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The Dear Leader's tantrums

Veteran North Korea watcher Bradley K. Martin talks to GlobalPost about Kim Jong-il's latest antics. "If you’re doing business with North Korea, you’re dealing with room 39 of the party headquarters, which runs Kim Jong-il’s personal slush fund."

(KRT via Reuters TV/Reuters)


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[Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of the Correspondent Call with Bradley Martin.]


Passport: Welcome everybody! It is June 11 and I am David Case, I am the Editor of GlobalPost Passport at the GlobalPost newsroom in Boston. The topic of today’s call is the growing tension on the North Korean peninsula. Ever since President Barack Obama took office, North Korea seems to be engaging in brinksmanship. This week, Pyongyang sentenced two American journalists to twelve years in labor camp for the crime of crossing the North Korean border. In May, the country successfully tested a nuclear weapon that measured 4.5 on the Richter scale and has fired a series of long-range missiles. For many weeks, it has been holding a South Korean national who worked at an industrial estate in the North. And for months, it had been hurling belligerent rhetoric at the South, threatening to disregard the 1953 armistice and vowing to respond with overwhelming force to even the slightest “hostile act.” That’s not a specter to be taken lightly when the North has enough artillery alone to take hundreds of thousands of casualties across the border in Seoul.


Yesterday, June 10, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with South Korea and Japan, passed a resolution that would tighten sanctions on North Korea. The sanctions include a provision to possibly stop and inspect ships. Pyongyang has indicated before that such a measure would be perceived as an act of war.


With us to discuss the crisis is Mr. Bradley Martin, GlobalPost’s North Korea columnist. Mr. Martin has covered Asia for more than thirty years as the Tokyo bureau chief for the Asian Wall Street Journal, as Asian Special Projects Editor for Newsweek and as a senior writer for Bloomberg. He is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”


Before we jump in, I have a few announcements. First of all, remember that the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport’s website. Regarding the format, keeping with Passport’s mission of maximizing audience participation, we’ve compiled a list of questions from our members and integrated them into a Q and A. I will lead the Q and A for about twenty minutes. Afterwards, we will open up the lines to questions. The call will end after thirty minutes. All of your phones are now muted, I will explain later how to un-mute your phones.


I want to start out with a question that maybe only a fellow journalist would ask. It’s incredibly difficult to cover any dictatorship. In general, you can’t even visit North Korea as a journalist, though I understand that Mr. Bradley has done so a couple of times in the past. Even intelligence agencies have a hard time keeping current on Pyongyang. The Japanese, for example, had no advance warning of the recent nuclear tests. Bradley, can you talk about how you follow the country? What kind of sources do you use?


Martin: Yes. It’s sort of a throwback to what we used to call kremlinology and tealeaf reading when referring to trying to figure out what was going on in Communist China, from, say, Hong Kong. But it’s more difficult because North Korea is more closed. I do visit. I’ve been in about eight times since 1979. I went in earlier, first as a journalist and then got blacklisted and have been back since as a scholar, as a tourist. So I go back every chance I can. I see and hear everything I can and make comparisons with what I’ve experienced in the past, try to determine if there’s any change. I also pick up in the bookshops in the hotels and in the other bookstores, pick up all the propaganda material I can carry and take that home and analyze it. You can learn a lot reading between the lines of even the wildest propaganda. You can find some nuggets of truth in there and figure out which way the regime is headed. And then the third rod on my tripod was defector interviews. A lot of North Koreans have become fed up with the regime and moved to South Korea and I have interviewed a great number of those and heard their life stories and compared those with what else we know. And then, of course there’s intelligence. Intelligence agencies essentially do the same thing I do, or they try to. And then there are new media recently that are going into North Korea and actually bringing information out in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. And these are run by defectors in South Korea. One organization is run by a Japanese who’s trained journalists, actually defector journalists, to go back in and record what they see. So there is more coming out now than there was when I wrote my book and this is very helpful to me.


Passport: Beyond the obvious displeasure with recent events, can you give us a sense of how the crisis is changing the debate in Northeast Asia? How are North Korea’s neighbors reacting to the latest antics?


Martin: Well, we had, as I wrote in a column recently for GlobalPost, the Japanese version of Rush Limbaugh came out and said, well, we should really be debating whether to have a nuclear deterrent ourselves. And the conservative South Korea newspaper Chosun Ilbo also said South Korea should be talking about having its own nuclear deterrent. So this is the great danger, the people analyzing this from the big picture see that both of those countries will start heading toward nuclear power status. This will scare China, there will be a huge nuclear arms race and then the proliferation results around the rest of the world would be considerable as well because of these new examples, so this is basically the international situation surrounding it.


Passport: Bradley, what’s driving this most recent escalation? An American president recently took office who purportedly wants to make peace with the country after five decades of belligerence. Is Kim Jong-il somehow worried about losing his membership in the Axis of Evil?


Martin: (Laughs) Well, you know, actually he prizes his membership, I think. He likes to be the biggest, baddest dude on the block when it comes to conflict with his enemies. And he needs to show his people that he’s strong. Because he can’t feed them, he can’t give them a life. So all he can do is keep convincing them that they have these horrible enemies who are about to overwhelm them and only he and his wonderful nuclear weapons and missiles are keeping them from doom. So this is especially important right around now, he’s been ill, as you know.


Passport: Right. I wanted to ask you about that as well. We know that he suffered an apparent stroke and that his son, the tea leavers, the tealeaf readers, say that his son, Kim Jong-un, is apparently tapped as his heir. Asian leaders like to exercise a show of force during periods of instability or change. Is he now trying to protect his son?


Martin: In a sense. He’s trying to connect his son with these wonderful achievements, which are the only achievements he’s able to claim. That is, nuclear power status and big, long missile status, so we hear from some of these defector news organizations that have talked to people inside the country that meetings are being held and Kim Jong-un is being given credit for these wonderful achievements. And this is precisely the way it happened when Kim Jong-il himself was coming up. He was not much more than a kid, but he was given credit for capturing the Pueblo, the US naval ship, for example.


Passport: What do we know about Kim Jong-un? He’s only in his late 20’s at this point, correct?


Martin: Yes, mid-20’s. He’s 25 or 26, something like that. He probably went to school in Switzerland, at Bern, we know his older brother did and he probably did too, but not for a very long time. We think he’s probably a graduate of the Kim Il Song University, the war university, basically the military academy. We think that he went to a five-year course there. Among the three sons, he was considered by the sushi chef, the Japanese sushi chef who worked for Kim Jong-il, he said that Kim Jong-un was toughest, the most aggressive, and the most like his father in physical appearance. And apparently, this has been borne out to some extent. The oldest brother was quoted just the other day as saying, “yes, it looks like this is what’s happening,” although he claimed that he wasn’t in on it. The older brother’s out in Macau, you know, in the gambling town.


Passport: Even his brother doesn’t know, huh?


Martin: He probably knows, but anyway he was more of less agreeing that this was the scenario, for the younger brother to take over. He said, “my father loves my brother very much.”


Can you talk about the emerging collective leadership in North Korea? Behind the public face, behind the regime?


Martin: Well, some generals have been gaining power and also, Chang Sung Taek, who is the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il, he’s married to his sister and Kim loves his sister very much. And he was always close to Chang Sung Taek. He’s banished him two or three times over his career. He likes to do this. If people start to get too many ideas in their heads, he sends them off and keeps them out of power, maybe even sends them off to labor camp or something. But Chang is back and has been appointed to a very high position on the National Defense Commission. So he, apparently, along with several generals, and apparently hard-line generals, are the people who are supposed to arrange and guarantee the succession. But this is all guesswork on our part.


Passport: Can you help us understand the Kim Dynasty’s modus operandi? Over the past decade, North Korea has vacillated between belligerence and conciliation, and most recently it agreed to nuclear concessions, in 2007, only to test a nuclear weapon in 2009. Is there a method to the madness here?


Martin: Well, yeah, they’re consummate negotiators and they change back and forth intentionally to get what they want. If they aren’t happy with what they’ve received in the past, then they create another crisis. You can see that in the industrial district, in Kaesong where they demanded yesterday a four-fold increase in wages for their workers and a thirty-one-fold increase in the rent. So I mean, making outrageous demands and creating a crisis where none existed, this is very much their style. They have so few cards. Basically all they have is their military.


Passport: So it’s elaborate blackmail?


Martin: Essentially, they are extortionists, yes.


Passport: Let’s turn to the UN resolution adopted on June 11. Susan Rice, US envoy to the UN, said they would “bite and bite in a meaningful way,” but here’s country that doesn’t seem to care about the global economy. What kind of leverage does the international community have? After all, Pyongyang’s chief exports are illicit nuclear weapons technology and counterfeit US currency.


Martin: (Laughs) A, we proved we have leverage when financial sanctions were enacted in the case of Banco Delta Asia where there were a number of North Korean deposits and those were frozen. This drove North Korea into a frenzy and eventually there was a compromise, an agreement that Kim got his money back and the six-party talks were renewed. So we know that financial sanctions can indeed bite. At that time, my sources told me, including banking sources, that North Korea had been reduced to a primitive, pre-money economy. There was money, but people had to carry their money across the border in suitcases to make purchases. So, we’ve got that and then there’s China, which you probably want to ask a bit more about, but if China really cracked down, they’d control a huge portion of North Korea’s imports and financing.


Passport: Well, I guess the question then is, why isn’t China cracking down?


Martin: Well, China has to figure out what’s next. If they crack down too far and the regime collapses, what sort of regime replaces it? Would it be a South Korea-led united Korea with a capitalistic economy and a democratic system? China wouldn’t care to have that on its border. It would be too much of a contrast with its own authoritarian system. So, they’re caught in a bind themselves. They have to figure out exactly what they want.


Passport: Perhaps they’re concerned about a potential refugee crisis as well?


Martin: Yes, yes, of course, that is part of it.


Passport: How will Pyongyang respond if the UN starts intercepting ships traveling to and from North Korean ports?


Martin: Well, I don’t think it would take on the entire UN, but I do think it would create some military incidents. It might even try to blame all this on South Korea because South Korea has joined the effort. And South Korea and North Korea have a treaty arrangement under which they don’t blockade each other, so North Korea says South Korea is already in violation of that. So I continue to predict some military action against South Korea in the Yellow Sea, just to stir things up and show them who’s boss and intimidate the South Koreans. Would they take on, suppose Spain, suppose the Spanish navy did an interdiction, would they fire on Spain? I don’t know, they might. They don’t want to be seen as cowardly or intimidating, so they might do something.


Passport: Talk about the CurrentTV journalists for a moment. What do we know about what they’re encountering and what does North Korea want as a result of this?


Martin: Well, the older sister of one of these journalists made a National Geographic documentary after going into the country under false pretenses. She pretended to be on a medical aid mission. The documentary was basically accurate, but it also had a sort of horror story kind of soundtrack with it. So the North Koreans are just delighted to have the younger sister of this person in their grasp. And to some extent, they’re just showing journalists, you can’t come in here without our permission. So here’s two women of the same family who have been in without permission, or apparently so, the CurrentTV, their employer, is not making any claims, so I think we have to assume that they did probably violate the North Korean border. We’re not hearing loud complaints of innocence here, we’re hearing requests for clemency. So North Korea, of course, will try to tie this to the nuclear and other issues and get as much out of it as they can.


Passport: There’s speculation that Al Gore, who’s on the board of CurrentTV, could be sent as an envoy to negotiate the release of the journalists. What do you think of this approach?


Martin: Well, we haven’t heard Al Gore jumping up and down, saying, “please send me!” Even for him, its risky. If he succeeds, great, if he fails, it’s a loss of face for him. And if he succeeds by giving away vital US interests just to bring back two employees, then that would be seen as a historical failure. You know, the US didn’t handle the Pueblo crisis very well, and the North Koreans are still gloating over that. They’ve still got the ship moored there in their river and they take visitors like me on tours of it. They like to win in situations like this. So whether its Al Gore, or Bill Richardson, or whoever, their big challenge would be to keep this separate from the nuclear and other issues and just make some kind of deal involving the two women.


Passport: Regarding the broader issues of North Korea, what are the policy options available to the Obama administration now?


Martin: The previous administration was first highly confrontational, the Bush administration, and then they went through what I think you would call hawk engagement. Victor Cha, who was the NSC (National Security Council) person on North Korea during the Bush administration, coined this term in a book that he wrote with another scholar, and that means you engage and give engagement with North Korea time to show that it works, in other words. And if it doesn’t, you come back with the hawk side of this. Most people in Washington, I think, now are coming around to the opinion that North Korea has not responded well to this. Whether that’s true of not, that seems to be the view, the gathering view. And the Obama administration looked like it was going to become somewhat harder-lined. And so thus Bush renewed financial sanctions, for example. That seems to be the direction we were headed in. Can it work, can it move North Korea? I think possibly it can. If they really wanted to bring the regime down, which they say they don’t, then I think the way to do that would be through an information campaign. Now, Obama has already signed off on US-Korean language radio going over there, but I don’t think we’re in a full-fledged information war yet. That would probably be the way to go if we became completely disgusted and saw no possibility for diplomacy to succeed, then try to bring the regime down through getting word to the people over there about their alternatives and what’s wrong with their system.


Passport: Do you get a sense from your trips there how effective that type of information front would be?


Martin: From my trips, I get the impression that the people I’m allowed to meet in Pyongyang are totally on the side with the system and totally indoctrinated. But, talking to defectors in South Korea, a great many of those were people who had listened to radio, listened to Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, other foreign radio programs and gradually, over a period of years of listening, realized that things were not as their leaders told them.


Passport: Ok, I think its time to open up the lines to questions. Please remember to identify yourself before you ask a question. And if you have a question, can you please un-mute your line by pressing *6. My colleague Rick Bryn will call on you using the last four digits of your phone number. If you’ll go ahead and un-mute now please.


Caller 1: This is David Reedle, I have a question. I have a question about the impact of all this on consumer confidence in South Korea. I was surprised to note the financial markets shook off the most recent actions. What impact does it have on the South Korean, South Korean markets, South Korean business environment?


Martin: You know, the South Koreans have been in this situation for so many decades now that they are somewhat immune. It’s always amusing to watch how little affect these big things have on their markets. They basically are fatalistic about it, you know, they think, “well, you know, we’ve been here all this time, the North keeps threatening to turn us to ashes and they haven’t done it so far, so they probably won’t do it this time.” One of these days, maybe it will happen and then it will be a case of the boy who cried wolf. But, outsiders who live in South Korea and do business there are always commenting on this – how people have been callused by the events over the years.


Passport: Its an interesting point. You’d think that a nuclear weapon, considering that South Korea is the main target for the North, it doesn’t really add very much, considering that they’ve had that capability of decimating the South for quite a while now.


Martin: Right. And of course, there is the nuclear umbrella. So the nuclear threat probably of greater concern to the United States than it is to South Korea. And same with the long-range missile threat. Because South Korea has always been in range of South Korean artillery, for decades now and can be destroyed just with an artillery attack. I mean, Seoul could, which is the heart of South Korea and a huge portion of its population. So, yeah, it’s probably of greater concern to Washington than it is to Seoul.


Passport: Any other questions?


Caller 1: I have one other question, if I might. This is David Reedle again. We, here in the US, have been led to believe that China could finish this all off if they chose to. Is that true? You’ve raised a very good point of the alternative. Maybe you could explore that a little bit more.


Martin: I think it is true that they could finish it off, not just by speaking to North Korea and saying, “you bad boys! Shape up!” But, if they actually did cut off their energy supply, food supplies, their financing, North Korea has a huge trade deficit with China. If they just cracked down economically, that would pretty much, that would do it, I think. North Korea would have no place to go then. But its just not happening for the reasons that I discussed.


Passport: The Bush administration was all for the six-party talks. Is that what was behind that for all that time? The fact that China really holds the levers here?


Martin: Getting China involved as the host of the six-party talks recognized that fact. But you could analyze it that China used the six-party talks as a substitute for some kind of harsh crack down. And we say, “why don’t you do that?” And they say, “its not in our interests.” They have their own interests. And we have a tendency, in the United States to try to put it all on China and say, “you’re the guys who have the power over there” and then we wonder why people call us a declining Super Power. We should probably start thinking of some means of our own in case all else fails, and again, that’s where I mention the information war there if we ever get serious about bringing down the regime. And there are still people in Washington who want to bring down the regime. I think Newt Gingrich said so the other day. But, we’re not at that point yet, but if we are, we need American means that we can work out with our true allies without depending completely on China.


Passport: There’s long been this concern that North Korea could provide nuclear technology to a terrorist organization. Can you address that one?


Martin: Well, that is a big, big concern, obviously, in Washington, and if we weren’t concerned about that, we might say, “oh well, let them become a nuclear power,” because we have many times to capability and can destroy them many times over, so we have a deterrent. But they do like to sell contraband, including weapons, to people that we don’t like and that is a very serious danger. Various administrations keep trying to draw a red line and say, “if you do this, we’ll wipe you out.” And we heard just a couple days ago, there was a former State Department official who wrote an op-ed piece saying, “you know, our leaders need to say to North Korea, not only if you attack us with a nuclear weapon, but if someone you’ve given a weapon to attacks us, we’re coming in to wipe you out with nuclear weapons.” And that’s probably a wise warning to give.


Caller 1: What is the population of North Korea?


Martin: It’s about 22 million, they say. It’s about half of South Korea. Pretty small country to be causing so much trouble.     


Passport: And then we had another question as well?


Caller 2: Yes, hi, this is David in North Carolina. Going back to the business climate, with respect to South Korea, I guess redirecting that to North Korea, what is the world economy missing out on from what would otherwise be a healthy, productive North Korea, if that would ever be the case? What do they produce? What could they contribute to the world?


Martin: Their greatest contribution would be their mineral resources, which are really quite large. And there are business people from the West who are trying to get in there and help them develop those. There’s something called the Chosun Fund, which I wrote a good deal about. It’s just starting out, it’s this 50 million dollar fund that would be investing in joint-venture deals with North Korea as mineral extractors. I’m not endorsing this by any means, I’m telling you this sort of thing exists. And there are other Western organizations that are trying to make deals with them on minerals. The Chinese, as well, are doing that. So they really have quite an impressive supply of minerals in the ground. And of course they have a very hard-working, literate, at least, workforce, which could be put to work much more in manufacturing. A lot of these people are not doing much of anything right now because the North Korean economic state factor is basically defunct, even though Kim Jong-il is trying to revive it.


Caller 2: Well, is the minerals there, is that what in part finances the military machine, then?


Martin: Oh, yes. That’s part of it. In fact, the companies that are involved in gold, for example, there are a couple of big ones, and one of them is run by the military. So yes, the military has a number of trading companies. So if you’re dealing with North Korea, you’re probably dealing with a military trading company or a party trading company. The party trading company would be from Room 39 of the party headquarters, which basically runs Kim Jong-il’s personal slush funds. So you don’t have very savory partners on either side if you want to venture into that sort of business.


Caller 2: Thank you.


Passport: Ok, thank you very much, I think we’ll leave it at that. Mr. Bradley thanks very much for joining us today.


Martin: Thank you and thanks to all the participants. Enjoyed it.