Kim’s wooing of investors and slow-walk on nukes bares rift

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles during his visit to the under construction Orangchon Power Station in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 17, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 09 November 2018
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Kim’s wooing of investors and slow-walk on nukes bares rift

  • Visitors from the South were allowed only day trips or visits of a few days
  • Moon’s seeming readiness to scale back sanctions even before Pyongyang takes major steps to denuclearize is raising red flags in Washington

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea: The two-lane highway south from North Korea’s Mount Kumgang into and across the Demilitarized Zone is lined by tall green fences and street lamps that are only turned on for special occasions. Children play on a parallel stretch of railroad that hasn’t been in regular use since before they were born. Behind a solitary guard stands a sign saying it’s 68 kilometers (40 miles) to Sokcho, a town just across the DMZ in South Korea.
At the height of South Korea’s policy of engagement with the North, the “Diamond Mountain Resort” area was a symbol of cooperation. More than 2 million South Korean tourists came to visit and some of the South’s biggest corporations poured more than a billion dollars into what they hoped would be a world-class travel destination.
Today it’s almost deserted.
A decade after the North-South experiment in cooperation on Kumgang ended in bitter failure, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in want to give it another try. By the end of the year they hope to begin working on opening this stretch of road and rail.
The push to jointly develop Kumgang is a direct challenge to Washington’s policy of maintaining sanctions and “maximum pressure” until Pyongyang gives up its nuclear arsenal.
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Chrystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the Kumgangsan Hotel, where a handful of North Korean tourists in Adidas sweatsuits gathers to catch a bus up the mountain. Elaborate murals of mountain scenery cover the walls of its second floor. In the cavernous lobby, there’s a souvenir shop, a white concert piano on a stage beside billiard and pingpong tables and a well-stocked bar. There’s a theater and a karaoke room.
The hotel is eerily silent, the quiet broken only by the occasional laughter of the local tourists and some scattered Chinese groups.
Built in the 1990s with hundreds of millions of dollars of South Korean investment, mostly from a branch of the Hyundai Group, the resort was in its heyday an oasis of luxury, with conga lines and Filipino lounge bands. Its 10 hotels featured opulent fixtures and oil paintings framed in gold. Guests had the run of an 18-hole golf course, now closed, and a hot springs spa, which remains open and popular with North Koreans. Today, the resort’s main role is to be the official venue for reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The Kumgang project was troubled from its outset, when it opened to South Koreans in 1998.
Visitors from the South were allowed only day trips or visits of a few days. Initially they were brought in by ferry to minimize chances to see the North’s countryside or interact with its people. Later, they were allowed in on buses through the DMZ, with the curtains drawn until they had arrived.
The resort drew only a fraction of the 500,000 tourists projected to come annually. Within a few years of its opening, it was hemorrhaging money.
Its fate was sealed in July 2008, when a North Korean soldier shot dead tourist Park Wang-ja, a 53-year-old housewife from Seoul, after she allegedly wandered into a restricted area on a beach on the resort’s fringes. Seoul quickly suspended all travel to Kumgang. In 2011, the North announced it was seizing all assets and taking back control of all real estate rights.
The Hyundai affiliate is believed to have lost more than a billion dollars. Its Kumgang office sits padlocked and unoccupied near an arena that once housed a circus.
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From their first summit in April, reopening the road and railway across the DMZ to Kumgang has been a top priority for Moon and Kim.
Moon has helped bring Kim out of the cold. He wants to expand economic ties with the North to build trust and defuse tensions, creating conditions for Kim to dismantle his nuclear arsenal. He also hopes to reopen another “Sunshine” era symbol, the jointly operated Kaesong industrial complex on the North’s side of the DMZ.
At their third summit, in September, Kim and Moon formalized Mount Kumgang’s role as the reunion venue, agreeing to “promptly restore the facility toward this end.” Their joint statement included plans for a ground-breaking ceremony for work to reopen cross-border railways and roads, including the ones near Kumgang, by the year’s end and to “normalize” the Kaesong industrial complex and Mount Kumgang tourism projects when the time is ripe.
Moon’s seeming readiness to scale back sanctions even before Pyongyang takes major steps to denuclearize is raising red flags in Washington. Such concerns spiked when South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha suggested Seoul might lift unilateral sanctions it imposed after an 2010 attack on a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors.
Trump’s response was quick and, to many Koreans, deeply insulting.
“They won’t do that without our approval,” he said. “They do nothing without our approval.”
Lim Soo-ho of the Seoul-based Institute for National Security said it’s all but impossible for South Korea to resume joint tours to Kumgang, operations at the Kaesong joint factory park or any other form of economic cooperation under the current international sanctions, which have strengthened significantly since 2016. Washington’s own sanctions against Pyongyang restrict an even broader range of economic activities and target a larger list of companies and individuals.
South Korea will never abandon the Kumgang joint tours or Kaesong factory park because they are such powerful symbols of inter-Korean cooperation, Lim said. But a less risky business environment for southern companies is needed, perhaps with a free trade agreement that would bring inter-Korean economic activities closer to global standards.
For now, ground-breaking ceremonies for projects not yet started are the best Seoul and Pyongyang can manage.
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A special permit is required to get to the beach from the base of the mountains.
Winding through freshly harvested farmland, the rice still spread out on the roadsides to dry, travelers come to an imposing checkpoint manned by armed soldiers. A tall, electrified fence marks the entrance into the DMZ.
Pae Un Sim was a child during Kumgang’s boom years.
Leading the way down a gravel path to the rugged beach where the South Korean housewife was killed, she recalls meeting a tourist who said he once told everyone Yosemite National Park in the United States was the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world. He had to revise that after seeing the Alps, and again after seeing Kumgang.
The sun is setting. Lights along the North-South demarcation line can be seen flickering in the hills.
Pae stops to point to the ocean.
“If you look between those two little islands, you can see the South,” she said. “There used to be so many tourists. It was very lively.”
Asked about her impressions of the South Koreans who came to visit or her hopes for the future, she hesitated. Those topics are still perhaps too sensitive and too political to discuss freely. After some thought she voiced a commonly heard refrain.
“We Koreans are one people,” she said. “It is our common wish to be reunited.”


Sudan protesters show resilience, employ Arab Spring tactics

Updated 21 January 2019
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Sudan protesters show resilience, employ Arab Spring tactics

  • Activists challenging President Omar Al-Bashir’s autocratic rule say they have learned from their Arab Spring counterparts and introduced tactics of their own
  • Sudan did not experience the mass street protests that swept several Arab nations in 2011

CAIRO: The anti-government protests rocking Sudan for the past month are reminiscent of the Arab Spring uprisings of nearly a decade ago. Demonstrators, many in their 20s and 30s, are trying to remove an authoritarian leader and win freedoms and human rights.
Activists challenging President Omar Al-Bashir’s autocratic rule say they have learned from their Arab Spring counterparts and introduced tactics of their own. That and their persistence appear to pose a real threat to the 29-year rule of the general-turned-president.
Sudan did not experience the mass street protests that swept several Arab nations in 2011. At the time, Sudan was preoccupied with the secession of the mainly animizt and Christian south, which was taking with it most of the country’s oil wealth.
In 2013, a spike in fuel prices sparked protests in Sudan that were brutally squashed, with rights groups saying at the time that about 200 demonstrators were killed.
More than five years later, Sudan is engulfed by unrest once more.
Again, price hikes were a trigger. Protesters reached by The Associated Press painted a picture of resolve born out of despair, mainly from worsening economic conditions that many Sudanese blame in large part on mismanagement and widespread corruption.
“I am tired of prices going up every minute and standing up in bread lines for hours only for the bakery’s owner to decide how many loaves I can buy,” a 42-year-old woman, Fatima, said during protests last week on the outskirts of the capital of Khartoum.
Fatima and others speaking to the AP would not provide their full names, insisting on anonymity because they fear reprisals by the authorities.
Protesters described using medical masks soaked in vinegar or yeast and tree leaves to fend off tear gas. They said they try to fatigue police by staging nighttime flash protests in residential alleys unfamiliar to the security forces
“We have used tactics employed by the Egyptians, Tunisians and Syrians but we have so far refrained from pelting security forces with rocks or firebombs,” said Ashraf, another demonstrator.
They said there was little they can do about live ammunition except to keep medics and doctors close by to administer first aid to casualties.
They also described checking paths of planned protests to identify escape routes and potential ambushes by police. Some of their slogans are borrowed from the Arab Spring days, like “the people want to bring down the regime” and “erhal!” — Arabic for “leave!“
Participants have mostly been in the high hundreds or low thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands seen in Egypt or Yemen in 2011, but Sudan’s protest leaders don’t see a reason for concern.
“All that we do now is to prepare Sudan’s streets, so when zero hour arrives, the entire country will be ready to go out on the streets,” said Aseel, a 25-year-old activist.
Authorities in Sudan have used tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition and batons to quell the unrest. They have imposed emergency laws and night-time curfews in some cities and suspended classes in schools and universities in others. They have arrested opposition leaders, doctors, journalists, lawyers and students along with some 800 protesters.
Recently, police stormed a hospital in the greater Khartoum area where injured protesters were taken. Police fired tear gas inside the facility’s yard, according to Amnesty International and activists.
“When we take our wounded to hospital, we pretend to be calm and collected so we don’t attract the attention of plainclothes security agents stationed there,” said one protester.
The protesters said they organize on social media, just like protesters did across the region in 2011. They try to elude the police by either giving gathering points codenames known only to protest leaders or publicizing false locations to mislead the authorities.
They also have secured free-of-charge medical care for the wounded in a handful of private Khartoum clinics and use donations to settle medical bills for those admitted to other hospitals.
Rights groups say at least 40 people, including children, have been killed in the clashes, most by gunshot wounds. Al-Bashir’s government has acknowledged only 24 deaths.
Al-Bashir has ordered an investigation into the “recent events” — a thinly veiled reference to the deaths — following demands by rights groups and Western nations, including the United States, that his government probe the use of live ammunition and bring the culprits to justice. A similar probe into the death of the protesters in 2013 came to nothing.
But despite the use of live ammunition and what protesters say is the excessive use of tear gas the protests have continued longer than rounds of anti-government unrest in 2012 and 2013. They have drawn many women — unusual for conservative and overwhelmingly Muslim Sudan — and stayed peaceful except early on when protesters damaged property.
Despite fears of arrest and the danger posed by live fire, “we have no choice but to resist,” said protester Abdul-Metaal Saboun, 25, an unemployed university graduate.
Saboun was detained for three days early in the protests, which were sparked by price rises and shortages, but which soon shifted to demands that Al-Bashir step down.
“There is little we can do about snipers except that some of us search rooftops or scream ‘sniper’ when we spot one, so people take more care,” he said.
He said he was tortured during detention. “There is nothing that makes me frightened of them anymore,” Saboun said, explaining why he agreed to have his full name published.