January 31, 2005

PAINTED BACKDROP:

Chairman Kim’s dissolving kingdom (Michael Sheridan, 1/30/05, Times Of London)

FAR across the frozen river two figures hurried from the North Korean shore, slip-sliding on the ice as they made a break for the Chinese riverbank to escape a regime that, by many accounts, is now entering its death throes.

It was a desperate risk to run in the stark glare of the winter sunshine. We had just seen a patrol of Chinese soldiers in fur-lined uniforms tramping along the snowy bank, their automatic rifles slung ready for action.

Police cars swept up and down the road every 10 or 15 minutes, on the look-out for refugees. A small group of Chinese travellers in our minibus, some of whom turned out to have good reasons to be discreet, pretended not to notice.

The two made it to shelter and we ploughed on towards a border post that offered us a rare opportunity to cross into the northeastern corner of the last Stalinist state, posing as would-be investors in an experimental free trade zone.

We had already witnessed one sign that North Korea’s totalitarian system is dissolving, even as its leaders boast of owning nuclear weapons to deter their enemies.

“It’s just like the Berlin Wall,” Pastor Douglas Shin, a Christian activist, said by telephone from Seoul. “The slow-motion exodus is the beginning of the end.”

In interviews for this article over many months, western policymakers, Chinese experts, North Korean exiles and human rights activists built up a picture of a tightly knit clan leadership in Pyongyang that is on the verge of collapse.


Time for the President to give a Westminster speech, talking about North Korea in the past tense and about how we'll work with the citizens of the free Korea that follows.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 31, 2005 8:37 AM
Comments

The problems with the optimistic projections about the demise of the DPRK are twofold. First, the notion of a brutal hermit kingdom, closed to foreigners, ruled by a god-king and totalitarian in nature is not unknown in Korean history. In fact, for much of Korean history, it was the norm.

Second, the ROK, Japan and, especially, the PRC are all deathly afraid of what will happen if the DPRK collapses of its own weight. The ROK is in no position, and its leadership is scared to death of the notion, to do for a free North what the BRD has been doing for the fallen DDR. The costs are exponentially greater and the ROK has no where remotely close to the resources of the BRD. All the region will vote for stability over change, and they will do so fully cognizant of the brutality and ineptitude of the DPRK.

Once you get past these hurdles, maybe you'll have something.

Posted by: Bart at January 31, 2005 10:19 AM

Yes, those were the reasons Albania and Romania and the rest were going to be permanent totalitarian regimes.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 10:45 AM

Albania is tiny and Romania was never isolated, quite the contrary. Also, in neither of them was the vast majority of the people reduced to eating grass and in neither of them did the regular military comprise over 5% of the population. Both are the case in the DPRK.

Posted by: Bart at January 31, 2005 10:53 AM

Bart;

But those previous Korean kingdoms did not create such a stark difference in quality of life between inside and outside. I also would think that reducing people to eating grass would argue against the long term stability of the regime, not for it.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 31, 2005 11:53 AM

AOG,

If you are utterly ignorant of what is going on outside the Hermit Kingdom, those differences mean nothing and the DPRK controls all sources of information. They may actually believe that everyone else in the world eats grass too. The Dear Leader may have convinced enough of his people that eating grass is the natural order of things. It is not as if the Norks were living in the land of milk and honey before the Kims, as Japanese occupation was not especially pleasant.

Also, the stark difference between life in the DPRK and life in the ROK does matter when you look at things from a boardroom in Seoul. You have seen the Germans invest hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in the former DDR where the per capita GDP was probably about 1/4 that of the West and where the population was about a quarter of that in the West. When you contemplate the notion of reunification with the North, the fact that per capita GDP in the North is probably about 5% that of the South and the fact that the North has about 1/3 as many people as the South and the fact that the South, while light years ahead of the North, is not nearly on the level of economic clout that the BRD had, you are scared to death of the economic cost of reunification. That is not even counting the immediate health disaster that the collapse of the DPRK would cause, when the degree of human misery there becomes known.

As cruel as it sounds, a business leader in South Korea might actually prefer Kim and his loony regime in power to what might come later.

Posted by: Bart at January 31, 2005 12:34 PM

Bart:

Are you auditioning for Dan Rather's chair?

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 31, 2005 12:50 PM

Jim,

Not at all. I just find myself asking questions. The North should have collapsed when the Berlin Wall fell. At the time, it had staggering economic difficulties far more severe than what goes on there now. There are literally hundreds of thousands of North Korean guestworkers in Japan sending back remittances to keep their families alive. The other people in the DPRK leadership also, one would think, would have enough ambition to kill the Dear Leader and at least change the system a little. You would also think the PRC wouldn't want a lunatic on its border but would instead prefer a patsy.

The continued survival of the regime just doesn't make sense. I can understand how Castro stays in power because he gets subsidies from so many of our alleged NATO allies, like Tundra-Covered Freeloader Land to our North. So, rather than throw up my hands and say like Tim Kazurinsky on SNL,'It's a Minkman.' I try to find some kind of explanation for the current state of affairs.

Nothing I am saying should be seen as an endorsement of the DPRK simply as a series of questions and ideas as to why it hasn't ended and also a reminder that if it does go out with a bang that there will be serious long-standing problems with which to contend.

Posted by: Bart at January 31, 2005 1:14 PM

Bart:

Albania White. Korea Yellow. That's all you've got, huh?

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 1:16 PM

OJ,

How does Albania differ? Let me count the ways.

1. Most Albanians don't live there but in Italy, Greece, Kosovo and the US. Albania wanted help with respect to the Kosovo situation but its hermit kingdom act wasn't going to be accepted by the West. The West, of course, was the only game in town, as the Soviets were in full collapse.

2. Albania has always had a window on the West. It is only 15 miles across the Adriatic from Albania to Italy and intermarriage has been commonplace there for centuries if not millenia.

3. Albanians are not homogeneous. There are Muslim Albanians, Catholic Albanians and Orthodox Albanians and there used to be Jewish Albanians. They also speak two separate languages, Gheg and Tosk. By contrast, everyone in the DPRK is a Korean. It is the most homogeneous country on Earth. This matters for two basic reasons. First, the Norks can do an 'us against the world' strategy which goes nowhere when it is much tougher to define 'us.' Second, when Hoxha died there were fights among the other leaders based upon traditional clan and group loyalties. The internecine warfare, which continues to this day, made the maintenance of 'Hermit Kingdom' policies unsustainable.

4. North Korea is by all accounts a serious military power, Albania is not. The military itself can be a rallying point in a society. We may be starving but the whole world trembles at our military. By contrast, the Albanians lost a war to Mussolini's Italy.

5. North Korea's isolation lasted for centuries. Albania was on a major Balkan trade route for centuries. If you wanted to sail from Trieste to Constantinople, and lots of people did, you had to go past Albania. OTOH, if you wanted to sail to China from Japan, or vice versa, you could avoid Korea entirely. It was a backwater, a non-entity. By contrast, piracy has been a major source of income for Albanians since the time of the Caesars. I know that I do not have to recount, OJ, what happened to the Illyrian(i.e. Albanian) pirates when they captured a teenage Julius Caesar, on his way to study in Athens and then held him for ransom.

6. Albania was a player in world history, Korea was a sidebar. Coriolanus ran to Albania. Pyrrhus, of Pyrrhic victory fame, was an Albanian. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was an ethnic Albanian. Did Korea ever matter to anyone prior to 1950?

7. Koreans have a racist culture, Albanians do not. In Korean orphanages, it is commonplace for inter-racial orphans to have fatal 'accidents.' No such nonsense is ascribed to Albanians which as a trading nation, Shkoder has been a port since forever and you can spit from Corfu to the Albanian mainland, certainly has experience with foreigners.

OJ, that last comment was unworthy of you.

Posted by: Bart at January 31, 2005 1:51 PM

Nothing much past white v. yellow, huh?

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 3:11 PM

Dear leader is now a carp!

Posted by: Dave W. at January 31, 2005 9:07 PM

Bart: I am not sold. It would be far cheaper for the US to feed North Korea for a couple of years than to keep an Army in South Korea. The Chinese must have a hundred more important things to spend its money on and the Japanese would gladly toss in a few bucks to make the problem go away.

The article seems to me as if the end game is near. I wonder how the Mullahs feel?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 1, 2005 3:27 AM
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