[The Korea Herald] Is Korea doing enough for N.K. refugees in China?

By John Power

China’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors in the country may have exploded onto the national and international agenda in recent weeks, but the issue is far from new.

While reaching an exact figure is impossible, the Chinese authorities have sent countless North Koreans back to their homeland to face imprisonment, torture or even execution over the last two decades.

According a recent testimony to the U.S. Congress by the chair of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the number comes to the tens of thousands.

Until recently, Seoul’s response had been one of “silent diplomacy,” declining to publicly admonish or raise the issue with Beijing. That has changed alongside mounting public protest and disillusionment here with China’s stance. The government this month sent a high-level Foreign Ministry official to China to discuss the issue and publicly petitioned the EU, U.S. and U.N. for support.

Protesters denounce China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees at a rally in Jongno, Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“…(We) delivered our concern over the possibility for them to be repatriated to their own country (to the Chinese foreign ministry). We also are bringing this matter to those international organizations like the U.N. human rights committee and expressed already our position through those keynote speeches of our high-rank officers of our ministry,” an official at the North East Asia division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently told Voice on condition of anonymity.

China, however, has been unmoved, and continues to regard the refugees in its territory as economic migrants.

On March 9, just two days after another official in the Foreign Ministry was quoted in The Korea Herald saying China seemed “very uncomfortable” about the issue being internationalized, it was reported that China had forcibly repatriated 31 refugees.

The Foreign Ministry official Voice spoke with stressed that Seoul regrettably had very little leverage over Beijing on the issue.

“It is very limited because mainly the North Korean defectors problem in Chinese territory is solely the Chinese government’s matter so we cannot intervene as we want,” he said.

But he denies that the ministry has long been negligent in tackling the problem, pointing out that it had brought numerous defectors to the South with Chinese cooperation until relatively recently.

“Our position is that during the last 10 or 15 years we got substantial results during our so-called silent diplomacy and until 2009 or 2010 we still got some cooperation from the Chinese side to solve this problem. Not that eagerly, but they passively cooperated with us. Partly it depended on detailed cases, but mainly the international situation, especially our bilateral cooperation was better than now. But now I think the evaluation of their own policy toward North Korea and toward us has changed in China, that’s why, especially after the Beijing Olympics … I think they changed their position.”

The official wouldn’t be drawn on why ties had deteriorated, but said there were numerous explanations from commentators and academics available in the public realm. Among those proffered are China’s ambivalent reaction to the North’s sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeongpyeongdo in 2010 and illegal Chinese fishing in Korean waters.

He added that the ministry had yet to receive any signs of change from China.

“Up to now, sadly, we don’t have any hopeful sign from the Chinese side yet, and I think it will take some more time.”

Professor Lee Jung-hoon, director of the Institute of Modern Korean Studies at Yonsei University, accepts that Seoul has little leverage on China. But, he says, nor has the government or political establishment acted with sufficient urgency.

“Because we have so many investments in China and … our trade relations with China are larger than our trade with the U.S. and Japan combined … and the fact that of course China seems to have some leverage in dealing with North Korea, all adds to our government and politicians being extremely ginger so as not to ‘provoke’ China,” Lee said.

“That shouldn’t in any way be skirted just because we are afraid that it might have a negative implication for our trade relations, economic or other political relations with China. That is extremely cowardly and China should not play that card either.”

He highlights the failure of the National Assembly to ratify the North Korea Human Rights Act as one egregious example of inaction.

“They’ve been stalling the passage of the North Korean human rights law which of course the U.S. and Japan has passed but we haven’t because the opposition Democratic (Democratic United Party) has been opposed to it. It’s very cowardly of the opposition not to raise human rights issues in the North and this is linked to the North Korean defector issue … We heard recently from Kim Jong-un about how to handle the defectors. He’s telling the soldiers to shoot them on sight. We know, China knows, exactly what happens to these people and (we) still lack the courage and moral conscience and a sense of responsibility.”

A Christian activist who helps North Korean refugees escape China to asylum says that his experience of government action has been disheartening. He points to an incident in 2009 where, he says, the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, refused asylum to a number of North Korean refugees. Other reports in publications such as the LA Times have repeated similar claims.

“In general, for the last decade and a half it would seem that, in my opinion, the South Korean government has not had a very robust policy toward protecting the refugees,” said the activist, who spoke on condition on anonymity.

“Usually it has been NGOs that have highlighted the issue and if a specific incident would come up in an embassy or consulate in China or some other country then, dragging its feet, the South Korean government would come to the table. I think it is doing better in this situation. But it seems to me that more or less the administration is following public opinion rather than really leading the way.”

He added that it is a “dirty little secret” that, even in liberal democracies, trade trumps human rights issues.

“The idea that there is really nothing South Korea can do is wrong. Seoul can simply say, ‘We understand your position, from now there is a 3 percent excise tax on every Chinese good that comes in here.’ That’s the point where a country truly declares this is important to us.”

Lee Tai-hwan, a senior research fellow at Seoul-based foreign policy and defense think tank The Sejong Institute, sees such a move as “unrealistic,” arguing that tax policy and the North Korean refugees are separate issues. And while he acknowledges that the government has had no option but to push harder on the issue recently due to growing public discontent, he says behind-the-scenes diplomacy is just as vital as more public campaigning.

“In terms of negotiation, they need to be a bit more flexible for effectiveness. Without effectiveness, many defectors will be repatriated to North Korea. To have a desirable result, I think, while the government could resort to the international organizations on the one hand, on the other hand they need to very skillfully negotiate with China … One track is the very principled track, another is the quiet diplomacy track.”

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[The Korea Herald] Is North Korea closer to denuclearization?

On February 29, 2012, North Korea cut a deal with the United States for food aid in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment. Despite hopeful speculation from some North Korea watchers that the country could be moving away from the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the agreement would ultimately be scrapped just six weeks later when the regime attempted a satellite launch widely seen as a covert missile test. — John.

By John Power

The start of the month saw a headline-making development in the decades-long effort to get North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program. In exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid, North Korea agreed it would suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon facility, and allow the return of the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

The response to the deal from many here and in the U.S. was favorable but tinged with caution ― unsurprising, considering the history of false dawns for North Korean denuclearization. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton summed up the mood with her opinion that the deal was only “a modest first step in the right direction.”

Among the many unconvinced of the North’s sincerity is professor Kim Yong-soon of Yonsei University’s Institute of East & West Studies.

“The move by the North Koreans to accept the latest deal seems to be for two reasons: one is to buy time for the completion of their regime transfer, and two is for economic reasons,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

“Of course these two reasons are intertwined in that only some sort of economic stability will ensure a smooth transfer of power as well as its completion. Only time will tell, but as of now, there seem to be no indications as to suggest that this deal is any different (from previous promises to halt its nuclear activities).”

This combination of two satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe shows on the left, construction at the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, Sept. 20, 2011; and on the right, the Yongbyon complex on Feb. 3, 2012. The Feb. 3 image of the complex at Yongbyon was taken nearly a month before North Korea agreed to a freeze of major nuclear activities in return for U.S. food aid. Senior analyst Paul Brannan at the private Institute of Science and International Security said on March 6, 2012, a turbine building at the reactor that was still under construction in the Sept. 20 image now appears to be externally complete. (AP-Yonhap News)

Song Dae-sung, president of Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, is blunter in his assessment of the regime’s intentions.

“North Korea’s latest concessions are not sincere. There is no chance that the North Koreans would ever surrender their nuclear development program… In the short run, they hope to win some aid from Washington in exchange for symbolic concessions and demonstrated willingness to negotiate the eventual denuclearization ― this willingness is fake, but it will help for a while,” he said.

Song says that this latest commitment to a moratorium while, in the North’s words, “productive dialogues continue” allows North Korea to have it both ways.

“In the long run, they hope to make a deal about arms restriction, as opposed to disarmament. In other words, they are willing to freeze their nuclear program, if they are paid a hefty fee, and explicitly or implicitly allowed to keep some stockpiles of plutonium and/or nuclear devices. Thus, they will kill two birds with one stone: They will reap the benefits of being a recipient of large aid while they will remain secure from the threat of a foreign invasion or foreign support of a local insurgency.”

The hope remains for policymakers that the North’s concessions could be the stepping stone to the eventual resumption of the six-party talks, which the North walked out of in 2009, shortly followed by its second nuclear weapons test.

Accordingly, Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at University of California and visiting fellow at Peterson Institute of International Economics, is more optimistic about the implementation of the latest deal.

“The deal is significant in two ways. Not only does it provide a path back toward the six-party talks; it also suggests that the new leadership is capable of taking fairly bold decisions. They have been trying to come back to the talks, but the U.S. has demanded some prior actions or ‘pre-steps’ before resuming the Six Party Talks. I would be surprised if they took this step and immediately reneged on it,” he said.

While an enormous challenge, Haggard doesn’t see it as inconceivable that the regime could be induced to give up its nuclear weapons entirely.

“The negotiations will not be easy, and the U.S. and ROK will need to address North Korean security concerns and probably provide some economic inducements as well, including some discussion of light water reactors,” said Haggard.

But nuclear armament has proven to be a powerful bargaining chip for the North, one which it is not likely to give up lightly. Last year’s demise of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, after his compliance with U.S. and U.K. demands to end his nuclear weapons program, must surely give the North Korean leadership pause for thought.

“There are two very compelling reasons why North Korean decision makers need nuclear weapons: First they do not want to be slaughtered with their families; second, they want to be able to squeeze aid from the outside world,” said Song, adding that dialogue could never lead to the North’s disarmament.

But, if not complete disarmament, there is threat minimization.

“While I remain doubtful that North Korea is ever likely to negotiate away its nuclear program in its entirety, there is something to be said for limiting or constraining North Korean nuclear capabilities,” said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the PIIE and co-author with Haggard of a number of books on North Korea. “The recent deal does precisely that, limiting nuclear activities at Yongbyon, and could act as a springboard to negotiations that could result in broader denuclearization measures.”

While Noland is reluctant to attribute the concessions to an unprecedented willingness on behalf of the new North Korean leadership to denuclearize, he nevertheless believes they represent a significant breakthrough.

“What I think that we can say is that the deal means that someone or some group in Pyongyang is capable of making decisions; and that the first decision they made had a conciliatory, and with respect to the volume of food aid, an even concessionary, cast. This development is good news, especially if the alternative would have been hunkering down and doing another nuclear test later this spring.”

Kim believes that in the short term there is little Seoul can do to get the North to disarm, but that long-term strategies should combine accommodation and a tough posture. While the carrot and stick must go hand-in-hand, he says, Seoul and the international community have tended to rely too much or one or the other.

“In the long term, the South has to work to alter the rigid threat perception that North Korea has ― that is seeing the South and its alliance with the U.S. as a real and immediate threat to its survival. Again, this is made more difficult given that the North regime has been using this perceived outside threat to justify its rigid rule over its populace.”

[The Korea Herald] Should Korea sign an FTA with China?

By John Power

Free trade agreements have been a cornerstone of Korean economic policy in recent years. Since Korea reached its first FTA with Chile in 2004, the country has signed deals with the European Union, Singapore, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and, most recently, the U.S. Now attention has turned to the possibility of an FTA with the nation’s biggest trading partner of all, China.

On a state trip to Beijing earlier this month, President Lee Myung-bak said that official negotiations on a pact, first broached by the two countries in 2004, should begin in the next month or two. Building the government’s case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade last week released a report claiming an FTA would boost exports to China and lead to new manufacturing jobs here.

Kim Young-gui, of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, says KIEP research bears out the benefits of a deal between the two economies, which saw trade of $224.8 billion in the first 11 months of 2011.

“It is known that the Korean economy has experienced high economic growth by pursuing export-oriented policies. Moreover, many countries have pursued further trade liberalization by agreeing on FTAs with one another. Therefore, FTAs are an inevitable strategy to Korea in the sense that Korea would lose a large share of the world market otherwise. If we consider direct positive effects from FTAs, as well as these opportunity costs of losing markets, it is widely agreed that the FTA is a fairly important and urgent agenda for the Korean economy,” Kim told Voice.

Kim notes that an FTA with China would likely have a greater impact than the one with the U.S passed at the National Assembly in November.

“What is interesting is that China has higher tariff and non-tariff barriers compared to Korea’s other trading partners such as the U.S. and the EU. This implies that the economic effects of tariff and non-tariff reduction through the Korea-China FTA would be greater than the Korea-U.S. FTA or Korea-EU FTA,” he said.

Korea’s tariff burden is also considerably lower than China’s, amplifying the potential of an FTA to benefit Korean exporters, according to a 2006 report by KIEP, which said the average tariff on goods imposed by Korea was 11.2 percent to China’s 56.9 percent.

A Korea-China FTA would also benefit consumers here, according to Dilip K. Das, a professor of SolBridge International School of Business at Woosong University.

President Lee Myung-bak met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in January to discuss a possible Korea-China FTA among other issues.

“The prices of foods in Korea should come down after the agreement. In Canada, my weekly grocery bill is about $22-25. Here my weekly grocery bill is around $80. Korean food prices are way too high. Looking at the wealth of the nation, these prices just don’t gel,” he said.

Das also believes an FTA could improve relations between the countries, especially in light of contentious incidents such as the recent killing of a Korean coast guard officer by Chinese fishermen.

“As you noticed during President Lee’s state visit to China, while this issue was discussed it did not overshadow the negotiations of the two parties, and they know that the two neighbors, or I repeat the two dynamic economies, have a lot going for them and there are far more important issues than this one incident which sort of could mar the relationship.”

The region’s recent economic history, Das says, has convinced countries of the advantages of easier trade.

“The Asian crisis changed everything because all these countries together had to fight this crisis and it weighed heavily on many countries including Korea, not so much China. And so they thought, OK, if we have to come to help each other at a time of economic distress, well why not get into FTAs and BTAs. And economically, in the regional economy, that’s what they started doing.”

But even before a single round of FTA negotiations has taken place, opposition has been strong. The main opposition Democratic United Party recently called on the government to halt plans for talks with China, with Floor Leader Kim Jin-pyo claiming the deal would have a “nuclear” impact on Korean farmers and fishermen. KIEP estimates that an agreement that lowered tariffs on agricultural products by 50 percent would cause up to $2.8 billion worth of damage to the local industry.

“We have to look at this scenario in its totality,” said Das, “that whenever an FTA is negotiated, there are some sectors that lose and they are some sectors that gain. And here in Korea it is the farming sector that would lose.”

DUP lawmaker Park Joo-sun says not enough information has yet become available for him to take a stance on the FTA, but he is adamant that it should not follow the example of the U.S. pact.

“Firstly, amending the law and system of Korea through a single FTA treaty should not be repeated. Secondly, products produced in Gaeseong Industrial Complex should be recognized as products of South Korea. Thirdly, effects on agriculture, livestock and fishing industries should be minimized through policies such as specifying sensitive products,” Park said.

Park says that a pact with China has the potential to be even more damaging to local agriculture than the Korea-U.S. FTA his party opposed in its previous incarnation as the Democratic Party.

“Agriculture, livestock and fishing industries should be dealt with extreme caution. Unlike the U.S., China produces the same agricultural products as South Korea does. Also, its geographical proximity eliminates concerns regarding freshness of the products which is the most important aspect of trading agricultural products. Furthermore, regarding the price competitiveness, Chinese agricultural products are overwhelming priced at 1/3-1/4 of the price of Korean products,” Park said.

Nam Hee-sob, who was a chief member of the policy committee of the Korean Alliance against the Korea-U.S. FTA, shares many of Park’s concerns.

“In general, the FTA is to reduce the tariffs which may lead to a reduction of prices. But I think it is just one side of the thing. I think it is meaningless to get a cheaper product at the expense of our food system. We cannot entirely rely on the Chinese food,” Nam said.

KIEP’s Kim, too, acknowledges that farmers would need to be compensated for their losses.

“It is also very important for the Korean government to make appropriate policies to share fruits from free trade and to help the people who would be unfavorably affected by the FTAs,” he said.

But Nam says that rather than seeking cheaper imports to tackle high food prices, the focus should be on reform of the local industry.

“We need to reform our domestic industry first and then if we can make mutual benefits with our trading partner in some specific products, then we can open our markets,” he said.

And while he accepts an FTA would benefit big exporters such as Samsung and Hyundai, Nam sees little benefits trickling down to the average person.

“The benefits they can get from exporting are not shared by the general public. Last year, I heard that Samsung made extra record profit but I haven’t heard any news that the ordinary people can have benefits from Samsung’s profit.”

[The Korea Herald] Is reunification closer to reality?

The following article, addressing the likelihood of Korean reunification following the death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il in December 2011, was the first of my 2-year-long “Voice” series of in-depth analysis pieces for The Korea Herald.  

[VOICE] Is reunification closer to reality?

By John Power

As soon as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death was announced, speculation began on the implications for South Korea’s relationship with Pyongyang.

A major question is how Kim’s death and the transition of power to his youngest son Kim Jong-un will affect the long-held goal of Korean reunification. With the elder Kim gone, is a reunified Korean Peninsula closer to becoming a reality?

According to North Korea scholar and Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov, the answer is yes.

“It makes reunification more likely exactly because it makes instability in North Korea more likely,” he told the Korea Herald.

He sees reunification as early as next year as “not highly probable but possible,” pointing to the tendency of totalitarian regimes to collapse with little or no prior warning. Reunification is “probable” in decades at the earliest, however, as the regime as “little alternative” but to retain a stranglehold over the country.

“If they want to stay in control, if they don’t want to be slaughtered or run to China for exile ― (assuming) the Chinese will accept them, which is a big ‘if’ ― they have no choice but to continue these policies they have continued for the last few decades, which means no Chinese-style reform, no democratization,” he said.

Lankov is adamant that a collapse of the Kim regime is the only way that reunification can come about, as it would be impossible for the North Korean leadership to survive an orderly transition.

“They will immediately be attacked by their own people … and they will be become immediately responsible for what they did. You cannot hide it in the case of a reunified country. You cannot hide your former misdeeds, and they are quite hideous.”

East Asian Economy and Society professor at University of Vienna Rudiger Frank agrees that Kim’s death makes reunification more likely in the short-term. But he considers the key window for an open power struggle and a regime collapse to have passed.

“By stating that he is leader of the party, the state and the army, the propaganda tries to make sure really that everyone in the population thinks that Kim Jong-un is the boss which means the chances for an open power struggle are really diminishing,” Frank said. “But now that he has been announced I think he really must be in the front, either as a figurehead or the real leader.”

Others such as professor Kim Jang-ho of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies believe that Kim’s death makes reunification neither more nor less likely, but means more of the same.

“Not much change I don’t think. Because he is young and because he has to rely on his father’s people for the time being to maintain his power, I think he will be very conservative in his approach to South Korea,” he said.

Kim says that a key question is how the new leader will deal with potential rivals within the regime.

“After Kim Il-sung passed away, Kim Jong-il relied on his father’s people for about five, six, seven years and then started purging them. I am not sure that will be the same for Kim Jong-in given his age, but until that time I don’t think he will be able to come up with any drastic changes. In terms of reunification, again, I’ll have to say, the status quo.”

Kim Jong-il in power or not, adherence to past policy is what ultimately counts, according to Song Dae-sung, president of Seoul-based national security think thank Sejong Institute.

“If the Kim Jong-un regime insists on their Military First Policy, the death of Kim Jong-il doesn’t make a difference … As long as they insist on the Military First Policy, the quality of North Korean government will never change. This would make reunification with dialogue or reconciliation impossible.”

In a statement to The Korea Herald, the Unification Ministry said that while Kim’s death was “significant,” it would not be the decisive factor in brining about reunification.

“The government is pursuing reunification through efforts to improve North-South Korean relations and achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. We have pursued this for the past 20 years and will continue to do so … The important thing is how North Korea responds to the efforts of the South Korean government,” said Kim Nam-sik, Assistant Minister at the Unification Policy Office.

But if a regime collapse does not happen, are there other paths to reunification? Frank believes so, but that they are fraught with difficulty.

“In you think about more smooth and gradual types of reunification, ones that are, at least officially, preferred in South Korea, it is hard to imagine how this is going to work. Reunification means shedding part of your national sovereignty, for both parts in an ideal world,” he said.

“And my impression is of course in South Korea the plan is that North Korea gives up everything and the South just keeps doing what it has always been doing and expands into North Korean territory.”

Frank says an ideal and plausible scenario would see North Korea follow a gradual liberalization, allowing it to expand its economy and increase its interaction with the outside world.

“But that means they grow stronger and that means they come into a position when they can ask for conditions when it comes to negotiation about the reunification. Will South Korea accept that? I have my doubts. So, in fact, it is kind of ironic, if North Korea manages to reform and open itself, this will make reunification, at least in the mid-term, unlikely.”

Frank, who grew up in former East Germany, also believes that Kim Jong-un may have less invested in a reunified Korea than his father and grandfather.

“I was 21 years old when Germany got unified and, frankly, I couldn’t care less about it. Why? Because through all of my life I had known two separate German states. So if you ask me whether Kim Jong-un would be as keen on reunification as his father or grandfather, the answer is no, simply because the divided Korea is the world he has known since the very beginning of his life.”

But despite it being official policy here to aim for eventual reunification, many South Koreans, particularly younger ones, remain skeptical of whether the benefits would outweigh the costs. South Korea’s economy is up to 40 times the size of the North’s, and that gap is likely to grow for the foreseeable future.

“At least 10-15 years of struggle is foreseeable after the unification,” according to Kim Yong-soon, a professor at Yonsei University’s Institute of East and West Studies. “As was the case with Germany, even if the unification process goes well, there will be severe political, economic and societal problems to overcome. Needless to say, this will not only test the leadership in Seoul as well as its people, but burden South Korea with a massive bill.”

Sejong Institute’s Song foresees an even longer period of about 20 years before reunification ceases to be a burden on Seoul.

But, despite the vast discrepancy in the two economies, Frank argues that Korean reunification could be a net benefit quicker than it was for Germany.

“Among the tangible benefits are gold, anthracite and magnetite and all the other nice stuff that is up there in the mountains in North Korea that South Korea is lacking and that the Chinese are actually taking out the country at this moment,” he said.

Frank also points to the differences in expectations between North Koreans and East Germans.

“It (East Germany) was an enormously rich country, people had cars, they had houses. Satisfying an East German after reunification meant a huge effort. Most money in the case of German reunification has been spent on social security.”

Unlike Frank, who says appeals to pan-Korean nationalism and economic benefit could allay skepticism here, Lankov says little can be done to persuade reluctant South Koreans of the benefits of reunification.

“You are basically asking how you can persuade people that it’s a good idea to sacrifice their life for the likely prosperity and happiness of the next generation. It can be done but people are not very eager to make such sacrifice.”

For Song, the best hope for changing reluctant attitudes here is for North Korea itself to grow economically.

“It is true that many Korean don’t want reunification soon. However, this view might change if the present quality of the North Korean regime transfers into a normal state.”