North Korea, Kim Jong-un and the Big Bad Bomb

May 27th, 2012

By Dan Miller

Unsuccessful negotiations with Iran to avoid nuclear weapons development have been much in the news.  Her frequent collaborator North Korea — which has already made and tested nuclear devices — is lurking in the background while we await her delayed attempt to conduct another

As a Russian arms shipment is en route to help Syria’s humanitarian President Bashar al-Assad, China complains of the “woeful” state of human rights in the United States and we learn of this year’s crop of sexy new sunglasses, there are indications that China’s teenage brat son North Korea has become more aggressive in order to ensure that the transfer of power from the late Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un, will be successful.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is likely to keep tensions with South Korea high and continue provocations against the South to help consolidate his power, experts in Seoul forecast Thursday.

Kim would also be very reluctant to pursue reform or open his isolated country out of fear such steps could lead to the collapse of his regime, Koo Bon-hak, a professor of Hallym University Graduate School of International Studies, said at a Seoul forum.

He has become increasingly visible, particularly in military contexts:

Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un, independently of the regency which choreographs his dances, still seems to have little existence beyond ceremonial. That attempts are being made to consolidate “his” power may be an accurate assessment whether young Kim is destined eventually to gain more personal power or the regency is trying to consolidate and augment its own power over and through him and hence to continue to control the country.  Western analogies are usually of little use in understanding the hermit kingdom, but a monarch with all of the public trappings of absolute power although lacking its substance seems relevant. The relationship is symbiotic.


According to a 2012 Amnesty International report,

Arbitrary arrests and detention

In apparent preparation for a succession of power, unconfirmed reports suggested that, in January, the State Security Agency detained over 200 officials, some of whom were feared executed, while others were sent to political prison camps. Credible reports estimated that up to 200,000 prisoners were held in horrific conditions in six sprawling political prison camps, including the notorious Yodok facility. Thousands were imprisoned in at least 180 other detention facilities. Most were imprisoned without trial or following grossly unfair trials and on the basis of forced confessions.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Men, women and children in the camps were tortured and ill-treated, including by being forced to work in dangerous conditions. The combination of hazardous forced labour, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions, resulted in prisoners falling ill, and a large number died in custody or soon after release. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

Death penalty

In July, there were unconfirmed reports that the authorities had either executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents 30 officials who had participated in inter-Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogue. On 10 March, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions wrote to the government regarding 37 reported cases of executions between 2007 and 2010 for “financial crimes”.

mass_starvationLack of food and an abundance of malnutrition persist, even in North Korea’s “rice belt,” and there have been a few reports of cannibalism.

Some of the 230 defectors interviewed by the Korean Institute for National Unification told of witnessing executions of people who had either eaten or sold human flesh.

There were reports of outbreaks of cannibalism in the isolated state in the late 1990s after a disastrous famine led to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people, but the new reports are more recent, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The most recent case occurred in 2011 in the town of Musan, a defector told the institute, while a father and his son were executed by a firing squad in the town of Doksong in 2006 after being found guilty of consuming human flesh.

In a third case, a man was executed in Hyesan in December 2009 for killing a girl and eating her. The man reportedly resorted to cannibalism after supplies to the city dwindled in the wake of the government’s disastrous efforts to reform the currency triggered rampant inflation and worsened already critical food shortages. …

In one case, a starving man used an axe to kill a work colleague, ate some of the flesh and sold the rest in a local market as mutton.

The recent “hijacking” of Chinese fishing boats

As noted here, North Koreans captured three Chinese fishing vessels, apparently not in North Korean waters, on May 8th and continued to hold them for ransom. North Korea released them on May 20th without payment of any monetary ransom. However, some species of  non-monetary “ransom” was probably promised and is being paid. According to the South Korean Chosun Ilbo,

Chinese security forces launched a massive crackdown on North Korean defectors in Jilin Province’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture on May 15.

Chinese officials say the crackdown is part of a nationwide bust of illegal aliens, but there are suspicions that the drive specifically targets North Korean defectors hiding out in northeastern China as well as South Korean activists and religious organizations who are helping them.

Beijing in March arrested South Korean activist Kim Young-hwan (49) on the vague charge of threatening national security.

I had suggested here shortly before the release that the “hijacking” might have been intended to dissuade China from continuing to shield North Korean defectors for humanitarian reasons from the consequences of “repatriation” and to induce her also to send to North Korea for “questioning” such South Korean activists as Kim Young-hwan, who had been disparaging the Kim Regime in China while aiding North Korean dissidents there; North Korea had requested his arrest by Chinese officials and they complied.

Nuclear test?

North Korea’s preparations for an underground nuclear test were said to be “nearly complete” even as her missile test failed on April 12th. It is claimed that North Korea increased her pace of preparation “a day after North Korea vowed to boost her nuclear deterrent in the face of pressure from the United States, South Korea and Japan to stop further testing,” that she is currently “technically ready” to proceed with the test and that she is awaiting only a political decision. However, North Korea recently said

it never planned to conduct a nuclear test and its missile tests were purely for scientific research. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said the regime “from the beginning” never envisaged “such a military measure as a nuclear test,” and the aim of a failed rocket launch last month was to put a satellite into orbit for peaceful purposes.

The North was responding to a statement on Saturday from the G8 nations condemning the April 13 rocket launch and pledging tougher UN sanctions against the Stalinist country in response to any further provocations or a nuclear test.

North Korea then accused the U.S. of condemning it without good reason by taking issue with the peaceful satellite launch and of ratcheting up tensions by spreading what it called “rumors” of an impending nuclear test. …

Experts speculate the statement was an excuse for the delay of the nuclear test, which was believed to be imminent. “This is related to speculation that North Korea postponed the nuclear test due to pressure from China,” said Yoo Ho-yeol at Korea University. “North Korea is trying to save face by pretending it has not caved into pressure from China but never planned a nuclear test in the first place.”

It is suggested here that, following her failed April 12th missile test, North Korea sent out “feelers” to the United States about the resumption of food aid talks.

We have been told that following the failed launch, and the US declaration that 2/29 was off in all respects, DPRK representatives in early May conveyed through Track 2 players a desire to try again, and even recommended using a back-channel contact similar to (and perhaps identical to?) the de Trani/Seilor mission.

Senior DPRK officials well known to all the players said that the Foreign Ministry, at least, was stunned by the adverse international reaction to the “peaceful” test, and asked the Administration to keep the conversation going via contacts below the “official” level of Amb. Davies.

There has to date been no confirmation of a second mission, whether by de Trani or anyone else, yet the Rhodes statement noted by Yonhap, above, seems a repeat of the same arguments made by Davies and his assistant, Ford Hart, in the lead-up to 2/29, and in statements prior to the actual launch … namely, we can still work a deal if you don’t “provoke”.

The tormented souls in the State Department and elsewhere charged with North Korean negotiations are probably becoming increasingly dizzy as their circular dances continue.

Another missile test?

missile_testSubstantial preparations are also underway for another missile test, this time of a bigger device with the heavier payload needed for a significant weapon. The Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground site on the East Coast is evidently to be used, not the Sohae Satellite Launch Center on the West Coast that was used for the failed April 12th launch, probably to avoid retaliation by Japan. Any missile launched from the Tonghae site would likely head across Japan, causing significant displeasure there.

The new construction is intended to support future launches of rockets larger than the recently tested Unha—more capable liquid fueled space launch vehicles or missiles with intercontinental ranges—that will also overfly Japan, further aggravating regional tensions. In addition to a new launch pad under construction, much of the nearby village of Taepodong has been razed to clear the way for what appears to be a new building designed to assemble larger rockets. The high bay portion of that building—the area where rockets are assembled—may have twice as much floor space as similar facilities at Musudan-ri and the new Sohae Satellite Launching Station (commonly referred to as Tongchang-ri). At the current pace of construction, the facilities should be operational by 2016-17.

Now — What might North Korea do instead?

North Korea could take other steps in pursuing her usually productive strategy of being mercurial and bellicose without precipitating another partial rupture with China or wasting scarce resources such as missiles, nuclear devices and hard currency. Wouldn’t the Kim regency prefer more abundant supplies of luxury goods for distribution to themselves and even among lesser classes of regime devotees? Her missile and nuclear tests have consumed vast quantities of hard currency and completion of her Tonghae missile launch site along with an appropriate missile will probably require substantially more.

liquorKim Jong-ilWith a fraction of the funds already expended, millions of malnourished North Korean serfs could be fed for several years or members of the Kim regency and their close associates could be supplied with their fills of luxury goods for about the same length of time or probably even longer were it unnecessary to evade (with the assistance of China) sanctions intended to block their importation.

Ten thousand rolls of tobacco, 12 bottles of Sake, and a handful of second-hand Mercedes-Benz cars are among the latest reported breaches by North Korea of a U.N. ban on luxury goods sales to the reclusive state, according to a confidential draft U.N. report.

Japan told a U.N. panel of experts that Pyongyang also imported thousands of computers and thousands of dollars worth of cosmetics and that almost all the goods were shipped through China, it was reported in the draft seen by Reuters on Thursday.

Another limited artillery attack on a small South Korean island or even on a small sparsely populated village just across the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea would require minimal financial expenditures and could be about as effective for internal public consumption as another missile or nuclear test. True, South Korea would be offended but her response would again likely be neither preemptive of future attacks nor even fully proportionate. The United States and others would express displeasure, but far less than at a nuclear or missile test potentially threatening them themselves with future strikes.

What, besides the minor inconvenience of sanctions and the starvation of numerous unimportant North Korean serfs — she still has plenty more where they came from — prompts North Korea to continue to irritate most countries, including even China, by testing and threatening to test weapons of mass destruction? “Bluster, threaten, chill out and beg, then repeat as often as needed” have been her consistent strategy.

With severe drought, North Korean food shortages seem to be worsening. According to the official North Korean news organ, the Rodong Sinmun, “Severe drought is continuing throughout the country.” Despite existing sanctions, there are ample luxury goods for her elite and the rest matter little if at all. True, bellicosity alternating with begging have long been major parts of her tradition and tradition is very important in an intensely dogmatic “religious” society such as North Korea.  Might the regime have become concerned that without quite modest improvements in their living conditions the serfs remote from Pyongyang might become worrisomely restless and do something potentially destabilizing? However, more than minimal improvements might also cause them to become restive, so there are tough decisions to make.

Pyongyang is quite different from the rest of North Korea.  Residence there is limited to those deemed faithful to the regime and they are far better fed and housed than serfs in the hinterlands.

They are also more expensively entertained:

Kim Jong-un recently berated “officials for the ‘pathetic’ management of an amusement park in Pyongyang in an effort to bolster his image five months after taking power in the totalitarian state.”

It seems likely that even in North Korea, as word slowly but eventually filters down from on high in Pyongyang to the hinterland serfs about the grossly disparate allocations of necessities, let alone of luxuries, unrest will increase. Until recently, there was hope that better lives might be had in China and some managed to sneak in and remain there.  As China – she doesn’t want illegal aliens from North Korea anyway — sends them back in large numbers as promised to face incarceration or worse in prison gulags, what might happen? Their lives will certainly be worse even than before they left for China, but what about those they left behind in North Korea? As it becomes widely known that China is no longer a viable destination, how about happy Pyongyang?   Nothing resembling an Occupy Pyongyang movement seems likely, but attempts at small incremental population shifts with accompanying disruptions seem less farfetched.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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