Ques­tion­ing the stereo­types about North Korea Eric Tal­madge

North Korea is an eco­nomic bas­ket case that in­com­pre­hen­sively pours re­sources into nu­clear weapons and cares only about en­rich­ing a tiny cir­cle of elites when it can’t even feed its own peo­ple. It’s an “im­pos­si­ble state,” as one for­mer US diplo­mat put it,

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS -

Eric Tal­madge has been the AP’s Py­ongyang bureau chief since 2013

We’ve all heard those de­scrip­tions thrown around in the me­dia, from the White House, from the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. But with North Korea fac­ing yet more sanc­tions and puni­tive mea­sures over its lat­est nu­clear test, now might be a good time to re-ex­am­ine those as­sump­tions.

They aren’t as solid as they might seem.

Kim Jong Un is crazy, er­ratic, in­com­pe­tent

Ridicule is a comforting way of let­ting off steam. But re­gard­less of how morally rep­re­hen­si­ble, crim­i­nal or even evil we may per­ceive an ad­ver­sary to be, un­der­es­ti­ma­tion is dan­ger­ous.

There is lit­tle ev­i­dence Kim is crazy, er­ratic or in­com­pe­tent.

He as­sumed power af­ter the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, with very lit­tle prepa­ra­tion and prob­a­bly while still in his late 20s. Yet there are no clear in­di­ca­tions he — or a cir­cle of power-hold­ing cadres act­ing in his name — is not solidly in power.

In a to­tal­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship, bal­anc­ing ri­val in­ter­est groups and keep­ing pop­u­lar un­rest at bay in it­self is no small feat. It is to be ex­pected that Kim would face po­ten­tial chal­lenges, but he ap­pears to be nav­i­gat­ing the bal­ance of power quite deftly — and ruth­lessly, if nec­es­sary.

The big­gest known chal­lenge to his power came early, and he dealt with it by ex­e­cut­ing his pow­er­ful un­cle and for­mer men­tor, and purg­ing his fol­low­ers. That, ap­par­ently, was that.

Pol­icy wise, Kim’s regime has been con­sis­tent. His stated goals have been to de­velop the coun­try’s nu­clear weapons ar­se­nal while im­prov­ing its stan­dard of liv­ing.

Go­ing nu­clear is ir­ra­tional

In terms of lost trade op­por­tu­ni­ties, sanc­tions and diplo­matic iso­la­tion, North Korea’s pur­suit of a vi­able nu­clear ar­se­nal is a costly en­deav­our. It also uses re­sources that could be put to­ward badly needed in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments.

The mil­i­tary cal­cu­lus is dif­fer­ent, how­ever.

North Korea is sur­rounded by nu­clear pow­ers. Two of them — Rus­sia and China — are, to some de­gree, friendly. But the trump card is held by the US, and by ex­ten­sion Ja­pan and South Korea, which are un­der the US nu­clear um­brella. Wash­ing­ton can bomb North Korea into obliv­ion at will — as it nearly did with con­ven­tional weapons dur­ing the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea has long been able to keep South Korea at bay with its con­sid­er­able ar­tillery power near the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone. But hit­ting the US main­land has al­ways been out of its reach. A vi­able nu­clear de­ter­rent, as North Korea calls it, would change that. Go­ing to the ta­ble as a nu­clear power would rad­i­cally boost the North’s bar­gain­ing po­si­tion should se­ri­ous talks ever re­sume.

This may seem like para­noia to some.

The US has no in­ten­tion of in­vad­ing North Korea, and has said so for decades.

But ev­ery year, US troops team up with South Korean coun­ter­parts to con­duct war games that, while al­ways termed de­fen­sive in na­ture, have re­cently be­gun in­clud­ing train­ing for pre­ci­sion strikes, or more colour­fully, “de­cap­i­ta­tion” strikes on Kim Jong Un, along with sce­nar­ios for in­vad­ing or de­stroy­ing the cap­i­tal.

To North Korea, that is a very real threat.

Threats, real or per­ceived, are also use­ful po­lit­i­cal tools. Few things rally a na­tion be­hind its lead­ers bet­ter than the fear of an at­tack — es­pe­cially if the threat hap­pens to be com­ing from the world’s strong­est mil­i­tary.

North Korea’s econ­omy is a bas­ket case

It faces se­vere in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions, is ex­tremely wary of even the most ba­sic forms of mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism and has a fi­nan­cial sys­tem that is, at best, skele­tal. Still, North Korea’s econ­omy is grow­ing, and has been for years.

Econ­o­mists, while work­ing with ad­mit­tedly flawed and in­com­plete data, largely agree things ap­pear to have been get­ting marginally bet­ter. They es­ti­mate an­nual GNP growth at 1 to 3 per­cent.

Sanc­tions have cer­tainly hurt. But they have not been crip­pling.

De­spite re­gion-wide con­cern over a nu­clear North Korea, trade with Rus­sia and China con­tin­ues and is un­likely to end, con­sid­er­ing the reser­va­tions both Beijing and Moscow har­bor to­ward toe­ing any pol­icy line that they feel is dic­tated by Wash­ing­ton.

North Korea re­mains among the world’s least de­vel­oped economies. Stunt­ing due to mal­nu­tri­tion, ab­ject poverty and the lack of eco­nomic op­tions surely per­sist. But no more so than in many other poor na­tions.

The UN’s World Food Pro­gram, which has an of­fice in Py­ongyang and con­ducts reg­u­lar as­sess­ments, says North Korea’s food sit­u­a­tion is pre­car­i­ous. Most North Kore­ans can’t count on a bal­anced, nutri­tious diet.

But are North Kore­ans starv­ing en masse? Are they on the WFP’s list of na­tions most suf­fer­ing from food emer­gen­cies? No.

Its regime can’t sur­vive

Re­pres­sive, to­tal­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ships do have a ten­dency to im­plode. When they do, it’s usu­ally a vi­o­lent, bloody mess. And from the out­side, it can seem to hap­pen with amaz­ing sud­den­ness.

That sce­nario could play out in North Korea. But it has de­fied the odds for nearly 70 years, un­der three dif­fer­ent Kims.

It sur­vived the Korea War — which, thanks to mas­sive Chi­nese help, ended in what is es­sen­tially a stale­mate. It sur­vived the fall of the Soviet Union and its Com­mu­nist al­lies, ma­jor bene­fac­tors for decades.

Bar­ring in­va­sion, in­ter­nal re­volt or pop­u­lar up­ris­ing, the big­gest threat the regime faces could be a grow­ing do­mes­tic con­sumer econ­omy that arose as a cop­ing mech­a­nism dur­ing the famine years that fol­lowed the Soviet col­lapse and the cap­i­tal­ism­friendly trans­for­ma­tion of China’s econ­omy.

When North Korea stopped be­ing able to pro­vide ne­ces­si­ties its peo­ple had come to rely on, they learned to fend for them­selves. That helped North Korea weather the cri­sis, but also cre­ated a cash-based, en­tre­pre­neur­ial econ­omy that con­tin­ues to grow — and not nec­es­sar­ily in a way the regime can con­trol.

But, then again, maybe it can.

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