- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010


Despite the global attention focused on Iran’s emergence as a nuclear-armed power, an equally if not more serious crisis swells on the Korean Peninsula. There are hints that North Korea, sheltered behind its communist regime’s all-encompassing secrecy, might implode.

For the moment, Pyongyang’s neighbors and the United States have a vested interest in the status quo, however obnoxious the regime. South Korea and Japan worry about a tsunami of refugees if North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his generals lose control. China fears the collapse of a key ally and the emergence of a powerful, united Korea allied with the West. Even Russia, with its faltering grasp on its resource-rich but depopulating Asian expanses, would be weakened by a North Korean collapse.

But a confluence of trends inside North Korea is producing a crisis that may not be staved off. Granted, such predictions have been made before — and proved wrong. The regime survived the crisis of the mid-1990s, when, after a calamitous drought, Mr. Kim’s father drove a population into famine, killing at least 2 million people. Most of the North’s 24 million people still live below what the rest of the world considers subsistence levels.

The skills of Pyongyang’s small ruling elite are not to be underestimated. Soviet, Nazi and Maoist tools of repression have been honed to brutalities unknown in the civilized world. Whole families, for example, are condemned to permanent imprisonment to snuff out dissent. North Korea also has largely defied the digital revolution, isolating its population from outside sources of information.

One could argue that the regime has had, albeit for humanitarian reasons, aid if not comfort from its opponents. For a decade, two South Korean presidents not only pursued accommodation with the North but discouraged criticism. The U.S. and Japan — working with often corrupt agencies of the United Nations — supplied a modicum of food and energy to keep the regime alive, in the service of both charity and a hope for change. China turned a blind eye to illicit trade with its own 2 million ethnic Koreans and extended its own massive food and energy aid.

The North Korean regime has repaid those efforts by devoting its own resources — including widespread overseas organized crime operations ̬ to a two-pronged, at least partially successful, drive to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.

The basic conundrum, faced by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, is that the regime’s very existence depends on its weapons sales to fellow pariah regimes such as Iran. Israel’s demolition of a clandestine North Korean nuclear facility in the eastern Syrian desert in 2007 was just a recent example of how Pyongyang’s policies threaten worldwide peace and stability.

Washington’s proffered “bargain” — that the North halt this traffic in return for massive development aid — faces the unstated Pyongyang logic that such a “liberalization” would unseat the tyranny. Even earlier efforts by Beijing to try to persuade Pyongyang to turn to “the China model” also were quickly cast aside.

North Korea’s unique problem is the South Korean model sitting on its doorstep. Modernization in South Korea, first under a military dictatorship and then a democratic government, has produced the world’s 13th largest economy by gross domestic product and the United States’ seventh largest trading partner. Adoption by Pyongyang of a copycat development program would inevitably destroy the current regime.

But a stagnant society cannot endure indefinitely. And matters may be coming to a head: Kim Jong-il is in declining health. His dysfunctional family may not produce an acceptable heir. An attempt to snuff out a growing black market with a “currency reform” has ended, reportedly, with the execution of its vaunted bureaucratic author.

Now Seoul is gingerly handling an unexplained disaster: the sinking with great loss of life of a South Korean warship in disputed waters. Preliminary evidence suggests a possible attack from rogue North Korean elements. The incident happened during one of Pyongyang’s trademark fusillades of threats warning of all manner of destruction for the South Koreans and their American allies.

Conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, while restating offers of food and energy, has turned his back on efforts to stifle criticism of the North. (Seoul had even been reluctant in the past to permit American intelligence agents access to VIP defectors.) A few North Koreans are tapping into foreign media through South Korean nongovernmental organizations.

As Kim Jong-il dithers on a trip to see his Chinese friends — the first in 15 years — Beijing announced a $10 billion aid program and an offer to set up export-promotion enclaves for the North. That was seen as part of the price to get Mr. Kim’s representatives back to the so-called “six-party talks” on the peninsula’s nuclear crisis. But it undercuts American and Japanese efforts to use economic pressure to force the regime into real negotiations.

The truth is that neither the talks nor Chinese aid is likely to go far in solving the fundamental problem for North Korea — and its interlocutors. With its people isolated and starving, the regime has no option for its survival except to pursue its policy to blackmail the rest of the world with its nuclear potential — until, if the day ever comes, the cracks widen and the dictatorship collapses.

Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics.

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