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Wednesday, October 8

Signs not good that Kim Jong-il is alive

Today is the anniversary of Kim's inauguration as the ruling party's general secretary. No reports of him showing up for the celebration -- not even the fig leaf announcement (as with the soccer match a few days ago) that he "watched" the festivities.

But was there any celebration today, beyond the firing of two short-range missiles into the Yellow Sea, which Seoul interprets as "routine?"

Such military displays are indeed routine for the celebration, but in light of stalled negotiations regarding nuclear disarmament, an ominous sign that Christopher Hill made no progress during his three days in Pyongyang. He has refused to comment on the talks, beyond saying they were "substantative."

October 9th and 10th are also very important days on North Korea's calendar: the 9th is the anniversary of the "historic" underground nuclear test two years ago, and the 10th is the anniversary of the party's founding. If Kim doesn't show for either celebration, I will have a hard time continuing to swallow Seoul's line that he's recovering from brain surgery.

More ominous news: the length of the September 19 meeting that was hoped to be a sign of defrosting relations since South Korea elected a conservative government in February. The meeting only lasted 90 minutes.

So it seems the North's only intention for agreeing to a meeting was to send a message to Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo that Pyongyang had rejected nuclear disarmament.

Another sign of bad relations between Seoul and Pyongyang comes from the October 6 announcement by a South Korean politician in the ruling Grand National Party. He cited unverified intelligence reports that North Korea has bought weapons worth $65m over the past five years despite severe food shortages. He said the weapons came from China, Russia, Germany, the Slovak Republic and other countries.

Probably true but rather tacky to announce it now unless Seoul is certain that Pyongyang's September announcement of their rejection of nuclear disarmament is not just a negotiation tactic.

(If you're raising an eyebrow about Germany on the list -- oh please; Iran tunneled their nuclear facilities out of reach of conventional bombs with help from German engineers.)

Another sign that Kim is no longer in control: Israel's accusation on October 4 at an IAEA meeting that North Korea has been covertly supplying at least half a dozen Middle East countries with nuclear technology or conventional arms.

North Korea's covert sales in the ME is ancient news but Israel brought it up again the day after Chris Hill returned from his talks in Pyongyang.

From all that, I venture it's time to buckle down to a study of North Korea's succession politics and the best guesses about Kimmy's replacement. This analysis, published October 2, is excerpted from a report by Cheong Seong-Chang, Director, Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program The Sejong Institute in Seongnam near Seoul, Korea.

And lest we've forgotten why all this attention to North Korea is important to the United States, time for a review of Stratfor's grim 2006 analysis, via Counterterrorism Blog, of the situation on the Korean peninsula if war should break out there. Nothing's changed since -- whoops, I forgot that in the interim Washington's Bash Russia crowd decided to restart the Cold War.

Yes, well, so that would mean -- where is Ouija when I need it? I'll just have to wing it. I guess that means we can't count on Russia for any help, seeing's how the Korean peninsula, along with the Middle East and half the Western Hemisphere is not on the world map used by security advisors to McCain and Obama.

Europe takes up most of their world map, with little squiggles for North America, the Middle East, South America, and Asia.

Reminds me of the old New Yorker magazine cover showing a map of the United States from the viewpoint of East Coast liberals: New York takes up most of the map, with a squiggle showing California.

Now that I have that off my chest, here's more bad news from the Korean peninsula, from a UPI Asia report today, which reminds me to add that website, along with Yahoo! Asia and Chosun Ilbo to my blogroll:
Seoul, South Korea — North Korea's missile test has fueled security concerns in South Korea, which is already buffeted by the deepening financial turmoil sweeping through the United States and Europe.
Military officials and analysts are concerned that South Korea’s communist neighbor may conduct a second nuclear test this month, which would sharply damage Seoul's desperate campaign to win much-needed foreign currency liquidity.

Partly due to the news of the North's missile launch, Seoul's main share index fell 5.8 percent to close at a more than 26-month low and the local won currency plunged almost 5 percent to a near 10-year low against the U.S. dollar on Thursday.

North Korea fired two short-range missiles off its west coast on Tuesday afternoon, two days ahead of marking the second anniversary of the country's first-ever nuclear weapons test, South Korean officials said.

The rockets appeared to be KN-02 or Styx missiles, they said. Local media said they are air-to-ship missiles, a weapon the North rarely tests. The missile launch was the first since March when a North Korean naval vessel fired three short-range Styx missiles into the Yellow Sea.

South Korean officials said the missile test seems part of the North's routine military exercises, since it had designated an off-limit zone for vessels in the Yellow Sea before it fired the missiles.

But they also expressed concerns that the missile test could worsen the international standoff over the North's nuclear weapons programs and raise military tensions on the Korean peninsula, which could boost Seoul’s geopolitical risks, hurting consumer and investor sentiment.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Kim Tae-young said he believes North Korea is developing a small, lightweight nuclear warhead that can be carried by its missiles.

"I understand that North Korea is working to develop a small nuclear warhead that can be loaded into a missile," Kim told an annual parliamentary audit on Wednesday. It is still unclear whether the North has already manufactured such a nuclear warhead, he said.

Some analysts warn that the North could launch a second nuclear test or a ballistic missile that could be equipped with a nuclear warhead around Oct. 10, when it marks the founding anniversary of the communist Workers' Party.

The North has a history of conducting missile and nuclear tests on the nation's festive days to praise its autocratic leader Kim Jong Il's "brilliant" leadership and call for national unity and public loyalty to the reclusive leader.

On the eve of the Party's birthday two years ago, the North carried out an underground explosion of a nuclear device, claiming "the successful and safe nuclear test in our country was a historic incident in its 5,000-year-long history and in world politics.”

In 1998, the North test-fired a Taepodong-1 missile with a range of up to 2,500 kilometers over Japan into the Pacific Ocean, days before the country celebrated the founding anniversary of the communist regime. The North also launched a set of missiles in 2006 including a Taepodong-2 missile, which is believed to have a range of up to 6,700 kilometers.

Analysts said this week, which marks three festive days – the anniversary of the nuclear test on Oct. 9, the founding of the ruling party on Oct. 10 and the inauguration of Kim Jong Il as the party's general secretary on Oct. 8 – would be "critical" for the North's nuclear disarmament process.

According to intelligence sources here, the North has recently increased activities near nuclear and missile test sites in an apparent move to repair the sites for further test launches. The signs include smoke seen rising from the nuclear site at Punggye-ri, probably from workers burning clothing and equipment used for the restoration work.

The North is also believed to be repairing its missile test site at Musudan-ri on the northeast coast where its long-range ballistic missiles were fired. In June, it tested a rocket engine that can be used for a long-range ballistic missile at another missile base in Dongchang-ri on the country's west coast.

The moves come after the North kicked out nuclear inspectors and removed IAEA seals and cameras from the Yongbyon nuclear plant last month, in an angry response to Washington's failure to take Pyongyang off its list of terror-sponsoring nations.

Earlier, Pyongyang halted disablement of its nuclear facilities and began restoring its plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor, which had been shut down a year ago under an aid-for-disarmament deal.

"North Korea's next steps would be the reopening of its plutonium reprocessing plant, another nuclear test and launch of ballistic missiles," said conservative lawmaker Song Young-sun, a former defense analyst.

Michael J. Green, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who predicted the North's 2006 nuclear test, said he believes the North is preparing for a second nuclear test.

"It is a matter of time for North Korea to conduct a second nuclear test," Michael Green, McCain’s top advisor on Asia policy, told Seoul's largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo.

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