Still, hope of a solution rose in the aftermath the October 2007 denuclearization agreement. Alas, the accord crashed and burned last year. North Korea has subsequently denounced the arrangement, expelled international inspectors, announced that it will not return to the six‐party talks, begun to rebuild its nuclear program and restarted reprocessing activities, renounced the 1953 Armistice, nullified boundary‐demarcation accords, terminated bilateral political cooperation and reconciliation agreements, and voided economic arrangements with the South. Earlier this year, Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test and several missile tests. As international criticism increased, the DPRK ratcheted up its rhetoric, threatening military retaliation in response to varied South Korean, U.S. and UN actions.
None of this means that North Korea could not come back to the table. However, today there is far less expectation that the DPRK will ever be willing to abandon its nuclear program, let alone yield up its existing nuclear materials. Nuclear weapons offer the North security assurance, international status and extortion opportunities. If Pyongyang can still be bought off, the price has likely risen sharply.
North Korea’s current internal instability will make reaching a deal even more difficult. Despite common claims that Kim is “crazy,” the evidence indicates that he is evil, not insane. His strategy is consistent with regime preservation.
The military is central to Kim’s rule. He long has pushed a “military first” policy. Even as the regime lost authority, it continued to funnel resources to the armed forces. Nevertheless, in their prime both Kims may have had sufficient authority to sacrifice the military’s most powerful weapon as part of a political deal. A seriously ill and perhaps dying Kim Jong Il may not. A transitional collective leadership likely would not.
As noted earlier, the North already is moving in reverse on several fronts. The regime has been restricting private markets — limiting their number and what they can sell. Able‐bodied men and women have been barred from the market trade. “Slowly but surely, plans to close all general markets are becoming a reality,” warns the charity Good Friends.
The little private space that had opened up is closing: cell phones have been banned and their use now can result in a large fine and internal exile. The regime has launched a concerted campaign to prevent the sale of smuggled South Korean videos and CDs. Overall, writes Jinwook Choi, since late 2005 “Pyongyang seems to be enforcing the role of the party, prioritizing regime solidarity and implementing conservative policies at home and abroad in the aftermath of failed liberal economic policies (albeit partial and limited) over the last decade.”
Pyongyang has tightened border controls, cracked down on corruption among border guards on the north and periodically closed the border to the south. The North also reintroduced the state monopoly over food supplies and restricted activities by the World Food Program. (The WFP warns of impending food shortages, though Open Radio for North Korea, a South Korean group with contacts in the DPRK, reports the opposite.)
The North also is threatening to pull the plug on the Kaesong industrial development, which hosts 106 South Korean companies (one of which has pulled out) and employs forty thousand North Koreans. Pyongyang has torn up the agreement covering Kaesong and demanded a massive increase in rent and wages (which are pocketed by the regime). The North also arrested a South Korean in March for allegedly criticizing Kim Jong Il and has held him incommunicado. The regime appeared to back away from its expressed willingness to close Kaesong during the most recent bilateral negotiations, but the development’s future remains in doubt.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that Choe Sung‐choi, the official responsible for North‐South relations, was executed last year, allegedly for corruption; the more serious offense, some observers suspect, is the deterioration in inter‐Korean relations. All told, notes Lankov, “Though a complete return to the 1980s system has not occurred (being perhaps impossible), the backlash has been partially successful in reversing the changes.”
Equally significant is the rising influence of the military. Cheong Seong‐chang, director of the Inter‐Korean Relations Studies Program at the Sejong Institute, argues that “Since the appearance of health issues with Kim Jong‐il last year, the North Korean military became more influential.” Kim may have decided he must placate an institution capable of ratifying or blocking any leadership transition; the military may have become more demanding in the wake of his incapacity; both phenomena may be occurring simultaneously.
This would explain the rapid multiple international provocations, punctuated by the nuclear and missile tests. Moreover, the National Defense Commission (NDC), one of Pyongyang’s most powerful military bodies, is gaining internal authority. Responsibility for foreign intelligence apparentlywas recently moved to Commission. Open Radio for North Korea reports that strategic weapons development also was shifted to the NDC (from the Korean Workers’ Party). The group concluded: “The move is an indication that the National Defense Commission is expanding its role beyond being apolicy council for the senior insiders, transforming into a real power with enforcement agencies under its wings.”
Indeed, Rodger Baker of Stratfor Global Intelligence goes further, telling Fox News: