Is there a role for Europe in the Korean crisis?

Until this past week I had never even heard of the Centre for European Reform. On Friday 12 April 2013, my emailed alerts to the North Korea Forum on LinkedIn brought my attention to Ian Bond’s excellent article Out of range, out of mind: Is there a role for Europe in the Korean crisis?

European union conceptAs you might have read in the left-hand column, CanKor has always been interested in the “role to be played in northeast Asia by second-tier middle powers like Canada, Australia and the European Union.” I have often puzzled over the fact that after the initial “Sunshine” enthusiasm shown by European countries for a role in North Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Europe by and large seems to have ceded its politically astute and innovative role to the geopolitical interests of the USA.

My own European roots have rebelled against the notion that when it comes to North-East Asia, Europe should act as cheerleaders of a  doomed-from-the-start American policy initiated by an American President politically traumatized by the events of 9-11. Who would have thought that Barack Obama would continue his predecessor’s ill-conceived notion that somehow playing the DPRK’s game of brinkmanship would bring them to their knees? I too wish that doing nothing except wagging a finger would have prevented North Korea from building up to 10 nuclear warheads and a missile capable of launching a (non-functioning) satellite into orbit.

Our best efforts over the past seven years have not been able to stir the Canadian Government into any useful direction. Even playing the “good cop” role, as Andrei Lankov recently suggested in Ottawa, seems beyond our government’s ability or intent. The same apparently goes for Australia and New Zealand. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Seoul engage North Korea soon? by Chung Min-uck

[Korea Times correspondent Chung Min-uck interviews CanKor Brain Trust member Victor Hsu, Director of International Aid and Education at the South Korean state-run Korea Development Institute (KDI), and Bernhard Seliger, a Seoul resident representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German organization active in Korea. The two experts applaud the new South Korean President’s “trustpolitik”, and point out that the Park Geun-hye government still has opportunities to carry out a fundamental shift from the current ever-escalating inter-Korean tension. –CanKor]

Trucks loaded with flour as relief aid to North Korea pass a checkpoint on a bridge over the Imjin River in the South Korean border city of Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this Sept. 21, 2012, file photo. The Seoul government sent 500 tons of flour to the impoverished North in one of the lastest aid supplies under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. (Photo by Korea Times)

Trucks loaded with flour as relief aid to North Korea pass a checkpoint on a bridge over the Imjin River in the South Korean border city of Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this Sept. 21, 2012, file photo. The Seoul government sent 500 tons of flour to the impoverished North in one of the lastest aid supplies under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. (Photo by Korea Times)

The government last week approved a shipment of humanitarian aid to North Korea, the first aid package approved under President Park Geun-hye, who took office on Feb. 25.

Under the approval, the Eugene Bell Foundation, a South Korean charity group, will ship tuberculosis medicine worth 678 million won (US $605,454) to eight tuberculosis clinics run by the South Korean group in North Korea as early as next month.

The latest gesture comes at a time when inter-Korean relations have hit rock bottom with the North threatening to use its nuclear weapons against South Korea and the United States, and in response, the two allies’ militaries signing a combined operational plan to raise deterrence against possible military threats by the North.

Although the unification ministry denied any political implications to the latest aid approval, referring to the move as being for “strictly humanitarian purposes,” foreign experts say such a symbolic gesture will help improve ties with the North.

“The amount is so little given the nature of the disease. It is a drop in the bucket,” said Victor Hsu, director of International Aid and Education at the state-run Korea Development Institute (KDI). “But the symbolic meaning I think is important. The symbolism of allowing the Eugene Bell Foundation to implement (aid shipments) is constructive in re-building inter-Korean relations.” Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, by Roberta Cohen

[CanKor Brain Trust member Roberta Cohen published an extensive analysis of the latest decision by the UN Human Rights Council regarding the DPRK in our partner-website 38North. For the benefit of CanKor readers we reprint the first part of this article here. For the rest of the paper, including footnotes, please access the 38North website here. –CanKor]

Roberta CohenOn March 21, 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body of 47 states, adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) into North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” The commission is to be composed of three experts who will intensively investigate for a period of one year the human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea’s government with a view to ensuring “full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity” [emphasis added].

The establishment of the commission reflects long overdue recognition that a human rights ‘emergency’ exists in North Korea. Commissions of inquiry at the United Nations have mainly been directed at situations like Syria, Darfur or Libya where conflicts, atrocities and destruction are clearly visible and in the headlines. Adding North Korea to the list suggests a new look at what a human rights crisis might be. In contrast to other situations, North Korea has always managed to hide its crimes. Most prison camps are in remote mountain areas, access to the country is barred to human rights groups, and rigid internal controls make it impossible for anyone who does manage to visit to talk with North Koreans about human rights. Indeed, the lack of access and the UN’s inability to form an “independent diagnosis” of the situation has long contributed to the reluctance of its senior officials to speak out strongly about North Korea. Even the US State Department’s human rights report for 2011, published in 2012, contained the caveat that no one can “assess fully human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses” in North Korea. Read the rest of this entry »

Bringing modern music to Pyongyang, by Alexander Liebreich

[German conductor Alexander Liebreich is one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea several times. On his last trip, with the Munich Chamber Orchestra in November, he was surprised how much the situation has changed. Liebreich was interviewed on the BBC World Service programme The Forum, as can be read below. Alexander Liebreich is the chief conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Munich Chamber Orchestra. He established a reputation for pursuing unusual projects. In 2002, he visited North and South Korea together with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie where they gave the first Korean performances of Bruckner Symphony No. 8. He has since returned to North Korea six times. The 2005 documentary Pyongyang Crescendo captures his teaching experiences there. Liebreich’s trips to Pyongyang are part of a programme of cultural dialogue between North Korea and Germany sponsored by the Goethe Institute. The Goethe Institute runs programmes with the North Korean government which include study exchange trips, German language teaching and support for the Grand Study Hall of the People, North Korea’s national library. –CanKor]

Alexander Liebreich in Pyongyang (Photo by Nils Clauss, Goethe Institute Korea)

Alexander Liebreich in Pyongyang (Photo by Nils Clauss, Goethe Institute Korea)

“Is there anywhere in the city that we shouldn’t go?”

It is wise to ask this question early on in a trip to Pyongyang. I put it to our contacts at the German Korean Friendship society, who had helped organise our trip.


“But… is it OK to just walk around Pyongyang, unaccompanied?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”

I was astonished. Their only recommendation was that we avoid visiting the train station and resist taking photos of military buildings.

I travelled to Pyongyang with my orchestra to give workshops to students at the University of Music and Dance with the ambitious plan of putting on a joint concert after five days. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie: Comrade Kim Goes Flying

Two very different movies about North Korea were featured in September’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The first was a documentary entitled “Camp 14 – Total Control Zone”, by the German filmmaker Marc Wiese. According to the TIFF publicity, this is “An enthralling documentary portrait of twenty-nine-year-old Shin Dong-huyk, who was born and spent the first two decades of his life behind the barb wire of a North Korean labour camp, until his dramatic escape launched him into an outside world he had never known.” The movie is based on the book by journalist Blaine Harden entitled Escape From Camp 14which has been reviewed for CanKor by editor Jack Kim.

The second film featured at the TIFF was a romantic comedy, a joint Belgium, UK & North Korea production. According to TIFF, the movie is about “A young female coal miner (who) struggles to realize her dream of becoming a circus acrobat in this winning, life-affirming fable that is the first Western-financed fiction feature ever made in North Korea.”

In reviewing the TIFF, the New York Times had this to say about the film:  Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: Developing the DPRK Through Agriculture by Randall Ireson

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Randall Ireson , private consultant on rural and agricultural development issues. Please follow our link to this article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

Despite continuing food shortages in the DPRK, the 2012 New Year’s Joint Editorial and other statements related to the succession of Kim Jong Un suggest there will be no new approaches to revitalizing North Korean agriculture. The editorial labeled the food problem “a burning issue in building a thriving country,” [1] but allocated fewer than 150 words (of 5500) to that issue, only exhorting the masses to increase yields, implement crop rotations, and increase production of farm machinery and farm inputs.

Yet agriculture could lead a revival of the DPRK economy if appropriate policy changes were implemented. The technical means of improving farm production in the DPRK have been known for years. And if farms could use income earned from increased production to purchase improved machinery and other supplies needed for modern agriculture, a virtuous circle of investment in the farms plus support to small industry could lead to the modernization of both sectors. Government investment combined with some international assistance could stimulate sustainable increases in productivity and better incomes for workers on the farms and in related industries. Read the rest of this entry »

The DPRK Interregnum: Window of Opportunity for the International Community by Victor Hsu

[CanKor Brain Trust member Victor Hsu is a Visiting Professor at the Korea Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management. In this article, published by the Nautilus Institute’s Northeast Asia Peace and Security Network (NAPSNet), he argues that the post funeral interregnum in the DPRK should be seen as a window of opportunity for moving North Korea’s relationships in a constructive direction. To do this, Hsu suggests that the international community network and create a coordinated engagement plan that avoids duplication, maximizes the increasingly scarce resources among traditional donors and gathers lessons learned for future engagement. Donors could facilitate this work by supporting civil society knowledge-sharing efforts with the DPRK, which is more sustainable and less susceptible to the vicissitudes of inter-state relations. –CanKor]

Kim Jong Un walks alongside the body of his late father during last month's funeral procession. (Photo: AP)

Now that the funeral of Kim Jong Il is over, it is time for the international community to explore avenues of engaging with the DPRK, rather than trying to read the tea leaves about who is in charge or whether Kim Jong Un is the real Supreme Leader and Military Commander. This period presents a window of opportunity either to engage constructively or to destabilize the Korean peninsula. It is truly a time of danger and opportunity. While it is legitimate to expect the DPRK to take the first step, there is an equal onus on the international community to adopt policies and strategies to encourage the DPRK to initiate a new chapter in its foreign policy. However, this post funeral interregnum may be ironically the right time for the “strategic patience” policy of the Obama’s administration. Read the rest of this entry »

The End of the Beginning: Bringing About a Khrushchev Thaw in the DPRK

In the midst of Britain’s darkest hour, Winston Churchill famously remarked in 1942 that what the country faced was not “the end, it is not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

If there is anything to describe the events of what we have witnessed in the DPRK in the past week or so, Churchill’s words could not be closer to the truth. We seem to be at a bridge that has never been crossed in the history of the country, and no one is quite sure how long, or even how sturdy, this bridge actually is. The fact that this bridge is now in the horizon may also help some of us to rethink positions we have had in the past as well.

For many of us, from the perspective of observing North Korea from the “outside in,” the DPRK presents some unique and difficult challenges. It is important to note that it is in fact not even a fraction of the country that is responsible for the challenges that we are faced with; our quibble is with the people in Pyongyang who seem to hold the reins of power in that country.

With Kim Jong Il’s death, there has been a renewed interest in what we on the outside should be doing about those folks in Pyongyang we seem to have this quibble with. After all, we seem to be back at square one when it comes to dealing with the regime. Ten years of the Sunshine Policy brought very little in practical progress when it came to forcing the North Koreans to take off the proverbial Aesopian jacket. On the other hand, the last five years of hardline policies have produced equally dismal results. Read the rest of this entry »

Reaction of other countries to the death of Kim Jong Il

[The following selection of reactions to the death of Kim Jong Il are taken from an article in the CNN website, published on 20 December 2011. –CanKor] 


Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “We were distressed to learn of the unfortunate passing of the senior-most North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and we express our deep grief about this and extend our condolences to the people of North Korea. Kim Jong Il is a great leader of North Korean people, and is a close friend of Chinese people. … China and North Korea will make joint effort … to consolidate and develop the … friendship between the two countries … and to maintain the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region.” Read the rest of this entry »

United Kingdom Statement on the death of Kim Jong Il

[The following Statement was issued by the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on the death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, on 19 December 2011. –CanKor]

The people of North Korea are in official mourning after the death of Kim Jong Il. We understand this is a difficult time for them.

This could be a turning point for North Korea. We hope that their new leadership will recognise that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people.

We encourage North Korea to work for peace and security in the region and take the steps necessary to allow the resumption of the Six Party Talks on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.

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