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.”


Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

Updated 19 November 2018
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Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

  • Some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops
  • ‘It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps’

LAREDO, United State: They started work in the cool of the morning and moved quickly, uncoiling reel after reel of vicious-looking fencing and tying it with barbed wire to green poles hammered into the ground.
Over the course of three days, a gleaming, shoulders-high barrier of concertina-wire emerged like a silver snake along a lush riverbank, stretching as far as the eye could see.
This was the work of 100 or so American troops from the 19th Engineer Battalion, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Rather than finding themselves in a far-off warzone, the soldiers are in Laredo, a busy border town overlooking a stretch of the Rio Grande river in southwest Texas, carrying out controversial orders from President Donald Trump.
He has sent about 5,800 troops to the border to forestall the arrival of large groups of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico and toward the US, in a move critics decry as a costly political stunt to galvanize supporters ahead of midterm elections earlier this month.
Before the election Trump called the matter a “national emergency” and warned that so-called migrant caravans were an “invasion” with “some very bad thugs and gang members.”
So far at least, the most visible aspect of Trump’s deployment is the fence, a visible deterrent and physical obstacle to migrants, designed to corral would-be asylum seekers toward organized points of entry into the US.
Over the weekend, Lt. Alan Koepnick’s platoon could be seen stringing concertina wire, which is built to snag clothing, along one edge of a quiet riverside park near downtown Laredo.
As families walked dogs, grilled sausages and relaxed, the soldiers mounted the wire, occasionally ripping their camouflaged uniforms on its metal barbs.
Koepnick said some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops.
“But there’s also been a lot of support, people coming in, vets shaking our hands, bringing us cakes, water, things like that,” Koepnick said.
About 100 yards (meters) behind him, a group of people on the Mexican side of the river could be seen standing on the bank.
“You’ll see people across the river cursing at us in Spanish, throwing bottles at us. But on this side it’s more positive,” Koepnick said.
He and his soldiers were unarmed, but a group of armed military police officers stood by to provide “force protection.”
Under US law, the military is not allowed to conduct domestic law enforcement in most cases, so soldiers here will not have any direct interactions with migrants.
Trump created a media whirlwind by sounding the alarm about the migrant caravans before the November 6 elections. He has mainly stopped raising it since, though last week he praised the military’s work.
“They built great fencing, they built a very powerful fence,” said Trump, who wants to build a hardened wall along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border.
Laura Pole, a British tourist visiting Laredo for the third time, was less enthusiastic.
“It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps,” she said, but added: “I really don’t know what’s the best thing to do.”
The border mission has put the supposedly non-political military in an uncomfortable spotlight.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has hit back at critics who say the Pentagon should not be doing Trump’s political bidding, saying “we don’t do stunts.”
He visited troops on the border last week and reiterated that their job in the short term was to assist under-resourced Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and put up physical obstacles.
But “longer term, it’s somewhat to be determined,” he said.
After some rank-and-file troops grumbled about the purpose of the mission to US media last week, they are now under strict instructions not to voice personal opinions to the press.
Several soldiers AFP spoke to said their time on the border provided valuable real-world training, albeit without the risks of combat.
“We have a very large group of brand-new soldiers and it’s really good for them,” Corporal Samuel Fletcher said, citing a chance for the green troops “to do real work and put their skills to use.”
In Laredo, large groups of migrants from the caravans in Mexico had not arrived.
Instead they were mainly headed to Tijuana, about 1,300 miles away in San Diego, where authorities say more than 3,000 have already arrived.
Still, a CBP agent, who was not authorized to give his name, said he was glad of the military assistance as each day, “hundreds” of migrants attempt to cross the approximately 30-mile stretch of border he patrols.
The military deployment is set to wrap up December 15 and it is not clear what will become of the wire fencing.
Already, the winds whistling down the Rio Grande valley are strewing trash, clothing and plastic bags along the jagged wire.
“Nobody seems to know when it’s coming down. It’s not really our decision,” said Koepnick.
“If we are told to take it down, we will take it down with a smile on our faces, like good soldiers.”