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Pausing for Mr Obama

Observations on North Korea

The first green shoots are showing on the trees along the Taedong River. Spring is threatening.

The city is busy and there are more cars on the street: so many so, that in east Pyongyang the traffic girls have had to double up. Cranes dot the skyline and new consumer outlets have appeared everywhere. Near to the moorings of the USS Pueblo, the National Security Agency spy ship captured by the North Koreans, are a new pizza parlour and an Italian fashion boutique. There is even talk that North Korea will acquire an A320 aircraft from Airbus.

Yet all this illustrates economic triage as much as growth. Last year a combination of good luck and good judgement led to North Korea’s best harvest in decades, but problems remain. With a lack of trucks and fuel, food distribution is patchy. Shortages are particularly acute in the cities of the north-east, with no agricultural hinterland and with acre upon acre of redundant industrial infrastructure. Up until five years ago, cereals were distributed through the Public Distribution System; now the PDS supplies less than 50 per cent of basic needs. With rising inflation, increasing numbers of people can’t bridge the hunger gap.

Korea needs help and it needs investment, but it is not going to get these until there is a settlement on the peninsula. Tokyo’s increasingly right-wing and beleaguered government boosts its international standing when it threatens pre-emptive deterrence against Pyongyang, while Seoul continues to march out of step with Washington. Between 1997 and 2007, South Korea had two progressive presidents who were committed to engagement with Pyongyang, putting them at odds with George W Bush. When the conservatives took control, they returned to a more confrontational stance on Pyongyang, just as Barack Obama arrived in Washington, apparently promising a fresh start.

Yet so far this has stuttered. On the positive side is a long-overdue reassessment of Bush’s Korean WMD moment in 2002, when he accused the North Koreans of having a secret highly enriched uranium programme, and created a crisis that persists today. This led directly to Pyongyang restarting its suspended plutonium programme, building and testing (not entirely successfully) a plutonium weapon, and continuing its missile development programme, which culminated on 5 April in the third test-firing of its intercontinental ballistic missile the Taepodong-2. The bad news is that joint military exercises in March between the United States and the Republic of Korea antagonised the North, and Hillary Clinton did not help by gratuitously referring to the North as a “tyranny”.

In the meantime, Pyongyang is trying to build a “strong and prosperous” country by 2012, the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. The increasingly prominent Workers’ Party is united on the slogan but divided on causality. Is it to be strength through prosperity or prosperity through strength – an issue that has divided communists for almost a century?

Pyongyang’s future is in the balance. The six-party talks convened by China, with the US, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, can reconvene once Washington resets its approach. But if they act too slowly, the question is: who will be leading in the North?

After Kim Jong-il’s autumn health scare, at least two factions emerged in the party, one around Kim’s current wife and second son and another around his brother-in-law and eldest son.

Pyongyang pauses for Obama.

Glyn Ford is the author of “North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival” (Pluto Press, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide