Kingdom of the Chain Smoker: The US Eyes the World of Kim Jong Il 

By Rüdiger Falksohn

Dump trucks, kids and cows -- US diplomats report whatever clues they can about North Korea to their superiors in the State Department. They rely heavily on informants who travel to the country, and have been told that the regime of Kim Jong Il may not exist much longer.

Photo Gallery: A Peek within Kim Jong Il's Regime Photos
REUTERS/ KCNA

Most of the diplomats America sends out into the world seem highly competent and well-informed with a good grip on the countries to which they are posted. But even then, some of what they report back to the State Department hardly seems relevant.

In August 2009, for example, an observer from the US Consulate General in the north-eastern Chinese city of Shenyang made an excursion to the Yalu River on the Chinese border, according to the US dispatches uncovered by WikiLeaks. Activity on the North Korean side of the river struck him as suspicious. Soon thereafter, then Consul General Stephen Wickman sent a dispatch to Washington reporting that there were two "large Chinese dump trucks going into North Korea with loads of what appeared to be large gravel chips and other construction materials." Other trucks followed "carrying a load of plain wheat noodles waiting to cross into North Korea. The Chinese customs officials inspecting these loads did not seem to physically inspect the cargo and appeared not even to exit the customs house."

Something was going on, but the eyewitness couldn't figure out exactly what. In contrast to previous visits, he could only count "fewer than five people washing clothes" at the river." Nearby, however, there were "over 20 people" at a soccer game being played near a building he made out to be a school. The confidential report forwarded to the State Department (as well as to the US Consulate in the Russian port city of Vladivostock) mentioned that "a cow pulled a cart and there were three children playing in the river." What's more, there were also other, possibly more significant activities underway. "A large crane (was) loading 2.5-ton dump trucks with coal," in the port of the North Korean border city of Sinuiju, the observer also noted, adding that "more than the usual number of factories ... were emitting smoke."

Dump trucks, kids and cows -- it sounds as though diplomats are grasping at whatever information they can obtain. The US has never had an embassy in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and is reliant on diplomats stationed in neighboring countries. Their dossiers are largely based on the appraisals of trusted people who have visited North Korea. They describe a country that is just barely getting by. And the US has also received indications that China, the country's greatest benefactor, may no longer be as supportive of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as it once was.

'In Good Health and Spirits'

One of the most convenient observation posts is the US Consulate that Wickman oversaw in Shenyang, the capital of the Chinese north-eastern border province of Liaoning, where the Kim regime also maintains a diplomatic outpost. The North Korean post, an informant assured the Americans, is more commercial than political in nature. According to the informant, it was "staffed by consuls whose primary responsibility was to make money" and it offers first-rate services to businessmen in return for a good bit of hard currency: "A single phone call" was sufficient to "resolve paperwork." Such cross-border commuters make it possible to form an image of what life is like within North Korea. SPIEGEL has opted to protect their identities, due to the danger of arrest within North Korea.

Originals: The Key North Korea Cables
Click on the headlines below to read the full texts...
Feb. 22, 2010 -- Seoul: "XXXXX on Sino-North Korean Relations"
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...

<<249870>>

2/22/2010 9:32 10SEOUL272 Embassy Seoul SECRET

VZCZCXYZ0000 OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHUL #0272/01 0530932 ZNY SSSSS ZZH O 220932Z FEB 10 FM AMEMBASSY SEOUL TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7125 INFO RUCNKOR/KOREA COLLECTIVE PRIORITY RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 7305 RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 7377 TAGS: PREL, PGOV, KNNP, ECON, SOCI, KS, KN, JA, CH SUBJECT: XXXXX ON SINO-NORTH KOREAN RELATIONS

*** Maschinell erstellte Kleinschreibung, nur Satzanfaenge gross. ***

S e c r e t seoul 000272

Sipdis

E.o. 12958: decl: 02/22/2034 Tags: prel, pgov, knnp, econ, soci, ks, kn, ja, ch Subject: XXXXX on sino-north korean relations

Classified By: AMB D. Kathleen Stephens. Reasons 1.4 (b/d).

Summary -------

1. (S) XXXXX told the Ambassador February 17th that China would not be able to stop North Korea's collapse following the death of Kim Jong-il (KJI). The DPRK, XXXXX said, had already collapsed economically and would collapse politically two to three years after the death of Kim Jong-il. XXXXX dismissed ROK media reports that Chinese companies had agreed to pump 10 billion USD into the North's economy. Beijing had "no will" to use its modest economic leverage to force a change in Pyongyang's policies -- and the DPRK leadership "knows it." It was "a very bad thing" that Wu Dawei -- whom XXXXX characterized as "the most incompetent official in China" -- had retained his position as chief of the PRC's 6PT delegation. Describing a generational difference in Chinese attitudes toward North Korea, XXXXX claimed XXXXX and another senior PRC official XXXXX both believed Korea should be unified under ROK control. XXXXX acknowledged the Ambassador's point that a strong ROK-Japan relationship would help Tokyo accept a reunified Korean Peninsula. End summary.

XXXXX on Sino-North Korean Relations... ------------------------------------------

2. (S) During a XXXXX hosted by Ambassador Stephens that covered other topics (septel), XXXXX predicted that China would not be able to stop North Korea's collapse following the death of Kim Jong-il (KJI). The DPRK XXXXX had already collapsed economically; following the death of KJI, North Korea would collapse politically in "two to three years." XXXXX dismissed ROK media reports that Chinese companies had agreed to pump 10 billion USD into the North's economy; there was "no substance" to the reports, he said. XXXXX also ridiculed the Chinese foreign ministry's "briefing" to the ROK embassy in Beijing on XXXXXs visit to North Korea; the unidentified briefer had "basically read a Xinhua press release," XXXXX groused, adding that the PRC interlocutor had been unwilling to answer simple questions like whether XXXX had flown to Hamhung or taken a train there to meet KJI.

3. (S) XXXXX commented that China had far less influence on North Korea "than most people believe." Beijing had "no will" to use its economic leverage to force a change in Pyongyang's policies and the DPRK leadership "knows it." XXXXX acknowledged that the Chinese genuinely wanted a denuclearized North Korea, but the PRC was also content with the status quo. Unless China pushed North Korea to the "brink of collapse," the DPRK would likely continue to refuse to take meaningful steps on denuclearization.

...China's "Most Incompetent" Official... -----------------------------------------

4. (S) Turning to the Six Party Talks, XXXXX said it was "a very bad thing" that Wu Dawei had retained his position as chief of the PRC's delegation. It had been the ROK's expectation that XXXXX would be taking over from Wu. XXXXX said it appeared that the DPRK "must have lobbied extremely hard" for the now-retired Wu to stay on as China's 6PT chief. XXXXX complained that Wu is the PRC's "most incompetent official," an arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard who "knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about nonproliferation and is hard to communicate with because he doesn't speak English." Wu was also a hardline nationalist, loudly proclaiming -- to anyone willing to listen -- that the PRC's economic rise represented a "return to normalcy" with China as a great world power.

...China's "New Generation" of Korea-Hands... ---------------------------------------------

5. (S) Sophisticated Chinese officials like XXXXX and XXXXX stood in sharp contrast to Wu, according to XXXXX. Citing private conversations during previous sessions of the Six Party Talks, XXXXX claimed, XXXXX believed Korea should be unified under ROK control. XXXXX were ready to "face the new reality" that the DPRK now had little value to China as a buffer state -- a view that since North Korea's 2006 nuclear test had reportedly gained traction among senior PRC leaders.

...PRC Actions In A DPRK Collapse Scenario... ---------------------------------------------

6. (S) XXXXX argued that, in the event of a North Korean collapse, China would clearly "not welcome" any U.S. military presence north of the DMZ. Again citing his conversations with XXXXX, XXXXX said the PRC would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a "benign alliance" -- as long as Korea was not hostile towards China. Tremendous trade and labor-export opportunities for Chinese companies, XXXXX said, would also help salve PRC concerns about living with a reunified Korea. XXXXX dismissed the prospect of a possible PRC military intervention in the event of a DPRK collapse, noting that China's strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea -- not North Korea. Moreover, XXXXX argued, bare-knuckle PRC military intervention in a DPRK internal crisis could "strengthen the centrifugal forces in China's minority areas."

...and Japan ------------

7. (S) XXXXX acknowledged the Ambassador's point that a strong ROK-Japan relationship would help Tokyo accept a reunified Korean Peninsula under Seoul's control. XXXXX asserted that, even though "Japan's preference" was to keep Korea divided, Tokyo lacked the leverage to stop reunification in the event the DPRK collapses. Stephens

In 2009, one source familiar with the country reported to the Americans, for example, that Rason, a port city in the far north-eastern corner of the country, had been suddenly teeming with Russian and Chinese merchants. All foreigners travelling to the city had to hand over their mobile phones upon entering the country -- even though the area had no reception. Those wanting to make mobile phone calls in the country had to have a North Korean phone -- according to the documents, "startup fees, including the handset and activation, were over $1,000." Outgoing calls will also apparently cost you the equivalent of $1.75 a minute.

One businesswoman -- powerful enough that she has nothing to fear from the North Koreans -- was even able to meet the North Korean leader in person. Kim Jong Il received her in his guest villa on Myohyang Mountain. The woman told her American questioners that she found the dictator "in good health and spirits." Kim seemed to be "in control of everything" and gave the impression of being "detail-oriented, charismatic and with a good memory." More than anything, Kim, thought to be seriously ill, seems not to be following doctor's orders. According to the relevant dispatch: "Kim Jong Il lit a cigarette as soon as the formal one-hour meeting ended, drank champagne before dinner, whiskey cocktails during the meal, and continued to chain-smoke throughout their private dinner." Kim, it would seem, isn't terribly concerned about his health.

Half-Filled with Iranians

And, of course, in keeping with its reputation, North Korea kept good watch on the watcher. "KJI's mistress, Kim Ok, sat on a separate sofa and took notes," the businesswoman recounted.

The US Embassy in London classified the transcript of one interview from June 15, 2005 as "confidential/noforn" -- not for the eyes of non-US citizens. Diplomats interviewed Efthimios Mitropoulos, secretary general of the UN's International Maritime Organization, soon after he returned home from a visit to North Korea. His report was doubly interesting. He said his flight to North Korea was half-filled with Iranians, prompting him to ask rhetorically how North Korea can reasonably expect "the West to believe their nuclear program is not a threat."

Secondly, Mitropoulos was even required to take an active and open role in the leadership cult surrounding Kim. During a welcoming ceremony, party cadres handed flowers to Mitropoulos that he "'might want to dedicate' to the Great Leader" and, with cameras rolling, he placed the bouquet before a statue of Kim Il Sung. What's more, when he later turned the TV on in his guest room, he discovered that, although there were 114 channels available on the cable box, "only one ... worked -- the government's channel."

The North Koreans, though, didn't seem to have much further use for Mitropoulos than serving this propaganda function. "When he visited port facilities," the report indicates, "the Port Security Manager was unavailable to escort him on the tour of the port's security system."

The embassy memos also paint a picture of how North Korean diplomats behave on the international stage. One US diplomat stationed in Ulan Bator, for example, reported on a visit by Kim Yong Il, North Korea's deputy foreign minister, to Mongolia to meet with presidential adviser Damdin Tsogtbaatar. "The North Korean delegation did not read from a prepared script, they were not aggressive and made no criticism of the United States," the diplomat recounted. They did, however, criticize "China and Russia 'three or four times' for supporting recent UN resolutions aimed at North Korea." The report went on to say that North Korea wanted "to come up with a 'common language,' a 'non-aggression agreement,' and establishment of diplomatic relations." Kim Yong Il added that "there are no eternal enemies in this world."

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In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.


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