Sunday, April 29, 2018

Korea: Real change or the cycle of bluff?

North Korea watchers are split on what the outcomes of the latest diplomatic activities on the Korean peninsula will mean.  There was the usual, tiresome, anti-Trump kneejerk reaction to his threats to the DPRK, which of course follow the DPRK's missile and nuclear tests, all of which breach UN Security Council Resolutions.  Trump rightfully declared that no regime oppresses its citizens like North Korea.  Liberty in North Korea gives you more on this, which I wont repeat.  It's a regime that controls movement of its people not only to leave this prison state, but to leave your own town.  It runs gulags in which it incarcerates entire families for the political "crimes" of one (that mean elderly relatives down to babies).  It is difficult to exaggerate the scale of this, but it's also important to remember that this ISN'T a priority internationally.  

So let's be clear about what the DPRK is.

  • Totalitarian regime with unrivalled levels of control on media, speech, movement of people compared with virtually any other country.  There is little internet access, almost no access to broadcasts from outside the country, and very few ever have permission to travel outside the country.  There is very little private enterprise, with what there is being restricted to informal (but tolerated) market stalls.  All other retail and trading activities are undertaken by the state, and economic activity is directed by central planning with limited use of price as a tool to manage demand and supply.
  • Highly militarised, with a standing army of 1.1 million (and over 8 million reservists) out of a population of around 25 million, with the military taking around 20% of GDP.
  • It is the creation of the USSR, which entered the northern half of Korea near the end of World War 2 as the US entered the southern half, as Japan withdrew its imperial forces.  Japan had occupied Korea and treated it is a vassal state since 1910, treating Koreans in many cases as slave labour.  The UN sought to hold elections across Korea, but the USSR refused to allow the holding of an election in the northern half.  The south held elections, and the Republic of Korea was formed, with the first President Syngman Rhee.  The north declared the Democratic People's Republic of Korea shortly thereafter, with a Stalinist system led by Kim Il Sung.  At the end of the 1940s the US withdrew from south Korea, and Kim Il Sung was given approval from Stalin and Mao to reunify Korea under a communist system, starting the Korean War.  After three years of bloodshed, including UN intervention on the side of the south (led by the USA), the war ended roughly at the same point as where it started.  The DPRK declared "victory" as it claimed the south started the war, led by "US imperialism".  
  • The USSR instituted Kim Il Sung as Supreme Leader of the DPRK, with a Constitution and party/state structure mirroring that of the USSR at the time (under Stalin).  Kim Il Sung was a minor guerrilla fighter who led a small band of resistance against the Japanese, before fleeing to the USSR where the Red Army schooled him in Stalinism.  
However, it is important to remember what it tells its citizens:
  • They are the luckiest people in the world with (as Barbara Demick's book was titled) "Nothing to Envy in the world".
  • South Korea is a "puppet regime" run by the USA as a slave colony of fascism, where the people revere the Kim dynasty and ache for reunification under their leadership.  South Korea would quickly reunify with the North if the US imperialist withdrew their "troops of occupation", but the USA treats its south Korean "subjects" like the Japanese used to.
  • Kim Il Sung led an army which was responsible for liberating ALL of Korea from Japanese imperialism, and he entered Pyongyang to adoring crowds grateful for his feats of military acumen.  Kim Il Sung was the most intelligent, skilled, amazing, adoring and generous man of all history, he is admired globally by billions of people, and his works are consumed by them and inspire their own feats.   
  • Other countries are either impoverished or comprise a small rich elite that take advantage of a mass of downtrodden workers, who are all impoverished, without the wondrous goods and free housing, healthcare and education of the DPRK.  
  • The Korean War was NOT started by the DPRK, but by the USA wanting to aggressively turn all of Korea into a slave colony.  The US has always wanted this.
Kim Jong Un's number one priority is regime survival.  This has two elements.  One is protection from foreign attack (primarily the US, seeking to destroy its nuclear arsenal) and the other is internal revolt.

Kim Jong Un may have a big ego and be ruthless, but he is no fool.  For decades, the DPRK relied on the Cold War to ensure that it didn't really fear any US attack, because that was deterred by the USSR.  However, with US military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein, to support the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and to strategically attack military sites in Syria, there is real fear of the US (particularly under Trump, compared to Obama), striking the DPRK.

Yes Kim Jong Un knows the US fears the DPRK striking back, not so much with nuclear weapons, but with a massive conventional attack on south Korea, which may also include chemical and biological weapons (it is widely believed that the DPRK has all three primary types of WMDs).  However, he also knows that the US and south Korea can easily defeat the DPRK on the battlefield with conventional weapons and if nuclear weapons were used by the DPRK, Pyongyang would almost certainly be levelled by a similar response.  He is as deterred by the devastation and scale of death as the US is, so he is keen on lowering of tensions.

His survival also needs protection from internal revolt.  The only institution capable of doing this is the military.  Mass revolt by the population is almost inconceivable, as the whole country outside Pyongyang faced starvation during the late 1990s and there was little sign of resistance.  However, shortly after Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, his widow (who was not Kim Jong Il's mother, but his stepmother) apparently sought to get the military to stage a coup against Kim Jong Il (widely thought of as a lazy psychopathic playboy), but failed.  His response was the "Songun" (military first) policy that effectively sidelined the Korean Workers Party as the centre of authority, making the military the priority of the party, the state and the economy.

This is where the rational interest of denuclearisation, reduction of tension and peace on the Korean peninsula faces a conflict of interests with those of the Korean People's Army.  Kim Jong Un will know that if he significantly reduces the economic commitment of the state to the military he risks the military taking over.

So he has TWO choices, assuming that ignoring the military isn't an option.

1.  Don't demilitarise at all.  Re-enter the familiar cycle of detente, with rhetoric of peace.  Conduct no more nuclear tests, even allow unprecedented levels of inspection of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site (which is already destroyed) and seek a lowering or ending of economic sanctions. It will not dismantle its existing arsenal, but it will buy time for trade and investment.  It will demand that the US withdraw from south Korea before anything else happens (despite claims to the contrary) and after a period of a year or two of more trade, the cycle of sanctions and threats will recommence.

2.  Corporatise the military.  Sign a peace treaty, get US assurances of non-aggression, but retain WMDs and a formidable defence capability, but redirect the defence sector's activity more towards trade and the (black) economy.  Let the army run businesses, allow limited foreign investment in factories and infrastructure and become rich.   The military can then be part of a pseudo-capitalist reform programme that enriches those within it, enables it to upgrade its own equipment and grow the economy.  This will also mean that the current elite can enrich themselves through a mild form of liberalisation and capitalism.  Think China in the 1970s, but don't go too far down that path.

For as long as the Kim clan lead, the Kim Il Sung myth needs to be sustained.  That means that the big lies of the regime must be protected.  North Koreans can't know that their brethren in the south live with a level of prosperity AND freedom that they could hardly imagine.  So don't expect very much loosening of trade and travel between north and south.  South Koreans will be able to visit very carefully managed resorts (and be expected to spend a lot of hard currency), but north Koreans wont be travelling.   The tight control on media, movement of people and information will have to be maintained, otherwise it risks the broad mass of the population who are neither in the military nor the elite, asking questions and demanding to live more like south Koreans.  They'll want the houses, the clothes, the electrical goods, the cars, the freedom.  All of that will bring down the DPRK, particularly if the military split.  

So what do I think will happen?

I think there will be a lot of talk.  I think the US will demand, as a bare minimum, full inspection and verification of the dismantling of the DPRK's nuclear arsenal and concrete steps to build confidence between the sides.  That could mean allowing unrestricted family reunifications across the border,  greater travel from the south to the north, trade and investment, and allowing cultural and sporting exchanges.

However, the DPRK only wants three things: the US to withdraw from south Korea, a guarantee to not be attacked and an end to economic sanctions.  It can't afford to open up, so it is stuck.  

By no means should Trump agree to US withdrawal from south Korea without a least full verifiable dismantling of the nuclear weapons programme, and ideally also chemical and biological weapons (if the DPRK opens those up then it will be a transformative change).  Although it could certainly agree to a non-aggression treaty based end to the war, it still needs to maintain deterrence against conventional attack.   However, what should not be neglected is the push for closer interaction between the Koreas at the personal level.  I'm far from convinced that Kim Jong Un is doing anything other than playing for time, cementing his reputation in the north and pushing to get economic sanctions eased to help enrich the elite of his regime (and encourage some investment.

He is stuck between the legacy of his grandfather (and father's) web of deceit and the military's position to overthrow him.  The China reform option isn't really there.  However, let's take the calming of tensions as a good thing and hope that it's an opportunity to break the regime open a bit more.  The more that happens, the better the chances for the millions north of the DMZ.

No comments: