Risks, Possibilities and Stagnation
In 2003 Kim Jong-il celebrated his sixty-first birthday with the usual display on state television of fireworks and images of an adoring citizenry. Fifty years after the death of Stalin, a form of Stalinism continued to exist in the upper half of the Korean peninsula and despite economic collapse, famine and a mass of predictions seemed relatively stable. The economy was down but not out, thanks to aid supplies and the people’s seeming acceptance of their reduced circumstances. The military, though perhaps suffering from shortages and deprivation, was still able to lob a missile into the Sea of Japan on the day South Korea’s newly elected president was taking his official oath and being sworn in.
Eight years later, in August 2011, Kim Jong-il was dead and the predictions of regime collapse intensified. By December of that year his 28 year old son, Kim Jong-un, a man the world new next to nothing concrete about assumed the office of Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. The story continues. Economic collapse remains, famine haunts the land and missiles still get lobbed into the Sea of Japan.
Today, the people of North Korea are among the most desperately poor, hungry and economically deprived on earth. The serious danger of an entire society collapsing persists. If this happens then the consequences for the entire peninsula will be devastating, both for North Korea’s impoverished citizens and for South Korea, which would be left to pick up the pieces. The current vogue for ‘regime change’, first strikes and active anti-proliferation measures featuring ‘boots on the ground’ strategies would do little other than kill North Koreans and create a humanitarian, financial and political crisis for East Asia – all the sooner as South Korea nurses a fragile economic recovery, Japan remains mired in recession, and China needs all its considerable resources to overcome the hurdles thrown up by its continuing reform.
The relationship and interaction between the DPRK and the US will continue to be crucial. American policy towards the peninsula has almost always been one of reaction and not anticipation, of last-minute compromise between the military and State Department, and rarely subject to deeper consideration. As John Swenson-Wright has noted, the White House still lacks a clear strategy for dealing with Pyongyang. America now finds itself on the horns of a dilemma and at a time of growing involvement globally. American sabre-rattling may have the effect of mobilising support for the regime at home, and give it a legitimacy it may have been losing. Containing North Korea militarily is costly. Since 1994 US analysts have spoken of a ‘red line’, or the trigger-point beyond which the US feels it will have no alternative but to exercise some form of military action against Pyongyang.
Military action against Pyongyang would result in a disaster whatever way it was planned or executed. With Seoul just thirty-seven miles south of the DMZ, it makes no military sense. The South Korean capital city of 10 million people lies within the range of the DPRK’s formidable batteries of artillery and missiles. North Korean jets can reach the city within several minutes of takeoff. North Korea certainly has the ability to inflict massive damage on the ROK in any military conflict, but it also knows it would be destroyed if it attacked. The North’s porcupine strategy, or Masada complex, is designed to ensure that in any conflict a US victory would be at the highest human cost possible and thus politically unacceptable in Washington. According to Pentagon estimates, a conflict on the peninsula would lead to at least 52,000 American and 490,000 South Korean casualties within the first ninety days. Former CIA chief James Woolsey has argued that 4,000 daily air strikes over a period of thirty to sixty days would be required to demolish North Korea’s nuclear programme as the US believes it exists, and to blunt its capacity to retaliate. Additionally, the Pentagon’s public war plan for Korea estimates that the DPRK has 12,000 artillery pieces, including 500 long-range weapons, located largely in close proximity to the DMZ in deep mountain bunkers. This artillery is thought to be capable of firing ‘several thousand’ shells per hour towards South Korea. Even with improvements in intelligence, weapons technology and missile accuracy, not to mention the previous Bush administration’s declared willingness to use nuclear weapons, any strike is seen as a risky and potentially disastrous operation both militarily and politically.
Engagement, however, carries its own risks. Wendy Sherman, an adviser to Madeleine Albright and a special adviser to Clinton on North Korea, described the dilemma well:
I have no illusions about Kim … he is a leader who has left his people with no freedom, no choices, no food, no future. People are executed. There are labor camps. But the decision we have to make is whether to try to deal with him to open the country so that the people of North Korea do have freedom, do have choices, do have food. Do I think it would be preferable to not deal with him? Yes, but the consequences are horrible, so you have to deal with him.
The North Korean leadership remains seemingly divorced from reality – Kim Jong-un appears to have inspired confidence in no one. Lack of knowledge filtering up to the leadership leads at best to mistakes, and at worst to outright stupidity. Flunkeyism (sadaejuui) is identified as the opposite of Juche and is theoretically objected to. However, the reality of the situation in Pyongyang is that by the late 1970s Kim Il-sung was surrounded by a politburo of largely aged, poorly educated, ex-guerrilla generals who showed blind obedience rather than offering advice and alternatives. Kim Jong-il saw many of the older generation pass away, but he subsequently cultivated an elite that has little interest in letting him know the reality. Kim Jong-il was not the crazy and irrational dictator much of the tabloid press sought to portray him as; nor was he necessarily ‘the hawk of hawks’, yet he may not have had a truly rounded grasp of the situation. As one journalist noted, ‘The real issue isn’t whether Kim is crazy enough to amass a nuclear arsenal but whether he is crazy enough to dispossess himself of his one bargaining chip. Time will tell but it appears that Kim Jong-un has no new sources of information above and beyond those available to his father.
Time is running out for North Korea. Another crop failure could occur at any time, aid is dwindling, allies are virtually non-existent, the risk of serious disease outbreaks is high. Pyongyang lacks the assets that China had when it began its reform process. China had no shortages and was not obliged to rely on foreign aid. It had a wealth of domestic entrepreneurial traditions and resources, as well as the invaluable ‘bamboo network’ of overseas Chinese capital, know-how and contacts. The DPRK’s economic reforms of 2002 did not show us how socialism with North Korean characteristics would look; they simply showed how a government had panicked in the face of a collapsing economy.
Which economics textbooks Kim Jong-il and his planners back in 2002 read we can never know, but it is plausible to suggest that the Chinese economist Chen Yun numbers among them. Chen was an advocate of Soviet-style planning in China in the 1970s, but in the early 1980s moved towards a more modified version of the USSR’s blueprint – what Chen called a birdcage economy, where the bird is the economy, the cage is the central plan and the size of the cage is the market:
One cannot hold a bird tightly in one’s hand without killing it. It must be allowed to fly, but only within its cage. Without its cage, it would fly away and become lost. Of course, the cage must be of appropriate dimensions.… That is to say, one may readjust the size of the cage … but regulation of economic activity by the market must not entail abandonment of the orientation provided by the plan.
This notion seems to be where the economic planners and ideologues of Pyongyang have been heading, with cages like Sinuiju, Rajin-Sonbong, and adjustments to the state pricing mechanism and other limited economic reforms such as Kim3’s New Economic Movement. Chen, like his latter-day colleagues in Pyongyang, retained his faith in the plan and in the subordination of agriculture to industry. He, like Pyongyang, believed that central allocation was preferable to the market as it allowed for control and the eradication of market inefficiencies as well as supplying full employment.
Chen’s arguments for a slightly modified Soviet system in China didn’t win out. Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were looking not to Moscow but to Hungary and Yugoslavia, which seemed to offer less rigid forms of socialist economics. Deng, Hu and Zhao also made a simple comparison and asked, who fared better economically? Was it market-driven South Korea, or plan-driven North Korea? Was it market-driven West Germany or plan-driven East Germany? Eventually they looked at economies such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and, of course, the Asian economic giant, Japan.
It was clear that Kim Jong-il knew he needed to do something about his shredded economy. Yet he was not ready to admit, as Deng did in 1984, that ‘a little capitalism isn’t necessarily harmful’. He was not ready because meaningful steps towards the market require decentralisation and the granting of greater personal freedom. As Philip Bowring has observed, ‘the North wants change without regime change.’ This mindset does not appear to have significantly changed with Kim2’s passing. While the command economy remains dominant, the overall trend, despite possible blips, will be downwards. The official New Year Message from Pyongyang invariably states that the DPRK flag ‘is adorned with great victories and no defeats’. This may be the case militarily. The real defeat, though, for the party-state in North Korea, has been the economy.
North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French is out now for £9.99/$14.95