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Tuesday, August 30, 2011     GET REAL

Deals on wheels: Kim Jong-Il goes to great lengths to hold his own

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — The greatest mystery surrounding Kim Jong-Il’s visits to Russia and China has nothing to do with secret deals on commerce or six-party talks on his nukes. It’s what he brings with him and takes away in that 14-car train in which he travels whenever he crosses the border into those forbidding lands beyond.


A North Korean national flag is reflected in a coach window of the train of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il following its arrival at Khasan station, after the train crossed the border between North Korea and Russia, near Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok Aug. 20.     Reuters/Yuri Maltsev
The train is always described as “armored”, though there’s no telling exactly what that means since no one outside an official entourage ever gets close enough to examine it, and there’s no sign of soldiers pouring out at every station to fend off possible terrorists.

Nor has there ever been an attempt at explaining why the “Dear Leader” needs to travel with such a long logistical tail when normal heads of state make do with a single airplane. Granted he’s in need of a medical staff, maybe a hospital car in case he shows signs of collapsing, and the train would have a full kitchen to keep him and all others on board well fed and away from poisonous, unsanitary or at least unappetizing foreign fare that might give him severe indigestion.

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Still, it’s assumed some of those cars, on his return journey from Russia via China last week, were laden with gifts that might very well be in violation of United Nations sanctions imposed after the Dear One ordered his second nuclear explosion in May 2009. They would be a portent of much greater dividends that he would hope to reap from vastly expanding economic ties with his great northern neighbor.

Now the question, as the train finally chugged back into Pyongyang over the weekend after departing on Aug. 20, is whether North Korea and Russia can fulfill the deals they agreed on at Kim Jong-Il’s summit in Siberia with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev. Among the most important is a project for a pipeline for shipping natural gas from the Russian far east through North Korea to South Korea.

That deal carries conditions that will undoubtedly complicate matters. No one forgets that Russia has long hoped for a rail line from South Korea through North Korea to Siberia and westward to Europe. The idea remains a Russian fantasy, dormant while North and South Korea confront each other as they have since the Korean War in the early 1950s.

In the case of the pipeline, Kim Jong-Il told a senior Russian official it’s contingent on Russia and South Korea signing a contract for the pipeline. As reported by Russia’s Interfax news agency, all North Korea wants is payment of fees for piping natural gas through North Korea.

It’s difficult to believe, however, that North Korea would not want to siphon off some of that gas to fuel its own dilapidated economy, and it’s also questionable whether the North would be willing to see a lot of natural gas going from Russia to South Korea. At the least, such a deal would give North Korea extraordinary leverage over Russia as well as South Korea. In times of confrontation with the South, North Korea could turn the dials on the pipeline, slowing or stopping the flow southward.

Considering North Korea’s takeover in August of the Mount Kumkyang tourist complex, by the east coat just above the North-South line, South Korean officials will have trouble placing confidence in any deal that gives the North life-and-death power over anything.

While Kim Jong-Il was in Russia, North Korea expelled the last South Korean managers from the complex in which Hyundai Asan, one of the Hyundai Group’s companies, had poured more than a billion U.S. dollars. That was North Korea’s revenge for South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s halting tours from the South three years earlier after a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean woman who had strayed outside the tourist zone.

South Korea, though, faces problem that may make confrontation with North Korea difficult in the run-up to the next presidential election in December 2012. The conservatives who have been in charge somce Lee’s overwhelming victory in December 2007 have lost much of their popularity — and leverage.

The evidence came while Kim was in Russia in the form of the failure of Seoul’s Mayor Oh Se-Hoon in a referendum on school lunches. It wasn’t that the people voted against the choice on the referendum between compelling all students to pay for lunch or providing lunch free of charge only to those whose parents could not afford them.

Rather, three-quarters of the voters stayed away from the polls, rendering the referendum void for failing to attract a quorum of at least one third of eligible voters. Oh resigned in humiliation while his primary leftist foe, the city’s top educational official, promised to get on with free lunches at a cost of several hundred million dollars a year.

Oh called the program “welfare populism” that was more than the cash-strapped Seoul government could afford, but the victory for the left was a portent of trouble ahead for conservatives. The opposition is sure to pressure for reconciliation with the North — a return to the era of the failed “Sunshine” policy that prevailed under the two previous presidents.

Kim Jong-Il, in his meeting with Medvedev, enlisted Russian support, as was evident in the Russian media report that he was “ready to solve the problem of imposing a moratorium on the test and production of nuclear weapons”. In reality, all Kim had done was to push the notion of returning to the talks as he had already done in meetings in May with China’s President Hu Jintao.

Kim, however, had other concerns in Russia. He also needed to convince the Russians, as he had the Chinese, to accept his third son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un, as his successor. At the same time, he had to worry about the implications of the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi on his plans to perpetuate his dynasty.

Although the North Korean media shield most of the country’s 24 million people from news about the Middle East, word of rebellion seeps through via clandestine radios and word of mouth from people who cross the Tumen and Yalu river borders into China on illicit trading expeditions.

The fear of revolutionary fervor spreading to North Korea had to have added to the need to convince the Russians that Jong-Un, in his late 20s, is strong enough to rule a populace enervated by years of famine and disease.

Beyond that, said Kim Tae-Woo, a military analyst and president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, “He needs some declaration from Russia of North Korea as a strong and great nation.” That term is a persistent theme of North Korean rhetoric as the regime gears for Kim’s 70th birthday in February and the 100th anniversary in April of the birth of his long-ruling father, Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994. The build-up for those dates explains North Korea’s global campaign for donations from just about everywhere.

North Korea this month received $4.5 million in aid for flood relief from South Korea and $900,000 from the United States. The question now is whether U.S. and South Korean aid will substantially increase. At the outset of his presidency in 2008, Lee stopped annual shipments from the South of several hundred thousand tons of rice and fertilizer. The North, he insisted, had to show signs of giving up its nukes. By pursuing talks, however, the North is clearly reducing tensions. The North Koreans want economic assistance “from the outside, possibly from the United States”, said Kim Tae-woo. “Kim Jong-Il is trying to get more from Russia. And then they are trying to balance between Russia and China. They may be seeking leverage against China.”

All the while, North Korea faces repercussions of the revolutions sweeping the Middle East. Criticism of the regime, defiance against officials and isolated violence are reported in risky cell phone calls and stories told by rising numbers of defectors.

“The North Koreans need to tighten their control internally,” said Kim Tae-Woo, while turning for succor to their two huge neighbors, both of which saved the North from oblivion in the Korean War. The need for internal control is one reason the Dear Leader orders a lengthy train for excursions beyond his native turf — that and all those gifts the Russians and Chinese would have bequeathed him and his aides as they compete for economic and diplomatic influence in Pyongyang.

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