Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A North Korean Economy in Tatters

Unlike China's leaders, who linked market-oriented reforms to the Communist Party's survival, Kim Jong Il and his North Korean cohorts see economic openness as a threat to their power and have in recent years intensified state control over the economy.

After severe famines killed perhaps one million people in the mid-1990s, the government tolerated a limited amount of market reform, including the proliferation of farmers' markets and the tilling of private plots. But in 2005, Pyongyang reversed course and began reestablishing the state's dominance over food distribution. Officials have even slapped new restrictions on the operation of marketplaces in recent years.

Due to bad floods in 2007, food shortages last year were likely the worst experienced since the 1990s. The World Food Program (WFP) says it has launched a program to feed 6.2 million people in North Korea, or more than a quarter of the population. Yet in March, North Korea, without explanation, rejected all food aid from the United States, its largest official donor, and kicked five aid groups distributing the food out of the country. The step is potentially disastrous for the North Korean people. The WFP figures that last year's harvest, though slightly improved on 2007's, still fell about a third short of the population's needs.

Marcus Noland, an expert on the North Korean economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, believes that efforts to roll back reform have intensified in the past six months. Kim Jong Il was quoted saying in a January editorial, North Korea "should launch a general offensive dynamically, sounding the advance for opening the gate to a great, prosperous and powerful nation."

North Korea watchers speculate that Kim Jong Il, who likely suffered a stroke last year, is maneuvering to install his son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor, and that Pyongyang's May nuclear test, recent war threats and anticipated long-range missile launch are all part of an effort to build support for the Kims, especially among the country's powerful military brass. Economic policy, Noland says, has become tied up in the succession as well. "Today inside North Korea, all officials have an incentive to demonstrate how committed they are to orthodoxy," he says. "As a consequence, there is an internal dynamic that encourages retrograde behavior."


Monday, June 29, 2009

Kim Jong-il boxed in, or just up to his old tricks?

At home he is idolized as a "great man with clairvoyant wisdom." Elsewhere, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il looks like a cornered man who has a dangerous infatuation with atomic bombs. Will he give up years of rhetorical war and launch the real thing? Or will he just give up -- to save himself and his exhausted economy? Neither is likely, according to diplomats, analysts and officials.

Kim's government is not so much feeling threatened as playing a well-practiced game of who-blinks-first, rolling out the nuclear threat to win another set of concessions from a world struggling to deal with a leader who has little else to bargain with.

Pyongyang's punishment for May's nuclear test includes the threat of renewed, and painful, exclusion from the global banking system and humiliating checks of its ships on the high seas for weapons -- its one major export.

Kim is unlikely to abandon years of bankrolling the military -- at the expense of the rest of the population -- to ensure its protection of him and, more recently, for his son to take over the family dynasty which began with Kim's father.The government's plan is to nurture the image of his son as heir apparent.

"What they are saying is 'leave us alone'," said Balbina Hwang, a Washington-based former aide to the U.S. chief negotiator with the reclusive North, referring to the risk-filled process of securing support to anoint third son Kim Jong-un. "They want the next year or two off."


Sunday, June 28, 2009

18-year-old North Korean refugee finds fresh start in Alaska

Grace Jo and what is left of her family escaped from North Korea to China for the first time when she was just 7 years old. In her 18 years of life, Grace has experienced loss, deprivation, incarceration and little schooling.

Today, at the end of a long journey, she lives in Fairbanks. Her family was drawn here by the Rev. Young Sung, a local Korean-American minister who hopes they will get a new start in the U.S. after years of struggle.

Grace asked to be interviewed because she wants people to know what it is like to live in North Korea, its poor conditions and its oppressive, totalitarian government.

“Americans don’t know why the refugees come, why North Koreans want to search for freedom and come to America or South Korea,” Grace said.

From ages 9 to 11, Grace lived with an underground associate pastor of a Christian church and his family. All that time she had to stay indoors, so as not to be arrested by Chinese authorities.

Grace has escaped by riding atop a railroad car, moved about to live with strangers numerous times, has been interrogated for days and incarcerated for months in a brutal prison in China, has been arrested several times over and crossed and re-crossed borders in the dark of night.

Grace’s father was arrested for trying to provide food for his family during a time of starvation and died in a North Korea prison from brutal beatings and starvation, she said. An older sister disappeared while taking beans to market and is believed to have been kidnapped and sold into the sex trade in China. A 5-year-old brother either starved to death or was taken elsewhere — the family has not been able to find him and still holds out hope. Another brother drowned as a young boy.

[For full story]

P.S. – And if you'd like to give a few bucks to purchase a copy of a drawing Grace made that shows a scene of her life in a North Korean prison, here's the link.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Kim Jong Il's successor (“envelope please”) ... Paek Se Bong!

Although it's gone unnoticed by foreign analysts, Kim Jong Il's successor is actually: Paek Se Bong.

But who is Paek Se Bong? Ah, that’s the problem. Paek is a mystery person. Search the archives of the North’s official Korean Central News Agency and the name comes up only twice, the first time when Paek was originally appointed to the commission in 2003. If Paek had not been re-elected April 9 this year the original reference could have been forgotten as a historical anomaly — but here we have evidence that Paek, after six years of invisibility, is very much with us.

The name evidently is a pseudonym — understandable to many North Koreans as shorthand for the “Three Peaks of Mt. Paektu,” a term the regime uses to associate Kim, his father and his mother with a high mountain on the Chinese border that is sacred in both ancient Korean mythology and communist propaganda.

Paek Se Bong, then, is a code term for one or more Kim family members being groomed to take over as next-generation head of the dynasty.

[Excerpt of an article by Bradley K. Martin, veteran Asia correspondent]

Friday, June 26, 2009

Indicators of Kim Jong Il’s poor health

The Dong-a Ilbo highlights the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been wearing comfortable sneakers instead of his normal formal dark shoes (complete with lifts) since reportedly suffering a stroke last year.

Since Kim is only 5-feet-2 (158 centimeters), he has been known to wear lifts in his shoes from a young age. Whenever he meets outside visitors, including at the 2007 inter-Korean summit, Kim wears formal dark high-heeled shoes.

However, since his alleged stroke last year, his high-heeled shoes or any shoes with hard soles and heels have now all but disappeared.

In the first photo of Kim released after his illness on November 2 last year, it showed him wearing sneakers. In a photo released by Pyongyang on May 24 this year, just a day ahead of the North’s second nuclear test, Kim was seen wearing sharper shoe-shaped sneakers. In a photo released June 14, Kim is seen visiting a military unit and again wearing sneaker style shoes, unlike those worn by his aides.

Interestingly, Kim also wears a thick jacket despite the early hot summer weather, another indicator that his health has decreased.