North Korea Monitor

“For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year”

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Park Syung Je, a scholar at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul, predicts this will be the most difficult year for Kim Jong Il. Park’s comments were reported in a Boston Globe article entitled “Urgency grows as severe food shortages loom in N. Korea.” International and meterological conditions have conspired to challenge Kim with one of the more severe crises his regime has faced:

This year is anything but good. Floods last August ruined part of the main yearly harvest, creating a 25 percent shortfall in the food supply and putting 6 million people in need, according to the UN World Food Program.
Over the winter, drought damaged the wheat and barley crop, according to a recent report in the official North Korean media. That crop normally tides people over during the summer “lean season” until the fall harvest.
North Korea’s ability to buy food, meanwhile, has plunged, as the cost of rice and wheat on the global market has jumped to record highs, up 50 percent in the past six months.
Equally important for North Korea, its reliably generous neighbors seem to be operating under new, less tolerant rules for charity.

South Korea is not the only neighbor that has been cutting back on good will. China, too, has been cutting back:

China, the North’s closest ally and main trading partner, also seems to be stiffening its food policies. It has quietly slashed food aid to North Korea, according to figures compiled by the World Food Program. Deliveries plummeted from 440,000 metric tons in 2005 to 207,000 tons in 2006.
The reason for the cuts has not been made public, but some analysts believe it is related to North Korea’s decision in 2006 to detonate a nuclear device

Though North Korean citizens are better able to cope with desperate economic conditions than in times past (as Dr. Petrov pointed out here), I can’t help but wonder if North Korea’s resurgence of hostility is in someway related to the deteriorating food situation. One of Kim’s coping mechanisms is to blame outsiders for domestic problems. During previous famines and trying times, Kim convinced most of his subjects that the U.S. was to blame.  This time around, Kim might be trying to provoke the South for domestic propaganda purposes.

Another related reason for the recent outburst might be that as Kim’ position becomes more tenuous, and he begins to loose the support of key regime figures, the probability that he will lash out at the South grows.  We may be witnessing the beginning stages of this process now. The fact that North Korea is constantly on war footing is well known; as is that fact that many North Korean citizens and soldiers believe that a “glorious war for reunification” is inevitable. If the the food situation reaches a critical level causing the upper echelons of the regime to begin to get resitve– and especially if Kim Jong Il feels backed up in a corner with few options left– open hostilities might be unavoidable.

Couple this with speculation that the Songun policy is on its way out—as some analyses suggest —and military leadership might be looking for an excuse to fortify their own positions. Hyping the military threat from the South would knock top civilian leadership out of their “complacency,” and thus restore the primacy of the military. 

Based on past experiences over the past 50 years, hostile spasms from North Korea are a regular and, for the most part, benign occurrence. As of now, there is no solid reason to believe the current tensions are anything but a cry for attention or an attempt at bullying. But, as this story continues to unfold over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be better able to judge whether the tell-tale signs of regime collapse–or worse–are something to be worried about.

UPDATE: All this talk of increasing hostilties got me thinking: What’s next for North-South relations?

Kim Jong Il has three major options:

1) Back down. Kim would probably not back down unless there was some way he could save face. That would probably mean a formal or tacit agreement between the Northern and Southern governments along with confidence-building measures. But, given Lee Myung Bak’s stated policy of reciprocity, this outcome would be unlikely unless the North were willing to make a concession as well. It also would depend on which issues Lee holds most dear. If reciprocity starts off with small measures that build confidence and gradually moves to encompass larger, more volitile issues, there is a good chance for sucess. If Lee requests the entire farm right off the bat, then see numbers two and three.

2) Continue to escalate the situation. Kim could take any of the following actions to further escalate tensions between North and South: a naval confrontation in the West Sea (many eyes will be carefully watching this year’s May-June crab fishing season); a firefight in the DMZ; a long-range missile test (especially one that skirts Japanese or South Korean territory); cancellation of one of the “reconciliation projects” like Geumgangsan, or Kaesong; a second nuclear test; restarting the Yongbyon facility; withdrawing entirely from the Six-Party Talks; or proliferating nuclear arms.  A limited attack on South Korea or Japan is extremely unlikely, unless the regime really felt it were trapped or on the verge of collapse. An escalation in hostility would be most likely in the event that the South cut off all aid shipments.

3) Maintain the status quo. Probably the most likely option at this stage. This would entail continued diplomatic, rhetorical, and symbolic hostility. Perhaps accompanied by a minor “escalation event” at some point; like slowing down the denuclearization process. Such perpetual hostilities would probably go on indefinitely as long as limited aid were still provided. Or a major diplomatic breakthrough occurs (see number one). Or Kim decides to increase hostilities. In which case, see number two.


Written by nkmonitor

March 31, 2008 at 5:42 am

Posted in Inside North Korea

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