A Q&A with Friedrich Lohr, faculty member in the Master’s in Global Studies and International Affairs program and former German Ambassador to North Korea
One year after a self-induced crisis over North Korea, less than one week after its latest missile test and less than three weeks after a long-awaited inter-Korean family reunion the new leadership of the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK) elected its parliament. Is there a logical sequence in these events?
According to the North Korean constitution, the “Supreme People’s Assembly” is elected every five years. The previous election was held on March 8, 2009, so it was due and its outcome predictable: 99.98% of the registered voters cast their vote on March 9, 2014 and 100% acclaimed leader Kim Jong Un. It is notable that six of the 687 assembly members represent the “General Association of Korean Residents in Japan,” a shrinking group of Korean Japanese who feel loyal to North Korea. The assembly is a rubber-stamp parliament without influence, meeting only two or three times per year to tick off the budget and laws presented by the leadership. Membership in this assembly is thus rather honorific; all candidates are pre-selected by the Korean Workers’ Party. Nevertheless, changes in the composition of the membership may reflect subtle acts of rebalancing among the secretive country’s nomenklatura. The election itself took place in an “atmosphere of popular elation” – and besides that it was a discreet census that will allow the government to “unmask” defectors – lately more than 1,500 per year. Again, the regime succumbed to the symbolism of numbers: the deceased leader Kim Jong Il held constituency 333 while Kim Jong Un represents constituency 111, named after Mount Paektu, the sacred mountain of all Koreans. The staging of the election also shows that Kim Jong Un now feels safe enough in his position of power to stage the show of general popular acclamation.
And here the missile tests come in?
There is a difference between launches of short-range missiles usually fired as a sort of political message and the launch of ballistic missiles that breach the October 2006 U.N. sanctions which North Korea has chosen repeatedly to repudiate. In the present instance the tests were almost predictable provocations to signal North Korea’s concern about the annual military exercises jointly held in February/March by United States and South Korean forces named Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. Both exercises are used by the North Korean regime to instill fear in their population to rally them behind it. This year’s missile tests were much more restrained in size than those of early 2013. One year after Kim Jong Un’s formal access to full power, North Korea staged a military crisis, partly as a consequence of new U.N. sanctions imposed by Security Council Resolution 2087. It held its third nuclear test, denounced the 1953 armistice agreement, shut down a joint industrial complex at Kaesong just north of the Demilitarized Zone on the border between the two Koreas and even threatened an all-out nuclear war against the U.S. When the Obama administration called its bluff and refused concessions, North Korea declared victory, ended the crisis posture and aftersome face-saving time reopened Kaesong. Further military provocations are to be expected whenever important events in North Korea or, more likely, in the south, furnish a pretext (Next possible venue: Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15).
China, its government and its population, has shown increasing anger with its saber-rattling partner. North Korea’s sole ally that famously used to see its closeness to North Korea like “lips and teeth” has grown increasingly impatient with the Kim regime. Chang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle executed on December 12, 2013, was, after all, a key liaison figure to China. The crossing of North Korea missile’s trajectory near a China Southern flight path last week made China’s foreign ministry publish the fact that it had voiced its “deep concern” to North Korea. But the Chinese government is in a quandary: It has invested heavily in the North Korean economy and sees the Kim regime as a counterweight to U.S. influence in Seoul whilst privately abhorring its inhuman and inefficient nature. It has drawn a red line though, stating that it will not tolerate a war near its borders – a warning signal to the North to not overdo things.
Inter-Korean relations seemed to have improved, though, given the recent family reunions between the North and the South?
For the first time in three years some 100 South Koreans were allowed to cross the border into North Korea on February 20, 2014 to meet close relatives they had not seen for decades, most of them not since the end of the Korean War. The resort in North Korea’s Diamond Mountains where the reunions take place have been fully financed by South Koreans. North Korea had given the green light possibly as a sign of acceptance of South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, who a year ago had been vilified by North Korea. Pyongyang made it clear though that there will be no more family reunions likely in the near future – a clear sign that North Korea wants to be paid off first for its humanitarian concession. And when South Korea will have provided food or energy supplies, the circle of provocation – threats, extortion, and humanitarian gestures – quite possibly may go on into another round.