Tag: North Korea

Talk to Kim Jong-un Even as He Kills His Way to Power in North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will head to Washington later this month. The main agenda item: what to do about North Korea.

As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.

The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct. Hyon Yong-chol probably has been purged, though South Korea’s intelligence agency acknowledged that it could not confirm his gruesome death. If Hyon was executed, it probably was because the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.

There has been striking turnover among party and military officials since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Most dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen as the regime’s number two, in December 2013. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.

This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Only 28 or maybe 27 when his father died, Kim’s succession was pushed extremely quickly after his father suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Although there is no sign of organized resistance to the latest Kim, continuing turnover suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure. Instead of cowing resistance, promiscuous executions, even for acts short of actual rebellion, might make subordinates believe it is worth going for broke.

Repression is rising in other ways. For instance, the regime apparently has been employing “Patrol Teams” as press gangs to fill out its construction work force for projects to be finished by October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime also has strengthened border controls with China.

If Kim retains control, none of this might matter. However, everyone is wary of something other than the usual predictable unpredictability in Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted “growing concern” over “an extreme reign of terror within North Korea.”

Governance matters since the North continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. While nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal—members of the dynasty appear to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next—Pyongyang’s decision-making process could become more unilateral, unpredictable, or both.

Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do to directly influence events within the DPRK. War would be foolhardy, tougher sanctions aren’t likely to work, and the Kim regime is well beyond the reach of moral suasion.

Nor is negotiation likely to have much effect. While the North recently launched an international charm offensive, it continues to highlight weapons development and spout rehashed threats against America and the South. The Kim regime is not likely trade away the one factor causing the world to follow events in the DPRK.

Nevertheless, as I point out in Forbes, “the possibility of division and dissension in Pyongyang gives Washington a new reason to suggest direct discussions without preconditions, but with the prospect of benefits for a change in direction. If the regime is unsettled, those disaffected might benefit if Washington stood ready to reward a new approach.”

A peace treaty, diplomatic relations, and end of economic sanctions all should be on the table. It’s still a long-shot, but so is almost any other proposal to address the North.

Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.

North Korea: One Nation under Kim

In a comprehensive article on the comprehensive 1984-like propaganda efforts of North Korea, Anna Fifield reports on some underlying themes:

Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on North Korean literature who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, said that by not allowing people to form their own opinions, North Korea infantilizes its citizens.

“North Korea molds children socially,” Gabroussenko said. Books for different generations have different styles but the same message and characters, sometimes involving South Korean “stooges” or American “beasts.”

“In the children’s version, a child will be fighting Americans by throwing pepper in their eyes and making them sneeze and cough,” Gabroussenko said. In the adult version, weapons, rather than condiments, are used.

“The message ‘We are one nation’ implies that you can’t rebel against your father, you can’t rebel about your government, that it’s important to stick together,” she said.

North Korea’s totalitarianism may be unique, exceeding even that in the Soviet Union and Cuba, though perhaps reminiscent of Maoist China. So one must be careful not to draw too many analogies between the Kim cult and the efforts of political leaders anywhere else.

Will Susan Rice Wreck the Obama Presidency?

Barack Obama may be president because he criticized the invasion of Iraq. Leftish Democrats assumed he was one of them, opposed to military intervention. Instead, he followed George W. Bush’s lead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the national security state.

Still, President Obama appears to be a cautious hawk. So was National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, newly replaced by Susan Rice.

In contrast, Rice is an enthusiastic advocate humanitarian intervention: basically, Washington should intervene when it is not in America’s interest to do so.

There are lots of problems with the doctrine, including what criteria govern? Why no military crusade against North Korea? Or against the brutal victors in Kosovo and Rwanda?

Humanitarian intervention always is messier than advertised. And, as I pointed out on National Interest:

Intervention advocates almost never help prosecute “their” wars.  Promiscuous crusaders like former Vice President Richard Cheney always seem to have “other priorities” as they advocate sending others to fight and die.  Moral satisfaction comes easily while treating military personnel like gambit pawns in a global chess game. 

Rice has advocated military intervention in Liberia, Sudan, and Libya.  Although she said little publicly on Syria, she apparently favored providing arms to insurgents there.  In this she reportedly was joined by Secretary Kerry and Susan Power, who replaced Rice at the UN.

This is unfortunate, since Syria is a textbook example of a war America should avoid.

Before the president takes Rice’s advice, he should reflect on his predecessor’s fate.  Else Barack Obama, too, may find his administration remembered primarily for a disastrous and unnecessary war.

Read the rest here.

Forget North Korea, Weak or Strong: South Korea’s Strength Is Why America Should Come Home

Joshua Keating over at Foreign Policy offered a thoughtful commentary on Rob Montz’s North Korea documentary, “Juche Strong,” after last Thursday’s screening at Cato. Keating contended that the film, which suggests that pervasive regime propaganda has created at least some degree of legitimacy in the minds of many North Koreans, makes a case “that the United States needs to maintain its current military commitment to the region.” 

No doubt, it would be better for the Republic of Korea and Japan if the North was made up of “cowed and terrified people who will abandon their leaders at the first signs of weakness,” as Keating put it. But even popular determination and commitment—so far untested in an external crisis—go only so far. The question is not whether the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a threat, but 1) whether it is a threat which cannot be contained by its neighbors and 2) is a sufficient threat to America warranting U.S. led containment. The answers are no. 

First, the DPRK has amassed a large army with lots of tanks, but training is limited and equipment is antiquated. The North’s forces could devastate Seoul with artillery and missile strikes and a 4,000 tank surge might reach the South’s capital, but North Korea would be unlikely to ultimately triumph. The latter is weak in the air and with a decrepit economy can ill afford anything other than an unlikely blitzkrieg victory. Nor could Pyongyang look to Russia or China for support: the Cold War truly is over. 

More important, the ROK, which currently possesses around 40 times the North’s GDP and twice the North’s population, could do much more in its own defense. South Korea has created a competent, modern, and sizeable military. Is it enough? Only Seoul can answer. 

If the South remains vulnerable to a North Korean strike, it is only because the ROK decided to emphasize economic development and rely on America. That made sense during the early days of the Cold War, but no longer. There is no justification for turning what should be a short-term American shield against another round of Soviet- and Chinese-backed aggression into a long-term U.S. defense dole. It doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans are “Juche Strong or Juche Harmless,” as Keating put it. South Korea can defend itself. (Doing so would be even easier if Seoul and Tokyo worked harder to overcome their historical animus. Alas, they feel little pressure to do so as long as they both can rely on Washington for protection.) 

Second, the DPRK poses no threat to America requiring an ongoing military commitment. Even in 1950 the Pentagon did not believe the Korean peninsula to be vital strategically, but the Cold War created a unique context for the conflict. Today a second Korean War would only be a Korean War. Tragic, yes. Threat to America, no. Pyongyang is an ongoing danger to its neighbors, not the United States. 

The North matters to the United States primarily because Washington remains entangled, with troops, bases, and defense commitments. That is, North Korea threatens America because Washington chooses to allow North Korea to threaten America. 

Of course, proliferation would remain a concern even without a U.S. presence in Korea, but America’s garrison does nothing to promote denuclearization. To the contrary, Washington is helpfully providing tens of thousands of American nuclear hostages if the DPRK creates an arsenal of deliverable nuclear warheads. It would be far better for U.S. forces to be far away, out of range of whatever weapons the North possesses. 

North Korea is only one side of the Northeast Asian balance.  It doesn’t much matter if Pyongyang is weak or strong so long as South Korea and Japan are stronger. 

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.

Stop Rewarding North Korea

To a degree almost impossible to imagine just a month ago, North Korea has won international attention, dominated events in Northeast Asia, and embarrassed the United States. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has played into Pyongyang’s hands by responding to the North’s provocations. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting East Asia, beginning Friday, where the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will dominate the agenda.

Rushing off to the region on a high-profile trip is another mistake. Whatever Secretary Kerry does or says is likely to be seen as enhancing the DPRK’s stature. Better for him to have stayed home, phoning his counterparts as appropriate. 

No doubt the Obama administration hopes to craft a diplomatic answer to what is widely seen as a crisis. However, Washington dare not reward the North for its caterwauling, even if Kim Jong-un suddenly adopts the mien of a serious leader of a serious nation. Rather, Secretary Kerry should hold out the possibility of engagement, even diplomatic relations—but only if Pyongyang chooses to behave like other nations. No more providing benefits in response to threats. 

Moreover, the secretary and other U.S. officials should stop responding to every new North Korean development, big and small. America is a superpower with the ability to vaporize every acre of the DPRK. The North is impoverished; its people are starving; its military is antiquated. Its leaders are evil, not stupid or suicidal, and have neither the ability nor the incentive to attack America. Washington should respond to the next North Korean provocation, whether verbal challenge or missile test, with a collective yawn. 

Hope continues to breed eternal that China will tame or replace the Kim regime. No doubt Beijing is frustrated with its nominal protégé. However, the Chinese government will act only if it believes doing so is in China’s interest. Insisting or demanding will achieve nothing. Secretary Kerry must seek to persuade Beijing, an unusual strategy for Washington, which is used to dictating to other nations. 

North Korea is a human tragedy, but its belligerent behavior is primarily a problem for its neighbors, not the United States. Washington should give Pyongyang the (non) attention that it so richly deserves.

Iran’s Inflation Statistics: Lies, Lies and Mehr Lies

The Mehr News Agency is now reporting that Iran’s annual inflation rate has reached 31.5%. According to the Central Bank’s official line, Iran’s annual inflation rate has bumped up only 1.3 percentage points from February to March.

Never mind that this official inflation statistic is well below all serious estimates of Iran’s inflation. And yes, Iran’s official inflation statistics are also contradicted by the overwhelming body of anecdotal reports in the financial press.

Since September 2012, I have been estimating Iran’s inflation rate – which briefly reached hyperinflation levels in October 2012 – using a standard, widely-accepted methodology. By measuring changes in the rial’s black-market (read: free-market) U.S. dollar exchange rate, it is possible to calculate an implied inflation rate for Iran.

When we do so, a much different picture of Iran’s inflation emerges. Indeed, Iran’s annual inflation rate is actually 82.5% – a rate more than double the official rate of 31.5% (see the accompanying chart).

As I have documented, regimes in countries undergoing severe inflation have a long history of hiding the true extent of their inflationary woes. In many cases, the regimes resort to underreporting or simply fabricating statistics to hide their economic problems. And, in some cases, such as Zimbabwe and North Korea, the government simply stops reporting economic data altogether.

Iran has followed a familiar path, failing to report inflation data in a timely and replicable manner. Those data that are reported by Iran’s Central Bank tend to possess what I’ve described as an “Alice in Wonderland” quality and should be taken with a grain of salt.

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