North Korea

Gideon Rachman

Park Geun-hye (Getty)

This is obviously the week for international conferences. The global elite have just convened at the Bilderberg conference in Denmark. Asian politicians and generals have descended on Singapore for the International Institute for Strategic Studies annual “Shangri-La dialogue” – which was opened with a keenly-awaited speech by Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister. Meanwhile, I have just spent a couple of days at the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity – which is billed as the Korean Davos.

The weather in Jeju is a considerable improvement on Davos, as is the fact that the event takes place in a single resort hotel – rather than being spread all over town. However, like Davos, Jeju covers an eclectic range of topics. The core of the discussions are security issues – which is unsurprising given that North Korea is just an hour’s flight away. Read more

By Simon Mundy in Seoul

North Korea’s recent slurs against the presidents of the US and South Korea exemplify a high-pitched, extravagant and often venomous propaganda style unmatched by any other nation – as well as the inherent contradictions and hypocrisy within much Pyongyang propaganda.

Despite the country’s well-documented human rights abuses, North Korea‘s state media has sought to promote a message of opposition to discrimination. Two weeks ago it published a report attacking racism and other problems in the US, which it described as “the world’s worst human rights abuser”. In March it gave extensive coverage to International Women’s Day, trumpeting the rights accorded North Korean women and highlighting complaints about sexism in South Korea.

All this sits awkwardly with recent, repeated descriptions of US President Barack Obama as a “monkey” and of South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a “prostitute” – among other racist and sexist insults.

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It is 60 years since the Korean peninsula was at the very centre of international affairs. After the Korean war, the focus moved on – to Vietnam, eastern Europe, the Middle East, even to Afghanistan. But Korea now has a good claim to be right back at the centre of global concerns. North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles earlier this year, as well as its increasingly warlike rhetoric, have made South Koreans and Americans think hard about the previously unthinkable – the possibility that a nuclear war might actually break out on the Korean peninsula. I spent some of last week at the Jeju forum in South Korea, where researchers, politicians and diplomats grappled with a number of terrifying questions: such as what would the impact be of a nuclear strike on Seoul, the South Korean capital; and could South Korea launch a successful pre-emptive strike on the North’s weapons? (Answers: appalling and no.)

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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

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