Archive for October, 2005

Still Waters Run Deep

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

During the 50-odd years that followed the armistice of 1953, both Korean states have been locked in an intense rivalry. It was a local cold war, a minor version of the global Cold War, but much more emotional since it was a war between the same people. During some periods, this cold war became very hot. Indeed, those decades were an era of daring raids, complicated intrigue, botched and successful assassinations and, of course, of covert naval warfare.

The major role in this quiet warfare was played by North Korean infiltration craft, used to land agents on the South Korean coast. There are three major types of vessels used by the North Korean navy for this purpose. Throughout the history of quiet naval warfare, two ships of each type were lost due to enemy action.

The most unusual and imaginative contraptions are the semi-submersible boats. These can be described as a poor navy’s submarines. They are small boats, with a displacement of some 5-10 tons and a top surface speed of 40-50 knots. They have ballast tanks, and when these tanks are filled with water, the craft submerges almost completely with only the small conning-tower visible above the water. In this semi-submerged state, the craft is much slower, but it is also almost invisible both to both human eyes and radar. Perhaps it is not as good as a real midget submarine, but it is much cheaper and easier to maintain, and it can carry up to six people.

The first battle with such a craft took place in December 1983, when one was discovered not far away from Pusan, and after a chase was sunk by the South Korean navy.

Another semi-submersible was lost in action in 1998. The South Korean signal intelligence discovered the semi-submersible near Yosu in the early hours of the morning of Dec. 18. The South Korean Navy mobilized a number of planes and ships, which approached the boat, demanding that the crew surrender. But North Korean special forces are famous for their unwillingness to give themselves up alive, so they opened fire using small arms. There was no possible doubt about the outcome: the boat was hit by artillery shells and it sank, to be salvaged the following year.

A semi-submersible infiltration boat cannot operate at a great distance from its base, and in most cases it is carried close to the target destination aboard a specially designed mother ship. Such ships are disguised as fishing boats, but they have powerful engines and a built-in dock for a semi-submersible or a more conventional speedboat. The dock is equipped with outward-opening double doors on the stern, allowing the boat to be safely hidden inside the hull.

There have been two cases in which such a ship has been discovered and sunk by hostile forces. The first incident of this kind happened in August 1983, when a South Korean patrol boat discovered just such a ship operating near Ullung-do Island. The ship was sunk after a short shootout.

Another incident took place in December 2001, and this time, the ship was found by the Japanese navy near the Japanese coast. This was not the first discovery of this kind, but on previous occasions, the North Koreans ships managed to flee using their superior speed. This time, however, the ship could not move fast enough _ perhaps the disintegration of economy has influenced the navy as well. As to be expected, the ship’s crew refused to surrender and opened fire, injuring two Japanese sailors. They returned fire and in less than four minutes the ship sank with its entire crew.

The North Korean Navy also possesses a number of submarines, including the Yugo class vessels. These are specially designed midget submarines whose major task is infiltration. The Yugo boats are small, with a displacement of merely 70 tons when submerged.

Such a submarine was caught in a fishing net near Sokcho on the east coast on June 24, 1998. Its propeller and periscope had been fouled. The vessel was captured by the South Korean navy but sank while being towed. The submarine was soon salvaged but all crew and commandos (nine of them – more than usual for a submarine of this type) were found dead after committing group suicide.

Larger Sango class submarines are also sometimes used for infiltration. It was this submarine that was involved in the most high-profile case of military confrontation between the two Koreas in the 1990s. In mid-September 1996, a North Korean Sango submarine was on a routine infiltration mission: a group of commandos were to conduct surveillance of the military installations on the east coast. However, in the early hours of Sept. 18, the submarine ran ashore and was discovered by a taxi driver. The crew and commandos attempted to breakthrough to the DMZ. A long spy hunt ensued, with heavy losses of life on both sides (among the victims there were farmers whom the commandos killed as dangerous witnesses) as well as with the usual group suicide of the North Korean soldiers.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of this quiet war is the unwillingness of the North Korean soldiers to surrender. Few sailors and commandos have ever been taken alive. Does this reflect the exceptional valor of the North Korean warriors? To some extent it may, but also there are other reasons behind such behavior. But that is another story…


In North Korea’s isolated tourist zone, a temple rises

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

Christian Science Monitor
Donald Kirk

Its South Korean funders say it offers potential for cultural exchange. But the monk who oversees it readily admits no North Koreans may visit.

As they lead visitors along a trail below craggy rocks inscribed with praise for the late “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, young North Korean guides offer a carefully crafted narrative.

They criticize President Bush. They take on US policy. And last weekend, they appeared eager to denounce the dismissal of Kim Yoon Kyu, who is currently under investigation for fraud. The South Korean executive worked for more than 10 years to develop this unusual tourist zone on the east coast several miles above the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.

“We are willing to reduce the number of tourists coming here as an expression of our confidence in him,” says Koo Eun Hyun, a smiling 20-year-old, repeating the North’s demand for reinstatement of Mr. Kim as president of Hyundai Asan, part of the Hyundai group, which is investing $1 billion in building the complex.

Mr. Kim led the project, now subsidized by the South Korean government, from the time the first shiploads of visitors sailed from South Korea seven years ago. Tourists now travel by newly paved road, and Hyundai Asan in June announced the millionth visitor – far short of the 5 million it had hoped for.

Indeed, the project loses vast amounts of money, and is likely to lose still more. The standoff over Kim’s dismissal is escalating amid a South Korean investigation into alleged fraud in economic projects in the North – including whether some funds wound up in the hands of North Korean officials – prompting the North to cut the quota of tourists from 1,200 to 600 a day.

Perhaps as a result, Kim Young Hyun, a Hyundai Asan vice president, prefers to talk about a $10 million project, largely funded by South Korea and Hyundai Asan, to rebuild a Buddhist temple complex inside the zone that was largely destroyed in the Korean War. “Buddhism is traditionally the religion for Koreans,” he says. “Cultural exchange can be the foundation of economic exchange.”

The Venerable Jejeong, the scholarly South Korean monk who oversees the complex readily admits that North Koreans are banned from the complex, just as they are from the rest of the zone, except when they come to work. Those few North Koreans on the site, he says, “ask questions about history but do not ask other questions.”

In fact, he says, he’s never talked to North Koreans outside the zone and has no idea how freely – or if – they can practice their religion. Still, he shares the optimism of South Korean authorities about the future.

“We can minimize the differences and find common ground,” says Mr. Jejeong, who has practiced Buddhism in Thailand and San Francisco. “Currently our educational systems are completely different. North Koreans are not interested in religion.”

Jejeong places his hopes for opening the temple to worship “after unification.” He cites an easing of religious restraints in China. “The North Koreans may be influenced by China indirectly,” he muses.

In the meantime, the temple serves as a monument to North Korean propaganda. A plaque in front of the skeletal outlines of new buildings says that Kim Il Sung and his wife, the mother of current leader Kim Jong Il, visited on Sept. 28, 1947. The plaque blames the leveling of the complex on US bombing.

But for now, North Koreans would rather prove their authority over Hyundai Asan than hark back to the war. Tourists who visit traipse along a few familiar trails, attend an acrobatic performance, dip into baths fed by hot springs and dine in modern restaurants, all closed to North Koreans seen toiling with ancient implements in the fields beyond the wire.

They listen as guides extol the beauties of the region, all under the watchful gaze of North Koreans as anxious to parrot policy as to impose fines for littering.

“We regard [Hyundai Asan’s] Kim Yoon Kyu as a pioneer,” says Miss Koo. “We sacrifice profits for the sake of friendship.”


Last orders, please

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

The Guardian
Jonathan Watts

Of all the bars in all the world, there is probably none as exclusive, surreal or intriguing as the Random Access Club in Pyongyang. There are also few institutions that are quite so necessary to the mental well-being of the customers.

Open for business only on Friday nights, the RAC is a watering hole for North Korea’s tiny expatriate community; the 300 foreign residents allowed to live among the 22 million population of the planet’s most reclusive nation.

At first sight, the club inside the compound of the United Nations World Food Programme could not look more mundane nor the clientele appear less exotic. Apart from the decor – mostly copies of Chinese contemporary artworks – the simple bar, concrete walls and well-worn pool table might as easily belong to a church hall in Croydon as an expat hang-out in Pyongyang. The few dozen customers seem so earnest and engaging that they too could be mistaken for a suburban congregation rather than the disaster and war hardened aid workers and diplomats they really are.

What is bizarre is the context. The RAC is an oasis of modern globalised normality inside a land where time has not only stood still but gone backwards. North Korea exerts more control over its citizens than the Soviet Union in the dark days of Stalinism. It takes the ideology of 1984 to levels that George Orwell could not have dreamed of. It is rusting proof that the engine of industrial development has a reverse gear. And it is a dark and uncomfortable warning of what could happen to the world if we ever run out of oil.
To find a place like the RAC in the midst of this is like seeing a tiny postcard of Brighton beach stuck on Picasso’s Guernica, or having the latest Peter Greenaway film interrupted by a few seconds of Neighbours.

The bar’s short history is the story of the gradual opening of North Korea since the government reluctantly requested outside help to feed a population racked by famine, droughts and floods.

When it started in 1995, the WFP had just two representatives running a small aid project from rooms in the Koryo hotel. By 1997, North Korea had become the biggest humanitarian operation on the planet, with international organisations providing food and medicine to more than a quarter of the population.

In the meantime, the resident aid community – which included other UN agencies and about a dozen NGOs – had swollen to more than a hundred and been moved to the diplomatic district. The RAC emerged in response to the growing need among this group for a communal gathering point and a place to let off steam about the frustrations of working in such a difficult political and humanitarian environment.

Foreigners in Pyongyang arguably face more restrictions than their counterparts in any other country. They cannot make private visits to the homes of North Koreans, they cannot travel outside of Pyongyang without permission and they are not supposed to exchange their dollars and euros for local currency.

The work can be harrowing. Although the worst of the food crisis passed more than five years ago, some areas still suffer from poor nutrition and a lack of basic medicines. In remote outposts, WFP monitors can be extremely isolated. In Hyesan – a four-day drive from Pyongyang – the organisation’s representative lives alone for eight weeks in a basic hotel where the temperature in the lobby can fall as low as minus 17 degrees in the winter. There are no other foreigners, their local guides leave them at the weekends, and they are not allowed to socialise privately with Koreans.

In Pyongyang, the situation is not nearly as bad. Many visitors are surprised at the beauty of this showcase city. Compared to most capitals, it is clean, quiet and safe. There is sufficient food, some fine duck and noodle restaurants and even a little capitalist entertainment in the form of the casino, karaoke bar and golf course at the Yanggakdo hotel.

In addition, years of pure ideology – the utter subjection of the individual to the collective will of the state embodied by the leader Kim Jong-il – have produced some impressive (or scary, depending on your point of view) cultural marvels, such as the circus and the performances by young dancers and musicians at the children’s palace.

Those looking on the positive side of life in North Korea also point out the friendliness, innocence and high levels of education of many of the people they meet, as well as the cleanliness of the air in a country starved of energy and short on traffic. Because of this, and the frequent blackouts, Pyongyang is probably the best capital in the world for stargazing.

But the political problems undermine most of these benefits. Most foreigners accept their phones are bugged. Some suspect that much of what they see during inspections is staged. Even among the old-hands who have been in the country for years, many say they have never made a Korean friend.

This is largely because North Korea is gripped by a siege mentality – and not without justification. The country has been in a state of hot and cold war with the US since 1950. Outsiders are seen as potential spies or sources of ideological impurity.

There is good reason for the government to fear charity. Every smile or hand-out from a foreign aid worker undermines the state’s xenophobic propaganda and philosophy of “juche” self-sufficiency.

The WFP’s mission in North Korea is the only one where aid monitors do not have unrestricted access to the entire country. But the UN organisation has gradually widened its focus, pushing back the boundaries where it operates, expanding its presence to 42 foreign and 70 domestic staff, and meeting regularly with thousands of local officials who might otherwise never come into contact with a foreigner. Its monitoring ambitions remain the same as when the RAC was named: random access to all parts of the country.

This is the aspect of aid work that North Korea fears the most. Although the food and drugs are humanitarian, their side-effect is political. As most of the customers in the RAC will testify, one of the biggest changes since the aid operation began is in attitudes. Ten years ago, most North Koreans would turn their backs on a foreigner. Now they are almost as likely to smile.

That, more than anything, may be why the RAC could soon be losing most of its customers. The government has ordered all humanitarian work to end by the end of the year. Negotiations are still under way regarding what that will mean, but one resident’s estimate is that as many as 80 of the 120 aid officials in Pyongyang will have to pack their bags and leave by December 31.

The mood in the RAC has never been more gloomy. Out will go most of the young blood. Those who remain are likely to be diplomats, a sharply reduced corps of aid workers, five English teachers and a handful of businessmen.

“It’ll be like going back to 1994,” commented one regular at the bar.

“The jokes these days are black ones about all the second-hand fridges and cars that will flood into Pyongyang’s markets at the end of the year,” said another.

It is still possible that as one door closes others will open. North Korea welcomes economic development in the form of investors and technical support for infrastructure projects. The government wants to boost the tourist industry. A new railway is about to open across the demilitarized zone that will increase the flow of visitors from South Korea. The growing influence of Beijing is bringing in more people and goods from China. Progress in six-nation nuclear talks could also mean more atomic energy agency inspectors and diplomats from Japan and the US.

But ready or not, North Korea wants its independence back. It wants its future foreign guests to be visiting town on short-term visas, not moving in for years on end and setting up their own social club. For North Koreans and expats, there will be plenty of other bars, but at the RAC, it is time to drink up. The government may soon be calling last orders.


North Korea Reinstates Controls on Grain Sales

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

Los Angeles Times
Barbara Demick

North Korea Reinstates Controls on Grain Sales Rice and other foods will be distributed by the government and banned at markets.

Rolling back some of its economic reforms, North Korea is banning the sale of rice and other grains at private markets and strengthening its old communist-style public distribution system under which all citizens are supposed to get rations, aid groups and North Korea experts say.

The changes were supposed to be implemented Oct. 10, a holiday in North Korea marking the 60th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party. But reports from the World Food Program office in Pyongyang, the capital, indicate that merchants have been told already that they can no longer sell grain.

The United Nations agency said in a statement on its website that “as of Oct. 1, reports are that cereal sales in the markets will cease and public distribution centers will take over countrywide distribution.”

North Korea experts say the moves do not necessarily indicate an abrupt U-turn in the impoverished country’s economic policies, so much as concern that change was taking place too quickly.

“I think it is a transitional necessity. You can’t move too fast into free—market economics without softening the blow for people who have grown up in a planned economy,” Richard Ragan, who heads the World Food Program office in Pyongyang, said in a recent telephone interview. “This is not that different from what you saw happening in China in the 1990s.”

Lee Young Hwa, a Japan—based human rights worker who has close contacts with traders at the Chinese—North Korean border, believes the new restrictions on markets are designed to boost the power of the Workers’ Party and curb the role of the military in the economy.

“The military people control the food sold at the market. Nobody else has the trucks or the access to gasoline to move food around the country. The leadership fears that their economic reforms aren’t working because everything is controlled by the military, and they want to take back control,” Lee said.

For years, there have been accusations that the military was pilfering humanitarian shipments of rice and other aid, keeping the best for its own and selling the rest at markets. Secretly taped video footage obtained last year by human rights workers shows apparently unopened sacks of rice given by the U.S. and other donors being sold illegally at a market in the northern city of Chongjin.

On the open market, a pound of rice costs 15 to 25 cents — an impossible sum for many North Koreans, whose average salary of $1 per month keeps them on the verge of starvation.

Under the new rules, rice, as well as other staples such as corn, is to be sold at public distribution centers at subsidized prices and in rationed quantities. Markets, which have been gradually legalized since 2002, will still be permitted to sell vegetables, produce, clothing and other goods.

Cho Myong Chol, a former North Korean economist who lives in Seoul, said he believed North Korea would continue with market reforms but at a slower pace. “Since the economic reforms in 2002, the gap between the haves and the have—nots has become so extreme that there is an imbalance that is causing social unrest and dissatisfaction. I think they needed to do something about food to keep control.”

It remains to be seen whether the changes will help ordinary North Koreans. The government recently informed U.N. aid officials that it was cutting back their operations and no longer needed large donations of rice and other foodstuffs. Experts believe North Korea is concerned about the U.N. ‘s monitoring requirements and prefers direct aid from countries such as South Korea and China, which place fewer restrictions on donations.

Until the 1990s, the public distribution system introduced by North Korean founder Kim Ii Sung was the hallmark of a nation that claimed to provide its people with everything from rice to shoes. But the system collapsed in the early l990s, exacerbating a famine that killed an estimated 2 million people — about 10% of the population. The public distribution system still operates, but at reduced capacity.

Although North Koreans today buy much of what they need at markets, the government doesn’t like to admit it and insists that the cradle—to—grave system of social welfare remains.

“We are still a communist country. Nothing has changed. I get everything I need through the public distribution system,” said Yoon So Jung, 25, a guide interviewed last week at Mt. Kumgang, one of the few areas of the country open for tourism.

But pressed about her pink windbreaker, Yoon admitted hesitantly, “Well that, I bought at the market.”