Well first and foremost apologies for my blogging absence. Besides the baby news, the new Year is also bringing me a new job, a new city, and many other changes that will be discussed once I have my head wrapped around things.
That out of the way, time to repeat the big and obvious news I am sure you have heard before coming here…
Apparently he had a heart-attack on Saturday morning, after being weakened and fatigued by extensive travel over the past few days. I, amongst pretty much everyone on this side of the peninsula I’m sure, had an initial “Holy Shit” reaction, the military being put on emergency status as a precaution and the KOSPI taking a near 90 degree plunge down 5% (now recovering to around 3%). Although most would say Dear Leader has been looking better of late, there still was little question that he was not long for this world, so once the pure shock wore off, the reality set in that both sides have been prepared for this and the short term (at least through the official mourning period lasting until the 28th) we probably won’t see any major changes. What we are left with now is uncertainty, as no matter how prepared the governments could be for the death it’s impossible to know just what will happen from here. We’ll have a lot of opinions flying around in the days to weeks ahead, some educated and some not as much so. Here and now, I’ll give some of my brief thoughts (which admittedly likely lie within the latter category of opinions).
1. A sudden death was probably a good thing
One doesn’t have to reach very far to find evidence that Kim Jong-Il wasn’t exactly a sensible, reasonable person. Personally, I am happy that an unexpected heart attack took him from the mortal realm rather than drawn out disease. While it may not have been likely in the first place, it at the very least made certain a “blaze of glory” situation couldn’t happen where a death’s-door Kim ordered a massive attack as a final act. With, hopefully, more intact minds at the helm (with much more to lose) it lessens the possibility of rash action in my mind.
2. Tomorrow will be business as usual for most South Koreans
The president may still have a lot on his hands tomorrow, but for most Koreans, tomorrow will just be Tuesday. They may check the news sites or stock prices a tick more than usual, but otherwise they’ll be more worried about their Christmas plans than planning for an NK attack. One of the odd things about living in this country that you can’t really understand from the outside is that the general populous knows perfectly well that on any given day a shell could have dropped in Seoul and, for the most part, they know that nothing can be done about it so why think about it? This became really clear to me during the Yeongpyeong-do attack last year. Everybody at my work watched the news for an hour or so and when it became apparent the action was finished, went right back to making lesson plans.
3. It all comes down to China
But really, how is that different from any other day? Ever since the South began to take a hard-line stance during the LMB presidency, China has become the main (and near only) prop of the regime. The head of the regime may be gone, but I am certain the power players who make up the body knows just who really pays the bills and keeps them in their positions. I also have no doubt that the first call Saturday morning went to Beijing. The death doesn’t necessarily change the game, but it does force the hand a bit. Where and how China decides to exert pressure will shape the future of North Korea. Once again, that may be the same as any other day, but perhaps now the shaping will become a bit more direct and create some visible change.
In all the uncertainty, I’ve been trying to picture North Korea on December 19th, 2012. First of all, there still will be a North Korea one year from today and the current power structures will be more or less intact. There will have been no large scale conflict and in fact both the outgoing GNP administration and the assume incoming leftist government have been pushing for more open relations and trade with the North, perhaps even a meeting with the Brilliant Comrade is being planned by some. So Kim Jong-un will be the leader of North Korea, but much more in name only as the actual power and decisions will be made up of his Aunt and Uncle as well as other key military and party leaders. By “actual power” I mean these people are where the puppet strings coming from China will be tied and from here will come greater emphasis on Chinese-style economic reforms. As discussed before these reforms have already started, but the speed and scope may widen considerably over the next year. Unmentioned so far are the 22 million people of North Korea, just where will they be? Unfortunately likely little will change for their lives. There will be no mass defections across the border, no uprising, no dancing in the street or toppling of statues. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a little more food in the pot and a bit more heat on during the cold December night. The greatest thing these people might have next year is a tiny bit of hope that things might be improving ever so slightly.
The funniest thing about all of this for me is simply the timing. We are less than two weeks shy of the new year, 2012, the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the countries founder. For years Kim Jong Il has been propagating that this would be the year that North Korea would become a great nation, but now he himself couldn’t reach that day. No, North Korea won’t be a great nation in the coming year, but perhaps it will be a better one.
The official state broadcast
A couple of North Korea stories recently caught my attention and while I well know that any information that comes out of the country has to be taken with a whole shaker of salt, the dynamic between the two really put into stark contrast between the haves and have-nots in that country. Nothing against the Occupy movement, but honestly “the 99%” of the US knows absolutely nothing about repression and wealth inequality when compared to 99.9% of the DPRK populace who don’t seem to even have the strength to complain, much less a Facebook account to complain on.
First lets take a look at the haves. From the AFP we have this report of a new luxury goods department store opening in Pyongyang. This would appear to mesh in with reports of massive construction and rejuvination projects around the capital in preparation for the 2012 celebrations commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the “Eternal President“. The store is said to sell a wide variety of goods from clothes and furniture to food and medicines. High-end brands such as Chanel and Armani are also available, although according to Chanel no permission has been given to act as a distributor. It’s likely safe to assume that the purpose of Potongkang is to provide a non-black market source of goods for the Pyongyang elite and also generate the hard currency needed by the nation for its Pyongyang projects, which have been chronically underfunded.
As said above, the current construction boom in Pyongyang is racing towards the 2012 celebrations, to provide proof of North Korea being a “great and prosperous nation”. Despite other pressing needs in the country, it would seem these projects are consuming all available resources, including drafting students and military as construction workers. Around the city, new apartment high-rises have sprung up along with parks, theaters and other public venues (although not likely actually open to the public). Even the iconic eyesore Ryungyong Hotel (류경호텔) is at least superficially near completion, almost 20 years after work originally halted. Combine this with the stories of increased cellular, and even smartphone, availability and even brief nudity on government controlled TV and it seems life is getting better for the haves, or at least they can have more.
On the other side of the equation, we have reports from Yonhap among others of the realities of the other side of North Korean life from face-to-face interviews. Civic groups Greater Korea United and the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea conducted the interviews with 14 North Korean citizens in a Chinese border city in August and released the results and some video clips this week. Lowlights include the currency reform and chronic food shortages already discussed on this blog. Additionally we have word of a growing drug problem in the North with widely available “ice” (methamphetamine) which has become a replacement cure-all for the necessary but nearly impossible to obtain medicines for any number of diseases. Like the South, there is also a growing number of suicides in the nation, although I dare say North Koreans have much better reason to consider it. Undoubtedly these interviews have been presented with the specific agenda of painting a bleak picture, and thus garnering further support, but the hard evidence does tend to back it up. First off, photo-manipulation aside, the North was completed ravaged by flooding over the summer. Given the resources devoted to the capital it is doubtful that any real reconstruction efforts have occurred. Also, massive inflation is continuing unabated, if not outright created by the regime, with the staple price of rice nearly doubling since last month.
As someone with a genuine interest and concern for North Korea, I do sometimes have to fight the urge to simply ignore the stories, given that they essentially all say the same thing without any real solutions in sight. Without a doubt, this is a broken nation and in my mind the absolute worst regime in the world by decent measure. How it will continue to limp along, I do not know, the big question being do we help the people (and as a result support the system), sit back and watch, or actively hasten its demise.
Also on the topic, take a look at this Fareed Zakaria piece for CNN on the chances of a popular uprising in North Korea:
Word comes from Yonhap that the Kaesong Industrial Complex is under threat by outrageous workers demands, to replace the currently provided Choco Pies as snacks with cold, hard cash (which may have better nutritional value anyways) or perhaps instant noodles (which most certainly does not). Of course the authorities can see these demands are not truly from the workers, but rather with the strings being pulled by the heartless North Korean regime who fear the spread of capitalistic ideals through mass-produced snack cakes. Turns out up to 10 pies a day are given out to workers (with up to 6 million being delivered to the complex each month) and some of the South Korean labeled sweets are finding their way to high prices on the black market. Some observers go so far to claim that the Choco Pie has become a symbol of the success and prosperity of the South, something the media has termed a “Choco Pie Revolution”. Undoubtedly fearing the spread of such ideas, Pyongyang recently failed to respond to an offer of millions of dollars in flood aid from Seoul, in apparent protest of the massive amount of choco pies that would be included thus heading off the possibility of a “Choco Fall” of riots demanding democracy (or a glass of milk). Managers at the complex have obviously come to understand the power of social change within the confections, as they denied the request for change.
So if it wasn’t obvious, I feel Yonhap might be giving the power of the Choco Pie a bit too much credit. While the little cakes are a nice snack, I don’t see the masses flying banners of empty snack wrappers invading the capital anytime soon. Really this story is nothing new, just a continuation of ongoing thread of chocolate-covered capitalism slowly taking over the North (see this Marmot post from 2009). The problem I personally have with this train of thought is that it’s not average Nork that is consuming the pies (among other SK goods) but rather the upper-crust who are likely well aware of their country’s failings, but unwilling to risk losing there place in it. If a Choco Pie goes for nearly $10 on the black market, as the media has claimed, I doubt the common man is giving up a couple days income for the privilege of eating one.
Of course no mention of North Korea and Choco Pies would be complete without looking back to the 2000 Chan-Wook Park domestic blockbuster 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) and one of the better scenes from that film (not quite a classic, but well worth a viewing). In it, the unlikely group of North and South soldiers are having a friendly hangout in the former’s sentry post with DPRK Army Sergeant Oh (Kang-ho Song) happily stuffs his face with a Choco Pie while bemoaning the inability of his nation to produce such a treat. This leads his Southern counterpart Sgt. Lee (Byung-hun Lee) to suggest he defect and eat all the cakes he wanted. The first broach of this taboo subject causes the suddenly silent Oh to indignantly spit the mashed up pie into his hand and loudly proclaim his dream to one day see his great land produce a confection of such high quality, before returning the mass of chocolate and marshmallow to his mouth. The scene really sets the tone for what is off-limits in the unusual relationship being forged between the soldiers which has further meaning later on. Most likely anyone who even watched the film even in passing had this highlight stick with him, so perhaps this is the source of the “Choco Pies of freedom” meme. Just as the snack failed to pull the soldier across the border, however, so to is it unlikely to really cause fear in North Korean leadership.
That is the question. A belated Happy Chuseok to everyone in Korea, I hope the time was spent enjoying the holiday with friends and family rather than backed up in traffic. It seems to me that most everywhere in the world has some form or another of a “Thanksgiving” holiday and this tends to entail eating large quantities of food (which I most certainly did). One place this seems not to be the case (at least for most of the population) however, is North Korea.
Coming via CNN, with have this story and the accompanying video of the ever-present food problem in North Korea. Like almost all of the small amount of footage of lives outside of Pyongyang, it is saddening to watch:
As such, we once again are faced with the question of food aid to North Korea. The World Food Program undoubtedly put together this video to show the dire situation and to drum up donations and support for resumed aid operations and the fact that the North Korean government allowed them to do so shows that even they recognize how bad the situation is. After watching, of course the instant emotional response is to give aid as likely no one out there is pro-starving children. When we take a moment and step back, however, we find a much more complicated question and (as with most things North Korea related) no easy solution. Can we support these people without supporting the regime of North Korea?
To begin, we have to look at what brought the DPRK to the precipice where they currently stand. As noted by the WFP, it has been as especially bad season with many crops destroyed by rains and floods, however this isn’t a sudden crisis created by natural disasters, but rather a long, steady march into hell that has already left millions of innocent lives beneath its feet. While this doubtlessly began with the formation of the state and the Korean War, recent events have definitely quickened the pace. Of note we can look to the currency revaluation (or Great Currency Obliteration as coined by Kushibo and I highly recommend reading his posts on the subject for greater depth) which occurred about two years ago. While on the surface, the Stalinist nation is fed by government rations (the three potatoes as noted in the video), in reality private markets are what really kept things going. When the revaluation occurred, in the simplest terms having two zeroes lopped off the end of won notes (1000won became 10won etc.), the government disallowed use of the old notes and strictly limited the amount that could be exchanged and only that which was already in state banks. This meant marketers who hoarded cash from their officially “illegal” businesses suddenly were left with piles of paper. In a frantic move, last year the North lifted all restrictions on private markets, but only to show the next problem, there is nothing on the shelves and once again the reasons for this go far beyond the natural. It is important to note that this is not the first food shortage in the recent history of North Korea, as beginning in the early 90′s a famine hit the country which resulted in estimated deaths in the millions (perhaps as much as 10% of the population). While the argument can be made that this crisis has continued to today, it is undoubtedly true that a short reprieve occurred at the turn of the millennium thanks to the North’s biggest benefactor, South Korea. While other countries, notably China, participated strongly in the aid efforts it was the Southern neighbor (with whom North Korea is still technically at war with) who most lifted people back to their feet. During these years of the “Sunshine Policy“, food flowed across the border and while much ended up in the hands of elites and the military, enough trickled down into the markets to somewhat stave off starvation. While there was genuine hope at this time and foundations seemed strong, they quickly eroded through provocations and changing political environments. The structures of support that had been built were blown up by nuclear testing, burned to the ground with the election of hard-liners such as Lee Myung-bak and the embers dashed with the Cheonan sinking and shelling of Yeonpyeong-do. Unsurprisingly, with the aid trucks of rice now silent across the border, North Korea has now offered to re-return to the negotiation table, but many in South are skeptical about beginning the cycle anew.
A quick look through history tells you that this is a game that North Korea has played before, playing on the emotions of benefactors to ensure its domestic sustainability while utilizing its own resources for power plays and the personal gain of the leaders and elites. It is easy, then, to wonder if this is just a continuation a genuine crisis. There are most certainly signs of the latter, with defectors calling the current famine far deeper and more widespread than in the 90′s and even reports of large numbers of the military going hungry. However, on the reverse there is equally damning evidence of business as usual. Kim Jong-un, son of leader Kim Jong-il and MAYBE presumptive heir to the dictator, certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering with his people given his girth and plethora of luxurious residences all built since the currency revaluation. In addition to the estimated monetary costs (around 150 million USD), it is also thought that agricultural land was destroyed in their construction and laborers would pulled from farms to build rail lines and roads to them. Additionally, figures have shown luxury good imports of $10 million over the first half of the year, and the Arirang Festival (or Mass Games) are currently running unabated at costs that can’t possibly be made up by ticket sales. Without even factoring in military and nuclear development budgets, hacking projects and leadership travel (presumably to ask for aid), the question becomes whether North Korea can’t feed its people or it simply won’t. A bit of quick math with the old charity line “a dollar can feed four starving children” line suggests that if Dear Leader had allowed Brilliant Comrade to crash in one of his eight or so palaces, 1.6 million children could have been fed for the year. Additionally somewhere around 1000 tons of rice could have been purchased on the open market with the $500,000 spent on high grade beef destined for the leaders table and those of his entourage this year.
So all this being said, where do I stand? Since you waded through the thousand or so words to get here, I am going to assume that you are interested in my opinion and therefor here it is. Unfortunately, I have to count myself among the bastards standing against resumed food aid to North Korea, even if it does hurt each and every time a report like above surfaces (and I promise you, I pay attention to each and every one). I am not among the doubters who believe that the current starvation is a ruse, planned and propagated by the regime to secure aid and supplies, perhaps ahead of the planned 2012 celebrations (celebrating the 100 year anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth). I truly believe there is a major crisis to the north, but still the only food aid I can agree to is what I would call “hand to mouth” aid, where workers are physically give ready food to the needy and watch as it is eaten. This means no bags of rice handed out in villages, no crates of supplies cracked open and handed to outstretched hands. These days I wouldn’t even consider packaged baby food and formula safe from confiscation by government officials. I do fully realize that this type of aid can’t possibly meet the need and therefor many thousands, if not millions, will die of starvation that could have been prevented. The onus of guilt for this catastrophe, however, should not be burdened by the international community however, but by the leader of this country and the responsability of the people is to make the cries for justice so loud that even his deaf ears can hear them high atop his perch. Honestly, I don’t have high hopes for this and find the Arab Spring connotations inaccurate as the situations are incomparable. However, it is said that that wave that washed over Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (among others) began with the death of a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself for the injustices committed against him. Whereas his face was burned in the minds of millions who eventually revolted, I the picture of someone in my mind which will define these events for me regardless of the outcome.
Her name is not known, just that she was 23, homeless 꽃제비 (orphan) who for a brief moment became famous as she was filmed picking grass to eat featured in the KBS special “North Korea’s Third Generation Succession: Who Is Kim Jong Eun?” and gained international media attention. The filming occurred in June of last year in South Pyongan Province and according to sources died on or around October 20th of starvation. I remember first seeing the video and then the news of her death. Each time I wondered about who this girl would be if she had been born a few hundred miles to the South, she likely would have just been finishing University and underneath the dirt and vacant eyes, you can imagine she would have been pretty at this time and most importantly with a future. Perhaps the time for her being a catalyst of change has already past and photos of her face aren’t going to become banners held by the people of North Korea in protest, but still I can hope that the current times will lead to a better future. Too late for her, but in time for millions of her people who hopefully will remember.
Sometimes when I stop and think about it, I realize how amazing it is that I live and go about my daily business undeterred and generally unaffected by living in a country within spitting distance of a neighbor who threatens relatively frequently to turn my adopted home into a “sea of fire” and whom it is (technically) still at war with. For those back in the States and others abroad in other countries, don’t worry about this fact as it’s nothing I am worried about, it’s all just something interesting to think about.
It is thoughts such as this that make North Korea such an interesting topic to me (as well as most other expats in the country, I am sure). The main question revolves around what is going to happen in the future? While from appearance, things can seem entirely unpredictable when dealing with the DPRK, in reality there is some rhyme and reason to what occurs and unquestionably things are moving forward. While roadblocks may appear on the path and branches may diverge, my purpose here is to describe an imperfect, but hopefully realistic scenario to the future of a country that is unquestionably unsustainable in its current form (and doesn’t end in nuclear destruction, that ain’t good for anybody). As a side note, while it is a subject of great interest to me, I hardly claim to be an academic on it nor is this an academic paper. To that end, I apologize if I am cribbing on others works here. I would be happy to link other sources of information you’d be so kind as to point it out to me.
Of course I strongly believe that Kim Jong-il is going to wake up tomorrow and have an epiphany that he is greatly harming his people, propose unilateral and unconditional peace and reunification for the peninsula and quietly live out his days exiled to Mongolia, but in case I’m wrong, what else can happen? Perhaps more importantly, is this what is wanted. In my incredibly unscientific survey, meaning simply what I’ve gleaned by conversing with my own Korean friends, students and coworkers on the subject, I found many on the surface supported reunification but more deeply are either hesitant or downright opposed to it happening within their lifetime. The reason for this, I feel, is that South Koreans have become satisfied with their lifestyle, growing economic wealth (both personally and as a country) and are afraid to what extent these would be altered by a one Korea. Make no mistake about it, despite the pure blood myth encompassing both the South and North Korean people (and arguably more strongly held in the North) these are two cultures that have grown incredibly separate and distinct over the past 60 years. One can look to the difficulties faced by North Korean defectors in the South as evidence that perhaps they are not truly one people anymore and the cultural and societal hurdles between true reunification would be great. Additionally, an even greater gap exists in the economic spectrum that could, and likely would, cause a great number of issues. Some supporters of reunification point to East and West Germany as a model as after their reunion, with a good amount of help, the German economy hardly lost a step. This comparison isn’t all that comparable, however, as the two nations in regards to their economies and infrastructure were relatively close at the time.
|East Germany||West Germany|
|GNP/GDP1 ($ billion)||159.5||945.7|
|GNP/GDP per capita ($)||9,679||15,300|
|Budget revenues ($ billion)||123.5||539|
|Budget expenditures ($ billion)||123.2||563|
The above figures come from the CIA World Fact Book of 1990. Compare this to the most recent numbers available from Korea and the disparities are quickly evident. First, where as E. Germany‘s per capita GDP was around 2/3 of W. Germany just prior to reunification, DRPK’s GDP per capita is somewhere around 1/15 of its Southern counterpart. Additionally, the North’s population is around half of South Korea’s (22 million compared to 44). The result is a much higher ratio of people with a much greater income disparity. These factors exponentially increase the costs involved with uniting the countries. While estimates of these costs vary greatly, the number seemingly most often floated around to somewhat equal out the infrastructure and income disparity is $2 trillion USD or greater (that’s trillion with a T) spread out over 30 years. Ostensibly to prepare for these costs, the idea of a reunification tax is often mentioned in South Korean politics, although it seems talks are only as far as it goes and even in the best case such action is only expected to raise around $50 billion USD over the course of 10-15 years. Obviously, this would be far from enough and therefor only two possibilities would exist. First, either enormous amounts of international aid would need to come into the North to level the playing field, or a mass migration (if uncontrolled) would wreak such havoc on the Southern economy that per capita GDP would fall greatly to even the scale.
With so much to lose, it’s easy to understand why South Koreans, especially younger generations, would be hesitant to sacrifice their current lifestyle for another nation they are increasingly disconnected to. So we have arrived at a point where the North likely can’t sustain itself and perhaps the South won’t or shouldn’t take over due to the great harm to itself and now raised is the question from the title, what’s the end game? For better or for worse, in my opinion the answer lies north of the North rather than the South. That’s right, simply put it might be better for all involved if China more directly took over control of North Korean territory.
Since the beginning of North Korea, China has been (outside of perhaps SK) the biggest crutch in sustaining what is on any account a failed nation. What began with Chinese “volunteers” game changing involvement in the Korean war lead monetary and trade support, taking the place of the Soviets after the fall of the USSR. There are a variety of reasons for China’s involvement, not the least of which being the use of NK as a buffer zone between the Chinese border and the strong US military presence in the South. Very recently, we have already begun seeing China take a very direct hand in the North Korean economy outside of aid and cash. The development of the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Zone and other border areas being not only financed but perhaps directly administered by Chinese authorities. These are steps in what fellow blogger Kushibo as termed the “Manchurianization of North Korea” or forcing Chinese-style economic reforms in return for continued support.
In my view, such economic reforms could slowly be transitioned into a more direct Chinese authority of North Korea. This would occur in the form of a North Korean Autonomous Region being created. China has proven at least somewhat successful in keeping these regions under control and increasing development while still allowing greater leeway and legislative control for their culturally distinct population groups. In fact, the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture already exists along the North Korean border and is home to nearly half of the some 2 million ethnic Koreans within China. The reasons for why an expansion of this prefecture into a full-fledged autonomous region would prove smoother than integration into South Korea is a mirror image of the roadblocks described above. While finding hard evidence of it has proved difficult (please feel free to share anything you may know about the subject), I would assume culturally, North Koreans and ethnic Koreans within China have developed among a more similar path than those in the South. Additionally, and more importantly, the economic and population issues described above would be greatly mitigated, if not diluted entirely, through Chinese integration. Within the whole of mainland China, the per capita GDP only around five times greater than the DPRK. When this is split up by province, the difference becomes even smaller as can be seen on the map.
Also, the population of North Korea is less than 2% of the PRC’s 1.3 billion (and counting) residents making widespread economic impact unlikely if not impossible. Finally, given that China is already and established nuclear power, they are in a much better position to control or dispose of whatever weapons North Korea may have developed.
I fully realize that this solution, as explained, is far too simple. I would leave it up to others more intelligent, diplomatic and connected to the situation than myself to structure the integration in such a way to leave all the parties involved at least in agreement, if not wholly satisfied. I also accept that it would be almost impossible for this solution to win in the court of public opinion of South Korea, but over time I feel the economic advantages would win out in the end. With agreements of economic cooperation with China over the region, South Korea could be provided with raw materials and the cheap manufacturing labor force it desires without the need to develop them to South Korean income levels and standards of living (it’s a harsh truth of business, but still better off than the majority of North Koreans currently have). Additionally, with tensions reduced from the current North-South dynamic to the more understated tension between China and Korea (along with all Asian countries really) the need for American military presence would be reduced and therefor a scale down would be likely (an important carrot for China). This action could be combined with the formation of some sort of Asian NATO could help stabilize the region, but that’s a whole different blog topic.
As said at the beginning, I know this solution is far from perfect and incredibly unlikely, but in my mostly uneducated opinion it is one that can do the most good with the least harm. More than an actual plan, this post has been a mental exercise for me and one that, hopefully, can generate a good deal of discussion. To that end, feel free to call me an idiot (but please elaborate as to why), give comments, critiques, additions and omissions to keep the topic going.