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)