seoul should stop the activists from sending the anti-North Korea leaflets or face an “uncontrollable catastrophe” in inter-Korean relations. [Yonhap]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Right after the statement from the North, the unification ministry asked the civic groups to scrap their plan, citing inter-Korean tensions. Despite its call, however, the government largely retained its long-standing hands-off position on the issue, saying it has no legal ground to stop them. “The issue is something that the leaflet-scattering group should decide for themselves,” a unification ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Which is good, because a lot of South Koreans want their government to block Park Sang-Hak from sending any more of his leaflet balloons.

Now, far be it for me (of all people) to denigrate the critical importance of setting the right ambience for North Korea. But if solving the North Korean nuclear crisis is really all about mood lighting, scented candles, and Marvin Gaye music, Park Geun-Hye might be a bigger problem than Park Sang-Hak, at least if you judge by what the North Koreans themselves are saying:

North Korea resumed its direct criticism of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday, warning that her “nasty” remarks toward Pyongyang may dampen a rare mood of inter-Korean reconciliation.

In a statement, the National Reconciliation Council took issue with Park’s comments earlier this week that the communist neighbor is showing an ambivalent behavior of provocations and peace gestures. [….]

“(Park’s remarks) are an unacceptable provocation against us,” said an unnamed representative for the North’s council, a working-level agency dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

It is an “impolite and reckless” act, which throws cold water on the mood of improved inter-Korean relations created by a high-profile North Korean delegation’s trip to the South last week, read the statement. [Yonhap]

See also, etcetera. Sure, you can always say that the responsible thing is to avoid antagonizing violent people. Some might even say it’s the government’s job to prevent anyone else from offending violent people, even if the offense is caused by completely non-violent expression. Send leaflets over North Korea and it’s just a matter of time before they answer you with artillery, right? In the same spirit, if your newspapers print blasphemous cartoons, if your authors write blasphemous books, or if some guy publishes a crappy blasphemous movie on YouTube, hey, people might riot, other people might get hurt, and really, isn’t the mature thing to do to censor ourselves just this one time? Or maybe just one more time, because the North Koreans are offended by some dumbass American movie, and Japan wants to get its hostages back? Or because North Korea is offended by a British TV series? Or by Kim Seung Min’s radio broadcasts? Or by the election of a defector to the National Assembly, whom Pyongyang threatened to “hunt down?” Or by a policy proposal by the President of South Korea, one that North Korea also answered with artillery?

By now, you can see where this ends. Or, to be more accurate, where this doesn’t end, ever.

~   ~   ~

Update: The ROK Government now says that it is mulling “appropriate” measures to protect its citizens from similar incidents in the future, but that those measures will not include preventing more launches.

“As we said previously, there is no legal ground or relevant regulation to forcibly block the leaflet scattering as it is a matter to be handled by civilian groups on a voluntary basis,” he said at a press briefing. “The government, which is in charge of the safety and security of our people, will instead push for appropriate steps to deal with the matter.”

This is a more promising direction. Under U.S. constitutional law, the government can lawfully place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech that’s protected under the First Amendment.

If Korean courts interpret the ROK Constitution similarly, and if the ROK Government were to restrict the FFNK from launching from populated areas or near military installations, that might be constitutional, would allow the launches to continue, would avoid rewarding a violent response to non-violent speech, and might also reduce the risk that North Korean attacks would harm bystanders.

Just remember this: Park and the FFNK are South Korean citizens, too.

North Korean official, asked about human rights problems, cites … lack of public baths.

And even this is really the fault of imperialist sanctions, which prohibit the import of “luxury goods” to North Korea:

When the North Korean officials at the U.N. briefing were asked Tuesday to identify human rights problems in their country, Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean responded, “We need some facilities where people go and enjoy a bath… Right now, due to problems in the economic field — that is due to the external forces hindrance — we are running short of some of the facilities.”

He cited lack of facilities and did not mention executions, torture allegations or food shortages. [CNN, Madison Park]

Choe’s statement raises some very grave questions — I hope you’ll pardon the use of that word — such as: What kind of a monster prioritizes ski resorts over bath houses? (You can sweat a lot under those ski clothes.) And, how much of the U.N. aid that’s currently squandered on the “third of children under five” who “show signs of stunting” ought, in the interests of decency, be diverted to building bath houses instead? Failing that, would Jimmy Carter accuse us of a human rights violation?

This WTF moment bought to you by an observant CNN correspondent with a taste for irony, who interviewed me Tuesday night to collect guesses about why North Korea has undertaken another one of its periodic charm offensives. My guess at that first link, for whatever it’s worth.

The thing about these charm offensives is that too many analysts are dazzled by the charm and overlook the offensive. A few weeks ago, Pyongyang was calling Park Geun Hye a “political prostitute” again and calling for her excommunication from the Korean race. To Madison Park’s credit, she noticed all of it, and leaves the interpretation to the reader:

From “capricious whore” to “disgusting political prostitute,” the South Korean president is routinely insulted by the North. So when KCNA, its state-run news mouthpiece called South Korean president, Park Geun-hye a “wretched pro-U.S. stooge and traitor to the nation,” it was nowhere near its worst invective.

No, that would be this invective. Or maybe this.

But just two days after this latest round of insults, three high-ranking North Korean officials arrived in a surprise visit to South Korea. They received a red carpet treatment on Saturday and shook hands with South Korean officials with a message: Let’s talk.

Google around, and it’s not hard to find recognized experts talking about what a big deal this visit was, despite the fact that we still know almost nothing about what Choe Ryong-Hae and Hwang Pyong-So even said. For all we know, they just repeated the same demand KCNA has been making for years — that Seoul lift sanctions without preconditions.

Which gesture was more probative of Pyongyang’s intent? The correct answer is probably “neither.” The most reliable indications of North Korea’s intent don’t come from its words, but from satellite imagery.

I’d tell you what I think of North Korea’s sudden mini-summit …

but Robert Koehler has already told you roughly what I think, so I can save most of the keystrokes. North Korea has had more false rehabilitations than Linsday Lohan, Robert Downey Jr., and the entire membership of Grateful Dead, combined. It would take nothing less than the announcement of a coup d’etat for me to take this at all seriously.

I wonder if Pyongyang’s Southern Wind ploy means that its Hostage ploy with Japan is about to blow up, as predicted. For now, Park Geun Hye continues to resist domestic political pressure to lift sanctions until the North actually does something to deserve that.

~   ~   ~

Update: OK, fun’s over. Back to your bunkers:

The defence ministry said the South’s patrol boat had initially fired a warning shot after the North Korean vessel penetrated half a nautical mile inside the South’s territorial waters.

Instead of retreating immediately, the North patrol boat opened fire, so “our side fired back,” a ministry spokesman said, adding that there neither vessel had directly targetted the other and “no damage” was sustained.

The South’s patrol boat fired “around 90″ rounds in total.

The incident took place at 9:50 am (0050 GMT) near the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong, and the North patrol boat retreated to its side of the border 10 minutes later.

“We are now watching North Korean troop movements and tightening vigilance against any additional provocations,” the spokesman said. [AFP]

Prediction: the Kaesong worker safety inquiry will be a whitewash.

You may recall that several weeks ago, some North Korean workers at Kaesong fell ill with symptoms of benzene poisoning. The bad news is that we still haven’t heard a peep of protests on the workers’ behalf from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, for some reason. The good news is that the Korean government cares enough about appearances to have ordered a safety inquiry:

The South Korean government began a two-month probe Thursday into the working conditions at 33 factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex following reports of a suspected benzene poisoning case there.

All of the selected factories use a relatively large amount of chemical materials, according to the unification ministry.

The ministry commissioned the (South) Korean Industrial Health Association to conduct the probe, which is scheduled to last through Nov. 30. The association’s experts are making an on-site inspection to assess the safety and security of the working conditions “through an objective survey” and take measures for systemic management, said the ministry.

In August, North Korea claimed a number of its workers at two car parts makers operating in the industrial park suffered some symptoms of exposure to benzene and other toxic chemicals. [Yonhap]

But the usual problem of transparency in North Korea is already interfering with the investigation’s integrity. Yonhap reports that although “[t]he South has suggested medical checkups to determine the exact cause,” the North Koreans have refused to allow them.

An “investigation” based on incomplete evidence might deceive a few gullible investors, but wouldn’t do much more for the welfare of the workers than the World Food Program’s monitoring has done to end hunger in North Korea. If South Korea really cared about the workers’ welfare, it would close down any enterprises that use toxic chemicals in their processes for which it’s unable to complete a thorough and objective safety review. Better yet, it would also investigate how much of their nominal wages the North Korean workers receive at all.

Australia-Korea FTA causes Kaesong backlash

I couldn’t have said it any better than this, and Jay Lefkowitz may be the last person who did:

“We can’t see how the Australian government in good conscience could bring such goods into the country,” he said. “It’s absolutely appalling, it basically would make the Australian government and Australian consumers complicit in the exploitation of North Korean workers by their government, and would ensure that Australian dollars are going directly into the pockets of the North Korean regime. Let’s be clear: it’s aiding and abetting exploitation.”

Mr Robertson said conditions in the GIC were “nowhere near basic international standards for labour rights or human rights”.

“They’re not free at all. What is happening in the Gaesung Industrial Complex is you essentially have workers who are controlled by North Korea being provided to the South as cheap labour.

“The payment doesn’t even go to the North Korean workers — it goes to an intermediary and the North Korean government takes a cut. Any sort of expression or effort to demand more rights from the workers would of course face retaliation. The only reason they stand for this kind of thing is because they’re from North Korea and they’re getting access to foreign currency.” [news.com.au]

Fortunately, that’s not going to happen without another negotiation and Australia’s agreement, and given the recent influence of Justice Kirby’s report on Australia’s public opinion and foreign policy, the obstacles to such an agreement seem considerable, to say the least.

The Australian deal on “outward processing zones” sounds a lot like the arrangement that was worked out in the U.S.-Korea FTA. Years later, Kaesong products still can’t be sold in U.S. markets … at least not legally. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, because Kaesong remains intensely unpopular in Congress.

Park: Human rights are part of “our core agenda” with North Korea

I wonder whether, when, and how these words might actually translate into tangible policy:

On Tuesday, Park made it clear that the North’s nuclear and human rights issues are “our core agenda in our policy toward North Korea.

“We should not be passive in these issues out of fear of North Korea’s backlash,” Park said in a Cabinet meeting, a comment that marked a clear departure from her liberal predecessors who rarely spoke about the human rights issue as they sought reconciliation with North Korea. [Yonhap]

The reaction from Pyongyang fully conformed to Park’s expectations:

Obsessed by the anachronistic wild ambition for “unification through absorption”, the Park Geun Hye group totally denied all the agreements reached between the north and the south and escalated confrontation with the fellow countrymen. Recently it groundlessly took issue with the nuclear program and “human rights issue” in the north at the UN, making a blatant challenge to the dignity and social system in the DPRK and glaringly revealing its despicable confrontational nature.

Park should mind that as the watchwords of “no nukes, opening and 3 000 dollars” put up by traitor Lee Myung Bak was branded as confrontational policy, her hideous “north policy” can also meet a miserable end, being rejected by the nation. [….]

Act of sycophantic treachery encroaching upon the fundamental requirements and interests of the nation will meet stern punishment by the nation. To move to settle the reunification issue by relying on outsiders is the most shameful act of sycophantic treachery today when the scramble over the Korean peninsula is getting fierce day by day. [….]

The DPRK will deal the heaviest blow to anyone who resorts to heinous hostile act of slandering its dignity and social system. The puppet group’s hostile acts of doing harm to the fellow countrymen and stirring up confrontation have gone beyond the tolerance limit. The DPRK will never pardon those who dare defame its dignity and social system, no matter who or where they might be, but deal the most merciless sledge-hammer blows to them. [KCNA, Oct. 2, 2014]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Park has never shown much interest in the welfare of the North Korean people before, and neither do most of the voters who elected her, so why now? My best guess is peer pressure. Park is saying these things because Japan and the EU are leading the response to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, while South Korea and Ban Ki Moon are passive bystanders to the oppression of their fellow Koreans. Perhaps this weighs on Park’s contemplation of her legacy. It should.

One good test of Park’s sincerity will be how hard she fights to get North Korean refugees out of Chinese jails, and to keep them out of North Korean prison camps. She has done this on some occasions, and one hopes that there are other such occasions we’ve never heard about. On the issue of North Korean human rights, South Korea’s understanding and compassion are both years behind the rest of the world. I wonder how long after the collapse of North Korea it will take for South Koreans to reinvent themselves as liberators.

There’s little contemporary basis for such a description. Today, South Korea’s political left, and some elements within Park’s own party, are pressuring her to lift sanctions on the North now, despite Pyongyang’s failure to acknowledge sinking the Cheonan, oblivious to the debate at the U.N. and North Korea’s breakneck pursuit of an effective nuclear missile (which it may or may not already have). Glyn Davies adds that Pyongyang “is even more directly rejecting its responsibility to live up to its obligations to denuclearize,” and accuses it of “directly rejecting” denuclearization.

So if nothing Kim Jong Un has done justifies lifting sanctions now, why lift them now? I suppose if you’re raking in billions of won through a combination of state subsidies and slave labor, none of that matters. The same is true if you’re inflexibly, ideologically opposed to holding Pyongyang accountable for anything at all. These people couldn’t care a whit about the safety or welfare of anyone else. Their influence in Seoul is why I’m so wary of Seoul’s influence in Washington.

For now, Park is resisting these calls and sticking to the position that Pyongyang must do its part to gain her trust. That is good, but will she lead in her own nation, where leadership is so essential, and so lacking? I hope the White House is supporting her, and doing what it can to keep her from cutting a separate deal like Japan did.

Seoul to Pyongyang: Let’s talk about human rights.

“Not only in high-level talks but also in any occasions of inter-Korean dialogue in the future, (Seoul) expects to have comprehensive discussion on all sorts of humanitarian issues including human rights,” unification ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said in a briefing.

“If high-level talks are held (between Seoul and Pyongyang), I think it is desirable that they discuss all the issues they want to discuss including this (human rights) issue,” Lim said. [Yonhap]

I’m not terribly impressed with Park Geun-Hye’s attention to human rights in North Korea overall, but this does represent progress when compared to the Roh Moo Hyun / Chung Dong-Young Die-in-Place Policy.

What if the capitalist North Korea is just as bad as the communist North Korea?

There are many reasons why the Sunshine Policy failed, most of them rooted in the character of the men who rule in Pyongyang, and in the character of the men in Seoul who conceived and executed it. And in that conception, the flaw that was obvious to some of us from the very beginning was that Sunshine — and its surviving derivatives — invested its monotheistic faith in economic reform, yet in practice (and to a large extent, in theory, too) it was agnostic about political reform and disarmament.

I have always held something closer to the opposite priorities. Personally, I believe that capitalism, with just enough regulation to maintain a peaceful society, is a superior economic system to any form of statism, but I’m not messianic or Hegelian about it, as long as the system doesn’t deny its people the right to live. Of course, North Korea does deny its people the right to live, but things like privatizing agriculture and local markets have never been the principal focus of Sunshine advocates, either. They have always invested their passion in top-down capitalism — specifically, projects like Kaesong, Kumgang, and any sign that the regime was interested in trade and money.

Which, of course, it has been all along. Pyongyang has consistently allowed just enough trade to feed, equip, and maintain the military, and buy swag for the elite. The Washington Post‘s Anna Fifield reports from Pyongyang that the elite are getting more swag, but this does not mean that North Korea is reforming.

Cars, for instance. A recent visitor, in the capital for the first time since 2008, found many more of them on the streets — and not just the locally produced “Pyonghwa” brand or Chinese BYDs, but Lexus sport-utility vehicles and late-model BMWs and Audis.

And shoes. Many women are dressing more fashionably, and brightly colored, shiny high heels, often with jewels, appear to be the trend du jour.

Changjon Street, in the heart of the city, near Kim Il Sung Square, is unrecognizable from a few years ago. Rows of round apartment towers line the street. Lit up at night, they are festooned with neon bands, giving them the appearance of giant fireworks. By day, the towers are reflected in the glittering river, making the city look “just like Dubai,” in the words of one government-appointed minder. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

I’m far more likely to accept these representations from Fifield than from, say, Jean Lee, because Fifield is no one’s cheerleader.

But the situation in the cities outside the capital, and even more so in the countryside, remains extremely dire. The state does not provide anything like the kinds of rations it once did, and hunger remains widespread.

Even in Pyongyang, there are still many more signs of extreme poverty than wealth. Bent-over elderly women carry huge sacks on their backs, men with weathered faces sit on their haunches by the roadside, and North Korean children appear noticeably smaller than their South Korean peers.

Foreign visitors to Pyongyang are driven along the same routes from their hotels, no matter where they are going, leading them to conclude that only certain streets are fit for foreign consumption.

We see reflections of the same thing in Pyongyang’s military belligerence, its continued weapons development, its spurning of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, its retrograde crackdowns on information, agriculture and trade by non-elite North Koreans, and its new foray into hostage-taking. The rich are getting richer, but the people in charge are still psychopaths.

The most interesting question Fifield’s report raises is where all that money is coming from. An easier question to answer is where North Korea is getting all the luxury goods that it’s banned by U.N. resolutions from buying.

But indirectly, Fifield raises a more fundamental policy question. What if we accept, for the sake of argument, that Kim Jong Un has abandoned socialism for state capitalism, without disarming or altering its essential contempt for humanity? Did economic reforms in China necessarily equate to political reforms? Was Nazi Germany less of a menace despite being state-capitalist? If North Korea’s de facto abandonment of socialism means that Sunshine has succeeded, it’s an awfully hollow victory.

Derivatives of Sunshine still live, of course, as do a surprising number of die-hard adherents. But whenever I ask them why they adhere, they confess that it isn’t really because they believe, but because they can conceive of no better ideas.