There seems to be a pattern with diplomatic dialogue with North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom launches a missile, sanctions increase, everything blows over and the whole incident is forgotten, North Korea launches another missile. It is the tried and true method of absolute madness - repeating the same mistake over and over again, hoping for a new response. However, despite the failures of the international world to deal with North Korea, preferring a formed of begrudging tolerance to another military quagmire, the rapid improvements of living standards of the western world are beginning to bite the communist regime hard.
The duality of Kim Jong Un and his missiles.
It should come as no surprise that Kim Jong Un is beginning to lose his grip on the country. Thrust into ultimate power like Haiti's Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier was in 1971, Kim looks as if he is in over his depth. In the west, the 'Divine' leader is seen as a sloth-like epicurean, whose love of food is only equaled by his love for vanity.
In North Korea, it is a different story. Fear keeps the worlds only hereditary communist executive on the throne.To consolidate power in the wake of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un has resorted to Stalinist-style purges and show-trials (for those 'lucky' to have such a 'luxury') amongst the proletariat elite which even seem excessive for North Korean standards. Amongst the populace, repression is still brutal. Defector-come-Celebrity Yeonmi Park has publicly claimed that the fear of swift retribution is real, even to irrational lengths. 'I Believed my dear leader could read my mind, I thought if I thought a bad thing he could punish me', she was reported as saying by The Guardian
Punishment in North Korea can, as mentioned above, be swift and painful. Dissidents are sent to Gulags in the remotest parts of the nation where, according to pretty much every testimony of defectors who have been in these jails, are subject to inhumane treatment and unacceptable living standards. Public Executions as a means to make an example of undesirables and threats to the country (or in reality, The Kim Dynasty) are commonplace - it is reported that in 1999, after a failed coup attempt by North Korean Generals on the life of Kim Jong Il, those responsible were burned alive in front of a packed national stadium
North Korea also pursues a Military First policy - 1.2 Million soldiers out of a country of 25 million. And that is just the regular force. Nearly 10 million are reservists. Then there is also the pursuit of nuclear weapons. There is the belief that pursuing them will prevent North Korea going the way of Ukraine, who gave up its nukes in 1994, and Iraq, whom some argue would still be under Saddam Hussein's rule if he had nukes.
This may be true. But considering the economic calamities that North Koreans have endured over the past thirty years, it has to be asked - is this more a ploy to keep in power the ruling elite, more specifically the Kim Dynasty, at the expense of the rest of the country?Losing Control?
Rule by fear can be extremely effective. However, it can backfire spectacularly. This was so when Thae Yong-Ho, the North Korean Ambassador to the United Kingdom - a highly regarded position for any diplomat across the world, defected. Having been exposed to the western world and its benefits, it was still a surprise to see a high level North Korean diplomat to change sides. Stephen Evans, the BBC's Seoul Correspondent who had become friendly with Thae, espoused his surprise when hearing of his defection
. Thae himself argues that there are many more high profile defectors - he just happens to be the only one with his identity revealed. 'There will be an increase in the number of elite-class defectors seeking a better life", he said to South Korean news Agency Yonhap.
"I am the only high-ranking officer whose identity has been revealed to the public. South Korean media do not know about but North Korean Diplomats are all over it".
So is the Supreme leader losing his grip on power? Thae believes this has happened already. North Korea only maintains its hard line communist regime by closing itself to the outside world. Thae opines that
, "if he tries to introduce a market-oriented economy to North Korean society, there will be no place for Kim Jong Un in North Korea, and he knows that". Enter Jangmadang.The North Korean 'Economy"
In the aftermath of the famines of the 1990's, coupled with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the countries economy collapsed spectacularly. Several million died, and the government was forced to temporarily abandon Juche (the North Korean version of Communism, roughly translated as 'Self-Reliance'). to aid the starving masses. The ration-based distribution of goods was replaced by a policy reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Plan - Jangmadang. What is a primitive form of Market Economics, it has become the lifeblood for around three quarters of the population. Naturally, this is something derided by the Communists. However, the grave nature of the North Korean economy means that it is a necessary evil. Then there is the Black Market.
One could argue that the black market is effectively the North Korean economy. The Government is known to be involved in the illicit drug trade - in 2003, the Pong Su was captured by Australian Police and found to be carrying 125 kilograms of Heroin. The crew were charged and jailed, and the Pong Su, accused by the US State Department ti be part of a wider drug smuggling program
, was sunk as target practice by the Royal Australian Air Force in 2006. Other avenues include counterfeit US Dollar Bills and pharmaceuticals. Whilst it props up the regime, it also presents a danger to its rule as the exchange of goods has allowed modern technology in.
Watching foreign movies or singing a KPop song means arrest, imprisonment without trial for themselves and their families up to three generations (Part of the Kim's ideal of collective punishment), and even execution. That hasn't stopped the youth of North Korea. As Jieun Baek writes, this generation, the Jangmadang Generation, is "more capitalistic, more individualistic, and more likely to take risks"
. It is no real surprise - Growing up with semi-capitalism has made this generation, one quarter of the entire population of North Korea, different to the generation which experienced marxist attitudes to the distribution of goods and absolute isolation from the outside world. They also do not trust the government as much as their elders, the economic disasters of the nineties being a dark memory in their formulative years.
Jieun argues that every defector she has spoken to has consumed foreign media. It is still something that could land themselves and their families in one of the many notorious gulags in the country. But slowly it is bring change - even if just for the proletariat elites. A private Internet system, Kwangmyong, of which is realistically available to several thousand people, was launched in 2000, albeit with only 28 approved websites, according to the telegraph.
However, the explosion of western materials comes from outsiders, may of whom are defectors, smuggling in items such as USB's and MP3 Players
The 'Quiet' Revolution
Change is often brought upon by the outside. But it is impossible for North Korea to change if it shuts the outside out. This has been the failure of western policy for the last twenty years. The North simply just doesn't care. By not playing by the rules of the international community, they have made their own up. All these efforts of western leaders to bring North Korea to order seem to be for naught. That being said, any tough action against North Korea will undoubtedly earn the ire of China, who are hardly keen on seeing a US ally in South Korea sharing a border with them. Memories of the Korean War, and how the Peoples Liberation Army pushed South Korean and UN forces from a sure victory to a status quo ante bellum stalemate, reverberate in military and political circles. But perhaps there is another way?
Undermining enemy governments is a tactic used by many regimes, with mixed success. In 1984, the Soviet Union nearly caused a mass boycott by African and Asian Olympic teams by promoting false information that they would be targeted by white supremacist organisations. Only the intervention of the US Government prevented such a disaster. In North Korea, there is no need to make up such a flub. It is easier just to show the progress and modernity of the modern world. In other words, telling the truth. A group of activists known as Flashdrives for Freedom, aims to do just that. Their aim is to send up to 20,000 USB's into North Korea in order to undermine the Kim Dynasty.
However, this is nothing new. Many defectors have for years been smuggling such technology over the border to black market dealers, often at the risk of death. Whatever method is more effective may be debated by historians in the future. What is certain now is that North Korea is about to come to a crossroad.The Nuke Test
So what is the recent weapons test (and the ones after that) aiming to do? Well, it really is a means of saying 'Stay away from us, leave us alone!' With the election of Donald Trump and the end of what was a less aggressive stance by the US, North Korea feels vulnerable. With a youthful population less interested in toeing the party line and a political elite becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way business is being conducted, such an attitude can be interpreted in one word - Power. With the military-first policy, North Korea follows a might is right mindset in order to push for the maintenance of the status quo. Never mind that the status quo has failed.
The reality is that, for a nation with a population the size of Australia, nuclear weapons are a wasteful extravagance. The average North Korean GDP per capita is US$583 - The USA's is $ 53,750. In contrast, for every 1000 North Koreans there is 48 active soldiers, 308 in total if you count reservists. This is how determined the Kim Dynasty and other proletariat elites are at maintaining their station. After all, they are surrounded by China, who has the largest army, South Korea, whose army, though only half of North Korea's, is better trained, supplied and propped up by US support, Japan likewise, and the roving presence of the United States. Firing a test missile at a historical adversary in Japan in defiance of international law (as I said earlier, North Korea makes its own rules) is more or less a warning shot.
It is perhaps also a reminder to the North Korean people what the government can still do. Whilst many youths are beginning to challenge the new regime, there is still a vast majority still loyal to the Kim Dynasty. Many see themselves as underdogs, no doubt from years upon years of being taught to believe they are the chosen people. For many, a weapons test in defiance of the western world is a proud achievement. The pressure from the mob may also force dissidents to temporarily conform. But regardless, it is still a sign that everything is not all rosy in the Hermit Kingdom, that underneath the communist mythology lies deeper discontent waiting to burst through the surface.What happens now?
It is near on impossible to predict the fall of North Korea, both in the time frame and the manner of the collapse. For years, many have been predicting its demise under Kim Jong Il, only to see the state remain as if nothing had happened. Yet with Kim Jong Un's rule, such an eventuality looks closer each passing day. He is a leader who will happily upset the apple cart to consolidate power. One has to ask will the apples fall out of the cart and crush him in the process? People in positions of power do not like challenges to their power, particularly from a new leader who is yet to earn their trust. Caesar felt Brutus' blade for just that. Kim Jong Un may well meet a similar fate.
Another possibility is foreign intervention. Both China and South Korea have a vested interest in the north, although for differing reasons. South Korea wants a Unified Korea, whereas China wants a buffer-zone between themselves and South Korea. The US and Japan on the other hand are just tired of the bellicosity of what they regard as an upstart dictatorship with the potential to cause havoc. War however is least desirable. The Korean War was bitter and brutal with both North and South being utterly devastated. Furthermore, the aftereffects still linger on. A technically-continuing war, family separations and the most militarized border in the world, it still leaves an afterthought in the mind.
There is also the possibility of a Eastern-European popular uprising. If those dissatisfied with the Government rose up and demanded change, one has to wonder how long the Kim Dynasty would last. However, such an event would lead to a civil war bloodier than that in Romania. The country is on the whole too patriotic and too militarized.
The First option seems more likely. But what would happen after? Would the Generals and elites return to a more literal form of Communism? Would they pursue Detente? Or would they only enrich themselves? The timing is also up for debate. Will it happen this year, next year, in a decade? Will it ever happen? We hope the latter is not the case. However, predicting when and how is impossible. But what we do know is that it will happen. Kim Jong Un's reign of terror will come to an end as North Korea struggles to keep up with the rest of the world. When it happens, the world will need to be ready
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