Citing unnamed sources, Good Friends (via the Hankyoreh) is reporting that North Korea is now in its “worst ever” food crisis, as food rations remain suspended even in the main grain belts and the capital. In an unprecedented step, authorities announced that Pyongyang citizens will not get rations until September this year. No word on how long the provinces will have to wait. Never before has such a drastic move been taken. Even more foreboding:
A grim prediction is spreading that there will be massive deaths from famine in provincial areas of the impoverished country around May, [the Good Friends report] also said.
Rumors are circulating around major cities such as Pyongyang and Hamhung and Chongjin, both on the North’s east coast, that the North will begin to see massive deaths from famine from this month, [an unnamed North Korean] official claimed.
As rumors of famine circulate, North Korea is now threatening “unspecified countermeasures” against the South, after South Korean military authorities refused to apologize for a hypothetical remark made by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Kim Tae-Young at a hearing before South Korea’s National Assembly earlier this week. According to the Mail and Guardian, North Korea will cease all dialogue with the South. However, how extensive the cessation will be was not made clear. Mail and Guardian talked to two North Korea analysts who believe the North will continue to rachet up tensions:
Yang Moo-Jin, of the University of North Korean Studies, said the North is following a pre-set plan to raise tensions.
Yang, speaking before the KCNA announcement, said it was expected to ban officials from crossing the land border and was “highly likely to engage in military muscle-flexing”.
“It may fire short-range missiles in the Yellow Sea, have its warships manoeuvre near the Northern Limit Line [sea border] and engage in provocative activities along the [land] border.”
Kim Yong-Hyun, of the University of Korea, forecast similar actions but said the North would be careful not to trigger an actual clash, since this would harden public opinion in the South.
Analysts believe it wants to sway the outcome of next week’s parliamentary election against the conservatives.
The Joongang Ilbo optimistically reports that a deal to end the Six-Party Talks impasse is at hand:
Sources said negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the North’s nuclear program declaration “have reached a final phase,” suggesting Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy for the nuclear talks, may meet with his North Korean counterpart Kim Gye-gwan during Hill’s tour this week to Asian countries, including Indonesia and East Timor.
“If they meet again this time, the meeting will not be for another negotiation but for striking a deal,” the source said.
The deal is expected allow North Korea to skirt around allegations it helped Syria develop a nuclear facility despite Israeli Prime Minister Barack’s recent admission to Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda, as well as avoid declaring it’s highly-enriched uranium program. Joongang picks up the story:
According to the source, the anticipated declaration is expected to state that the North perceives the U.S. suspicion that the North may have uranium-enriched programs and may have exported nuclear programs to Syria, allowing the country to address the thorny issue while neither acknowledging nor denying it.
It will be interesting to see the results of this deal, if there are any. However, if the HEU program is no longer up for discussion, then I’m not sure what the point of any deal would be. Afterall, it was North Korea’s admission regarding the development of an HEU program that got us into this mess in the first place. Could the U.S. be setting the stage to allow North Korea to hang on to its nuclear stockpile?
New revelations suggest that North Korea has been exporting rocket launchers to the Myanmar, in violation of UN sanctions. The exports began just after Myanmar and North Korea restored diplomatic ties two years ago and were carried out through a Singapore-based trading company. NHK reports:
The rockets used with the launchers are said to measure 240 millimeters in diameter and about a meter in length, and have a range of about 65 kilometers.
North Korea is believed to have a number of such multiple-tube launchers deployed along the demilitarized border with South Korea.
The UN Security Council adopted a sanctions resolution against North Korea following its nuclear tests in October 2006. The resolution bans the country from exporting or importing nuclear material, ballistic missiles and other types of conventional weapons.
The reports of North Korean exports of weapons to Myanmar, a fellow military dictatorship, has raised concerns in the United States and South Korea.
North Korea has been cut off from international economic assistance due to a deadlock in the six-party talks on its nuclear disarmament.
Myanmar has been in the process of upgrading its military hardware, and many suspect that North Korea, which increasingly relies on arms exports to earn foreign currency, is playing the role of supplier. Last year, Myanmar came to world attention when the ruling military junta conducted a brutal and bloody crackdown on peaceful, anti-government demonstrations.
A second NHK article on North Korean-Burmese ties notes:
They say Myanmar had been buying small arms from North Korea through mediation by China and Singapore even before restoring diplomatic ties with the North last year.
The restoration of ties is believed to have enabled Myanmar to buy larger weapons from the North.
As for North Korea, a Japanese university professor and expert on Korean Peninsula affairs says North Korea has increasingly relied on arms export to obtain foreign currency, as it is getting difficult to do so through drug trading and counterfeiting.
He said North Korea may expect the United States to be less critical of its export of rocket launchers to Myanmar than of its suspected transfer of nuclear technology to countries including Syria.
Anyone who has ever visited a kindergarten classroom in some other part of the world knows children don’t behave like this. In this footage from a kindergarten in Wonsan, North Korea, we first witness the children at play on the playground, but later on there’s something sinister about the way they’re lined up on the balcony shouting “안녕히 가세요! (Lit: ‘go in peace’ or ‘goodbye’)” in unison without any teacher supervision. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but for some reason this video gives me the chills.
After almost a month of silence, the Rodong Shinmun–mouthpiece of the (North) Korean Workers Party—has rolled out its standard anti-imperialist invectives for Lee Myung Bak. Among its choice epithets for Lee were “sycophant towards the United States,” “anti-North confrontation advocator,” and “traitor Lee Myung-bak.” The unsigned commentary also warned that Lee would be responsible for regressing inter-Korean relations:
“The Lee regime will be held fully accountable for the irrevocable catastrophic consequences to be entailed by the freezing of the inter-Korean relations and the disturbance of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula (Korea Times)”
Blustery rhetoric and hyperbole is to be expected from the Rodong Shinmun, so it’s important to take the actual contents of this commentary with a grain of salt. Trying to discern the North’s actual intent—whether this is just empty posturing, a cry for help, or something deeper—is more difficult.
Back in Washington, the State Department made an official statement regarding the sudden downturn in inter-Korean relations. State Department Spokesman Tom Casey told reporters “that some of the rhetoric that we’ve seen is necessarily helpful (Korea Times).” The U.S. has made quite clear what it expects of North Korea: a full and complete declaration. North Korea has balked at providing an adequate declaration that includes details of a highly-enriched uranium program.
“I think [the North Koreans] are still very interested in trying to get through the declaration,” Christopher Hill told reporters at the beginning of a 9-day swing through Asia. Hill still remains optimistic about a resolution in the near future. “I think tempers are getting shorter. Patience is certainly getting frayed…When and if we meet, whenever it comes, it has to be a meeting in which we really can finally resolve it.” Most significantly, Hill, who believes we are in the final stages of a resolution of North Korea’s nuclear issue, believes differences between the six parties are “getting smaller (Korea Times)”
Hill will not travel to Pyongyang, but State had no comment when asked whether Hill would meet with North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan in a third country (Yonhap).
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.
According to a Chosun Ilbo report, North Korean fighter jets have the buzzed the Northern Limit Line of the DMZ 10 times since the inauguration of Lee Myung Bak on February 25th. Such provocations have occurred in the past but “never with such frequency.” As of late, North Korea has used increasingly belligerent means to express its displeasure with the South’s new conservative government. According to the report:
The South Korean Defense Ministry is closely monitoring the moves, believing the North is intentionally creating tensions in the sea, skies and on the ground. Sources in the South Korean government and military on Sunday said North Korean fighters including MIG-21s took off from North Korean air bases such as Tokchon Air Base in South Pyongan Province, crossed the “Tactical Action Line” set by South Korea, to fly near the DMZ and the NLL on about 10 occasions since the Lee Myun-bak administration’s launch. The TAL is an imaginary line set by the South 20 to 30 km north of the DMZ and the NLL, based on the assumption that North Korean fighter planes can reach skies over the Seoul Metropolitan area just three to five minutes after take-off. Once they come close to the TAL, that is the signal for South Korean fighters to take off from Suwon Air Base and elsewhere.
Bellicose rhetoric is on the rise as well. Over the weekend, KCNA, mouthpiece of the Kim Jong Il regime, threatened South Korea with pre-emptive strikes of its own: “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins (AP via the Guardian).” At the same time, the KCNA has accused the South of provoking North Korean forces, threatening that conflict could break out any moment:
The south Korean warlike forces are now taking very disturbing military moves, vociferously asserting that the “northern limit line defends five islands in the West Sea” and “Yonphyong Islet is like a dagger to be thrust into one’s throat while Paekryong Islet the one to be thrust into one’s side”.Military brasshats including the chief of the General Staff of the Navy have held operational confabs on measures to defend the “northern limit line” to the end one after another in these areas. On March 18 the south Korean trigger-happy forces deployed more destroyers and guard ships in the frontline waters in the West Sea of Korea. On March 26 they infiltrated 14 warships deep into territorial waters of the DPRK side southeast of Ssanggyo-ri, Kangryong County, South Hwanghae Province on 13 occasions. The number of warships that intruded into those waters reached 5 or 6 on a daily average. In the meantime, fighter bombers and armed helicopters are kept fully ready to go into action any moment. They also issued an order to batteries of 155 mm caliber howitzers and various type guided weapons deployed on the above-said five islets to be ready to go into action. Combined firepower drills for “striking and destroying” warships of the Navy of the Korean People’s Army and drills for tactical naval maneuvers are staged on Paekryong, Taechong and Yonphyong Islets and in waters around them almost everyday. A situation in which an armed conflict may break out any moment is prevailing in the frontline waters in the West Sea due to the reckless military provocations of the south Korean military warmongers. Any attempt on the part of the south Korean military authorities to “protect” the “northern limit line” at any cost would only spark off a clash in the said waters (see: KCNA 3/28/2008 “ Spokesman for KPA Navy Command Issues Statement”).
The South, for its part, has reacted with calm. According to an AFP report, via Taipei Times, Southern military authorities will take a few days to take stock of the situation before responding:
In a first official reaction, the South’s defense ministry said it had no plans to respond immediately to the North’s message.
“The ministry will decide — within two or three days — on whether it should send a reply or not after scrutinizing North Koreans’ real intentions through consultations with the unification ministry and other agencies,” it said in a press statement.
As for the North’s possible motives, the Hankyoreh speculates that the North’s moves are intended to influence South Korea’s upcoming parlimentary elections and the April 18th summit between Lee Myung Bak and George W. Bush, as well as to telegraph the North’s intention that it too will take a less conciliatory approach to negotiations:
The North’s message is clear. The reclusive state seems to be rejecting the South Korean government’s attempts to link the nuclear problem to inter-Korean relations. It also appears to be refuting remarks made by the United States, which have indicated that as far as the nuclear matter goes, the ball has been put in the North’s court. The North also appears to be hinting that it will not ask the South for humanitarian aid.
However, Kim Seong-bae, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said, “The actions taken by North Korea today and yesterday were part of an orchestrated manoeuvre [sic]. In the short term, the actions were aimed at increasing its negotiating power. But if things don’t go smoothly, the actions may indicate North Korea will stand its ground.”
The remarks were also interpreted as being the North’s official response after North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan and Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher Hill met on March 13 in Geneva to try to resolve the impasse between them. Hill is planning to visit South Korea and other Asian nations next week, focusing attention on whether he will again meet with the North Korean Vice Foreign Minister. A senior South Korean government official said, “The remark is not understood to be the North’s final position on the matter as plans for behind-the-scenes talks between the U.S. and North Korea are underway. We need to watch the situation over the next one or two weeks,” the senior South Korean official said.
In a related editorial, the Hankyoreh, which is unabashedly pro-engagement, blamed the latest spat of tension on Lee Myung Bak:
However, an expert who spoke on condition of anonymity was somewhat more pessimistic. He said, “It is difficult for the North to easily decide or change its direction in terms of declaring its nuclear programs. The situation is not so good that we can think optimistically about the matter.” He added that the problem is that “President Lee’s administration hasn’t shown the will to engage in the process.”
UPDATE: In a second editorial on the rapid deterioration of North-South relations, the Hankyoreh reiterated its attacks on Lee Myung Bak, blaming him for the current situation:
Against such a non-responsive stance, some experts have raised questions about the crisis management abilities of the South Korean administration of President Lee Myung-bak. The inter-Korean relationship has grown worse following a recent series of hostile remarks made toward North Korea by senior South Korean government officials. In spite of this, however, a “policy of ignorance” being carried out by the new administration is making matters worse, experts have said.