“The activity has prompted concerns Pyongyang is planning a new round of ballistic missile tests of either medium or longer range missiles,” the unnamed officers said. But CNN added, “The activity is in its early stages and it’s not yet possible to determine what the North Koreans are doing.” The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday said, “We haven’t confirmed reports of signs of North Korea preparing for a missile launch in Shinori.”
The North has never launched a Nodong ballistic missile from a west coast facility. Public preparation for a launch from a west coast site could be a factor in the provocative military actions off the west coast and the bellicose rhetoric. For example, a surprise launch form the west coast into international waters would be much more provocative and dangerous than one that occurred after the North had already ratcheted tension. In launching the North’s leaders would set a new precedent for medium range ballistic missile launches off the west coast as well as register their dissatisfaction with South Korea, or the Six Party Talks or a rejection of the Singapore tentative agreement, if that occurs.
A Nodong missile launch would lack the dramatic impact of an ICBM-scale launch, but it is one of the many tactics the North’s leaders can order to draw international attention.
North Korea has requested that an official working on an inter-Korean family reunion center be expelled, reports the Hankyoreh:
North Korea expelled Thursday a South Korean official from the construction site of an inter-Korean family reunion facility in its Mount Geumgang resort, a government spokesman said.
“A working level official withdrew from the construction site of the inter-Korean family reunion facility in Mount Geumgang between 4:30 and 5 p.m. today at the request of the North Korean side,” the spoksman[sic] said.
He added that the measure was in accordance with the North Korean position that it would not allow any South Korean government officials to cross the military demarcation line.
North Korea has warned that it would block the passage of South Korean officials across the demarcation line following remarks made by the chairman of the Suth[sic] Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff
This is the same family reunion center that was in the news earlier this year following allegations North Korea “diverted” millions of dollars worth of cash intended to help with the facility’s construction.
North Korea’s latest move is part of larger series of moves taken by North Korea over the past weeks to highlight their disapproval of the South’s new government, among other things. North Korea is trying to keep the current state of hostilities at a low roil without getting the situation too agitated. Expect minor tit-for-tat measures to continue for the foreseeable future, unless a major breakthrough in the Six-Party Talks emerges.
We move to that story now.
Major Western news outlets are now more optimistic in their assessment of Christopher Hill and Kim Gye Gwan’s Singapore meeting. Yesterday, Hill was tightlipped about progress, while North Korea’s KCNA trumpeted a major breakthrough. Hill now says they have “found a way forward,” and that we should expect moves in the next couple of weeks to solve the deadlock. No specifics were given, but Yonhap, via Hankyoreh reports:
The envoy repeatedly emphasized that the second phase of the denuclearization agreements involved a package of different elements, suggesting that the U.S. would be ready to act on its promised incentives to Pyongyang.
The second phase sequences disabling of North Korea’s main reactor and provision of the declaration, and the U.S. starting the process to remove Pyongyang from the State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states. Washington would also lift sanctions on the North imposed under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack reaffirmed that the U.S., along with other members of the six-party talks, is prepared “to fulfill our obligations, as North Korea fulfills its obligations.”
Thursday’s House briefing was heard by most of the committee members and their staff.
“I think it went okay,” said Hill. “They asked very fair questions.”
The Washington Post’s Glenn Gessler further elaborates. According to his sources, the U.S. may be prepared to lift two key sanctions against the North:
But after negotiations this week in Singapore and last month in Geneva, the United States and North Korea agreed that Pyongyang must “acknowledge” the allegations without precisely admitting them publicly.
That paves the way, diplomats said, for President Bush to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and to exempt it from the Trading With the Enemy Act.
U.S. officials have concluded it is more important to persuade North Korea to surrender its weapons-grade plutonium — enough for perhaps half a dozen weapons — than for the process to collapse over the impasse, according to Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator.
Assuming the North throws up no further roadblocks (a pretty big assumption), inter-Korean tensions may subside in the next few weeks. There is still a long way to go in this process. One wild card is the military: to what extent has the military been involved in fomenting the latest spasm of tension? I have speculated before that the military, fearing it is losing its primacy in North Korean society, may be trying to reestablish its dominance by creating a minor crisis situation. Of course, that’s just my own idle hypothesizing.
But Kim Jong Il is facing a desperate situation at home and needs to start earning foreign currency and collecting aid so he can feed his people. A breakthrough probably bodes well for regional peace, but it does not bode well for reform in North Korea.
In a move that may give a boost to Kim Jong Il’s increasingly desperate regime, Chinese authorities announced the easing of trade restrictions between the North and Chinese border provinces. Daily NK reports that North Korean citizens are now able to open bank accounts in China and to settle transactions in Yuan. Daily NK reports on the ramifications of this move:
With the adoption of the system, North Korean people and companies can open Yuan bank accounts within China after some formalities and use the accounts for trade settlement with their Chinese business partners. Accordingly, North Korea is now able to buy foreign currencies such as dollars and euros with its Yuan income from trade. In addition, North Korea can legally bring in foreign currencies or send them to third countries
North Korean companies used to have difficulties of making a trade settlement with China in cash or by barter since the U.S. enacted financial sanctions on North Korea and China imposed economic sanctions regarding remittance and bank accounts after North Korea’s nuclear tests. However, China too suffered from the sanctions as the amount of Yuan smuggled into North Korea has skyrocketed proportional to the increasing volume of trade between North Korea and China.
By taking such measures, China is allowing North Koreans to help themselves through increasing trade and by giving them the opportunity to earn foreign currency. The results may help to ease some of the problems associated with the ongoing famine and thus help strengthen Kim’s grip on power.
UPDATE: Bloomberg reports that Japan will extend its sanctions on North Korea for lack of cooperation on denuclearization and other outstanding issues:
Japan will extend sanctions against North Korea for six months after the communist country failed to make progress on returning abducted citizens and dismantling its nuclear program, the government’s top spokesman said.
The government will announce details of the extension tomorrow following cabinet approval, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said during a press conference in Tokyo. Japan banned imports from North Korea and barred its ships from calling on Japanese ports after North Korea test-fired missiles and a nuclear device in 2006.
The timing of this announcement is interesting, seeing as how it comes just one day after the North unilaterally announced the Six-Party Talks stalement had been solved. This lends creedence to the position that nothing has really changed–at least as far as Japan’s conditions are concerned. Japan may be trying to signal its dissapointment that the abductee issue wasn’t mentioned in the latest meeting between Hill and Kim. Economically, the sanctions won’t affect North Korea much as they’ve already been in place. All that is happening is the period the sanctions are effective is being extended.
North Korea is insisting it reached an agreement with the U.S. over the Six-Party Talks stalemate. According to the KCNA (via Hankyoreh):
“The recent Singapore agreement fully proved the effectiveness of the DPRK-U.S. talks,” the spokesman said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“We will await the fulfillment of commitments made by those countries participating in the six-party talks,” he added.
The U.S. has remained tight-lipped about any deal. Christopher Hill told reporters that “significant progress” was made, but denied a “major breakthrough” occurred.
Chosun Ilbo reports that the two sides came to an agreement regarding the wording of the declaration:
In their meeting, the two sides reportedly agreed on wording in the declaration, which will not be released to the public, regarding suspicions about the North’s uranium enrichment program and transfer of nuclear technology to Syria. A diplomatic source said, “The wording in the declaration will probably persuade the U.S. Congress.”
According to Nighwatch’s analysis, the North’s preemptive declaration was a tactic to pressure the U.S.:
The North never announces good news on talks before the US, unless it is laying a trap. This is a setup to pressure the US administration into making concessions or to justify increased tension in the likely event the US balks, based on something the North will claim was promised them in Singapore. By NightWatch’s count this would be the third time since the start of Six Party Talks that the North has pulled this stunt.
Kim Jong Il, who began the year by visiting economic sites and pledging to make economic development his top priority for the year, has decided to pay a visit on a military unit. Kim’s public appearances are often interpreted as indicators of Kim’s priorities. This latest visit comes amidst rising tensions between North and South. Hankyoreh cites unnamed “experts” who believe the rise in tensions were orchestrated by the military:
Seoul experts have said the confrontation was led by the North Korean military.
“He [Kim Jong Il] expressed satisfaction over the fact that all the soldiers of the company have acquired high military technology and combat capacity enough to beat back the enemy’s invasion at a single stroke,” the Korean Central News Agency said in its English report of Kim’s visit to the KPA Unit 350. The KCNA report, monitored in Seoul, was dated April 5 but dispatched on the 6th.
In the latest salvo in the Inter-Korean war of words, the Rodong Shinmun continued to direct bellicose threats at the South:
“It is as clear as noonday that their persistent insistence on the above-said provocative assertion would only lead to a war on this land (KCNA, via AFP)”
Finally, the Associated Press reports on a Rodong Shinmun warning to the South that it’s government “will not last:”
South Korea’s new government will not last if it continues to allow its U.S.-led policy to ruin reconciliation efforts on the Korean peninsula, North Korea said Monday.
The North’s official Rodong Shinmun newspaper criticized President Lee Myung-bak’s government for “following the U.S. imperialists” and driving inter-Korean relations to catastrophe.
Those who “dance to the whistle of outside forces will only suffer a collapse,” it said in a commentary.
UPDATE: From Nightwatch:
Kim regularly visits military units and does so more frequently than civilian facilities because of safety and security considerations. He feels safer among the military than in the general public. The timing of the new report reinforces the image that the nation is prepared for a crisis. It is not, but the propaganda machine operates on its own rules.
Thousands of North Korean women staged a massive protest against age restrictions in the Jangmadang earlier this month, said Good Friends. Discontent had been mounting since mid-February when 15 women were executed for “helping villagers cross the border into China and engaging in human trafficking.” Via World Tribue:
In early March, the authorities began to dismantle stalls that were owned by women younger than 50. That infuriated women who were already agitated over news of executions. Hundreds of women swarmed the market manager’s office in protest. It was a spontaneous outburst almost never seen in North Korea, according to the sources. “They shouted and demanded either to let them continue doing business in the open market or otherwise resume food distribution,” a source said. “It was not like South Korean-style protests we used to watch on TV. There were no organizers or leaders, but the number swelled into thousands in a very short time.” The scene was scary and surreal. But even more bizarre was that security officers did not try very hard to disperse the gathering.
According to the sources, the protest continued into the next day, and the market management office withdrew the age restriction on March 5.
IHT is also reporting that due to the increasingly scarce food situation and international jitters, grain prices in North Korean Jangmadang have skyrocketed:
The spreading fear of hard times is already helping drive up grain prices in North Korea by up to 70 percent over last year, according to experts in Seoul and North Korean defectors in South Korea who help their relatives back home through Chinese intermediaries. Kim Young Hoon, a food security analyst at the government-financed Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul, said the North’s food problem was particularly vulnerable to the political mood. “When the mood is bad, there is cornering and hoarding at the markets and the authorities reduce rations to save for the future,” Kim said. “It takes a heavy toll among the weak. It’s clear that the problem will get worse this year.”
Interesting times are upon us.
“The South Korean military’s warmongers have sent three battleships deep into our territorial waters in the West Sea (Yellow Sea) at around 11:45 am (0245 GMT) on April 3,” the communist state’s KCNA news agency said.
“South Korea’s military should clearly bear in mind that an unexpected countermeasure will follow if they continue to push battleships into (our waters) and raise tensions,” it said, demanding the South Korea investigate the incursion and punish those responsible.
No official comment yet from the South Korean Military. I’m really surprised by how fast things are moving with this story.
UPDATE ONE: This comes via the Australian Broadcasting Company. Apparantly, North Korea has vowed to end all dialogue and attack the south.
North Korea says it is ready to abandon dialogue and attack the South, ignoring a call from its neighbour’s new president to return to talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions.
South Korea’s Defence Ministry says Pyongyang threatened “military responsive actions” during a telephone message between North Korean Lieutenant-General Kim Yong Chol and South Korean Major General Kwon Oh Sung.
More details as they come to me.