Is North Korea’s Regime Really In Peril?

David Maxwell Comment:  “Important analysis from Dr. Hwang.  If the regime is not really in peril then we have much work still to do.  While collapse of the regime will be catastrophic the only way Kim will make the decision to give up his nuclear weapons is if he assesses that possessing them is a bigger threat than giving them up.  And the only threat that will cause him to make such as a decision has to come from within.
 
As to the resilience of the regime and the Korean people living in the north I would add that the regime has received outside help at significant times that helped it survive, namely the Sunshine and Peace and Prosperity Policies from 1997-2007.  But what really has provided resilience among the Korean people is the establishment and growth of markets since the Arduous March of 1994-1996. And Dr. Hwang makes an important point that sanctions are not affecting the markets that are run by the people.”
 
Excerpts:
Despite the imposition of harsher international sanctions this year in response to Pyongyang’s continued recalcitrance regarding its nuclear weapons program, sanctions by all accounts have not significantly affected these private markets that make up much of the unofficial economy. The dilemma for the international community, however, is the impossibility of knowing with certainty the true effects of sanctions on the state of the economy. The regime recently took pains to officially declare that the economy is “thriving,” ostensibly to show its defiance in the face of sanctions.
While their economic impact may be difficult to assess, sanctions are, however, clearly making a significant political impact as evidenced by the regime’s anger. And they are taking an economic toll, at least officially, in preventing South Korea from proceeding with many of its inter-Korean engagement projects.
How much longer can Pyongyang manage to maintain this status quo? It has given Washington until the end of the year to “change its position,” while President Donald Trump seems unworried about North Korea’s recent launches of short-range ballistic missiles, contradicting even his own advisers. Trump continues to believe that Kim will return to the negotiating table desperate to “make a deal.”
Yet history has shown how North Korea has in fact been remarkably resilient, withstanding immense external pressures from the international community, both economic and political. The regime in Pyongyang, despite many predictions over the years, has somehow not collapsed despite the dire internal conditions of its economy and the suffering of its population.
The regime even undertook a smooth leadership transition in 2012 that brought Kim Jong Un to power, surprising even the greatest skeptics. Today, with a significantly expanded nuclear and missile arsenal, and a substantial international presence despite rumors of turmoil within his inner circle, Kim is on a much stronger footing than his father. Moreover, he is in charge of an economy that, while faltering and under more international pressure, still is arguably in a better position than it was a decade ago. If Kim chooses a path for limited reform along the rough outlines of a potential deal with the U.S., in which sanctions are lifted in exchange for nuclear concessions—no matter how unlikely the possibility of such an outcome—North Korea’s economy would also improve, further consolidating Kim’s position. Rather than collapse under internal pressure, North Korea, as it has for years, is likely to continue to perplex observers and prove much of the world wrong.
 
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, at a musical performance.North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center right, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, center left, at a musical performance in North Korea, June 2, 2019 (Korean Central News Agency photo via AP Images).

North Korea has never been an easy country to understand from the outside. But the recent cycle of seemingly contradictory developments in one the world’s most isolated countries appears especially bewildering. Last month, there were reports of a major leadership shakeup in Pyongyang, followed by a startling report in South Korean media that several key North Korean officials who had been in charge of negotiations with the United States had been executed or purged. Within a week, however, several of these officials resurfaced.

These stories are a reminder that all too often, the immediate coverage about the North Korean state is not as it initially appears—especially the most headline-grabbing news about regime turmoil. Why are many of these breathless reports about North Korea so often readily accepted as fact, despite a consistent history of outsiders misunderstanding the country and the nature of its regime?

Most observers of North Korea are too quick to draw conclusions based on very limited information and even less knowledge about a regime that, although brutal and totalitarian, is also far more complex than the usual caricature of a mafia state run by a maniacal ruler. Even other more thoughtful and careful analysts, including well-meaning policymakers, have drawn the wrong conclusions about North Korea over the years. Despite the conventional wisdom and all the predictions of regime collapse, the Kim dynasty has managed to endure.

The problem with trying to understand the North Korean regime is not only that the calculations of its leadership are so closely guarded, but that Pyongyang has perfected the art of manipulating how it wants the world to perceive it. One cannot with any certainty draw complete conclusions about the true meaning or intent of Kim Jong Un’s personnel changes. Are they a direct signal to the United States regarding nuclear negotiations, or signs of elite turmoil or strife? Are they a signal to South Korea about satisfaction or dissatisfaction over inter-Korean détente, or mainly a sign of a generational shift toward a younger leadership?

When it comes to the economy, the situation is equally opaque. A recent series of reports about alarming economic conditions in North Korea are perplexing, also due to multiple accounts that seemed contradictory. In early May, U.N. agencies warned that 40 percent of North Korea’s population, or approximately 10 million people, are likely in “urgent need” of food aid after experiencing one of the worst harvests in a decade. The country has endured chronic food shortages since the mid-1990s, when it suffered a catastrophic famine of historic proportions. Although accurate figures remain unavailable, the death toll at the time is, at a minimum, considered to be in the hundreds of thousands, with most outside assessments estimating more than a million casualties.

The 1990s famine was ostensibly triggered by an economic collapse related to a number of geopolitical factors, including the end of the Cold War. But most of all, it was primarily due the failure of the totalitarian North Korean system itself, which, under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, had launched the ill-fated “Songun” or “military first” policy in 1995. By prioritizing the military over all other aspects of the state and society as the nation’s ideological guiding principle, all the resources of the already-strained economy were directed toward singularly militaristic pursuits.

Here too, while accurate numbers are impossible to obtain, most estimates are that under Songun, the regime directed an astonishing 40 to 60 percent of the national budget toward defense and military spending, which included the widespread development of nuclear weapons and missile programs, triggering the first of the destabilizing international crises to come. Just as significantly, Songun had calamitous effects on North Korea’s existing but undeveloped agricultural system, essentially guaranteeing a future of systemic national food shortages and chronic malnutrition.

With an expanded nuclear and missile arsenal and a substantial international presence, Kim Jong Un is on a much stronger footing than his father.

The problem was not just the lack of sources of food, but critically its distribution. The famine led to the breakdown of the government’s Public Distribution System, which until then had provided food supplies to all North Koreans. That system never fully recovered from the effects of the 1990s famine, and many people in rural provinces have had to fend for themselves or face starvation. According to the United Nations, the Public Distribution System earlier this year cut the official daily rations to just 11 ounces a day, the lowest ever for this time of year, and will likely face further cuts later in the harvest calendar as drought conditions worsen.

Nevertheless, North Korean citizens have developed their own resilience and coping mechanisms to endure such deprivation. People have devised extensive networks of private markets at the family and neighborhood levels, all despite harsh crackdowns by the authorities in Pyongyang, who still want to maintain centralized control over the entire economy and any markets.

Despite the imposition of harsher international sanctions this year in response to Pyongyang’s continued recalcitrance regarding its nuclear weapons program, sanctions by all accounts have not significantly affected these private markets that make up much of the unofficial economy. The dilemma for the international community, however, is the impossibility of knowing with certainty the true effects of sanctions on the state of the economy. The regime recently took pains to officially declare that the economy is “thriving,” ostensibly to show its defiance in the face of sanctions.

While their economic impact may be difficult to assess, sanctions are, however, clearly making a significant political impact as evidenced by the regime’s anger. And they are taking an economic toll, at least officially, in preventing South Korea from proceeding with many of its inter-Korean engagement projects.

How much longer can Pyongyang manage to maintain this status quo? It has given Washington until the end of the year to “change its position,” while President Donald Trump seems unworried about North Korea’s recent launches of short-range ballistic missiles, contradicting even his own advisers. Trump continues to believe that Kim will return to the negotiating table desperate to “make a deal.”

Yet history has shown how North Korea has in fact been remarkably resilient, withstanding immense external pressures from the international community, both economic and political. The regime in Pyongyang, despite many predictions over the years, has somehow not collapsed despite the dire internal conditions of its economy and the suffering of its population.

The regime even undertook a smooth leadership transition in 2012 that brought Kim Jong Un to power, surprising even the greatest skeptics. Today, with a significantly expanded nuclear and missile arsenal, and a substantial international presence despite rumors of turmoil within his inner circle, Kim is on a much stronger footing than his father. Moreover, he is in charge of an economy that, while faltering and under more international pressure, still is arguably in a better position than it was a decade ago. If Kim chooses a path for limited reform along the rough outlines of a potential deal with the U.S., in which sanctions are lifted in exchange for nuclear concessions—no matter how unlikely the possibility of such an outcome—North Korea’s economy would also improve, further consolidating Kim’s position. Rather than collapse under internal pressure, North Korea, as it has for years, is likely to continue to perplex observers and prove much of the world wrong.

Balbina Y. Hwang is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University. She previously served as senior special adviser at the U.S. State Department.

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