By Rüdiger Falksohn
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.
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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