Desperation fuels North Korea's leniency By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - Score one for the great North Korean propaganda machine.
American missionary Robert Park walked across the frozen Tumen River from China
into North Korea on Christmas Eve bringing "Christ's love and forgiveness" to
Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, and now he is to go home thankful for the "love" he
got from the North Koreans.
The saga of the 28-year-old Korean-American missionary, the son of Korean
parents living in Tucson, Arizona, is the latest surprise in the stop-go
signals emanating from North Korea as the country undergoes the trauma of
revulsion against currency reform and a
power struggle among the elite.
Just how far Park got with his message is unclear, but the North Koreans appear
to have adroitly picked up on the theme - and put it in reverse. They are
sending Park home full of thanks for the folks in Pyongyang for having been
"incredibly kind and generous here to me, very concerned for my physical health
as never before in my life".
At any rate, that's what Pyongyang's Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted
Park as saying after six weeks of what appears to have been an incredibly
well-managed snow job. How else could it be that the authorities, no doubt the
Dear Leader himself, had "decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking
his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings into consideration", as
reported by KCNA?
If Park never quite got to deliver the message that he had written to Kim
Jong-il, he got the message back to him in the form apparently of at least one
visit to one of the two Christian churches in Pyongyang that are regularly
shown off to foreign visitors to demonstrate the country's religious freedom.
In what KCNA called "an interview" that he gave of his own free will to
authorities, Park said he'd been a dupe, that is, a dupe of all that stuff
spread by human-rights advocates overseas about the horrors of life in North
Korea. KCNA had him confessing that he'd been "taken in by the false propaganda
made by the West to tarnish its image" and for that reason had "committed a
criminal act" - illegally entering North Korea.
"What I have seen and heard in the North convinced me that I misunderstood,"
KCNA quoted Park as having said. Why, he noted, "they even returned my Bible."
What better proof could there be "that there was complete freedom of religion"
in the North? Never mind those reports of Christians arrested, tortured, beaten
and executed for possessing Bibles.
The decision to free Park comes as the US and South Korea intensify pressure on
North Korea to return to multilateral talks on its nuclear weapons - last held
in Beijing in December 2008 - and China prepares to send a top emissary to
Pyongyang, presumably to do some more arm-twisting.
Wang Jianui, in charge of the Chinese Communist Party's international
department, "may bring significant changes to the six-party talks", said a
source quoted by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, and he may also urge a visit
to Beijing by Kim Jong-il.
Wang's mission would be the latest flurry in a game of diplomacy in which the
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell,
conferred in Seoul this week with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan
and Unification Minister Hyun In-taek in a love-in, all to show that the US and
South Korea were in total agreement on North Korea.
As Campbell put it after one of those sessions, "At a fundamental level,
relations have never been better" and "we are in lockstep on what we should
do". Unwaveringly, he declared what "we tried to say very clearly, the
essential next step is a return to six-party talks" and "North Korea needs to
abide by its commitments made in 2005 and 2007" to give up its nuclear program.
Only in the context of such talks, said Campbell, could there be discussions on
North Korea's demands for a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice
and revocation of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after the North
test-fired a long-range Taepodong-2 last April then exploded a nuclear device
on May 25.
The vision of toughness that Campbell displayed was only slightly thrown off
when Defense Secretary Robert Gates, at a congressional hearing in Washington,
said it would just not be possible to get army units into South Korea "on the
time line required" in the event of an attack while US forces were tied down in
Afghanistan and Iraq. "That's not to say they wouldn't get there," he
amplified, but not "as quickly".
With South Koreans increasingly wary of the plan to transfer operational
control of all forces to South Korean command in the event of war, the US
headquarters in South Korea offered the reassurance that defense of South Korea
"remains the core mission of US forces in Korea" and "there are currently no
plans to deploy US units from the peninsula".
At the same time, President Lee Myung-bak talked up an inter-Korean summit, a
meeting with Kim Jong-il, as if it might happen this year. In any case, said
Unification Minister Hyun, the summit "should benefit the denuclearization
process", meaning the North would have to agree at least to talk about its
North Korea has avoided any response - but has repeatedly said that it will not
talk to South Koreans about its nukes. As far as the North Koreans are
concerned, that topic is reserved for talks with the US, which it holds
responsible for South Korea's security while relegating the South to only
South Korean strategists are gambling, though, that the North will not be
able to hold out on nuclear talks forever while writhing in a power struggle as
the regime looks for scapegoats for the failure of an attempt at reforming
the currency and curbing free enterprise. The dismissal of North Korea's
chief financial planner, Pak Nam-gi, director of the ruling Workers' Party, is just
the most obvious sign of mounting discontent.
A power struggle evidently is under way as Kim Jong-il attempts to smooth the
path for his youngest son, Kim Jong-un to succeed him and powerful military men
attempt to assert themselves. North Korean artillery exercises in the Yellow
Sea are seen as an outward manifestation of the internal struggle.
Inside North Korea, angry crowds have reportedly besieged marketplaces as the
price of rice has risen many times from its level in December and the value of
the currency deteriorates. Mounting shortages evoke memories of the famine of
the 1990s in which two million people died from starvation and disease.
Daily NK, with sources inside North Korea, reported "an explosion in the number
of casualties resulting from popular resentment at harsh regulations of market
activities". Nonetheless, Daily NK reported relaxation of regulations in some
places at the beginning of February.
Rule-bending, however, is not believed likely to undo the underlying problem of
a country bereft of food and money to care for its people.
With Pak's disappearance came reports of the dismissal of the chief of
the notorious Bureau 39, a powerful financial sub-agency that deals in
everything from counterfeit currency and narcotics to the export of missiles
and the import of materiel for weapons of mass destruction. Pak had overall
control of Bureau 39.
Under the circumstances, one could hardly blame South Korean officials for
talking about tightening the screws on North Korea while speculating on the
impact of the power struggle in Pyongyang on the rule of Kim Jong-il. Kim and
youngest son Kim Jong-un are believed to have initiated the ill-fated reform
"in the tradition of dictatorial regimes worldwide", said Daily NK. "Scapegoats
have apparently also been chosen."