Korea: the bomb ticks louder
Despite world attention focused on Iran’s emergence as a nuclear clad power, an equally if not more serious crisis swells on the Korean peninsular. There are hints North Korean, sheltered behind its Communist monarchy’s unprecedented secrecy, might implode.
For the moment, its neighbors and the U.S., have a vested interest in the status quo, however obnoxious the regime. South Korea and Japan both worry about a refugee tsunami if Kim Jong Il and his generals lose control. China fears the collapse of its principle ally, the eventual emergence of a powerful united Korea allied with the West. Even Russia, with its faltering grasp on its resource-rich but depopulating Asian expanses, would be weakened by a North Korean collapse.
But a confluence of trends inside North Korea is producing a crisis that may not be staved off. Granted such predictions have been made before – and proved wrong. And there is the history of Pyongyang’s survival in the mid-90s, when after calamitous drought, Kim’s father drove a population into famine killing at least two million people. Most of its 24 million still live below what the rest of the world considers subsistence.
The geopolitical skills of Pyongyang’s small ruling elite are not to be underestimated. Soviet, Nazi and Maoist tools of repression have been honed to brutalities unknown in the civilized world. Whole families, for example, are condemned to permanent imprisonment to snuff out dissidence. Pyongyang has largely defied the digital revolution, isolating its population from outside information.
One could argue the regime has had, albeit for humanitarian reasons, aid if not comfort from its opponents. For a decade, two South Korean presidents not only pursued accommodation with the North but discouraged criticism. The U.S. and Japan — and often corrupt UN agencies — in the service of charity and hope for change supplied a modicum of food and energy to keep the regime alive. China turned a blind eye to contraband with its own 2 million ethnic Koreans as well as extending massive food and energy aid.
The North Korea regime, in riposte, has devoted its manageable resources – including widespread overseas organized crime operations – to a two-pronged, at least partially successful, development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
The basic conundrum which U.S. negotiators face [the Bush Administration before now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] is that the regime’s very existence depends on its weapons sales to pariah regimes such as Iran. Israel’s demolition of a clandestine North Korean nuclear facility in the eastern Syrian desert in 2007 was a recent example of how North Korean threatens worldwide peace and stability.
Washington’s proffered “bargain” – that Pyongyang halt this traffic in return for massive development aid — faces the unstated Pyongyang”logic” that such a “liberalization” would unseat the tyranny. Even earlier efforts by Beijing to try to persuade Pyongyang to turn to “the China model” were quickly cast aside.
North Korea’s unique problem is the South Korean model sitting on its doorstep. There modernization, first under a military dictatorship, and then a democratic regime, has produced the world’s 20th largest economy with the world’s 14th highest purchasing power. Adoption by Pyongyang of a copy-cat development would inevitably destroy the the current regime.
But a stagnant society cannot endure indefinitely. A crux of issues has formed: Kim Jong Il suffered a heart attack last year. His dysfunctional family may not have produced an adequate heir. An attempt to snuff out a growing black market with a “currency reform” has ended, reportedly, with the execution of its vaunted bureaucratic author.
Now Seoul is gingerly handling an as yet unexplained disaster: the sinking with great loss of life of a South Korean warship in disputed waters. Preliminary evidence suggests a possible attack from rogue North Korean elements. The tragedy came during one of Pyongyang’s unique threats of all manner of destruction to the South Koreans and their American allies.
South Korea’s conservative Pres. Lee Myung Bak, while reiterating offers of food and energy, has turned his back on former efforts to stifle criticism. [Seoul was reluctant even to permit American intelligence access to VIP defectors.] A few North Koreans are tapping foreign media through South Korean non-government organizations.
As Kim dithers on a trip to see his Chinese friends [the first in15 years], Beijing announced a $10 billion aid program and offers to set up export promotion enclaves. That was seen as part of the price to get Kim’s representatives back to six-party talks. But it vitiates American and Japanese efforts to use economic pressure to bring the regime to real negotiations.
The truth is that neither the talks nor Chinese aid is likely to go far in solving the fundamental problem for the regime – and its interlocutors. Pyongyang sits on its starving people without recourse for its survival except to continue to blackmail the rest of the world with its weapons of mass destruction potential – if, and until, the cracks widen and it collapses.
Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics and business-economics. firstname.lastname@example.org