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 »

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 »

Canada’s role in US-ROK joint military exercizes

When CanKor received a statement from the Korean People’s Army Panmunjom Mission protesting this year’s “Ulji Freedom Guardian joint military exercises for aggression” by “the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean warmongers,” I put it in our propaganda archives as one of those annual oddities. 

A man who plays a role of a terrorist has weapons pointed at him by South Korean soldiers (camouflaged uniforms) and police officers (blue uniforms) during an anti-terrorism drill at Ulchi Freedom Guardian, near a bank in downtown Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, 20 August 2012. (Photo by AP)

Ulchi (South Korean spelling) Freedom Guardian is the new name (as of 2008) of the military exercise previously known as Ulchi-Focus Lens, a combined military exercise between South Korea and the United States. The exercise is the world’s largest computerized command and control implementation which mainly focuses on defending South Korea from a North Korean attack. Initiated in 1976, the exercize is conducted annually during August or September. 

Each year, DPRK authorities launch vehement protests against this military maneuver, claiming that it is a precursor to invasion of the North. I actually found the title of the KPA statement surprisingly non-belligerent, even though the text is full of the familiar aggressive hyperbole we have come to expect from North Korean scribes. You may sample it yourself here: Korean People’s Army Panmunjom Mission clarifies its stand to not miss opportunity for Reunification.

More interesting for us was an email we received from the Pyongyang-based Korean Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity, which made the following claim: 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 »

Striking good-riddance tone, Prime Minister Harper calls for change in North Korea

[by Campbell Clark, Ottawa— Globe and Mail Update. Posted on Monday, 19 December 2011.]

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Photo by Globe & Mail)

Stephen Harper is marking the death of North Korea’s dictator with no condolence and a call for change. But most of the world is hoping the country makes no sudden moves.

The passing of Kim Jong-il, who ruled the nation for two decades with repressive authoritarianism, has raised fears that a regime in transition will strike out at its neighbour, South Korea. Pyongyang added an extra shot of nerves to its history as an unpredictable actor when it conducted a short-range missile test right after the dictator’s death.

In Canada, the Prime Minister acknowledged the death of a dictator with a unconcealed undertone of good riddance. Read the rest of this entry »

The Survival of North Korea by Suk Hi Kim

[From the Nautilus Policy Forum comes the following summary of a new book by Suk Hi Kim, Editor of North Korean Review. Entitled “The Survival of North Korea: Essays on Strategy, Economics, and International Relations”, the book interweaves threads of argument and evidence to reflect the complicated nature of the international conflict focused on and in Korea and the urgency of ending the standoff on the Peninsula to avoid what could easily escalate into a catastrophic, nuclear war. This summary provides an overview of the engagement options that the USA and its allies should consider as part of a long-term strategy to complement short-term efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities. –CanKor.]

The Longevity of North Korea and Solutions to its Nuclear Standoff
In the late 2000s, North Korea faced its third wave of possible state collapse, a phenomenon largely rooted in Kim Jong-il’s poor health, an impending power transition to his son, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s ongoing food shortages, and its failed currency and economic reforms. This latest speculation of North Korean collapse came from an array of intelligence analysts, Asian and American scholars, think tank specialists, and workers in relief organizations. [1] The first wave that predicted North Korea’s collapse occurred in the 1980s, when the North Korean economy spiraled downward as the country’s chief allies–the Soviet Union and China–discontinued new loans and demanded repayment of outstanding debts. [2] The second wave came in the mid-1990s, when the great North Korean famine claimed the lives of between 200,000 and 3,000,000 people. Since the end of the Cold War, most communist countries either collapsed or carried out significant economic reform except for North Korea. Why should we assume that North Korea, one of the survivors that did not implement economic reform, will continue to be an exception to the pattern of history and survive? Read the rest of this entry »


The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released a new dossier warning that DPRK provocations increase the risk of retaliation from South Korea. A press release issued by IISS summarizes the dossier as follows:

The latest IISS Strategic Dossier, North Korean Security Challenges: a net assessment, is the most systematic and thorough public analysis of the range of threats emanating from the state. This includes its two nuclear programmes, the world’s third largest chemical weapons arsenal, a range of ballistic missiles – all of which it appears willing to sell – plus the world’s fourth largest army. North Korea is the most militarized country on earth. North Korea is also threatening because of the criminality that seems hard-wired into the regime and the human security problems created by its repression and economic mismanagement.

The press release and a launch statement by its editor, Mark Fitzpatrick may be read by following these links:

%d bloggers like this: