As was fully expected, Kim Jong Un has shown off that just because dad died, the DPRK still can pack a nuclear punch. It follows the satellite launch in December of Kwangmyongsong 3-2, which is widely thought to have also been a display of rocket technology might that could be used to launch missiles.
|Youth Hero Motorway approaching Pyongyang|
It's useful to largely ignore the hyperbolic Western media on this, driven partly because the DPRK has understandably being caricatured as some weird insane little country with a silly leader who does crazy things. I understand that caricature, but it is deceptively simplistic. Weird dictatorship, bad man who likes showing off his military might, but as this week's Economist reports, the reality on the ground in the country is quite different. For example, despite the rhetoric, it is comparatively easy (though not cheap) to travel to the DPRK.
You see, the DPRK has gone through a cycle of provocation, isolation, face saving dialogue, engagement and then provocation, since Kim Il Sung died. It doesn't demonstrate a genuine desire to wage war with its neighbours, rather it is a technique to extract booty from them, like a truculent child who wants attention, and has a tantrum when you stop giving it any.
|Trolley bus in Kim Il Sung square|
You can't blame Kim Jong Un, because it worked for his father.
After Kim Il Sung's death, there was a faction within the Korean People's Army that backed a coup to stop Kim Jong Il's succession. Kim Jong Il's reputation as a drunken playboy understandably didn't warm many hard working military veterans to him, and it is believed Kim Il Sung's widow - Kim Song Ae (not Kim Jong Il's mother, Kim Jong Suk, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1949, some say at the hand of Kim Il Sung), had promoted this (Kim Song Ae subsequently disappeared from public life). Kim Jong Il's response was a brutal purge, and to initiate the Military First policy which essentially transformed the one-party state into a quasi military dictatorship. The military would, from then on, have priority in terms of funding, resources, access to rations and so anyone in the military would be fed, clothed, housed and also effectively have the opportunity to requisition whatever was needed (and engage in blackmarket trading, given its control of the borders with China and Russia, and sea access).
Kim Il Sung had an interest in nuclear weapons following the fall of the USSR, as he saw it as being essential to retaining influence in the region. Kim Jong Il saw it as having two roles, one being a matter of national prestige and to demonstrate that he would rally resources around the country having the world's most powerful weaponry (even the face of the "Arduous March", which saw hundreds of thousands of people starve to death, because poor harvests, floods and the arcane inefficient economic system created mammoth food shortages). Kim Jong Il starved hundreds of thousands of people for a nuclear weapon, and it worked.
You see the same time as that was happening, he was playing the bluff of allowing inspections of the publicly known nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, getting funding and technical assistance to build a light water nuclear reactor for electricity, and getting fuel oil for oil fired power stations. The IAEA indicated that the DPRK was not allowing full and free inspections (hardly surprising in a totalitarian society), and then the first nuclear test happened.
The DPRK was ostracised, had new sanctions, and was told off, until of course, bilateral talks on the quiet recommenced, and it agreed to be good again, and started getting food aid to bail out its starving economy. Of course, the DPRK let the UN supply aid, because the UN deals with governments - meaning the DPRK could siphon off any food aid to the military and the party elite. In fact the DPRK even managed to convince the UNDP to provide hard currency to pay to give to regime officials, with effectively no oversight.
Meanwhile, discussions progress on denuclearisation, but nothing actually happens. Frustrations rise, and eventually the DPRK declares it is sovereign and undertakes another nuclear test.
This time, it is Kim Jong Un's first test. I believe he is doing it for several reasons. One is to cement his commitment to funding the military, as he too purged the regime of those seeking to overthrow him. Secondly is to play the game he saw his father play, to sabre rattle, get attention, and hope to extract concessions and aid whilst sanctions are imposed.
For despite all the talk of sanctions, the DPRK elite doesn't suffer extensively from them, as the diplomatic service acquires luxury items in sufficient quantities to ship back home, and China does not enforce them. One need only see the serious amounts of luggage checked in by Koreans flying to Pyongyang from China to recognise what is going on. Sanctions on the DPRK matter in two respects. They stop the military getting new technology (and the DPRK military, beyond WMDs, remains stuck with 1950s - 1970s Soviet technology) and frustrate modernisation of infrastructure, and the cheap supply of consumer goods that would recognisably be seen as progress by the population. However, the elite still get luxury goods and live comfortably, and as long as they can get that, and maintain stability, why should they want to change?
Indeed those with hard currency, can import cars, petroleum, DVDs, computers, clothes and other consumer goods, and have levels of freedom unseen before in the country. Money now buys freedom, and those with it can bribe police, military, guards and the like. The deal is simple. Let me do what I want, as long as I don't put you at risk or foment political uprising.
China could change that, but it has far less influence than is commonly thought. North Koreans trust China only slightly more than others, fearing China could overwhelm and exploit them as it does in Africa. Many Chinese have thriving businesses servicing the DPRK trade (official and un-official) so even if Beijing wanted to isolate the DPRK, it would need to do so by suppressing the entrepreneurial activities of its own people. Moreover, enough officials in the Chinese regime remain pro-DPRK in outlook, given their shared history. There is little interest in China in having the DPRK collapse, or in Korean reunification on South Korean terms (which is the expected long term inevitability). That view will only change when the CPC loses its monopoly on power and China itself takes a far more benign approach to neighbourly relations than at present (as its rhetoric over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands and the South China Sea indicates).
So meanwhile, China will talk tough, will not supply the DPRK with most of what it wants, but continue to let the thriving black market continue, in the hope that it encourages the DPRK to reform, on its model. China's strong preference is for the DPRK to become economically successful, with a stable authoritarian system, and have tensions defused on the Korean peninsula, knowing that this is the best hope there is to avoid the bigger risk of regime collapse, a destabilising military coup and sudden West German style takeover of a bankrupt north by the south.
The international response to this incident is wholly predictable. The UN Security Council is having an emergency meeting, there will be a new set of sanctions (although it unclear how much more can be done, unless China decides to explicitly cut off the supply of oil and impose travel restrictions on the country's elite), but little will change on the ground.
Is the DPRK going to attack Japan, south Korea or the USA? Almost certainly not, but given the "almost certainly" nature to that answer, what it needs now is a firm cold unshakeable response from President Obama. It is akin to what both Presidents Clinton and Bush said.
The DPRK has nuclear weapons, but they are futile. If the DPRK uses them to attack any of its neighbours, the response will mean the country will cease to exist.
In short, Obama should show that if the worst happens, and a nuclear weapon attacks south Korea, Japan or the United States, then the US will respond in kind, without mercy. His foreign policy to date has not shown a willingness to engage militarily, in Libya (only after British/French cajoling), Syria or Mali. There is every reason to think that Kim Jong Un believes that Obama doesn't have it in him to be the second US President to launch a nuclear attack. He needs to talk, as Clinton did (and other Presidents), that he considers that a nuclear response is legitimate to a nuclear attack. This matters not only in deterring the DPRK, but in protecting the value of the US nuclear arsenal. It is not a decision to take lightly, but the consequences of ambiguity in regard to it, would be more catastrophic than the use of the weapons themselves.
However, Kim Jong Un and the DPRK military and political elite are not Islamists. They do not seek to be martyrs, they do seek longevity and luxury. It is that which needs to be traded off for more openness, less militarisation and fundamental reform.
The best response is to maintain sanctions, maintain a steely firm and unwielding military deterrence, but engage with the regime at administrative and diplomatic levels. Unprecedented levels of news and foreign culture are floating into Pyongyang and border towns, as computers, DVDs and mobile phones illegally enter the country. Radios sent into the country by balloons from south Korea help too. What the country needs more and more of is for the population to have the propaganda of perpetual war and threat watered down by the reality of south Korea and the outside world to be plain to them. For ultimately, the system will fall, and it will fall because ordinary people have the courage to know that they are not as isolated as they may think. Change will succeed because there will be people who know they can trust the outside world.
Meanwhile, the pressure in bilateral talks should broaden from military matters to human rights.
|Practising for a rally in Kim Il Sung square|
The greatest travesty of justice in north Korea is the continuation of gulags which keep children incarcerated for the political "crimes" of their families. Not even China does this. The caricatures of the DPRK ignore this despicable horror, and the nuclear issue should not distract from the reasons why the DPRK is such an odious regime.
It is for that reason as well, that sanctions should be strengthened (with the hope China will join in, somehow), the UN should pull out of all aid efforts (which are largely counterproductive) and efforts reinvigorated to talk, without bribes. If only because the best chance to affect change is to convince desperate people that it is their best option too.