North Korea’s Reckless hold on Power

Stephen DeAngelis

March 17, 2009

North Korea apparently finds great joy in poking sticks into the eyes of more developed countries. The strategy it uses most often is to bring a situation to the brink of confrontation, extract as many concessions from other involved countries as it can, make promises it won’t keep, and then back away from the confrontation. For decades this strategy has kept the international community at bay and the Kim’s and their communist cronies in power. Time and again they have used it during negotiations about its nuclear weapons program. It is probably using the same tactic during its current standoff with Japan and South Korea regarding the testing of a missile [“South Korea, Japan warn North Korea on missile,” by Jack Kim, Washington Post, 13 March 2009].

“Japan said … it could shoot down any threatening object falling toward its territory, after North Korea said a planned rocket launch would send it across Japanese territory. North Korea has given notice to global agencies that it plans to launch a satellite between April 4 and 8, presenting a challenge to new U.S. President Barack Obama and allies who see it as a disguised missile test. … North Korea has said it is sending a communication satellite into orbit, and has the right to do so under its space program. The United States, South Korea and Japan have said they see no difference between a satellite launch and a missile test because they use the same rocket, the North’s long-range missile called the Taepodong-2 with a range that could take it to Alaska. … The U.N. sanctions imposed after the 2006 test forbid further ballistic missile testing.”

North Korean leaders have indicated that they will consider the shooting down of their “rocket” an act of war. Such statements have put the region on a high state of alert. Whatever short-term benefits North Korea believes it gains from this strategy are far outweighed by the long-term devastation they continue to wreak upon North Korean citizens. Nevertheless, the North Korean government has remarkably strong record of cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Last November I wrote post entitled Breaching North Korea’s Walls using Economic Development. The focus of that blog was the Kaesong Industrial Park, which is being built and operated by a South Korean developer named Hyundai Asan. The park was globalization’s first toehold in North Korea (even though the park has a prison-like feeling and is surrounded by guards and fences). Asan’s plan was to expand the industrial park into “a minicity over the next 12 years, with high-rise apartments and hotels, an artificial lake and three golf courses. By that time, the company hopes there will be about 2,000 factories here employing 350,000 North Koreans and producing $20 billion worth of goods a year.” Once again, however, the North Korean government is involved in brinkmanship. Last week, the North Korean government blockaded the industrial park stranding hundreds of South Korean workers inside [“Stranded South Korean workers cleared to leave North,” by Jack Kim, Washington Post, 16 March 2009].

“North Korea restricted access to the complex of 101 South Korean firms … just days after cutting off a military hotline usually used to process daily passage to Kaesong park which is just minutes north of the border. The industrial zone is still functioning, but at a minimum level. North Korea has repeatedly blocked traffic crossing the border into the estate.”

The question is why would the North Korean government act so illogically? As I wrote in the previously mentioned blog: “Wedged as it is between two economic powerhouses, North Korean leaders understand that the regime must carve a path to prosperity or be crushed under the constant pressure of poverty and cries for relief. Unfortunately, it has demonstrated a dogged determination to hold on to the past that makes China’s leadership look remarkably enlightened.” History has demonstrated that it takes very little provocation to cause North Korea’s leaders to react. Kim reports:

“Pyongyang’s decision to restrict access to the industrial zone follows months of angry rhetoric against the South and President Lee Myung-bak, who last year ended years of no-questions-asked aid to the impoverished North. The North’s anger intensified … when South Korea and the United States started a series of military drills.”

Of course, South Korea and the United States have been conducting military drills since the armistice ending the Korean War was signed. Closing the developed world’s access to the industrial park is certainly not going to have much of an economic impact on the developed world; but it will have a significant impact on North Korea.

“The complex of South Korean firms at Kaesong was opened in 2004 and employs 38,000 low-wage North Koreans. It churns out light-industrial goods such as pots, watches and apparel. To close down the project by shutting down the border completely would mean cutting off one of the North’s few sources of foreign currency and scare off potential investors, analysts said.”

It’s unclear whether the North Koreans have any long-term objectives except to stay in power. As I wrote in my previous blog: “I’m sure that North Korean leaders are confident they can control the speed and spread of prosperity within their borders, but they are probably wrong. The Kaesong park will perturb the system. … North Korean workers who are given better living conditions, better pay, free time (enough free time that they will apparently be able to golf), will start an economic revolution that will eventually spread across the North like a wild fire.” With global economic conditions tanking and foreign humanitarian assistance dwindling, I suspect that North Korean leaders are establishing plausible scenarios they can use to accuse continued bad economic conditions on the developed world rather than manning up and admitting they have brought them on themselves.

Regardless of reasons behind the North Korean decision, South Korea is taking precautions against further aggressive actions. Kim reports that South Korea recently conducted a civil defense drill to test readiness against a chemical, biological and nuclear attack. The biggest losers in all this political maneuvering are the people of North Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Park held the promise a true economic breakthrough for the North. If successful, it could have resulted in policy changes such as those instituted by China and opened the way to a much brighter future. Analysts assert that the continued use of the industrial park as a political chip threatens its very future. It’s not clear whether North Korean leaders finally realized their folly, but they have reopened the border crossing [“North Korea fully reopens border crossing,” by Jean H. Lee, Washington Post, 17 March 2009]. The question is for how long? The repercussions of the decision to close the border were felt immediately.

“The recent closures … left many factories languishing without the goods needed to produce the watches, shoes, electronics equipment and kitchenware churned out from some 100 plants in the complex. … [Prior to the reopening of the border,] at least 10 firms halted operations and many more warned they would be forced to suspend production within days if the border restrictions were not eased.”

Last September I was sanguine about the future of the industrial park and the impact it would have on the North. I wrote: The Kaesong industrial park is the first indication that the tide of globalization is coming in. Once globalization washes over walls of North Korea’s isolation, it will help bring millions of people living there out of poverty. It will do it one job at a time, but it will succeed.” With contracts now in jeopardy, I’m not as optimistic as I was six months ago.