Think-Tank Watch

By | February 17, 2012 | No Comments

Steven Denney is editor-in-chief  of PEAR, Yonsei University’s graduate journal, a leading voice at the Political Cartel (East Asia) blog, and a master’s student in Global Studies at Yonsei University. In the “week in review” for February 13 through February 17, 2012, Denney, Think-Tank Analyst for, compiles a list of recent articles on North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations.  – Editor

Weekly Digest 2.17.2012

by Steven Denney

This week marked the passing of Kim Jong-il’s birthday.  Although many of the headlines, and a plethora of pictures, clogged many Google Readers, there was no shortage of interesting stories, analyst and reports released discussing issues not directly related to the birthday celebration.

Power Transition and Stability

Steven Kim argues that, among other obstacles (nuclear conflict; outside exposure), one of the biggest threats to the future of North Korea is the “deep-rooted economic problems.”  Interestingly enough, Kim makes no mention of China’s role in bringing about the necessary economic reforms North Korea needs to stay afloat.

Professor Lee Young Haw, from Kansai University in Japan, writes in a recent article at the Daily NK about the collective leadership system in North Korea – called by Lee the “guardianship rule.”  The professor questions the “character and strength of [the] collective leadership system.”  Other reports (see here and here) have raised similar, if less pessimistic concerns, about what many scholars interpret to be a power sharing system currently in place.

Jack Pritchard, in a recent Korea Times interview, believes there’s nothing strange about the apparent composedness, since it is “in the interest of all the power base now in North Korea to ensure that the public face of North Korea under the new young leader looks stable,” but agrees with Professor Lee that this probably will not last.

The ‘calm’ period will hold through April 15, the centenary anniversary of Kim Il-sung … Then, we will begin to see perhaps some signs of conflict among those behind the throne there, even though that may not be immediately perceptible to the outside world.

Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies and the Underwood International College at Yonsei University, Chung Min Lee, adds to the theme of collective rule and the notion significant changes are coming in North Korea in the near future.  He uses analysis from his latest chapter “Coping with Giants:  South Korea’s Responses to China’s and India’s Rise,” where he argues that “Seoul’s foreign policy has been driven principally by deterrence and defense requirements vis-à-vis North Korea.”

Via NKeconWatch is a good article written by James Pearson at The Diplomat about the ranking of North Korean in the Failed States Index (FSI).  He questions the FSI’s methodology, especially the use of “human flight” as a measurement and the ability to obtain accurate information about the DPRK.  Pearson writes:

Rearranging the FSI in descending order according to social indicators produces dramatically different results. By reorganizing the list by ‘human flight’ (the term used to describe, among other things, the ‘growth of exile communities’), North Korea drops more than 90 places, landing only two places ahead of South Korea. It should go without saying why “human flight” is a fundamentally flawed method of measuring to what degree North Korea has ‘failed.’

Indeed, how the FSI managed to obtain any clear and reliable information from North Korea is a mystery.

Scott Synder’s latest post at CFR deals with the issue of the apparent difficulties of power consolidation following the transition of power to Kim Jong-un.   Synder calls special attention to the “ironic” situation of a Kim family member criticizing dynasty rule from Beijing.

Synder was also part of an interview with America Abroad about a whole host of issues arising on the peninsula following Kim Jong-il’s death.


The WSJ reports that Daewoo Shipbuilding will ‘not’ be investing in the DPRK’s Hwanggumphyong SEZ contrary to earlier reports.

The Joong Ang Ilbo (중앙일보) did an interview (in Korean) with Peter Institute for International Economics senior fellow Marcus Noland.  In the interview, Noland notes, among other things, that with China’s compliance, any international efforts at sanctions will have little effect given the level of dependence North Korea has on China’s market.

In what could be seen as a response to North Korea’s growing economic dependence on China, the Dong-a Ilbo (동아일보) reports on the interests of some of South Korea’s biggest companies to invest in North Korea.  Despite the sanctions imposed after the Pyongyang incident, “major South Korean conglomerates, however, are known to be reviewing a wide range of inter-Korean economic projects.”  The report above by the WSJ contradicts the Dong-a Ilbo report.  What is Daewoo really going to do?  Perhaps SK companies don’t like it known publicly that profit motive may mean moving some production north?

Negotiations and Defectors

The United States and North Korea have agreed to meet for a third round of a bilateral dialogue that started before Kim Jong-il’s death, revolving around nuclear issue and re-starting the Six Party Talks.  Given that the recent transition of power to Kim Jong-un, Victor Cha and others see very little, if anything, coming out of the third round of talks.

Reported in the Donga Ilbo, China is working in cooperation with North Korea to hamper communication between North Korea and the outside as well as locate defectors who temporarily re-visit the North.  Human Rights Activists have responded to reports of joint China-North Korea efforts to track down defectors by protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul.

“Nuclear Peekaboo, the “Qadaffi Rules” and the De Geer Report

At the IHT Rendevous, Mark McDonald posts a lively piece with several points worthy of more in-depth discussion regarding the DPRK’s “nuclear peekaboo.”  Definitely worth a read and further analysis.  Here are a few noteworthy quotes:

The Beijing meeting [between the US and the DPRK next week], lest we get ahead of ourselves, will be talks about talks. That is, they will aim to perhaps revive the so-called six-party talks, a prospect that the Chinese Foreign Ministry endorsed on Tuesday. (The participants are the United States, Japan, Russia, China and the two Koreas.)

The six-nation negotiations, which began in 2002 and have been in suspended animation since 2008, focused on shutting down the North’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and increased shipments of fuel and food aid.

Most analysts are convinced that North Korea will never surrender its nuclear ambitions, especially given a new paradigm that might be called the Qaddafi Rules.

Pyongyang has drawn a sobering lesson from what happened to the Soviet Union, Iraq and Libya when they acceded to the West’s surrender-your-weapons demands.

‘To put it bluntly, in the eyes of the North Korean leadership all three countries took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West,’ Mr. Frank said in a commentary on 38 North. He also suggested that anyone in North Korea who favored denuclearization ‘will now be silent.’

And the money quote:

We know more about distant galaxies than we do about North Korea,” a Western diplomat said.

A new study by a Swedish scientist, Lars-Erik De Geer, suggests that North Korea may have conducted two heretofore-unknown nuclear weapons tests in 2010 – a report that first appeared in the Rodong Sinmun.  The original KCNA report can be read HERE.

Jeffery Lewis provides his (mainly) methodological critique of De Geer’s paper in a post at Arms Control Wonk blog.  Joshua Pollack commented, in June of last year, following a Chosun Ilbo (조선일보) report on the detection of xenon, “whose radioactive isotopes are the products of nuclear fission.”

Weibo Rumors, or How I Learned to Stop Fearing and Use Twitter, er… Weibo

A quote from a recent North Korea Tech post about the rumors circulating trough Weibo and Twitter about the possibility that Kim Jong-un might have been assassinated says it best:

It’s not often the North Korean authorities have a global Internet rumor to deal with, but that’s what officials in Beijing will be waking up to on Saturday morning. The Chinese and global micro-blogging sphere is alight with rumors that Kim Jong Un was assassinated while visiting his country’s Beijing embassy.

The source of the initial rumors is unclear and the only “proof” being offered is a bad cell phone image of cars – supposedly parked in the embassy car park, and supposedly more than usual.

Sino-NK’s own Adam Cathcart addressed the alleged assassination of the Brilliant Leader at the beginning of the week.  His article in The Diplomat discusses it further.

Reading Rodong Sinmun in Pyongyang, January 20, 2012

No Comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.