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Understanding North Korea – Part 2

This is the second part of my three part analysis of North Korea and its leadership. This section finishes examining the precarious nature of the Kim family’s reign, and the policies they follow as they struggle to keep hold of the world’s most politically isolated nation. Read part one of Understanding North Korea here. The third and final section of the article, not yet finished, will focus on the future of North Korea and possible endgame scenarios.

Thanks to Professor Andrei Lankov, whose great knowledge made this article possible.

***Note: Some people have questioned me about how I know that NK has become less repressive than in the past. This is mostly based on first hand information given to me by North Koreans who have defected to the South within the last decade. Saying it is less repressive is an extremely relative statement, but compared to past figures, the reports given to me  by these people indicate a distinct change. These interviews will be published soon, and are an interesting comparison to this broader political analysis.

Andrei Lankov, Korea Times columnist and Professor of Korea Studies at Kookmin University

Let Them Eat Nukes

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have been a staple of the international press for years, with the most recent ballistic missile test dominating CNN around the clock for weeks. This coverage is, in fact, exactly what the North Korean regime wants.

Nuclear weapons mean security, and when it comes to security, the Kim family and their advisors are decidedly more paranoid than most. They have seen what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq; they are well aware that a conventional army, no matter how large, cannot stand against the United States and its allies overwhelming financial and technological superiority. And unlike in those Middle Eastern nations where the locals fight fiercely to repulse the foreign invaders, after decades of totalitarian rule the Kim family has no reason to believe that North Korea’s citizens will engage in a sustained guerilla war on their behalf.

Having watched fellow dictators around the world being steadily deposed, the North Korean regime knows that nuclear weapons alone will save them. Gaddafi’s Libya, the most recent member of the so-called “axis of evil” to be toppled, would not have fallen so easily had it been in control of a similar nuclear arsenal. The insurgency in Libya greatly depended on NATO Special Forces, intelligence, and air support, and it seems unlikely that this assistance would have been so eagerly provided had there been a threat of nuclear retaliation. Had the Libyan government possessed such weapons, “Gaddafi would probably now be enjoying a nice supper after spending a few hours in the torture chambers talking with former pro-democracy [rebels],” predicts Lankov.

The sentiment of  “let them eat nukes” has been echoed somewhat ironically by political and military analysts when talking about North Korea, yet this is just what they have been doing for the last two decades. While Stalinist economies typically enjoy an initial period of success, this fades after 10 or 20 years, and once dead cannot be restarted. This is the position North Korea now finds itself in, unable to revive their economy, and on the brink of starvation.

Estimates say that between 5 and 5.5 million tonnes of grain are needed in order to keep the North Korean population alive, yet they are capable of producing only 4.2 to 4.8 million tonnes on their own. This difference has to be made up somewhere.

Enter nuclear driven blackmail. According to the World Food Organization, around 700 000 tones of grain are being supplied to North Korea annually, the bulk of which comes from the US, Japan, and South Korea – three countries which North Korea is technically at war with. Started by Kim Il Sung, a policy of agreeing to hold development of their nuclear program as long as payments continue ensures that North Korea’s enemies continue to keep it alive. North Koreans are, essentially, eating nuclear weapons.

Kill the Dissenters

Contrary to media portrayals in recent years, North Korea has actually become a less repressive place to live, according to Lankov. There are things done today that were unthinkable under the rule of Kim Il Sung. If a North Korean is caught trying to move across the border into China, they are rigorously investigated to see if they have had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries – those most often responsible for assisting defectors in reaching a safe country – but they are not automatically executed, as was common in the past.

If interrogators cannot conclusively prove that defection was intended, the punishment is “between two months and one year in prison – more or less arbitrary, depending on how much they dislike you. [Under Kim Il Sung] this would have meant five years at least and lifelong discrimination,” says Lankov. Before 1997, all family members of a suspected defector would have been sent to a prison camp and not released until, if ever, the accused was acquitted. Now, in most cases the families are not jailed, though they are harshly discriminated against and quickly removed from Pyongyang – a city reserved for the elite.

Despite these changes, North Korea is the world’s most brutal country when it comes to punishment. Various estimates put the number of prisoners at around 150 000. To put this figure into perspective, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev never had more than 1000 political prisoners at any one time, even though the population was ten times that of North Korea. Only Stalin’s Soviet Union comes close to matching North Korea’s incredible incarceration rate, a period in history synonymous with fear and cruelty.

“So, they do not tolerate dissent. And they should not,” says Lankov. “With South Korea so close and an incurable economic crisis, any attempt to tolerate dissent could lead to instability and collapse. They allow nothing that is not approved by the government, and if they want to live to be old men, they should not.”

Control the Markets

Though North Korea has not reformed, this is not to say that it has not changed. The country that Kim Jong Eun presides over is drastically different than the one his grandfather left him – the most notable difference being the market economy.

Under Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s economy was totally controlled by government distribution. Basically nothing was bought or sold for decades, which the government deciding how much food a person could eat, how often their diet included meat, and even how many pairs of shoes were issued. Modern North Korea, however, has a greatly reduced industrial output, and the government no longer has the resources to dominate the marketplace as before.

Some estimates suggest that up to 70% of North Korean household income is now derived outside the state economy and instead comes from black market sources. “It is like African capitalism,” says Lankov. “It is illegal, but many people are smuggling, [engage in] household manufacturing, or run small workshops.” Private businesses are disguised as state operations, and state officials are themselves black market traders. Officially all businesses must belong to the government, but bribery and corruption allows a private economy to exist and expand.

Obviously not desirable from a despotic regime’s point of view, this sort of grass-roots economy is dangerous in the long run as people learn that they can now make a living outside the government. Illegal markets are becoming increasingly common, and are hotbeds for the spread of rumors about the outside world and criticisms of the state. The government is, for these reasons, constantly trying to regulate and close these markets, only to have them reappear and expand. It is an economic fencing match of sorts; the government will advance slightly, and the market will counter.

To hold onto power, the North Korean regime must find a way control these markets, but not excessively so. After the disastrous 2009 currency reform, when government intervention caused the value of the North Korean won to increase 10 000% overnight, leading to mass inflation and economic collapse, they have realized that too much control could be their undoing.

This is an extremely fine and precarious line that Kim Jung Eun and his advisors must now walk, made even more difficult by a population that is becoming relatively defiant. For the first time in North Korea’s history people are ignoring government decrees regarding the market, and laws are becoming difficult to enforce. Technically men are prohibited from being merchants, and women over the age of 50 are forbidden from trading, but these regulations are widely ignored.

Though the persecution of political dissenters is still vigorously enforced, the state officials who are supposed to enforce the laws regarding economic control are sabotaging them. These low level officials are in fact making most of their income from the market traders they are tasked with repressing. According to Lankov, “If [the official] succeeds in his duty, he is limited to 540g of wheat per day. But if he takes money from the traders he can eat meat every day. Does he want to do his job? Of course not, he is human.”


See part 1 of Understanding North Korea here

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