Showing posts with label Korea. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Korea. Show all posts

Friday, June 15, 2018

Kim Jong-Un and Donald J. Trump

Question: Why did Kim borrow an Air China 747 to fly to Singapore for the summit instead of his own jet?

Answer: Because he didn't want to hear Trump say, "My plane is bigger than yours."


Question: Do you think Trump will build Trump Hotel in Pyongyang?

Answer: Sure, why not. If he hires the Chinese to build the hotel for him, it will be done in ten days.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The US can afford to take the first step toward North Korea

This piece was posted on Asia Times, September 7, 2017


September 7, 2017

Mighty America must exercise magnanimity over North Korea

George Koo By George Koo

At 100 kilotons, North Korea’s latest underground nuclear blast was around 10 times as great as the one last year and more than 100 times as great as its first underground test back in 2006. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has raised the stakes by claiming to have set off its first hydrogen bomb.

The US reaction has predictably been more of the same old. More condemnation. More sanctions. More threats of reprisals of overwhelming force. As if to set the stage for actual reprisal to come, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, accused the North Koreans of “begging for war”.
For nearly two decades, America’s response to the DPRK has been to resort to ratcheting up the tension against it. In turn, the DPRK’s response to this increased pressure has been to detonate a bigger bomb or fire an intercontinental missile with longer range. Neither side has succeeded in getting the other to back down.

In early 1994, Bill Clinton’s White House began to contemplate making a pre-emptive surgical strike on Yongbyon, a location on the northeast coast of North Korea where weapons development was under way.

Cameramen film under the North Korean flag during the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang October 10, 2015. Reuters/Damir Sagolj
Cameramen film under the North Korean flag during a parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, on October 10, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj

According to Dr William Perry, then US secretary of defense, Pyongyang invited former president Jimmy Carter to visit North Korea, whereupon the North Koreans expressed to him that they had an interest in beginning negotiations. Carter promptly conveyed this sentiment to president Clinton.

War was averted and both sides quickly arrived at an “Agreed Framework” by the end of 1994. The basic terms of the Agreed Framework were that the DPRK would halt producing plutonium and not built large reactors that could be used to produce weapons-grade fissionable material. Japan and South Korea would each build a light-water reactor in the DPRK for power generation and the US would supply fuel oil until those reactors were built.

The framework held, albeit tenuously, until the end of Clinton’s second term. Perceptions and expectations of what the framework meant were very different on both sides. The North Koreans were hoping that it would lead to a bilateral treaty that would give them assurances of no US intention for regime change. A ceasefire armistice since the end of the Korean War seemed too flimsy to offer them a sense of security.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a Security Council meeting on the situation in North Korea at the United Nations, in New York City, U.S., April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a UN Security Council meeting on the situation in North Korea on April 28, 2017. Tillerson has allowed that he would be open to talks if certain conditions are met. Photo: Reuters / Stephanie Keith

The US side considered the framework as an informal agreement that would not require ratification by the US Senate – a way of keeping nuclear non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula out of domestic politics. In fact, persistent congressional opposition to the DPRK meant reduced funding for the fuel-oil shipments, causing delays and shortfalls in those shipments.

When George W Bush entered the White House, he was not interested in dealing with a member of the “axis of evil”. The bad blood came to a head in 2003 when an American delegation went to Pyongyang and, in a public confrontation without any pretense at diplomacy, accused the North Koreans of violating the Agreed Framework via covert nuclear-weapons development.

On its side, the DPRK had not seen any sign of the completion of the two light-water reactors promised nearly nine years earlier, and only intermittent deliveries of fuel oil. Each side had plenty of reason to accuse the other of dealing in bad faith. Distrust and suspicion have poisoned relations ever since.

In response to worldwide condemnation, the DPRK has cleaved to the line that its nuclear-weapon development is for self-defense and a “gift package” for the US. In point of fact, the North Koreans see no other recourse against the US threat of regime change. The fate of Muammar Gaddafi, of Libya, who publicly gave up nuclear weapons but was removed from power anyway, serves to remind them of the alternative fate awaiting.

As the imbroglio deepens, world opinion is shifting toward caution and moderation, not so much in sympathy for the puny underdog taking on the hegemon but out of concern that the confrontation, without a course correction, could lead to catastrophic consequences exceeding any rational imagination.

The people of South Korea are relatively blasé about the actions of their neighbor to the north because they believe they understand the North Koreans. They fear instead US President Donald Trump because of his unpredictability and the seeming opacity hiding his real intentions.

Their newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, has advanced the notion of continuing dialogue with the North. President Trump has accused Moon of appeasement, but surely as the next-door neighbor, South Korea has more at stake than the US, which exists in relative safety thousands of kilometers away.

Moon is not the only one to suggest letting talks begin. Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, while joining in the near-universal disapproval and condemnation of the DPRK, have also proclaimed that negotiation is the only viable approach.

Even the mainstream media in the US are coming to the same conclusion: namely that talks are necessary to reduce the tension. Key members of the Trump team such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis would not rule out diplomatic solutions. State Secretary Rex Tillerson has allowed that he would be open to talks if certain conditions are met.

With 12 times the population of North Korea, and military and economic power of a much greater magnitude of multiples, it would seem that mighty America can afford the magnanimity of making the first gesture of accommodation. But even then, the US diplomatic effort would need infinite patience to gradually overcome the years of bad blood and distrust.

Perhaps another high-profile emissary to Pyongyang is needed to break the ice. Instead of former president Jimmy Carter, might not Bill Clinton fill the bill? As I have suggested previously, it’s time to think and act differently about North Korea.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Time to think and act differently on North Korea

Edited version first appeared in Asia Times.

North Korea’s latest missile test—with the range to threaten American cities—has put the Trump Administration between wishful thinking and a hard place. Too bad neither represents a realistic resolution of the conundrum.

The easy way out, for the U.S. at least, is to “let China do it.” Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson, Defense Secretary Mattis and UN Ambassador Haley have in unison chanted the same basic mantra. Namely, problem solved if only China would apply more pressure on North Korea.

Unfortunately, this naïve wishful thinking is based on several false premises.

First there is no evidence that China can tell North Korea what to do.  The two countries are not buddies and there is no love lost between China’s President Xi ‘s and Kim Jong Un. They have not met since both leaders came to power and they communicate via messengers.

China has joined the chorus in support of the UN resolution strongly condemning North Korea. The Kim regime no more pays heed to China than it has to protests from South Korea, Japan and United States.

Just as China cannot stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapon and intercontinental missile technology, North Korea is not developing those technologies for China’s sake. North Korea needs nuclear strike capability in order to be taken seriously by the U.S.     

To date sanctions on North Korea have not deter them. The American response has been to ask the UN Security Council to impose more sanctions. In particular, Trump does not feel that China is tightening the screws hard enough.

Shutting down North Korea’s economy might bring Kim to heel from the American perspective but clearly unacceptable from China’s view. Economic collapse would trigger a massive humanitarian crisis and China would be left to deal with the refugees since migrating north into China would be the only viable option.

There is also a flip side to this approach. Even if the sanctions do indeed bring North Korea to its knees, it does not mean that the Kim regime would become more conciliatory. Kim may decide that he has nothing to lose and simply launch an attack on the south.

The other hard approach is to launch a Rumsfeldian shock and awe on North Korea before the north can begin their attack.

There is no chance that carpet-bombing of unprecedented scale could vaporize the array of artillery and missiles facing South Korea. The consequent damage on Seoul and other parts of South Korea from the retaliation would be significant, not to mention the danger to the 30,000 American troops stationed in the south.

There is also no assurance that any precision strikes could successfully take out Kim and his inner circle nor knock out all the nuclear weapons and development centers. The risks of failure are simply to too great to contemplate.

There is a more sensible approach and increasing number of commentators and foreign policy observers are suggesting for the Trump Administration to consider. And, that is why not offering to sit down and talk without preconditions?

North Korea fears the U.S. and knows that Beijing cannot speak for nor commit on behalf of Washington. Pyongyang wants to deal directly with Washington and does not see China as a credible intermediary. Why not begin a direct conversation?

The Clinton Administration almost reached an agreement with Pyongyang when the clock ran out on his term of office. The incoming George W. Bush elected to ignore North Korea and then imposed preconditions before being willing to resume negotiations.

Pyongyang saw the Bush White House as dealing in bad faith and that the only way to gain American respect was to complete the development of the nuclear bomb. North Korea detonated their first nuclear bomb in October 2006. (George W came into office in 1999.)

The Obama administration unfortunately elected to follow his predecessor’s line. Namely, no agreement to negotiate unless North Korea first agreed to abide by certain preconditions and in lieu of North Korean agreeing, Washington bandied the threats of sanctions and solicited Beijing for their help.

In the intervening 16 years since the end of the Clinton administration, Washington and Pyongyang have made no progress to reaching a common understanding. Each accused the other of acting in bad faith. The U.S. threatened more sanctions; North Korea kept testing weapons with bigger bang and missiles with longer range.

This endless cycle is clearly not getting anywhere.  The threat of American shock and awe is clearly what worries Pyongyang. Why can’t Washington soften a bit and show a willingness to talk without preconditions? What have we got to lose?

Will the world respect us less as a fearsome hegemon because we are willing to swallow our pride, or will the world applaud us for being willing to make the first move towards peace? Donald Trump has an opportunity to accomplish an important foreign policy triumph that has eluded his two predecessors.

For a more detailed review of the complicated history between China and North Korea, go to here.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Donald Trump is right to go direct with North Korea

Edited version first appeared in Asia Times.

As if to set the table for the forthcoming summit in Florida with China’s President Xi Jinping, President Donald Trump declared that if China won’t help resolve the North Korea crisis, the U.S. can and will take direct and unilateral action, implying the military route.

In a sense, Trump is correct. North Korea has always been an American problem not a Chinese one. Pyongyang regime from Kim I, II and III has always worried about what action Uncle Sam might take against them, never about China or even Japan and South Korea.

While direct military strike against targets inside North Korea might be one option, there is a much easier and non-violent approach available to Trump. All he has to do is to bend a little from the customary posture of a hegemon and offer to meet and talk.

The emissary Trump can send to Pyongyang could begin the process by delivering a message along the following lines: We are willing to meet with you to discuss and negotiate mutually acceptable terms and conditions that would lead to a nuclear free Korea Peninsula.

During this period of exchange of visits and meetings, the U.S. would make no further aggressive actions against North Korea and you would agree to do the same and take no action that would intimidate your neighboring countries.

This would not be the first time for the two protagonists to follow this path. In 1994, the Clinton Administration launched a bilateral negotiation that led to an “Agreed Framework.”

How the framework came about was discussed in William Perry’s memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” He led the negotiations with Pyongyang while he was Clinton’s Secretary of Defense and continued after he stepped down.

The basic elements of the framework included: (1) North Korea would stop construction of larger reactors and suspend producing plutonium from a smaller already operating reactor. (2) South Korea and Japan would build two light water reactors for generating electricity (so that North Korea would not need the reactors.) (3) The U.S. would supply fuel oil until the light water reactors become operational.

“I considered this a good deal for the US: war was averted, plutonium production suspended, and North Korea gave up their program for building larger reactors that were under construction,” said Dr. Perry.

As he related in his book, after a long tortuous series of talks and meetings, his team was on the verge of reaching a deal with North Korea that would convert the cease-fire agreement in place since 1953 into a permanent peace treaty and normal relations with the US.

From the North Korean’s point of view, getting a binding commitment from America eased their sense of insecurity and the need for blackmail in the form of nuclear weapons to counter threats from the US.

By then George W. Bush entered the White House. He decided not to continue the dialogue with North Korea for next two years (probably because he did not want anything to do with a member of axis of evil.)

When Bush resumed contact with Pyongyang in year three of his administration, he in effect moved the goal post by adding more conditions and demands on North Korea.

By then Pyongyang was well on its way to developing the atomic bomb and was in the position to reply with the middle finger salute.

I asked Dr. Perry if having the bomb changed the dynamics of the bilateral negotiations. He said of course the restarted negotiations were made more complicated and difficult.

Trying to be helpful, Beijing organized the six party talks that added Japan, South Korea and Russia as well as China to the mix. Nothing positive emerged because the basic conditions remain unchanged. Namely, North Korea wanted to be treated as a nation with normal relations with the US.

What did changed was that China was now the responsible party for the North Korea debacle. From the US point of view, China keeps North Korea’s economy alive, from its collapse, has most influence on the Pyongyang regime, etc., etc.

Washington, whether oblivious to history or unwilling to face inconvenient reality, has for the last sixteen years been waiting for Beijing to bail America out of the mess.

All President Trump has to do is to ignore the legacy of his two predecessors and ask Secretary Tillerson to make a fresh approach with Pyongyang. I am sure President Xi would be happy to assist.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The end of North Korean conundrum not in sight

This was first posted in China U.S. Focus in English and also in translated Chinese.
North Korea celebrated the New Year with a bang. How big a bang has become a matter of dispute. Pyongyang insisted that they have detonated their first hydrogen bomb, just two days before celebrating young dear leader Kim Jong-un’s birthday. Other observers weren’t so sure that the seismic disturbance monitored from the explosion was big enough to pass as a nuclear fusion and not just another nuclear blast from fission.
North Korea nuclear test
The technical authenticity of the nuclear explosion was not really the issue. The consequent reaction from the international community was, to quote the well-known baseball philosopher, the late Yogi Berra, “it’s like deja vu all over again.” The UN Security Council met to impose more sanctions on North Korea. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul made a show of solidarity by voicing the same vigorous objection to the latest nuclear test by Pyongyang.
So how did North Korea react in the face of heavy censure and condemnation? Other than expressing displeasure at the PA, which was assaulting their eardrums with K-Pop from the other side of the DMZ, nothing much. North Korea had set off three previous atomic explosions and had by now gotten used to the international condemnation and sanctions.
Aside from turning the PA system back on, the only other outside response that could be considered “new” was for the USAF to fly a B-52 over the Korean peninsula, as if that sort of intimidation would bring the North Korean regime to their senses.
Even the final act of exasperation by Secretary of State Kerry was no different from past practices by his predecessors. He called China’s Foreign Affairs ministry to tell them that China’s approach on North Korea was not working and that North Korea’s behavior was a problem that Beijing needs to fix. Historically, whenever Washington gets frustrated with Pyongyang, North Korea becomes China’s problem to fix.
Invariably, every provocation by North Korea begot reaction by the Americans and allies leading to standoff and stalemate. Nothing changed yet tension has heightened. Is there a real way out?
According to his just released book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry recounted how the U.S. and North Korea nearly concluded a deal in 2000. He led the effort as the Defense Secretary and continued in that role even after he left the Clinton administration. Unfortunately, the Clinton term of office expired before a treaty could be concluded.
Then George W. Bush entered the White House and he refused to continue the dialogue with North Korea. No doubt under the influence of the axis of neoconservatives, namely Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz, no self respecting president of a hegemon needed to talk to a member of the Axis of Evil—my conclusion, not Perry’s. For two years there were no meetings and no conversation between the two countries.
Even when the Bush administration resumed contact with the Pyongyang regime, the Bush team insisted that North Korea commit to halting any uranium enrichment as a pre-condition to any negotiation. The result was that both sides withdrew from the “Agreed Framework” hammered in place in late 1994 that had kept Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon development on hold.
According to Perry’s book, under the Agreed Framework, “North Korea agreed to stop all construction activity on two larger reactors and suspend their reprocessing to produce plutonium from the smaller, already operational reactor. South Korea and Japan agreed to build for North Korea two light water reactors (LWRs) for producing electricity; and until the LWRs were operational, the United States agreed to supply fuel oil to compensate North Korea for the electricity it would forfeit by shutting down its reactor.” 
Perry went on to say, “I considered this a good deal for the US: war was averted, plutonium production suspended, and North Korea gave up (permanently, it appears) their program for building the larger reactors that were under construction.” 
The consequence of tearing up the agreement was that North Korea resumed the production of weapon grade plutonium culminating in the first nuclear bomb test on October 9, 2006. As Perry ruefully observed to a group of admirers at a recent dinner party in Silicon Valley, getting North Korea to give up their possession of the bomb now was going to be much more challenging compared to an earlier time when it was possible to strike a deal before they had developed a bomb. Thus an opportunity for a nuclear free Korean peninsula was tragically lost.
In trying to remediate the increasingly poisoned relation between the U.S. and North Korea, China organized the six party talks in 2003 by inviting Japan, Russia and South Korea to the mix. But the mutual distrust between Pyongyang and Washington ran deep and the talks got nowhere. The only tangible outcome from the exercise was that the Americans could now hand North Korea over to China as their problem.
When President Obama entered the White House, his administration continued the Bush practice in their approach to North Korea, i.e., preferring confrontation to negotiation and blaming China to assuage their own frustration from lack of progress with North Korea.
Based on the history Perry recounted, it should be increasingly apparent to Obama that only a security treaty with the U.S. will mollify Pyongyang and convince them to behave more in accordance with acceptable global norms. Pyongyang sees that the U.S. can strike a deal with the other surviving member of the axis of evil, namely Iran. Why then won’t the U.S. negotiate a deal with North Korea? Setting off the most recent nuclear test could be Pyongyang’s way to get Washington’s attention.
With his remaining days in office, Obama needs to decide whether it’s more important to maintain the hegemonic pride and arrogant disdain or to revert to the basis began in the Clinton administration and pave a way forward to find a breakthrough with Pyongyang. If he decides on the latter, it will be a long process and no doubt become a legacy for his successor to finish the job—or not.
For Obama to have any chance of success, he would need help from China’s Xi Jinping. As I suggested previously, only a collaboration including China and South Korea could persuade Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table. On the other hand, the alignment of the U.S. and South Korea with Japan—good for raising the decibels of disapproval—would have no influence and leverage that would convince North Korea to cooperate.
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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Celebrating the closure of the comfort women issue is premature

This blog was first posted in Asia Times.

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe got a belated Christmas present from South Korea—some might say the exceptional deal of seven decades since the end of WWII—when the Korean government agreed to formally end any further reference to the sexual slavery Japan enforced on the Korean women during WWII.  Thus, the book on the suffering of the Korean people in the hands of Japan’s imperial troops during the War and 30 years of brutal occupation before the War can be closed and the two countries can look ahead.

South Korea’s president Park accepted a verbal apology from Abe by telephone with the specific proviso that there would be no formal documentation of the apology in print that would benefit the posterity. The apology was accompanied by one billion yen compensation taken from Japan’s government budget, which because it did not come from private donations, was to pass as an official and formal apology. The disposition of the one billion yen was vague and not specifically designated as compensation to the surviving victims of Japan’s sexual slavery.

Japan did require that the statue commemorating the suffering of Korean comfort women be removed from its present location in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. So, I suppose part of the billion yen could be used to relocate the statue so that Japan need not face daily reminders of their shameful past.

Some quarters in Japan praised Abe for his courage in “breaking” with the past. Other supporters belonging to the right wing of the LDP were incensed that Abe made any sort of concession at all and suggested that only seppuku can expiate Abe’s disgrace.

Promptly the day after the agreement with South Korea was announced, Abe’s wife went to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to pay her respects to the tablets memorializing the war criminals. She even posted selfies of her visit to make sure her appeasement to the right on behalf of her husband did not go unnoticed.

So much for the supposed sincerity of Japan’s apology.

According to various polls, the people of South Korea like Abe even less than they like the North Korea leader, Kim Jong-un. The puzzle then is why President Park so quickly came to terms with Abe. As recently as last November she was not willing to meet Abe much less discuss the conditions that would lead to the agreement. The only logical answer is that she felt heavy pressure from Washington.

Getting South Korea to forgive and forget about the sexual slavery issue might be a diplomatic win for Abe but is an even more important development for Obama. According to his worldview, Obama needed a solid alliance in northeast Asia as part of his pivot to Asia.  However, whether the tie between South Korea and Japan can withstand facing China remains to be seen.

Not that China is likely to challenge the link up based on military force. But as Asia Times reported on “China hits India where it hurts,” China builds its international ties with economic inducements. The piece was referring to China’s development with Nepal, “…so as to achieve mutual benefits, win-win results and common development, and elevate the long-lasting and friendly China-Nepal comprehensive cooperative partnership to new levels”.

China’s approach with Nepal is typical of China’s diplomacy with any country—namely, butter in the form of mutually beneficial economic advantages rather than guns. This approach as applied to South Korea has meant bilateral relations of ever-closer economic ties and increasing frequency of cultural and people exchanges.

Two years before South Korea concluded the Free Trade Agreement with China (in 2015), the bilateral trade with China already exceeded the total trade South Korea had with the U.S. and Japan, their No. 2 and 3 partners in trade. With the large volume of trade, it made sense for the two countries to enter into currency swap agreements so that the trade transactions can be settled in their respective local currency and by-pass the need to pay in dollars. In Korea today, the renminbi has become the only currency other than the dollar that is freely convertible into the won.

About 40% of all the foreign students studying in China come from South Korea, more than from any other country. Second only to the “American Dream,” the “China Dream” has become an appealing career option for many young aspiring Koreans that did not go to America to study.

In light of S. Korea’s “lopsided” (according to Foreign Affairs) economic dependence with China, the Obama administration should consider whether South Korea would act against its own self-interest and side with Japan on any dispute between Japan and China.

Since Obama “won” the Nobel Peace Prize even before he was sworn into his first term, his foreign policy decisions were on many occasions mistaken because he chose the inferior fork on the road. Deciding to rely on Japan, as an ally to counter China, is one of these.

While most Americans are willing to forgive and forget Japan for its WWII atrocities—in truth, many are unaware of Japan’s dark past—people of Asia are unwilling to let Japan off the hook. Abe’s latest apology was a case in point. When Park announced the settlement, the people in Korea rose up on behalf of the surviving “comfort women” and strenuously objected on the grounds that Abe’s apology lacked sincerity, was deliberately vague and did not treat the victims with respect and dignity.

Japan’s response has been to complain that repeated apology has never been enough. After each apology, the critics find fault and demand another. Japanese officials would ask why Japan couldn’t be treated like Germany and not be subjected constant badgering for another apology. But the critics’ response has been that unlike Japan, the German’s apology was official and formal and they have always been ready to admit their collective guilt and never attempted to deny, recant or revise their history with the Jews.

After the Abe/Park agreement, the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC) also vigorously objected. One important objection raised by KAFC was that Abe’s apology needed to apply to victims of 11 nations and not just to the women of Korea. Thus, far from putting the history of WWII to bed, the people of Asia and anybody of conscience will not let Japan forget.

For Obama to pick Japan as an ally is to stand on the wrong side of history. It’s an undeniable fact that America has not always taken the principled high road. But to let Japan erase its past in the interest of expediency and perceived geopolitical advantage is to let the world know that the U.S. supports and condones heinous acts against humanity and could care less about the feelings of the people in Asia.

Obama has encouraged Abe to re-interpret Japan’s constitution and take on a more militarily aggressive stance. But surely a nation that will deny its past can’t be trusted to behave with honor in the future. Let’s hope Obama and the American people won’t have to rue the day Japan was encouraged to take up their sword again.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How Beijing missed out on a K-Pop cultural event

This item was first posted on Asia Times.

Arguably nobody knows more about the unpredictability in dealing with North Korea than China. Even so, Beijing was caught by surprise by the latest flap.
Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un
Moranbong, the 21 all girl band organized and each member personally selected by dear leader Kim Jong-un and named after the peony peak in the Hermit Kingdom, was to perform in Beijing for three successive days as part of a high-profile culture exchange.
On Saturday, Dec. 12, early in the afternoon of the first day of the band’s scheduled engagement, the band members abruptly left their hotel and went to Beijing’s Capitol Airport where they boarded a North Korean passenger liner and went home. They left in such haste that not all their personal luggage went with them. Needless to say, the performances were cancelled.
There were no public announcements or explanations from the North Koreans or from the officials in Beijing. Instead, the public was left with an assortment of rumors and speculations.
One of the allegations was that Kim objected to the intense interest the local Chinese media paid to Hyon Song Wol, the leader of the band said to have had an extramarital affair with Kim. Such attention was regarded insulting to the dignity of Kim. An older rumor, clearly untrue, was that the dear leader had her executed after he came to power.
Hyon Song Wol
Hyon Song Wol in Beijing
Another, along the frivolous line, was supposedly that the Chinese officials had asked the song troupe to skip performing songs with patriotic and revolutionary themes such as songs that salute the dear leader. Again, the dear leader was insulted, leading to the sudden termination.
A more complicated narrative of the developments that led to the abrupt about face was that Kim had originally viewed the cultural exchange as a step to initiating discussions for Kim to pay a state visit to Beijing. The Beijing side demurred which naturally hurt Kim’s pride.
Of course, Beijing had its reasons for being displeased with Kim when North Korea announced that they now have the hydrogen bomb in their arsenal. This was not exactly music to Chinese ears and they had to wonder if the disclosure on the day the song troupe was entering China was Kim’s way of thumbing his nose at Beijing.
Kim’s response supposedly went ballistic and ordered the prompt departure when he found out that only low-ranking officials were slated to attend the performances and that China’s president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang along with other senior officials would be absent.
Not known is whether the downgrade of the audience to the invitation-only event was Beijing’s way of expressing their disapproval of the surprising hydrogen bomb announcement or whether the senior ranking officials were simply not fans of the North Korean version of K-Pop.
In response to the sudden departure of the performers, Beijing sent 2,000 soldiers to the North Korean border as a precautionary measure.
North Korea's one and only K-Pop band
North Korea’s one and only K-Pop band
According to the South Korean press, after the performers’ return, over 100 ethnic Chinese living in Pyongyang were arrested and interrogated for possible espionage activities on behalf of China. The movement around the capitol by China’s ambassador to North Korean was also put under surveillance.
Instead of building warmer relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, the withdrawal of the Moranbong troupe has accomplished just the opposite. The relations are now more strained than ever.
Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011 after the death of his father. He has yet to meet China’s titular leader, Xi Jinping, and this must grate in the mind of the supreme leader—especially so, since Xi has met South Korea president Park more than a half dozen times.
The erratic and impetuous behavior of young Kim—he will be 33 next January—has not endeared him to China, but he clearly believes he can continue to stretch the limits of bilateral relations.
Moranbong in military stage attire
Moranbong in military stage attire
As I said before, it would take a tri-party alliance between China, South Korea and the US to deal effectively with North Korea. So long as Kim sees his relationship with China as “lip and teeth,” or more importantly so long as China is stuck with the lip to counter the US/South Korea military treaty, Kim will continue to vent his frustration on his only ally.
So, Beijing’s loss was that they missed 21 comely young women in modest just-above-the-knee skirts performing their answer to K-Pop popularized by South Korea. The North Korean version includes strings, guitars, synthesizers and percussion to unambiguous beat. See video
In one of those ironic coincidences that could not be orchestrated, a real South Korean, all girl K-Pop band, “Oh My Girl,” were detained at the Los Angeles International airport as suspected sex workers about the time the North Korean troupe was in Beijing. After 15 hours in detention, the band promptly flew back to Seoul. Thus, America also missed out, in this case 8 young girls, probably more provocatively dressed, prancing on stage.