Conflicting Messages: Whipping Out The Crystal Ball

When it comes to message control, our current Prime Minister’s office has nothing compared to the likes of Pyongyang. The rulers of the DPRK have for the last seventy years been quite fastidious when it has come to shaping the regime’s official message. After all, when you enjoy the benefits of controlling both the media and your diplomats abroad, the only thing you really have to worry about are the folks who decide to leave your tightly-controlled society.

It’s surprising that despite some extreme shocks to the system, including the famine and the death of the only leader the country had ever known in 1994, the regime’s grip did not grow any “looser.” Perhaps the areas around the country’s northern provinces have become a little more porous after the famine, but despite the relative free flow of knowledge that appears to be growing in the borderlands between China, the number of people (successfully) fleeing the country has dwindled, especially after the recent power succession.

This makes the conflicting messages coming out of the country quite surprising. Read the rest of this entry »

So far DPRK doing what it said, by Chris Nelson

[The war of words has already started. North Korea has declared the Armistice Agreement inoperative, has cut off the hot line at exactly the time hot lines are most needed to prevent an inadvertent slide into accidental hot wars. Large military exercizes are currently being conducted on both sides of the DMZ. How will South Korea and/or the USA respond to an intended or unintended skirmish around disputed border islands at the sensitive Northern Limit Line, as happened in Yeonpyeong in 1999, 2002 and 2010? A “kinetic” response has been threatened by all three parties. Could this devolve into a tit-for-tat escalation towards an all-out war? As he is wont to do, Chris Nelson has been following developments from an American perspective in the Nelson Report. With his permission, we reprint sections of the 11 March 2013 edition. –CanKor]

In this March 11, 2013 photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed March 12, 2013 by the Korea News Service, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves at military officers after inspecting the Wolnae Islet Defense Detachment, North Korea, near the western sea border with South Korea.

In this 11 March 2013 photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed March 12, 2013 by the Korea News Service, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves at military officers after inspecting the Wolnae Islet Defense Detachment, North Korea, near the western sea border with South Korea.

So the 11th arrived and as the annual US-S. Korea joint military exercises continue, the DPRK seems to be keeping to its “schedule” of doing things to rachet-up tensions, but not (yet) actually shoot anything or anybody. However, that, we can authoritatively report, is seen by both US and S. Korean involved experts as likely not a question of “if”, but “when/what”.

Speculation…nothing on this can be called “informed”…but speculation by folks whose responsibility it is to try and predict: many expect some kind of kinetic action near or along the Northern Limits Line, rather than against Seoul or a military base…perhaps carried out in a way which cannot be immediately ascribed to direct DPRK aggression. (See discussion, below.)

The thinking behind that includes Pyongyang seeking to confuse ROK (and US) decision-makers on the critical “retaliation” question, especially given Pres. Park’s firm warnings that not only will she authorize a military response to a kinetic attack, but that a pre-emptive ROK attack cannot be ruled out, under certain circumstances. Read the rest of this entry »

I Thought Groundhog Day was Last Week

So North Korea continues its streak as the only country that has tested a nuclear weapon in the past fifteen years.

The official English statement that was released by KCNA is interesting for two reasons. The first is that Pyongyang elegantly stated that the weapon that it tested yesterday was a smaller version (“miniaturized” per the Korean language version) of the weapons that were tested in 2006 and 2009. This of course is a thinly veiled statement directed towards those worried about the DPRK building a bomb that could fit snugly on top of a Taepodong rocket. Pyongyang’s answer is “si, su puede.”

The other interesting part of the statement is North Korea’s claim that its nuclear deterrent has become “diversified.” The most orthodox interpretation of this is that North Korea now possesses a bomb different from those that it tested earlier: namely, one of the Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) variety. This would be alarming in many respects: it means that the DPRK has, despite the myriad of sanctions lodged against it, acquired this technology. It means that the DPRK, with this technology, can continue to produce HEU type weapons en masse: since if there’s anything that’s remotely abundant in North Korea, it’s uranium. It also means that there has been some sort of cooperation between the DPRK and someone, whether it be China, or Pakistan, or Iran. Read the rest of this entry »

Much ado about style over substance: Kim Jong Un’s New Year

Continuing the theme of channeling his grandfather’s charisma by reversing his father’s aloofness, the young DPRK leader Kim Jong Un read his first major policy speech on New Year’s day. During his 19-year reign, “dear leader” Kim Jong Il (Jong Un’s father) substituted the traditional New Year’s pronouncements of “great leader” Kim Il Sung (Jong Un’s grandfather) with a “joint New Year’s editorial” published by the official newspapers of the Korean Worker’s Party, the Korean People’s Army and the Party’s youth wing.

Kim Jong Un delivers 2013 New Year message (Photo by KCNA)

The young Kim Jong Un appeared before television cameras to read the lengthy speech, which will be the subject of intensive study within North Korea. But as can be seen by a sampling of “expert” opinions, this annual summary of DPRK policies is also carefully dissected by DPRK-watchers the world over.

The full text of the speech (courtesy the Korean Central News Agency KCNA) can be read at the following link: New Year Address Made by Kim Jong Un.

To see the young leader reading the text (with the voice of an interpreter in English) please watch the video at the bottom of this article.

Here follow some early commentaries about the significance of this speech by a number of (mostly American) experts as assembled by Chris Nelson taken from the 2 January 2013 Nelson Report:  Read the rest of this entry »

New study says the Cheonan was sunk by mine, not NK torpedo

[The following article by Oh Cheol-woo, science correspondent, appeared in the South Korean independent newspaper The Hankyoreh on 27 August 2012. The paper on which the facts in this article are based can be downloaded as a PDF file by following this link: Underwater Explosion (UWE) Analysis of the ROKS Cheonan Incident. –CanKor]

The wreckage of the Cheonan warship now sits in Pyongtaek Second Naval Command Base. A new academic study says the ship may have been sunk by a mine instead of a North Korean torpedo. In this photo, Hankyoreh reporters speak with the base’s PR staff on August 16. (by Lee Jeong-ah, staff reporter)

Scientific analysis shows signs of a powerful underwater explosion

An article has been published in an international academic journal arguing that the explosion that sank the South Korean Cheonan warship in March 2010 may not have been from a North Korean torpedo, but from a mine discarded by the South Korean navy. Read the rest of this entry »

12th anniversary of the publication of June 15 Joint Declaration

[The following letter by the Korean Committee of Solidarity with the World People reached CanKor from Pyongyang, commemorating the almost-forgotten breakthrough joint North-South Korean declaration that resulted from a summit meeting between ROK President Kim Dae Jung and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Il during a hopeful period of inter-Korean relations on 15 June 2000. The unedited letter is reproduced here without comment. –CanKor]

Dear friends, Warm greetings from Pyongyang!

It is 12 years since that the historic June 15 joint declaration was published.

The publication of the declaration marked an event of great significance as it replaced the history of distrust and confrontation by a history of reconciliation, unity, peace and reunification.

Had this been given steady continuity, the day of reunification would have come earlier. Read the rest of this entry »

An Insider’s Account of Obama’s North Korea Strategy, by Jeffrey A. Bader

[On 8 March 2012 the Brookings Institution held a launch for Jeffrey Bader’s latest book, “Obama and China’s Rise: an Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy”. Bader is currently John C. Whitehead Senior Fellow in International Diplomacy, Foreign Policy at the John L. Thornton China Center in Washington DC. Previously, he was President Obama’s Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Council for the first 3 years. The following is a selection of what the author had to say about US North Korea policy, which figures prominently in the book. This selection is taken from the 9 Mach 2012 edition of The Nelson Report. To hear the entire speech, please click March 8, 2012 book launch at Brookings. –CanKor]

Jeffrey A. Bader

(…) Instead of describing how seamlessly we executed plans drawn up in the first days, let me lay out what we did in reaction to events. As one of my colleagues said to me after a frustrating day dealing with demands for elaboration of a strategy, “there’s no such thing as strategy; there’s only tactics.” An exaggeration, to be sure, sort of like the observation that history is just one damned thing after another. But it frequently feels like the complete truth when you’re in the middle of the fray.

First, North Korea, since that was the issue that posed the most immediate dangers and consumed so much time, effort, and energy.

We came into office on something like automatic pilot, prepared to pick up implementation of Assistant Secretary Chris Hill’s plan for dismantling the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. But North Korea quickly eliminated that option. Intelligence in February 2009 showed North Korean plans to launch an ICBM, later announced to be a satellite launch. We could not proceed with implementation of dismantlement, and further international shipments of heavy fuel oil, under the shadow of an ICBM launch. So it’s fair to say that North Korea’s plan produced a very significant hardening of attitudes in the Obama national security team. Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: Dealing with the Kims by Joel Wit & Jenny Town

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by Joel Wit and Jenny Town. This article originally appeared on, and has been reprinted with permission. The original can be found here. Please follow our link to this article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

This week’s meeting between U.S. Special Envoy Glyn Davies and North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan will be the first official encounter between the United States and North Korea since the death of Kim Jong Il two months ago. After endless speculation by the press and experts about the future of North Korea, this meeting will be an important reality check: an opportunity to take the pulse of the new management in Pyongyang, and particularly to discern changes or continuity in its efforts to build weapons of mass destruction.

Even on a good day, of course, we underestimate the difficulties of dealing with North Korea at our peril. Korea specialists are fond of calling it the “land of no good options” (although that is probably true for many foreign-policy challenges facing the United States today). The North remains the poster child for rogue states because of 60 years of bad behavior, including its more recent nuclear and missile tests in 2006 and 2009 and conventional military attacks on South Korea in 2010. If there is anyone who knows that, it’s those of us who have had direct experience dealing with North Koreans at the negotiating table, on the ground, or conducting any other business face-to-face with them. Read the rest of this entry »

Known Unknowns by Chris Nelson

[The following is taken from the 3 January 2012 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

The funeral parade is now over, and the official titles, as of this weekend, are all now awarded…and all to the Boy General, every single one, from the looks of it…and China has hastened to declare its fealty. (…)

So…is this really real? There’s no conceivable way to tell for the time being, and perhaps not for months, given the deliberate opacity of the ruling elite in Pyongyang, so we urge caution in reading any quotes from experts using flatly declarative verbs, adverbs and adjectives. (…)

With the above cautions in mind, here’s “known unknowns” we keep on our List:

  • Will the new Leadership in Pyongyang continue the tentative outreach to the US which seemed to have advanced to the point of imminent announcement of a food for strategic concessions deal, a “first” in such overt linkage by the US…only to be put “on hold” by the sudden demise of Kim Jong-il?
  • Similarly, will the new Leadership continue the positive back-channel contacts which were poised to produce a US announcement that special envoys Glyn Davies and Ford Hart would be dispatched to Beijing with an eye toward whether a new round of 6 Party Talks could be launched in the next few weeks or months? Read the rest of this entry »

ROK Government Planning to Resume Construction of Factories and Relax Sanctions for Kaesong Industrial Complex

A convenience store in Kaesong Industrial Regi...

Convenience store in Kaesong Industrial Park

[The following article is NK Brief No 11-10-20, taken from IFES Weekly News (10/26). The Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) is a research arm of Kyungnam University in Seoul, founded during the height of the Cold War (1972) to promote peace and the unification of Korea. –CanKor]

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU), the “May 24 Sanctions” that went into effect after the sinking of the naval boat Cheonan was relaxed and began to permit the resumption of construction of businesses in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). In addition, plans to build fire stations and emergency medical facilities in the area are also currently underway.

After South Korean Grand National Party chairman Hong Jun-pyo visited KIC on September 30, 2011, the ROK government has reached the following decisions: 1) to allow the resumption of halted factory constructions; 2) to build a fire station and emergency medical facility; 3) to resume repair work for commuting roads for KIC employees; and 4) to extend the operations of commuter buses.

This means seven companies that received permits in the past to begin construction but stopped after the sanctions went into effect would be able to resume the halted construction projects. Read the rest of this entry »

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