TOKYO – If the most dangerous moment for any dictatorship is when it starts to reform, North Korea looks ready to turn that truism on its head. Its recent shelling of South Korea suggests that the failing Kim dynasty might set East Asia alight rather than undertake any serious reform. If peace really is the key component of China’s rise, the Chinese must now rein in their mercurial client.
Trying to understand the “Hermit Kingdom” can be like staring into a black hole. Some view the bombardment of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island as a bid to divert North Koreans’ attention from their country’s collapsing economy, or perhaps from the approaching death of their “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, or to create a synthetic reputation as a military leader for Kim’s son and intended heir, the 27-year-old (or so) “Young General,” Kim Jong-un. Others view the attack as simply another in a long line of provocations, and thus not to be taken all that seriously.
Hwang Jang-yop, North Korea’s former chief ideologist and its most senior defector to the South, describes North Korea as a mixture of “socialism, modern feudalism, and militarism.” It has proven to be a lethal combination. Roughly 1.5 million of North Korea’s 23 million people are estimated to have starved to death over the past decade. Hunger remains widespread, if not as dire as two years ago. The standard daily ration is 150-300 grams (5-10 ounces) of corn or rice (equivalent to roughly four slices of dry bread), depending on the location. Food often remains unavailable in rural areas.
Atop North Korea’s starvation economy sits a personality cult that dwarfs those of Stalin or Mao. Ubiquitous images of Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung, are the official symbols of a secular theocracy based on juche (pronounced choocheh), the Kims’ contribution to the world’s patrimony of totalitarian ideologies. As with the Church or the divine right of kings, the system cannot be challenged without undermining the infallibility of its perfect leaders.
The third and seemingly scariest component of Hwang’s formula, militarism, may in fact prove to be the system’s Achilles heel. Maintaining the world’s fifth-largest army in a perpetual state of combat readiness is crushingly expensive for one of its poorest countries, with the military budget claiming an estimated one-third of GDP. The armed forces operate a parallel economy, with its own mines, farms, and factories, though many soldiers and junior officers still go hungry.
The permanent war footing is just one manifestation of North Korea’s obsession with rugged self-sufficiency. Juche is autarky raised to the level of philosophy. The North Koreans consider any reliance on the outside world as a source of weakness, even though their economy would collapse without Chinese handouts.
Because North Korea does not repay loans, it cannot borrow money; because it reneges on deals, it drives away potential partners; and, because it aims for autarky, it cannot specialize or exploit its comparative advantages. As a result, its annual exports – which include film and television animation, reconditioned cars, and, inevitably, an illicit trade in arms – are worth less than $1 billion.
Not surprisingly, defectors nowadays describe an environment of social breakdown, petty crime, and a Darwinian struggle for survival. There is despondency and latent unrest. Corruption is rife.
So what is Kim up to with this latest attack on South Korea?
Kim’s main target was surely the six-party talks between his regime and the United States, United Nations, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. Previously, North Korea was offered economic and other inducements to give up its nuclear weapons. Like Iran, however, Kim wants to have his cake and eat it: eventual acceptance as a nuclear power and all the economic enticements from the US, Europe, Russia, and China to de-nuclearize.
That might seem crazy, especially given the likelihood of another round of economically crippling sanctions following the bombardment. But Kim’s calculus is different from that of most rulers. He has always shown scant regard for his people’s plight, and he still expects to get two-thirds or more of the oil and food he needs from China.
In the face of the North’s provocations, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has demonstrated more of the statesmanship he showed in the recent G-20 summit in Seoul, when he successfully crafted a new focus on development for the group. President Lee’s allies have rallied, rightly, to his cause, but even we recognize that his restraint cannot be unending.
Much, then, depends on the Chinese, whose self-defeating regional diplomacy has managed to push a listless and defense-shy Japanese government into closer cooperation with the US on security matters, and has inspired South Korea to seek out strategic partnerships with other Asian powers, including India. One hopes that North Korea’s recent behavior – the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, and now the shelling of Yeonpyeong island (which followed a supposedly “accidental” shooting incident in the DMZ in October) – will focus minds in Beijing.
But China, which fears a collapse of the North Korean regime above all, does not want to antagonize Kim. And China is keen to draw South Korea closer in the game of regional rivalries. The result could be a new round of efforts by China to manipulate regional suspicion – or worse.
Alternatively, China could shoulder some real responsibility for security in East Asia and close ranks against Kim and his reckless brinksmanship. That should start with support for a clear condemnation of North Korea by the UN Security Council. That global effort will almost certainly not succeed without a credible Chinese threat to sever Kim’s economic umbilical cord.