North Korea

By Richard McGregor in Washington

After sensitive details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden began leaking, an infuriated Robert Gates, then secretary of defence, stormed into the office of Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.

“Why doesn’t everybody just shut the f*** up?” said the incensed Pentagon chief.

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Gideon Rachman

Just a few days after pulling out of proposed talks with the South Koreans, North Korea has proposed direct talks with the United States. This suggestion reveals a very old North Korean instinct. The North has always maintained that South Korea is a puppet regime – citing the presence of US troops on southern soil. So, Pyongyang insists, it makes much more sense to talk directly to the puppet-master. Read more

Esther Bintliff

On Friday, South Korea advised the 175 workers left at the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea to leave for their own safety. Photographer Chung Sung-Jun captured part of the journey for Getty Images. In a set of striking photos, cars and vans are shown piled high with factory goods, to the extent that some of the drivers appear to have had no clear view through their windscreens. The workers joined compatriots who have left the zone since work was suspended earlier this month as a result of the escalating tension between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Seven South Koreans were held back on Monday, according to the BBC:

“Officials said the North insisted that some South Korean staff remain to negotiate unpaid wages. They did not believe the seven would be at risk.”

APRIL 27: South Korean workers arriving from the Kaesong joint industrial complex in North Korea at the inter-Korean transit office on April 27, 2013 in Paju, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

The FT’s Song Jung-a reported on the start of the exodus a few weeks ago:

“Long lines of cars and trucks loaded with heavy luggage crossed the border gate into South Korea this week as South Korean workers brought raw material and half-finished products back to minimise losses.”

APRIL 27: South Korean workers arriving from the Kaesong joint industrial complex in North Korea at the inter-Korean transit office on April 27, 2013 in Paju, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Kaesong began operating in 2004 – the product of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, and a symbol of the potential for economic cooperation between the two Koreas.

According to a US congressional research note from 2011, products manufactured in the industrial park include “clothing and textiles (71 firms), kitchen utensils (4 firms), auto parts (4 firms), semiconductor parts (2 firms), and toner cartridges (1 firm).” Read more

Gideon Rachman

Over the past year, there have been security and war scares all over East Asia – but Taiwan, the traditional hot spot, remained strikingly cool. In recent months, Japan and China have jostled over their disputed islands and the North Koreans have threatened America and the South with nuclear weapons. By contrast, Taiwan has not been at the centre of a good war scare since the Straits crisis of 1996. Visiting the island, a few weeks ago, I was told by a senior member of the security establishment that – “We look like an island of calm in a boiling sea.”

Perhaps the Taiwanese were feeling left out? Because, together with China, they have succeeded in creating some waves over the past week. First, the Taiwanese government staged its first live-fire security exercise since 2008. And this event was swiftly followed by the revelation that China has deployed missiles near the island that are capable of threatening American aircraft carriers. This is significant, because the carriers are the basis of American power in the Pacific. And, in the Straits crisis of the mid-90s, it was the dispatch of US carriers to the area that signalled that America was taking a tough stance. Read more

Is war with North Korea imminent?

In the last two weeks, tension on the Korean peninsula has risen dramatically, as North Korea has threatened to target US territories in the Pacific and blocked South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex in the North. In this week’s podcast, John Aglionby is joined by Geoff Dyer, diplomatic correspondent and Jamil Anderlini, Beijing bureau chief, to discuss whether Kim Jong-eun’s escalating rhetoric is purely sabre-rattling or if we should be worried about his threats.

Esther Bintliff

A video grab from North Korean TV on March 20 shows Kim Jong-Un overseeing a live fire military drill (North Korean TV/AFP/Getty)

A video grab from North Korean TV on March 20 shows Kim Jong-eun overseeing a live fire military drill (North Korean TV/AFP/Getty)

Taking weeks of shrill rhetoric and threats to a fresh high on Tuesday, North Korea announced plans to restart a shuttered plutonium reactor and increase production of enriched uranium. So did we just move one step closer to nuclear armageddon? Here’s a reading list of comment and analysis to help gauge the hazard level.

  • Our own Gideon Rachman argues that there is still “an unfortunate tendency in the west” to treat North Korea as a bit of a joke. “In reality, the Pyongyang regime is about as unfunny as it gets.” He warns that the US and South Korea are responding to North Korea as if it is a rational adversary – “but the unsettling reality is that we cannot be sure.”
  • What do North Korea’s air defenses look like? Foreign Policy has the answer. (Spoiler: they look quite old, as they’re largely from the 60s, 70s and 80s).

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Gideon Rachman

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s faintly sinister foreign minister, is not a man who panics easily. So it is worth paying attention, to what Lavrov has just said about North Korea. “The situation could simply get out of control, it is slipping toward the spiral of a vicious cycle,” was his comment yesterday. You could dismiss this as the usual Russian criticism of US foreign policy, since Lavrov was implicitly knocking the US military exercises that seem to have provoked North Korea’s most recent, blood-curdling threats. Or you could take what Lavrov has to say seriously. I’m inclined to do the latter. There are still far too many people in the West, who treat North Korea as a joke. That could be a big mistake. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

“Our intercontinental ballistic missiles are on standby … If we push the button, they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil … into a sea of fire.”

How dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear test?
Within hours of the North Korean nuclear test this week, the UN security council was meeting in emergency session. But how dangerous is this development, and what is likely to happen next? James Blitz, diplomatic and defence editor, Christian Oliver, former Seoul correspondent, and Simon Mundy, the current FT correspondent in Korea, join Gideon Rachman.

James Blitz

South Koreans burn pictures of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-eun after Pyongyang's nuclear test. (AP)

North Korea’s decision to conduct its third underground nuclear test will come as no surprise to governments around the world. Pyongyang has been making clear for some weeks that it planned a nuclear test at a “higher level” than its previous two in 2006 and 2009. Its decision to press ahead has already triggered widespread condemnation from the US and its allies. Now that the test has taken place, diplomats and nuclear experts will be asking four key questions about the nuclear explosion.

First, have the North Korans managed to developed a device that they can place on top of a long-range missile?

North Korea stated that the test used “a small and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously”. This will prompt fears that Pyongyang has managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, in order to place it on top of a long range ballistic missile. Read more