Friday, May 6, 2011

The Road to Pyongyang

Over at The Carter Center, they've got a report up about former President Jimmy Carter's trip, along with the rest of "The Elders," to North Korea. He talks frankly (I guess) about the negative reception they got, and insists that he got in some digs about the Sǒn•gun ("Military First" Policy):
Early Tuesday morning we flew to Pyongyang. After visiting the enormous memorial to Kim Il Sung, we checked into the ornate guest house. Our first discussion was with Ri Jong Hyok, whose peace committee has responsibility for relations with SK. He painted a completely negative prospect of any resumption of bilateral communications and, as expected, placed all the blame on the antagonistic attitude of SK President Lee Myung-bak, while extolling relations during the term of Kim Dae Jung.

We then had substantive talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs Pak Ui Chun, and we submitted our strong written request to the Head of State for the release of Eddie Jun (Yong-su) on humanitarian grounds. The minister described their great need for food aid and peace with all their neighbors. He emphasized the NK commitment to all the principles of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 9/19/05 Joint Statement of the six powers. He made it plain, however, that NK would have to retain nuclear weapons as long as they are threatened by an antagonistic U.S. with nuclear weapons. He pointed out that all other nations in the region had their own nuclear protection or were under the U.S. umbrella. He hoped for a resumption of 6-power talks and a simultaneous or step-by-step implementation of the jointly approved commitments already made. Regarding food aid from the U.S., he said there would be no problems with U.S. monitoring of delivery, with procedures already established for the WFP.

After a long supper discussion (where he indicated Kim Jong Il would not be available to meet with us), we attended a magic show in their enormous stadium, where buses loaded with people disappeared, elephants, bears, and horses appeared, and a helicopter materialized and flew around with the magician seeming to enter and leave it through the air.

Wednesday morning we visited the University of Foreign Studies to meet with students, most of whom had chosen English as their foreign language (they spoke it perfectly), with Chinese the next most popular. They were studying to be diplomats, teachers, and interpreters. We then met with Kim Gye Gwan, who has always been the NK representative during 6-party talks and was a key advisor of Kim il Sung during my 1994 negotiations. He reiterated (as did others) their commitment to honor all facets of the "Agreed Framework" of 1994 and the 6-power "joint statement" of 9/05, but was undeviating in insisting on a simultaneous or step-by-step implementation of all the commitments. He could quote every word in the agreement.

Our next meeting with Head of State Kim Yong Nam was surprisingly negative and confrontational, filled with his condemnation of historical U.S. policy toward NK with my finally interrupting him and pointing out that he was concentrating exclusively on a negative and distorted picture of the past while we had come to look to the future with hopes of reconciling differences. He informed us that our request for the release of Eddie Jun would not be honored. Quite tardily, we finally departed with no easing of tension.
It's interesting that JC makes clear that he's there, in part at least, to seek the release of Eddie "Yong-su" Jun. It's still not clear what caused Mr Jun, a fellow OCer, to get nabbed, but it appears he's part of the trend of former heads-of-state expending political power and good will in order to secure their release. At some point, this has an adverse effect on Washington's (and Seoul's) ability to deal with Pyongyang on favorable terms. I don't know why he was there, but it had better have been worth it. If he was on a Robert Park-esque messianic/Mosaic mission or crusade, I think he may be doing more harm than good. On the other hand, there are a whole bunch of things he might have been doing (e.g., helping North Koreans to escape or spreading news about the outside world so as to foster discontent) that would be worth the risk.

Anyway, I think it's clear that Jimmy Carter is not deluded into thinking North Korea is some sort of paradise, even if he thinks that US and ROK policy toward the DPRK is morally unjust:
It was long past lunch time, so we drove northward for almost an hour to Pyongsong City, through a level river valley that was devoted to agriculture. On this entire trip I never saw a tractor or a draft animal; humans were doing all the work. (We later saw two or three cattle and tractors between Pyongyang and the airport.) It was not the time of year for most grain crops, but there were many vegetable fields and fruit trees were blooming. Already late, we had to cancel a visit to a cooperative farm, and concentrated our attention on families in private homes, a food distribution center, a hospital, a baby home, and a school for nurses. We were impressed with the three-year programs for nurses and midwives and with the responses of the students to our questions. Men are not permitted to be nurses, and only a small portion of medical doctors are women (less than 20 percent). They claimed to graduate 2,500 doctors annually from 11 medical universities.

The very large hospital, in several buildings, was very dark and had running water only in the operating room area, where major surgery was underway. They rely heavily on equipment and medicines from U.N. agencies. We saw no reason why a government that can develop advanced weapons cannot provide water for their hospitals.

We visited a young woman who had one toddler and was eight months pregnant, living in a small apartment with her husband's parents. She had served in the army for 10 years and was now working in a textile factory. She receives full pay during five months of maternity leave, and didn't complain although her food ration recently had been reduced to 350 grams of cereals (about 1,200 calories) per day, with the child getting 130 grams. World Food Program staff have been informed that the ration will soon be cut to 190 grams/day, or about 650 calories. On special occasions, the young woman and her husband can buy higher protein foods with money from their salaries.
Of course, JC seems to be laying out the case of how bad it is there in order to drum up sympathy for food aid, but it's still a dig at the regime and its inability — or unwillingness — to adequate meet the needs of its people.

The end of the trip was interesting (and has already been covered in the press):
We had a reception with the 23 foreign ambassadors and international agency personnel stationed in Pyongyang, with all of them eager to tell us about their unique perspectives and to learn about our experiences and plans for the future. We then entertained NK officials as hosts at supper, where the conversations were quite cordial, avoiding all controversy.

The next morning we Elders made final plans for our visit to Seoul and for a press conference and then left the guest house. We received an urgent request for our bus to return for an important visit and message. After a brief wait, Minister Kim Gye Gwan arrived and in a very formal way read a personal message from their "Great Leader," Kim Jong Il.

He expressed a warm welcome, appreciation of our efforts for peace and humanitarianism, a desire to reduce tension and improve inter-Korean relations, and support for all negotiations and inter-Korean dialogue, including a summit meeting with President Lee of SK. He pledged to fulfill the 9/19/05 Joint Statement for denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula and called for early resumption of 6-Party talks. It was clear this was the message he wanted delivered in Seoul and to other leaders, with emphasis on the summit meeting.
I find this description quite interesting because it dovetails nicely with a theory that's been coalescing in my mind: Kim Jong-il may be considerably less in charge than is generally believed outside of North Korea (or inside, for that matter). Some people, including myself, believe there may be competing factions in the regime, and it would seem the militarist hardliners have more control than reformers (if they are in fact hardliners versus reformers).

That's hardly a novel theory, but what I wonder is if Kim Jong-il, particularly following his stroke but possibly even before, is being nudged into a role where he is little more than a figurehead right. That would certainly explain his frequent criss-crossing of North Korea to visit this factory or that to offer "on-the-spot guidance." Seriously, he reminds me of the Queen of England with all these visits.

Now, think Korean palace intrigue. Here's a guy being pushed out following a near-fatal health scare, and he's struggling to keep control while he sees his own military people try to keep him out of the loop.

Imagine also KJI is having second thoughts on his place in history — rethinking one's life is not at all uncommon for people who have nearly died, especially if the stroke alters their brain function — and you might even have a peace-oriented Dear Leader (really!) who is now at odds with military hardliners.

And that would explain The Elders being suddenly called back to receive the letter, a letter which contrasts completely with the message that was conveyed by all the angry meetings.

Something to think about. How weird would it be if I'm right? But rest assured, I'm never right with my contrarian predictions and analysis about what's going on in North Korea. Never ever.

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