South Korea has shown its own signs of loosening up on its tough policy by approving a few cultural visits to North Korea, most recently by Chung Myung-Whun, music director of the Seoul Philharmonic. While there, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, she talked about bringing her orchestra to Pyongyang for a performance reminiscent of the visit in February 2008 by the New York Philharmonic.
North Korea denies admittance, though, to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the North Korea, Marzuki Darusman. He cited satellite imagery showing that the size of North Korea’s sprawling prison camps had gone up in recent years — and could now accommodate as many as 250,000 prisoners, most of whom are there until they die from overwork, malnutrition and disease.
Darusman estimated that two thirds of North Korea’s 24 million people are getting about half what they need to eat while suffering from “lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities, shortages of electricity and lack of minimum physical facilities” needed for basic medical care.
At the moment, James Hoare, former British ambassador, is on a “study tour” with a dozen others, visiting not only Pyongyang but major east coast cities, including Wonsan. That’s an hour’s drive north of the Mount Kumgang complex to which North Korea is bringing tourists from China after taking over facilities built by South Korean companies for a program from South Korea, suspended since the fatal shooting of a South Korean woman two and one half years ago.
Over the summer, a series of American student groups were visiting for four or five days each on what’s called the “Pyongyang project,” set up by an American group, in which they’re treated to games of soccer and volleyball with young North Koreans. They’re just as tightly controlled as anyone else but come back thinking they’ve made North Korean “friends” from conversations in which such issues as human rights or internal politics are definitely not on the agenda.
The reason for South Korea’s softening is basically that the conservative government of President Lee Myung-Bak does not want to appear overly tough on the way to National Assembly elections in April and then the presidential election eight months later in December. Under the South’s “democracy constitution” of 1987 Lee cannot gain another five-year term, but whoever his Grand National Party puts up as candidate is going to face a severe challenge from the opposition Democratic Party, which has been loudly critical of Lee’s policy toward North Korea.
The immediate question is what can the U.S. and North Korean negotiators have to talk about that they missed when they met in New York in July. Those talks wound up in a predictable impasse in which the U.S. again said North Korea would have to show it’s serious about giving up its nuclear program before six-party talks resume in Beijing.
That’s a condition that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il has repeatedly rejected, most recently in an interview with Russian journalists in which he said North Korea wanted to negotiate with “no preconditions.”
The minuet may not go on too much longer, though, since the U.S. is showing unmistakable signs of eagerness to get back into the six-party mode even if North Korea persists in refusing to stop enriching uranium to produce ever more nuclear warheads. True, President Barack Obama keeps saying relations between the U.S. and South Korea could not be better, but the U.S. appears to be pressuring Seoul to accept the need for six-party talks even if they are clearly going nowhere.
The clearest indication that U.S. policy is slowly but inexorably softening is the appointment of a new full-time American nuclear envoy, Glyn Davies, to replace Stephen Bosworth, who had been doing the job on very much a part-time basis for the past two and one half years.
There’s no sign so far that Davies, who has been the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is a compromiser. Nor is Bosworth, who had been ambassador to South Korea when the late Kim Dae-jung, the architect of South Korea’s “Sunshine” policy of reconciliation with North Korea, was president from 1998 to 2003, known as a hardliner.
For that matter, Bosworth, who chatted fruitlessly with North Korea’s Kim Kye-Gwan in New York, will be leading the delegation to Geneva — a way of saying he wasn’t replaced just because the dialogue was going nowhere. Davies will be a member of the U.S. team in Geneva and then take over from Bosworth after those talks.
North Korea, though, is making it difficult for the U.S. and South Korea to hold out much longer against full-scale talks, the first since December 2008, to be hosted before by China in Beijing. Beside the U.S. and the two Koreas, the other parties will be Russia and Japan, neither of which has contributed much to the process.
Next week’s talks in Geneva, moreover, are not the only U.S.-North Korea dialogue. U.S. and North Korean negotiators talked over conditions for joint U.S.-North Korean teams to look for the remains in North Korea of 5,500 U.S. military people who are missing and assumed to have died there during the Korean War.
The search would be the first since 2005 when Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, ordered an end to the program in the midst of blitzkrieg of intimidating North Korean rhetoric that left the impression Americans would be in danger there.
Whether North Korea is seriously pulling back from its own hard line is not clear. The North continues to come up with harsh rhetoric and threats against South Korea, but North Korean aggressiveness is tempered by the need for money and a stockpile of food to give an impression of “a strong and prosperous country” at the time of the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-Sung in April 2012.
Americans who have gone on trips in search of remains say the United States has had to pay enormous fees at every stage. In the decade in which joint teams scoured the country, from 1996 to 2005, the teams came up with only 229 bodies.
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan did not seem did not seem enthusiastic about the U.S.-North Korean dialogue when I asked him about it in a briefing for journalists. He was “neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” he responded, but “because the talks have not started yet, I don’t want to see the talks negatively” — less than a ringing endorsement of the spectacle of U.S. and North Korean diplomats again talking at cross-purposes.