Playing to ‘lose’ with NK

Andrei Lankov has an op-ed in the IHT offering his take on what American negotiators can accomplish as they prepare to engage with Pyongyang fully aware that its leaders have no intention of abandoning their nuclear arsenal.

1) it is possible to agree on dismantling the North Korean nuclear research and production facilities.

2) North Koreans will probably agree to some nonproliferation measures.

3) the negotiations will allow a channel of communication with Pyongyang to be kept open at a time when Kim Jong-il’s health is ailing and changes (not necessarily for the better) might happen at any time.

4) the negotiations will create an environment in which North Korea’s exchanges with the outside world will become possible.

In conclusion, Lankov writes, the “pace of negotiations should be slow, bargaining should be hard, and no magical breakthrough should be expected.”

He does not mention here how Beijing factors into Washington’s game plan, though he does say that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s much trumpeted “Grand Bargain” would be a grand waste. “Alas, a cash-for-nukes solution will not be acceptable to Pyongyang: The lump sum payment would be spent quickly, and without nuclear weapons, additional aid would be very moderate…

China absorbing North Korea

On a recent trip to North Korea, John Linton remarked after viewing that country’s athletic blitzkrieg known as the Arirang Games, which closed on Oct. 20, that a third of the performance was in praise of China.

All for one

The son of missionary parents raised in rural South Jeolla Province and current head of Yonsei’s College of Medicine, Linotn’s remarks, according to this editorial in the Hankyoreh, are further proof of North Korea’s steady absorption by China and the misguided policies of Seoul’s current 2MB administration.

China is filling the void of inter-Korean cooperation spawned by deteriorating inter-Korean relations, and is establishing development projects on its own in the regions around the North Korea-China border.

“To put it simply,” it declares,  “this region is becoming a fourth province of northeastern China.”

It’s food for thought, but I think the author makes the mistake of assuming that Pyongyang will simply roll over and allow Beijing to swallow it whole. If nothing else, North Korea’s leaders are masters at playing powers off of one another while milking them for all their worth. And despite its show of affection, my sense is that the North remains just as wary of China as it does all others beyond its borders.

For a less emotional analyses of what exactly might lie behind Beijing’s North Korea policy, Foreign Policy offers its take on why China continues to shirk its duties to international peace and security “commensurate” with its global status (terminology employed by the U.S. when it pressed Seoul and Tokyo to support efforts in Afghanistan.)

Beijing now deliberately separates its bilateral relationship with North Korea from the nuclear issue, placing the responsibility for nuclear questions on the United States. In Beijing’s eyes, the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Pyongyang was evidence of the success of this dual-track approach. The China-North Korea bilateral relationship was strengthened significantly, with the announcement of Chinese aid and economic cooperation packages worth more than $200 million. Far from fearing being marginalized in nuclear talks, China is pushing for a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea. Should the United States not pursue this option, it will be harder to convince Beijing to take a tough line with Pyongyang in the future.

Not to be outfoxed, Washington will be sending Stephen Bosworth to Beijing in the not-too-distant future, with the express purpose of “failing” to sway Pyongyang and thereby throwing the ball back into Beijing’s court. A game of nuclear hot potato as it were.

A few more stats on China’s “bonds with North Korea

A report published by the Korean Industrial and Financial Research Institute reveals that China has a near monopoly over North Korea’s mineral resources, both through direct purchases and by obtaining development rights. All major contracts were signed around 2005, including 50-year rights to develop Musan Iron Ore, the largest iron ore mine in East Asia, and 25-year rights to exploit the Hyesan copper mine.

The above article concludes that “Just as international sanctions against Sudan gave China almost exclusive access to that country’s resources, the same thing is happening in North Korea.”

It leaves out any reference to the North’s gold reserves, however, which according to this 2007 Christian Science Monitor piece are impressive. Beijing has been buying gold on the (Chinese) domestic market, which is sometimes referred to as the “People’s Central Bank,” in order to safeguard against USD risk and to bolster the future expansion of its own currency.

In addition, a report in the Telegraph notes that the global gold supply is running out. If that’s the case than Beijing, as the dominant player in North Korea, could stand to make a killing.

NK used dummy satellite

An article in the Christian Science Monitor reports that some scientists in South Korea are saying the North tipped its rocket with a dummy satellite in order to justify a test of its missile technology.

They cannot have been shooting a real satellite,” says Myung Noh-hoon, director of the Space Research Center at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the country’s leading base for science and engineering. “They did not build a satellite.”

[He] says, in the two days since the missile was launched, we have been “trying to catch the signal from the satellite.” That was not possible, he says, “because it was a dummy, not a real one.”

China’s economic interests in NK

Per the WSJ article:

China on Tuesday repeated a call for calm after North Korea’s latest test of a multistage rocket, attempting to defuse anger in the U.S. and elsewhere at a time when its economic interest in the neighboring state is soaring[…]

China increased trade with North Korea over the past four years. Last year, two-way trade between China and North Korea jumped 41% to $2.79 billion, with most of that coming from increased exports by China.

Wang Kai, a manager of Liaoning Fuxin Tianxin Technology and Development Co., says the company decided to build a pipe-making factory in North Korea because the country’s economy has few places to go but up.

“North Korea’s situation and economic status are pretty similar to China’s before the start of the opening up and reform policy,” Mr. Wang said in an interview before the rocket launch.

Last June, China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, who is seen by many as the likely successor to President Hu Jintao, visited North Korea and met Mr. Kim. When Mr. Kim fell ill in August, China reportedly sent five doctors to help.

For many years, a German-style reunification with South Korea — though at a much slower pace — was widely assumed to be the endgame for a post-Kim North Korea. That has changed as China’s economic activities forged new connections with North Korea’s elite.

Blix calls for engagement with North

Hans Blix, former head of the WMD inspection team in Iraq and chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, says engagement with the North is the only way to convince the country that “a piece of paper” will guarantee its safety more so than a nuclear stockpile.

Perhaps a piece of paper could be made more attractive if it were signed by the great powers and combined with a peace treaty. Perhaps it would also be more credible if it were offered in the margin of the revival of international nuclear disarmament. While allowing civilian nuclear power and guaranteeing access to uranium fuel, it would have to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, enrichment of uranium and reprocessing on the whole Korean peninsula[…]

There may be limits to the persuasive power of the Chinese government, but it is significant and there can be no doubt that Beijing has an enormous interest in using it. A nuclear-capable North Korea shooting missiles over Japan could push Tokyo in a direction that would sharply increase tensions with China.

NK says Seoul poisoned its athletes

It just gets stranger and stranger. Apparently the North’s KCNA issued a report accusing S. Korean President Lee Myung-bak of poisoning its soccer team ahead of a match in Seoul against S. Korea.

“The main players of the football team of the DPRK could not get up due to serious vomiting, diarrhea and headaches since the night of March 31, just a day before the match”  […]

“It is as clear as noonday that it was a product of the Lee Myung-bak group’s moves for confrontation with the DPRK and a deliberate behavior bred by the unsavory forces instigated by it.”

I guess since they went out of their way to find an excuse for the loss it must mean they actually reported it, whis is unusual considering that defectors here say losing matches are never aired, spoken about or acknowledged by state media. “Ghost matches” they’re called.

China leans towards Security Council

A report by Yonhap suggests that Beijing may be more inclined than previously thought to take North Korea to task for its pending rocket launch.

This [does] not mean the Chinese have agreed to push for a U.N. Security Council resolution or U.N. sanctions condemning North Korea. Even so, the development marks a significant change in stance by North Korea’s closest ally. Hu was quoted as saying in the summit that China has been trying to persuade North Korea against going ahead with the launch and will continue to do so.

If that is the case then it seems like a game changer because all previous speculation was that China and Russia would oppose any kind of punitive measure.The North has long used the split between regional powers to its advantage and the last thing it wants to see is a united front.

I think the most trenchant article I’ve seen on the launch so far was by B.R. Myers in the NYT (HT to Marmot), which argues the launch is aimed more at sending a message to North Koreans.

Since he became president of South Korea last year, the conservative Lee Myung-bak has attached conditions to aid for the North and sharply criticized its nuclear program. The message to the North Korean people is clear: their Dear Leader is not as feared and respected as they have been led to believe. This challenge has thrown the Kim regime into a crisis of which the outside world remains largely unaware.

If — and this is a BIG if — even North Korea’s staunchest ally is now taking a harder stance on Pyongyang, then the internal crisis that Myer’s posits could get a whole lot worse.

UPDATE: A North Korean launch in 1998 was followed by praise for Kim Jong-il for pioneering the country’s space program. According to Choe Sang-hun of the IHT:

The U.S. space authorities tried but could not find a new satellite after North Korea launched what it called its Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite in 1998. Western officials believed that it had actually tested its Taepodong-1 missile.

At the time, North Korean media praised Kim Jong-il, who had been confirmed as the country’s top leader, for pioneering the country’s “space development program” and said the satellite was broadcasting revolutionary Communist songs to earth.

That fits in with Myer’s theory. Also take into account that North Korea’s parliament is set to convene on April 9 to reconfirm Kim Jong-il’s position as head of the National defence Commission, which oversees the million-strong military.

Nice way to make a re-entrance – assuming the launch succeeds. If not, North Koreans will likely not hear a word of it. Like when South Korea beat them in last week’s World Cup qualifier.

“I have never seen a football match live on North Korean TV,” said Chung Eui-sung, 31, who fled the communist country in 2003. A former striker for North Korea’s Team 425 and the founding member of Club Geumgang-san, a team of North Korean defectors in Seoul, he was savoring the experience.