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Friday, 3 September 2010

3 September 2010

I’ve got an idea – let’s ignore the Middle East diplomatic gavotte that wheezed back into life in Washington yesterday (don’t worry, I’ll tell you if anything interesting emerges), and let’s concentrate instead on what might be going on in North Korea.

Here’s why: some time next week, the biggest meeting of the ruling North Korean Workers Party in more than 40 years is likely to take place – thousands of party representatives will gather in Pyongyang and, just maybe, approve the naming of the country’s next leader.

The expectation is that the name to emerge will be Kim Jong Un, the 30-ish son of the current leader Kim Jong Il, who is said to be in frail health after reportedly suffering a stroke two years ago.

At about the same time, the South Korean leader, Lee Myung-bak, will be on an official visit to Russia to meet President Medvedev. And you can guess what will be high on their agenda: the suspected torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, last March, and the killing of 46 of its crew (you may remember that I wrote about it here last May).

The Korean peninsula remains one of the most dangerous potential flash-points on the planet. North Korea, to the horror of its neighbours, now has a rudimentary nuclear weapons programme; and its rigidly authoritarian and secretive regime has kept its people in poverty and isolation for more than half a century. A change of leadership is bound to add to regional nervousness.

And there are still serious questions to be asked about the mysterious explosion that sank the Cheonan. An international investigation team, made up mainly of South Koreans, but including experts from the US, Britain, Australia and Sweden, concluded that the corvette had been holed “as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea.

“The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine,” its report says. “There is no other plausible explanation.”

Pretty unambiguous, you might think. But another investigation was carried out by a Russian team – and although its findings haven’t been made public, a detailed report of its conclusions published in a South Korean newspaper leaves no doubt that the Russians came to a very different conclusion.

Their report suggests that the Cheonan had run aground while sailing in shallow water and that its propeller got caught up in a fishing net and triggered an underwater mine. According to the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, it says: “Prior to the sinking, the Cheonan came into contact with the ocean floor on the right side, and there is a very strong likelihood that the propeller wings were damaged as a net became entangled with the right propeller and shaft.”

The international investigation team reported that they’d also found a torpedo fragment on the seabed with what they took to be North Korean markings. But there is disagreement about how conclusive that evidence is – some analysts suggest the torpedo fragment could have been lying in the water for quite some time.

And then, last week, into this combustible mix stepped former US president Jimmy Carter, on what turned out to be a successful mission to obtain the release of a US citizen, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was serving an eight-year prison sentence in North Korea for having entered the country illegally.

It followed a similar mission a year ago by former President Bill Clinton to obtain the release of two imprisoned US journalists – and led to an elegantly-barbed Twitter post from the US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley: “Americans should heed our travel warning and avoid North Korea. We only have a handful of former Presidents.”

Talks about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme are stalemated again. After the sinking of the Cheonan, a new, tougher sanctions package was imposed on Pyongyang. But was the Carter mission a sign that both Washington and the North Koreans are putting out feelers? The former US ambassador Donald Gregg suggested last week that there may be “an emerging realisation within the Obama administration that its current stance toward the North, featuring sanctions and hostility, is having little positive impact, and that a return to some form of dialogue with Pyongyang needs to be considered.”

You may think the Korean peninsula is a long way away and needn’t much concern us. But at least when you see next week’s headlines, you’ll know a bit more of the background.

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