Tag: kim jong-un

The North Korean Threat: Disengage and Defuse

Americans lived for decades with the fear of instant death from a Soviet nuclear strike. The People’s Republic of China has acquired a similar, though more limited, capability. Nothing happened in either case, because even evil people who acted like barbarians at home refused to commit suicide abroad. 

So it is with North Korea. A Defense Intelligence Agency report that Pyongyang may have miniaturized a nuclear weapon for use on a missile has created a predictable stir. Yet the analysis was carefully hedged, and Washington’s top security leadership, ranging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the seriousness of the threat.  

If the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was lucky, it could successfully launch its longest range missile, topped by a warhead with explosives rather than a nuclear weapon, without the rocket blowing up or falling back on the DPRK. With additional luck, the missile might hit somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii, though Pyongyang would have little control over the actual strike zone. 

But if the missile “worked” in this way, the North’s luck would quickly end. The United States would launch several nuclear-topped missiles and Pyongyang, certainly, and every urban area in the North, probably, would be vaporized. The “lake of fire” about which the DPRK has constantly spoken would occur, all over North Korea. Pretty-boy Kim Jong-un wouldn’t have much to smile about then. 

Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. There is no indication that it won’t work against the North Korean leadership. There always is a risk of mistake or miscalculation, but that properly is a problem for Pyongyang’s neighbors.  

The latest DPRK crisis should trigger a policy shift in Washington. Once the immediate furor has passed, the Obama administration should begin bringing home the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and then end America’s formal security guarantee. Once Washington no longer confronted the North, the latter would turn its ire elsewhere. 

The ROK should take over its own defense, while building a better relationship with democratic neighbors, most obviously Japan, which also has been threatened by the North. At the same time, the Obama administration should hint at a rethink of Washington’s traditional opposition to the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. China should understand that failing to take strong measures to curb its ally’s atomic ambitions could unleash the far more sophisticated nuclear potential of America’s allies. 

North Korea is a practical threat to the United States only to the degree which Washington allows. Better policy-making would reduce America’s role in Pyongyang’s ongoing tragic farce.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un: Basketball Fan, Closet Liberal?

KGB director Yuri Andropov was a jazz aficionado and collector of abstract art, so he must be a liberal, it was said. Great change was expected when he took over as the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1982. 

Well, no. It turns out that he did not use the KGB as a clever cover for his secret liberal soul. Brutal repression continued apace. The U.S.S.R. had to wait for Mikhail Gorbachev, who did have a secret liberal soul. 

Much the same blather continues to be spread about North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. After all, he attended prep school in Switzerland. He likes Disney characters. And he is a fan of American basketball. 

Not just any basketball player. According to the BBC

Mathew Syed, [London] Times sports columnist, told the Today programme: “When I heard that [Dennis] Rodman had gone to North Korea, I was genuinely shocked.  

But it turns out that Kim Jong-un is a lifelong fan, apparently enjoyed it enormously, and sport being used as a potential tool for political rapprochement has a very long history.” 

So forget “ping-pong diplomacy” with Mao’s China. Dennis Rodman is the vehicle for the Kim dynasty as it inaugurates democracy, establishes capitalism, and protects human rights. Perhaps Rodman and Kim will share the next Nobel Peace Prize. 

It would be a wonderful story. But as yet there is no hint of serious reform in the North. Kim is younger and more open, attending events with his attractive, designer-handbag-toting wife. However, the labor camps remain full, controls on the border with China have been tightened, rumored economic reforms remain just rumors, and Pyongyang has moved ahead with rocket and nuclear tests. 

Reform may—indeed, must—eventually come. But in the meantime it is important to remember the essential character of the North Korean regime. The Kim family empire’s power is built upon a comprehensive system of pervasive discrimination and repression built on social classification, through which entire extended families are punished for an individual’s transgressions. Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, Kim’s North Korea is a gulag state, with citizens facing punishment and death for any number of transgressions. For decades Pyongyang even turned kidnapping into state policy, both enticing and forcing other peoples into what probably is the worst, most brutally repressive system on earth.  

Kim Jong-un likes basketball. Unfortunately, that does not make him a reformer, but only a dictator who happens to like basketball.

North Korea’s Economic Outlook: Cloudy with a Chance of Statistics.

During the past few weeks, North Korea has been the subject of outsized news coverage. The recent peacocking by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un – from domestic martial law policies to tests of the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities – has successfully distracted the media from North Korea’s continued economic woes. For starters, the country’s plans for agricultural reforms have been deep-sixed, and, to top it off, I estimate that North Korea’s annual inflation rate hit triple digits for 2012: 116%, to be exact.

Unfortunately, the official shroud of secrecy covering North Korea’s official information and statistics remains more or less intact. But, some within North Korea have begun to shed light on this “land of illusions”. For example, a team of “citizen cartographers” helped Google construct its recent Google Maps’ exposition of North Korea’s streets, landmarks, and government facilities.  In addition, our friends at DailyNK have successfully been reporting data on black-market exchange rates and the price of rice in North Korea – data which allowed me to conclude that the country experienced an episode of hyperinflation from December 2009 to mid-January 2011. 

Yes, things may be getting a bit brighter in North Korea. According to recent reportage by Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal, statisticians from the U.S. and Europe are bravely making their way into North Korea to teach students basic statistical methods. These lessons may only represent material from an introductory stats course, but they are a step in the right direction, because they force students to at least think about analyzing data. Unfortunately, in North Korea, reliable data continue to be a scarce commodity.

While these developments in North Korea have hardly shaken the dismal economic status quo, one can only hope that they will start to bring about some much needed change . But, don’t hold your breath. If flamboyant basketball hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman’s recent “basketball diplomacy” mission to Pyongyang is evidence of anything, it’s that North Korea is more interested in scoring cheap headlines than it is in turning around its economy. Until North Korea begins to open up its markets and make transparency a priority, its economic prospects will be cloudy, at best.

North Korea’s Cute Leader Isn’t So Cuddly

North Koreans might be impoverished and starving, but Pyongyang has entered the Internet age. Unfortunately, the new leadership isn’t using its skills to make friends. 

Thirty-year-old ruler Kim Jong-un has followed his “Great Leader” grandfather and “Dear Leader” father, so some of us call him the “Cute Leader.” But he’s not proving to be warm and cuddly—at least toward the United States. 

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently posted an animated YouTube video showing Manhattan in flames after a missile attack from an unnamed country. The images are cribbed from the video game Call of Duty and the audio is an instrumental version of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are the World”—so it’s not exactly an ILM-quality production. Scrolling across the pictures is Korean text reading, “It appears that the headquarters of evil, which has had a habit of using force and unilateralism and committing wars of aggression, is going up in flames it itself has ignited.”

The DPRK video—removed from YouTube because of copyright violation but still available elsewhere—occasioned hand-wringing and worries that maybe the United States should take the threat seriously. However, the threat is nothing new. Pyongyang previously issued posters showing missiles hitting America’s Capitol Hill.

The North Koreans aren’t the only people to view Washington as the Center of All Evil. However, most of the rest of us, especially here at Cato, don’t view foreign missile attacks as a particularly good solution to political disagreements.

How to Respond to North Korea’s Latest Threats

Relations between North Korea and the world are off to a familiar start in 2013. Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution tightening sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its missile test last December. The reclusive regime responded by predictably issuing threats against America and its allies. It seems likely now that Kim Jong-un will order a nuclear test in the next few weeks. What will follow? The kabuki dance continues. 

If North Korea does indeed detonate a nuclear device, the United States and its allies should avoid reacting hysterically. As I counseled on the missile test in December, provocative acts by Pyongyang do not deserve a response from Washington. The North carries out these tests to upset its rivals. The White House’s reserved response to the missile test was an encouraging sign. Any nuclear test warrants only an extended yawn. 

But what can Washington do to ultimately prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear program further and force it to engage the international community? I authored a piece running today at the National Interest that provides a few suggestions: 

The United States should not push for renewal of the Six Party talks. The North announced that it would not surrender its nuclear weapons until “the denuclearization of the world is realized.” This may well be yet another negotiating ploy. However, Washington and its allies should take it seriously.

Instead of begging Pyongyang to return to negotiations and requesting China to make Pyongyang return, the administration should indicate its openness to talks but note that they cannot be effective unless North Korea comes ready to deal. No reward should be offered for the North’s return to the table. 

Third, the United States should spur its allies to respond with the only currency which the Kim regime likely understands: military strength. Washington has had troops on the peninsula for nearly 63 years, far longer than necessary. That has left the ROK and Japan dependent on America. They should take over responsibility for dealing with the North’s military threats.

Washington should unilaterally lift treaty restrictions on the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles, a bizarre leftover from Seoul’s time as a helpless American ward. The administration also should indicate its willingness to sell whatever weapons might help the ROK and Japan enhance their ability to deter and even preempt a North Korean attack. The changing security environment should cause Japan to formally revise the restrictions placed on military operations by its post-World War II constitution.

I have a number of other policy recommendations in the full article, which you can find here

North Korea’s Hyperinflation Legacy, Part II

Following North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il’s death last December, many around the world had high hopes that his successor (and son), Kim Jong-un, would launch much-needed economic and political change. Unfortunately, in the months since the new supreme leader assumed power, little has changed for North Koreans outside of the small, communist upper class. The failed communist state has not delivered on its advertised economic reforms.

One thing it has delivered, however, is weapons, which have flowed through its illegal arms-trafficking pipelines. And, if that’s not enough, North Korea is planning another missile test  in the near future. But, as it turns out, the only thing that is certain to blast off is inflation.

In my recent blog post, I pointed out that one of North Korea’s communist legacies is hyperinflation (in addition to starvation). Indeed, hyperinflation may soon plague North Korea once again.

From what little data are available, it would appear that, in the span of six months, the price of rice has increased by nearly 130%. This is par for the course in North Korea, where the price of rice has increased by roughly 28,500% over the last three years (see the chart below).

 

 While the North Korean government worries about rocket launches and how to supply Syria with weapons, and while its archaeologists “discover” ancient unicorn lairs, its citizens’ food bowls are becoming quite expensive to fill. The supreme leader’s priorities, it would seem, are supremely out of whack.

North Korea: Kim Jong-il’s Death and the Coming Succession Struggle

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is dead. There is now no prospect of negotiating and implementing a new nuclear agreement with the North in the near future. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is likely to be consumed with a power struggle which could turn violent. Washington’s best policy option is to step back and observe.

After his stroke three years ago, Kim anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. However, the latter Kim has had little time to establish himself. The previous familial power transfer to Kim Jong-il took roughly two decades. There are several potential claimants to supreme authority in the North, and the military may play kingmaker.

Some observers hope for a “Korean Spring,” but the DPRK’s largely rural population is an unlikely vehicle for change. Urban elites may want reform, but not revolution. If a North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev is lurking in the background, he will have to move slowly to survive.

During this time of political uncertainty no official is likely to have the desire or ability to make a deal yielding up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The leadership will be focused inward and no one is likely to challenge the military, which itself may fracture politically.

Nor is China likely to play a helpful role. Beijing views the status quo as being in its interest. Above all else, China is likely to emphasize stability, though it may very well attempt to influence the succession process outside of public view. But China does not want what America wants, preferring the DPRK’s survival, just with more responsible and pliable leadership.

Washington can do little during this process. The United States should maintain its willingness to talk with the North. American officials also should engage Beijing over the future of the peninsula, exploring Chinese concerns and searching for areas of compromise. For instance, Washington should pledge that there would be no American bases or troops in a reunited Korea, which might ease Beijing’s fears about the impact of a North Korean collapse.

Most important, the Obama administration should not rush to “strengthen” the alliance with South Korea in response to uncertainty in the North. The Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. It should take the steps necessary to deter North Korean adventurism and develop its own strategies for dealing with Pyongyang. America should be withdrawing from an expensive security commitment which no longer serves U.S. interests.

Kim Jong-il imposed unimaginable hardship on the North Korean people. However, what follows him could be even worse if an uncertain power struggle breaks down into armed conflict. Other than encourage Beijing to use its influence to bring the Kim dynasty to a merciful end, the United States can—and should—do little more than watch developments in the North.