Monday, March 15, 2010
North Korea's regime trips up
Market forces 1, brute force, 0
An embarrassing climb-down puts Kim Jong Il in a difficult position
However loathsome his neighbours find Kim Jong Il, the nuclear-armed North Korean dictator, most admit that beneath the big hair lurks the mind of a tactical genius with a flair for survival. At home North Koreans are smothered by his ruthless personality cult. Abroad, he is an adept blackmailer: act mad enough to be dangerous; then conciliate for cash.
Recently, however, he has made tactical mistakes on both counts. Diplomats think none is so serious as to endanger his regime. But the blunders give heart to those who believe they can eventually push North Korea back to talks about dismantling its nuclear arsenal. And they reaffirm the benefits of what Americans call “strategic patience”: waiting until North Korea is desperate enough to offer concessions.
Even the regime appears, in its own odd way, to have admitted the most recent blunder. News reports suggest North Korea has reversed some elements of a crackdown on private enterprise that it unleashed with a cack-handed redenomination of the won on November 30th. In the interim, the currency collapsed, the price of rice surged by as much as 50 times, and much of traders’ working capital for buying and selling goods was wiped out. As food distribution seized up, some rare grumbles of protest were heard.
But since early February, regulations on trading in the jangmadang, or markets, across North Korea appear to have been lifted. Implausible official prices have been posted—from 240 won ($1.78) for a kilo of rice (a bit less than a pair of socks) to 25 won for a toothbrush.
Meanwhile, the Dear Leader has made a perhaps unprecedented apology to his people for feeding them “broken rice” and not enough white rice, bread and noodles. He was, he said, “heart-broken”, and implicitly acknowledged he had violated an oath to his godlike father, Kim Il Sung, to feed the people rice and meat soup.
Adding to the poignancy, experts say the bungled reforms were done in the name of Kim Jong Un, the dictator’s third son and potential heir. His involvement may have been part of a strategy to reassert Stalinist-style state control of the enfeebled economy ahead of 2012, the 100th anniversary of grandfather Kim’s birth.
It seems unlikely the plan has been abandoned altogether, not least because the small markets that have flourished since the famine of the 1990s pose such a challenge to the state’s authority. But the ineptitude must have been glaringly obvious, even in the hermetic state.
“The government has never said sorry to the people, especially on a topic as sensitive as rice,” says Andrei Lankov, of Kookmin University in Seoul, a writer on North Korea. “Because of Kim Jong Il’s age and the age of those around him, it looks like he may be losing touch with reality.”
Mr Lankov has described North Korea’s leaders as brilliant Machiavellians. However, he believes there may have been a similar miscalculation in North Korea’s recent behaviour towards America, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, the countries with which it started spasmodic “six-party talks” on denuclearisation in 2003. Its firing of a long-range missile and explosion of a nuclear bomb last year hardened the resolve of the five to strengthen United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang. However much Mr Kim has cajoled and coaxed since then, he has not yet achieved his usual success in dividing the five.
What’s more, diplomats say he seems increasingly open to a return to the six-party talks, which last year he vowed “never” to do. China, which is closest to North Korea and chairs the six-party forum, sent Wang Jiarui, a senior Communist Party official, to meet Mr Kim this week and invite him to Beijing. Mr Kim made no public commitment on the six-party talks, but his nuclear negotiator returned with Mr Wang to the Chinese capital.
Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, surprised his countrymen by saying he, too, hoped to meet Mr Kim “within this year”. The timing was odd. His statement came as North Korea was lobbing artillery shells threateningly into the Yellow Sea. But it revealed what officials say is a twin-track process in Seoul to engage North Korea, bilaterally as well as in the six-party framework. Wi Sung-lac, South Korea’s special representative for peace on the peninsula, thinks the North is “moving in the direction of talks”.
Both North Korea and its six-party counterparts have set such tough conditions on coming together that it would be rash to expect too much. North Korea wants UN sanctions lifted, and a peace treaty with America to mark the formal end of the 1950-53 Korean war before restarting talks. America has resisted both. An East Asian diplomat says the other five nations are demanding that North Korea take “concrete measures” towards denuclearisation before talks and the lifting of sanctions. “We’re not giving any carrots.”
Underscoring the resolve, humanitarian assistance to North Korea has slowed to a trickle. South Korea sent only $37m of public aid last year, compared with $209m in 2007. Officials say Mr Lee is adamant no money will be spent coaxing North Korea to a summit. Talks on cross-border tourism and factories, another means for Pyongyang to extort hard currency from the south, have made no progress.
Mr Kim still has some trump cards up his sleeve. Tensions between China and America over Taiwan and Tibet provide a thread of disharmony to tug upon. And China has a strategic eye on North Korea’s ports and minerals, which some diplomats fear may encourage it to be overly generous to the regime.
But the mere hint of economic fallibility in a regime that demands almost religious devotion from its subjects may turn out to matter more than the diplomatic manoeuvres. It comes at a time when North Koreans, using smuggled DVDs and telephones, have a better idea than ever before of how far their living conditions fall short of their neighbours’. That is a rare point of vulnerability for Mr Kim’s interlocutors to exploit.