April 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Nothing arouses the press like conflict easily juxtaposed. And the divided Korean peninsula pretty much has that game trademarked.
South and North, capitalist and communist, prosperous and impoverished, reasonable and rabid; if it is dichotomies you are after, look no further.
The same goes for easy adjectives – and for Pyongyang you don’t usually need to get past “b” in the dictionary; for bellicose, belligerent, bluster, bombast (or bomb blast).
Manichean dichotomies seldom season cool analysis however and with the goose-stepping soldiers and bizarre KCNA hyperbole in such rich supply, dispassionate deconstruction of what is actually going on in the region tends to be in short supply.
Nuclear tests, missile tests, satellite launches; for anyone who has paid attention to the peninsula for long, the predictable trajectories of both press coverage and political reaction elicit little reaction, even as the broader hysteria grows ever more shrill.
Out come all the established tropes: The “international community” will be “united in its outrage at Pyongyang’s escalation of tension”. The Japanese or Americans will pledge to shoot down the missile, then back-peddle furiously. North Korea will be a “grave threat” to world peace. Elderly South Koreans will burn an effigy of the latest Kim and the more hawkish of its statesmen will announce that Seoul must also become a nuclear power. It is a pattern as predictable as West Sea clashes in the contentious crab fishing season, North Korean fury at routine military exercises across the border or provocations by Pyongyang ahead of South Korean elections. And it changes nothing (although it allows us our continued outrage).
Nobody likes moral relativism, particularly when it pertains to perhaps the most obnoxious regime in the world, but it is an interesting exercise to consider how North Korea views itself. From Pyongyang, the narrative is that it is defending itself; that it is perennially on the cusp of American invasion, that its poverty is the result of vicious sanctions; how dare the US call it “evil” over a smattering of nuclear tests: America has conducted over 1000 (1030 to be precise) and as for those “gulags”, what about Guantanamo Bay or the fact that the federal prison population has soared a staggering 790 percent in just three decades? To each – in a phrase beloved by international relations specialists – their own shit smells sweet and this is worth remembering, because in the eyes of the octogenarian players and their pudgy new overlord in the North Korean capital, they – with their universal healthcare and their excellent traffic cops, their clinging to a perceived cachet as the last holdouts against US hegemony – they are the rational ones.
The mainstream meme, meanwhile, remains as constant as the geostrategically comfortable status quo sometimes gets vaguely shaken but rarely properly stirred: North Korea is a rogue state, it is irrational, it has threatened its neighbours by conducting a nuclear test/missile test/threatening war. It must be punished like a recalcitrant child, have its inappropriate toys taken away, be firmly slapped and then shut in its famine-ridden bedroom while it wails and smashes things. Careful, meanwhile, not to get too heavy-handed (or too diplomatically engaged) in case something actually changes… Rewinding four years, to when the North tested a nuclear weapon, foreign policy doyenne and Harvard professor Stephen Walt had the most reasonable response. As the perennial crises on the peninsula are so contained by the geostrategic facts on the ground, it applies this time round too.
“North Korea’s defiance is annoying, perhaps, but it’s not like the act of testing a nuclear weapon tells us something new about their regime… “The other reason not to get too bent out of shape is that there is little we can do about it…There are two reasons why our hands are largely tied. First, we don’t have extensive economic ties with North Korea, so we can’t pressure them by threatening to cut off aid, trade, or investment. Second, using military force to disarm or topple Kim Jong Il’s regime or to impose a full economic blockade could unleash an all-out war on the Korean peninsula. All-out war could do considerable damage to Seoul, which lies within artillery range of the border, and the sudden collapse of the North Korean state could create a massive humanitarian problem and make it more likely that some of its nuclear materials would escape reliable custody.
“So the best response is to remain calm, and stop talking as if this event is a test of Obama’s resolve or a fundamental challenge to U.S. policy. In fact, the tests are just “business as usual” for North Korea, and it would better if the United States “under-reacts” rather than overreacts. Instead of giving Pyongyang the attention it wants, the United States should use this incident as an opportunity to build consensus among the main interested parties (China, Russia, South Korea, Japan) and let China take the lead in addressing it. Above all, the Obama administration should avoid making a lot of sweeping statements about how it will not “tolerate” a North Korean nuclear capability. The fact is that we’ve tolerated it for some time now, and since we don’t have good options for dealing with it, that’s precisely what we will continue to do.”
There are alternatives. There is waiting for a North Korean revolution, reform or state collapse – and many have been predicting the imminent above for decades. There is ramped up military pressure and sanctions that have done little to affect change. There is sustained diplomatic engagement of the kind that so nearly bore fruit at the tail-end of the Clinton administration. Or there is war; devastating war guaranteed to bring in every regional player – and once more have China, Japan and the United States jostling for influence on the peninsula as they have since the nineteenth century – but war so unsavoury and unsettling that for all the cries of alarm, a nuclear North Korea safely in its cage provides a reassuring buffer against the thought of it.
Those with a cooler eye note meanwhile the relationship between Japan and China should be the more genuine cause of alarm when eyes turn to Northeast Asia. A recent report by the International Crisis Group is a case in point. Titled “Dangerous Waters” the executive summary pointed out that the two countries “lack the mutual trust and communication mechanisms to manage incidents, let alone to discuss intentions or operating protocols … In the event of a skirmish, heightened nationalism, especially in China, could constrict the room for diplomacy to de-escalate the situation” The report by the respected think tank went on to state starkly: “The two countries’ traditional means for defusing crises have been unravelling. Top leaders mistrust each other; back-channel diplomacy has waned.” With historic animosity rife and nationalism rampant, the highly disputed waters of the East China Sea are of far greater concern than the heavily mined DMZ between the two Koreas. As for what to actually do about the ossified face-off between the latter, that is a tale for another time – and one that involves considerably less histrionics and considerably more historical context.
November 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Expats in South Korea tend to define themselves by how shaken they get when the North starts rattling its cage. You’re pissing yourself because it threatened nuclear war? Damn newbie: Get a grip.
A naval skirmish in the crab-fishing season disconcerting? Pffaaa. You ain’t been here long… And you find the KCNA rhetoric — “Sea of Fire”; “Thunderbolt Strikes” — chilling and shudder at their military capabilities? Old hands just want to find them a decent copy-editor.
But the speculation never ceases and the question always niggles: What is the chance of this escalating?
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is talking tough: he’s said “enormous retaliation is necessary to ensure North Korea is incapable of provoking us again…” And given what was seen as Seoul’s inaction after the apparent sinking of the Cheonan (a rather odd incident frankly, which I blogged about here) he’s going to feel compelled to respond — and respond hard.
If an incoming North Korean cabal sees the South as a soft touch and uses such attacks to either gain approval with the populace or consolidate power, the risks are obvious and the thin end of the wedge. But the fact remains that Seoul cannot respond in any significant military manner, without U.S. approval. And with Iraq and Afghanistan eating up manpower and dollars I’m sure the last thing the brass want is World War Three kicking off in East Asia.
The risk the South has always feared is that any reaction could escalate; hawks in the U.S. have on many occasion proposed surgical airstrikes on the North’s nuclear facilities and been easily shouted down by those who fear it could trigger a full-fledged war. This time though, it could be that someone in the South at least is willing to take the sort of gamble with some significant military response that previously hasn’t been conceivable; air strikes against North Korea’s coastal artillery being the most likely option.
All idle speculation at this point and I don’t see it going much further just now. But with pretty much every conceivable sanction against the North already in place, the Chinese extremely reluctant to turn off the taps, lest that lead to a massive flood of economic migrants across their border or worse, the collapse of a buffer state, there are few options for an increasingly frustrated Seoul.
The situation certainly isn’t going to get any better over the next few years. And one of many interesting questions is how long the joint industrial park at Kaesong can continue to stay open given this deliberate attack on South Korean soil?
June 4, 2010 § 1 Comment
South Korea today officially took the case of the Cheonan sinking to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and called for coordinated international action against Pyongyang, whom it blames for the maritime disaster.
North Korea has denied responsibility for the incident, in which a South Korean corvette sank suddenly near the maritime border in the West Sea on March 26, leaving 46 young naval conscripts trapped in the stern and South Korean authorities scrambling to raise the vessel in hopes of rescuing them. All 46 died.
Seoul brought the case to the UNSC on the grounds that the UN Charter allows its members to bring to it “any dispute or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute.”
Domestically however, trust in the government about the issue is low. I spoke to several South Korean journalists (including two covering the defense ministry) immediately after the sinking and they were all skeptical about their government’s claims that it was an attack by the North, believing the ship to have sunk owing to structural flaws and suggesting the government could never admit this to have been the case with mid-term elections due in June.
That in itself means nothing other than — as the Financial Times’ Korea correspondent Christian Oliver wrote in an April article headlined “South Koreans see the State as the Real Monster” — locals trust the government about as far as they could throw it. As he wrote, the state had only itself to blame:
The reason why South Koreans get so furious and readily suspect cover-ups has much to do with the way information is relayed. At present, the state and its top conglomerates, the chaebol, largely spoon-feed information to uncritical television and newspapers, forcing the discussion of less palatable issues into Korea’s cyberspace.
Absolutely on the money and having worked for a South Korean news outlet, I could offer countless anecdotes to substantiate this. To turn to the sinking: there are plenty of reasons the North could have committed the attack: to strengthen the hand of the military. To bolster the credentials of Kim Jong-il’s son who is believed to be being lined up for succession. To garner a little national pride amid torrid times and on the back of a currency reform so fucked up the country’s leaders had to issue an unprecedented apology.
But… but… but… it smells funny. It does. And South Korean netizens (admittedly a bunch prone to anti-government histrionics) are of a growing belief that their country’s ruling administration is not telling it like it is. Their chattering and leaflet spreading by students accusing the government of fabricating evidence to back their allegations have resulted in a police investigation, with — as the Korea Times reports — the coppers:
Widening their investigation to apprehend those who spread “groundless rumors” about the sinking of the warship Cheonan [after] more than 1,000 leaflets challenging the government’s conclusion that the Cheonan, was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine were found in residential areas and college campuses across Seoul.
Experienced commentator on Korean affairs Donald Kirk comments in the Asia Times in a piece headlined “Cheonan Credibility Gap Widens”, that questions abound about the sinking and ensuing “international” investigation:
Who were the experts from the half dozen foreign countries who joined the investigation; were they ordered to remain silent and not give their versions; why were all, excluding one from Sweden, from countries allied with the South in the Korean War that ended in 1953?
March 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
February 12, 2010 § 2 Comments
A photo from South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency of a crowd in Pyongyang “celebrating” Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday, which falls on February the 16th, is unintentionally revealing.
Look at every single face. Not one smile among them. This is a grim-faced crowd who look, to a man/woman, like they would like to cut off Kim’s head and eat his brains with a spoon on his most happy of birthdays.
Photo’s sanctioned by North Korea usually show a smiley-smiley world of brightly clad women holding Kimjongilia.* But this crowd looks, at best, like angry unionists about to smash some shit up and at worst like a people who have pretty much run out of hope.
Methinks the North’s botched currency reform has truly almost been the straw that broke the camel’s back in that benighted nation. The Prime Minister of the North has even had to issue an unprecedented public apology and reports burgeon of social unrest.
As Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo writes, “If the rumors coming out of North Korea are accurate, then the country is a ticking time bomb.” Admittedly South Korea’s right have hardly ever thought otherwise and a few malnourished and angry market traders are hardly likely to be a match for the most repressive state on earth.
But given that the currency reform was initially attributed to Kim’s son, who has apparently been tagged as next leader in the world’s only hereditary “communist” state, the hand over of power looks like it could be pretty ugly as-and-when the Dear Leader finally kicks the bucket.
As the Ye Olde Chosun notes, it’s always worth remembering that in January 1989, the West German government said there were no unusual signs coming out of East Germany: within the year the Berlin wall had fallen…
*The red flowers that are blossoming over our land
Are like hearts: full of love for the leader
Our hearts follow the young buds of Kimjongilia
Oh! The flower of our loyalty!
January 25, 2010 § Leave a Comment
You can’t escape God in South Korea. He’s even nestling like a strange foetus or pacemaker in the chest of professional boxers.
And if I had a W1000 note for every time someone approached me on the tube asking if I knew their friend Jesus, I’d make George Soros look like a pauper.
But my formerly laconic boxing coach didn’t seem the type. Now I know:
“Do you believe in god J?” He corners me menacingly in the changing room.
I don’t know what ignostic is in Korean and I don’t want to brush him off with a yes or no answer, either of which would be a lie. I opt for deflection…
“I think god means different things to different people…”
“But do you believe in Jesus?”
(As a historical figure, likely; as a spiritual leader, probably; as the son of god: um, metaphorically? But I’m cornered by a pro-boxer not given to semantics or hair-splitting nonsense. “Yes” I mumble, pathetically.)
“When I fight, god is in me; that’s why I win. My mother prays 24-hours continuously before I fight; that’s why I win… God is in here!” (Gestures expansively with bruised hands at his chest…)
“That’s great…” I mutter again, wondering what God thinks about people being beaten to a pulp because he has shrunk to Lilliputian size and made his home in the left atrium of a Korean pugilist.
“Go to church regularly J!” he barks into the chill air of the gym.
I return to skipping in the thin morning sun.
Unlike Japan, Christianity took strong root in Korea and continues to flourish, sometimes to the discomfort of foreign subway passengers, in the South. Prior to the division of the peninsula and the ascension of the communists in the North, Pyongyang was even known as as Jerusalem of the East for its status as stronghold of protestantism.
Theorists have been divided over exactly why this is; earlier thinkers presumed that a population that has suffered the massive turmoil of war and resulting extreme poverty is likely to turn to religion as a salve for worldly ills, but numerous other examples fail to bear this out.
In Korea, I’d imagine, the reasons are complex but a few can be teased out crudely: it is one of the few countries where Christianity wasn’t seen to come hand-in-hand with a colonising force. China, Japan: yes. Korea, no.
In face, in Korea early missionaries were among those most fervently opposed to Korea’s occupation by the Japanese. This gave it a historical legitimacy that is lacking in, say, Japan.
The division of the peninsula also left millions impoverished, but more importantly, separated from their hometowns, which Koreans attach great value too; whether for their role as seat of the family, location of family grave which must be tended and ancestors propitiated at, or simply because that is where the community you know is.
Churches took on the role of substitute family and hometown, as the destitute and despairing were reeled in by the promise of company, sympathy and often, simply, food. (Modern-day South Korean churches often offer money to North Korean refugees in Seoul… canny defectors rotate from church to church, hauling in some extra cash…)
And several friends have commented to me that Christianity chimes with the Korean national character and expression of “한” (“a mixed feeling of sorrow and regret, unique to Korea” according to the dictionary, but a little more complex than that…), for the depiction of suffering, victim-hood and loss.
Interesting stuff, even if its modern manifestations can be a bit overbearing. Andrei Lankov’s excellent 2005 article in the Asia Times, “North Korea’s missionary position” is a fascinating read on Christianity in that troubled country. Worth a look for those interested…
November 9, 2009 § 7 Comments
On October the 22nd, North Korea’s state news agency, the Korea Central News Agency ran a typically terse one paragraph report on the visit of a foreign business delegation to Pyongyang.
Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, met and had a conversation with the visiting delegation of the Swiss Commodity Holding AG led by Chief Executive Ms. Shanti Sen at the Mansudae Assembly Hall.
A President of a Presidium had a conversation with a visiting delegation? Stop the press! It is highly doubtful that the KCNA’s finest caused front pages or breaths to be held in news rooms globally and frankly, if anyone even bothered to read the report, they must have thought little of it.
But to a handful of football fans halfway across the world as tightly knit and fervently loyal as any group of North Korean cadres, the visit represents just the latest installment in a saga involving a former England football manager, the mysterious Swiss company led by Ms. Sen and the octogenarian autocrats of Pyongyang.
Notts County Football Club lays claim to the title of oldest professional football league club in the world. Despite its lowly status in the footballing echelons it has a loyal following who have tracked “The Magpies” recent financial travails with a (perhaps morbid) fascination.
Not least because they seem to involve, through some twist of fate, promises of gold buried in the mountains of distant North Korea… But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s rewind.
Footballing minnows Notts County were initially delighted this summer when the club was taken over by a Middle Eastern consortium called Qadbak. The firm — which claimed to have some £100 billion in assets — expunged its £1m debts, hired former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson as director of football, and promised to propel the club into the Championship within five years. Bang, crash, ker-pow! Eat your heart out Roman Abramovich…
But doubts didn’t take long to grow and the ownership of the club began to come under the scrutiny of the Football League, which states that all club directors and significant shareholders must pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test: not an easy thing to do given that Qadbak is registered in offshore banking haven the British Virgin Islands and its owners seemed reluctant to come forward.
The interest of sports journalists was piqued and many began to sniff around.
A lot of the funny smells seemed to be emanating from Swiss Commodity Holdings (SCH). Described by most simply as a Zurich-based mining company, it emerged from obscurity when Qadbak was reported to have handed a sizeable stake in it to Sven-Goran Eriksson in return for the former England manager joining Notts County. (Which was quite a step down for the globetrotting, bespectacled Swede).
British broadsheet the Daily Telegraph found that two ambassadors for the miner had approached the investment banks Rothschild and Cazenove for advice about a public listing, claiming to have mining assets worth more than commodity giants BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Rio Tinto and gold reserves of $153bn, more than the current market leader, Barrick Gold, which has $117bn.
Strangely none of the above companies had ever heard of SCH and it declined to disclose publicly the location of its claimed $1.9 trillion of reserves. But according to the Telegraph, representatives of the firm told bankers that some of its assets are in Africa and North Korea. Yes. That North Korea.
The bizarre bond between SCH and Pyongyang became even more apparent when the Guardian reported that Sven Goran Eriksson was on the brink of a deal that could see the Swede leaving Notts County on loan to coach the North Korean football team during their World Cup campaign.
Although the coach denied the veracity of the reports and was later said to have turned down the offer, the whole situation seemed increasingly iffy. A report in the Guardian claimed Eriksson was assured that when the company was floated on the stock market, his stock would be worth millions overnight and that the initial public flotation would take place by July. (The company has yet to be floated and rumours have emerged of Sven leaving the club…)
Then in September Russell King, a senior representative of Qadbak, the offshore company that owns Notts County, has had £1.9m of his assets frozen by the courts in Jersey over an unpaid debt. Things seemed to be unraveling*
If Qadbak and SCH are counting on North Korea to provide a solid backstop for their singularly impressive claims to wealth, one suspects they are out of their depth. Although foreign interest in North Korea’s natural resources has grown, partly on the back of a South Korean government report issued in early October valuing the North’s mineral reserves at $6,000bn, getting the glittery stuff out is no simple task.
Sanctions slapped on North Korea as a result of its nuclear tests render most North Korean products toxic to players in the international financial system. As British businessman Colin McAskill, chairman of Koryo Asia Ltd., which invests in North Korea through the Chosun Development & Investment Fund told reporter Donald Kirk in 2007.
“The US has been using coercion, innuendo, and sheer force to intimidate banks from dealing with North Korea….
…they have a wealth of minerals – gold, silver, zinc, magnesite, copper, uranium, platinum – that needs investment to extract.
SCH seems, judging from their reported conversation with the President of the Presidium, to be making a serious move on that “wealth of minerals”. Shanti Sen, who the KCNA reports as leading the firm’s delegation to Pyongyang, previously worked for the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, where she headed the Corporate Investment Group and is also listed as a bigwig at City Property Investors, which manages global real estate. Interesting choice of CEO.* (Incidentally Singapore recently signed an Investment Guarantee Agreement (IGA) with the North, under which:
Investors will be accorded non-discriminatory treatment, compensation in the event of expropriation or nationalisation of their investments, and free transfer of capital and returns from investment.
What with Singapore’s IGA, The Gold Diggers’ visit, Sven’s involvement and the South Korean government’s report, there seems to be a real sense in the air that North Korea is there for the taking.
But whether it’s footballing gold or the aurum itself that has led the Magpies (which as everyone knows are attracted to shiny things) to look east for funding, one can only feel for the fans that the future of their club is no longer simply in the hands of its players but is in no small part perhaps dependent on State Department sanctions officials, the dictatorial geriatrics of Pyongyang and “$153bn” of North Korea gold that is, for the time being — and despite the best efforts of those in the Mansudae Assembly Hall — going nowhere, one suspects, for the foreseeable future.
*After posting this story I was emailed anonymously by a German offering their “Freundliche Grüsse” and the link to AAH Group Inc., whose board of directors includes the very same Shanti Sen. There is absolutely jack all information on the group on the internet or indeed, their own homepage other than that they are:
“A mining corporation with a focus on the extraction of gold and precious minerals. The group owns various rights in South East Asia and South America. AAH Group, Inc. own one of the largest reserves bases in the public gold sector.”
Their claims sound a lot like SCH’s don’t they? And after a little more digging I found out that Pyongyang has in the past primarily sold its gold to global buyers via Thailand. According to official Thai Customs Department statistics dug up by reporter Bertil Lintner in a few years back, North Korea shipped 500 kilograms of gold worth 398 million baht (US$11 million) to Thailand in April 2007 alone.
Lintner, who’s done his homework, writes that North Korea’s main gold mine is in Unsan county in North Pyongan province, about 150 kilometers north of Pyongyang.
Consultants from Clough Engineering of Australia in 2001 inspected the same mine under the sponsorship of the United Nations Office for Project Services. They estimated that Unsan held 1,000 tons of gold reserves, which if true would make it one of the world’s major gold mines.
There truly is gold in them thar hills! No wonder businesses with distinctly opaque structures are popping up left right and centre, claiming to have the rights to all Smorg’s treasure.
I’d speculate (wildly) that given Sen’s background in Singapore and the city state’s recent MOU with the Norks that AAH Inc. and SCH may be aiming to sell gold via Singapore… Just a shot in the dark though. They may also be gambling that sanctions will be lifted as the North moves to rejoin six party talks, which looks likely in the near future…
*Notts County’s takeover has since been approved by the Football League. As the Guardian noted, however:
There is, however, no means test for ownership of English football clubs, nor is there currently any way of knowing whether Notts County’s claims that it is backed by billions of pounds are true. Other public claims made by the club in the past three months have later unravelled.