WASHINGTON - For the most skilled and toughest North Korean negotiator, the
task of pushing the line while remaining on cordial terms with the man across
the table carries inherent risks. A change in policy may be fatal. One mistake,
and you may never live to make another.
Take Kim Kye-gwan, the North Korean vice foreign minister with whom the United
States' Christopher Hill spent years cozying up in venues from Berlin to
Singapore to Beijing when Hill
was US nuclear envoy and assistant secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific.
Kim seemed like a pretty tough guy, conning Hill into deals such as the
six-party agreement of September 2005, under which North Korea vaguely agreed
to do away with its nukes in return for multi-billions of god-knows-what.
And that wasn't all. Kim then got Hill to sign on to two deals in 2007 under
which North Korea agreed in careful detail first to disable and then dismantle
its entire nuclear program. All the US had to do was remove North Korea from
its list of state sponsors of terrorism - something former president George W
Bush was glad to do in his waning months in office.
So what is Kim's reward for all his success in bamboozling the Americans into
thinking they had succeeded in getting North Korea to give up its nukes? He
seems to have disappeared, and nobody has a clue as to whether he's dead or
alive, working on a chicken farm or sent to a prison for re-education.
Analysts here believe Kim may have become a scapegoat for hardliners in the
ascendancy in North Korea. In the quest for people to blame for North Korea's
flirtation with reconciliation with the United States and South Korea, they
say, Kim would rank high on the list of those now viewed as "enemies".
Speculation about Kim Kye-gwan's possible fate is circulating in the US, while
the generals take center stage and North Korea toughens its policies in the
final phases of the reign of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who rose to power in July
1994 after the death of his father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung.
A purge of those perceived as soft toward the United States and South Korea is
to be expected, according to this analysis, while North Korea's intelligence
and security agencies crack down with increasing ferocity on the slightest
signs of discontent, much less dissent. The crackdown is gaining urgency as
reports of Kim Jong-il's health grow more pessimistic - first he was said to
have suffered a stroke nearly one year ago, and now he's reportedly suffering
from pancreatic cancer.
"The storm of control measures blowing over that country now was started by the
power people in North Korea," a Japanese journalist, Jiro Ishimaru, has
written. They "are doing everything they can to tighten social order because
they see a crisis looming in the maintenance of the system".
Bruce Bechtol, professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in
Quantico, Virginia, says the purges have accompanied a shift in the political
winds. One example, he said, is that of Choe Sung-chol, who as vice chairman of
the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee was responsible for dealing with South Korea.
He was reportedly "languishing on a chicken farm" in January while undergoing
"revolutionary training" - before he was reported executed.
Choe, a key figure in arranging the inter-Korean summit of October 2007 between
Kim Jong-il and South Korea's president Roh Moo-hyun, committed the grave
offense of making "wrong predictions" about the policy of Roh's conservative
successor, Lee Myung-bak, elected president by a landslide two-and-a-half
months after the summit.
Soon after his inauguration in February 2008, Lee cut off aid to North Korea
while waiting to resolve the sticky question of verification of North Korea's
claims to be doing away with its nukes. North Korea, reviling Lee as a
"traitor", has since boasted of restarting its nuclear program, test-fired a
long-range missile and exploded a nuclear device underground while repudiating
the July 1953 Korean War armistice.
"Despite hardliners' objections, Choe had strongly pushed for progress in
relations with the South," according to a source quoted by Yonhap, the South
Korean news agency. "[B]ut inter-Korean relations deteriorated after the
government change in the South and he was blamed for the 'misjudgments' and all
The parallels between Choe's case and that of Kim Kye-gwan are all too clear,
in the view of analysts. He, too, stands to face severe criticism, if not
charges, for the same offences - except that his misdeeds were in talks with a
far worse enemy than South Korea - the US.
Reported purges of Choe and other key officials are the most specific
manifestation of a much more sweeping campaign to purify the society.
"Nobody circles the wagons like North Korea," said Bechtol in a paper presented
at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington. "As North Korea always has done
in times of possible internal instability or turmoil, it cracked down on the
Among the first in the line of fire, beside negotiators all too visibly
involved in dealings with the US and South Korea, have been those attempting to
escape across the Yalu and Tumen river borders to China.
One experienced source for that perception is Tim Peters, director of Helping
Hands Korea which has years of experience aiding escapees. "The penalties are
getting stronger," Peters has been quoted as saying. The government is even
refusing to issue passports to those who need to go to China and elsewhere on
"Since Kim's reported stroke, those fleeing the country have undergone stiffer
punishment as a result of new measures that were apparently put into effect,"
said Bechtol, while "inquisition squads" roam the streets and "ideology
sessions" are increasingly frequent.
The crackdown often focuses on the small community of secret Christians that
has grown in North Korea in recent years, which is viewed by the regime as an
Activists in South Korea report that a 33-year-old woman was executed in June
in a city near the Chinese border for distributing copies of the Bible. They
say another woman, aged 30, was reportedly tortured and possibly killed along
with her husband and their two children, all of whom have disappeared.
Although public executions in North Korea are commonplace, the ferocity of the
current sweep of enemies accompanies the first basic shift in the power
structure since the death of Kim Il-sung.
With the power of the elite surrounding the Dear Leader "under close scrutiny",
said Bechtol, many analysts believe "that the party and the military have
consolidated power in the wake of Kim Jong-il's health issues".
Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at the International
Institute for Strategic Studies in London, sees whatever is happening in North
Korea as "surely connected with the succession question that suddenly became
more acute" after Kim's stroke.
"For all of North Korea's neighbors," he wrote in a newly published report,
"the collapse of the Kim regime could be best way out of a downward cycle - and
the sooner this happens, the better."
That's a view that is not likely to bring about redemption for Kim Kye-gwan,
for whom it may in any case be too late as the regime defends itself against
enemies, real and imagined, at home and abroad.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.