North Korea Facing a New Crisis?

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The Legend of Kim Jong-un

The revelation last week by former US President Jimmy Carter that Kim Jong Il wants direct talks with South Korea's President, Lee Myung-bak, has stirred intense speculation about what the reclusive North Korean leader is up to now, and raised questions about how fragile Kim's government might actually be.

Carter told the Associated Press that although they are not prepared to apologize publicly North Korean leaders had privately told him they took responsibility and expressed deep regret for the sinking of the South Korean Navy gunboat Cheonan last April and an artillery attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong in November that killed two. Nonetheless, it may be an indication of the desperation that the North faces although in the past such offers to negotiate end up being clothed in unacceptable conditions to the West and South Korean officials.

Since the Yeonpyeong shelling, the north has gone noticeably quiet, amid some conjecture that their Chinese masters told them to back off. But according to South Korean charities, the North, perennially facing food shortages, in the wake of a harsh winter may be facing the worst famine since the mid-1990s when it is thought that as many as 2 million people starved to death. Once again, people are reported to be foraging for rats and snakes, grass and weeds and tree bark in an effort to stave off starvation.

Carter was accompanied by three other retired politicians, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, Mary Robinson of Ireland, and Gro Brundtland of Norway. Robinson told reporters after the trip that the North faces a desperate crisis. There are underground ripples, in addition to the Carter visit, that indicate there may be movement behind the scenes. The Chinese, without being specific, have called for reconciliation on the peninsula after a North Korean diplomat visited Beijing.

The country's inefficient command economy and lack of investment in agriculture have led to two decades of poor harvests and rendered the north one of the poorest countries on the planet. Now conditions appear to be worsening noticeably. Although word of the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East appears to have permeated at least some of the society through the handful that have cell phones, the reports are that the people are so apathetic from starvation that thoughts of food have crowded out any thoughts of rebellion against one of the world's most repressive regimes.

In the South, the view of what is going on north of the 38th Parallel has metamorphosed since the days of the Sunshine Engagement policy enunciated by former President Kim Dae-jung. In particular, there is a widespread perception in the South Kim Jong-il has damaged his cause with South Korea by his embrace of the campaign to become a nuclear state, perhaps irreparably. The government of Lee Myung-bak has adopted a hard line toward the North.

Although there have been occasional reports published that Kim would consider abandoning his nuclear ambitions, if ever there was any validity to them, there is likely to be little now, with the dictator having seen the mess the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has on his hands after having abandoned his own nuclear program several years ago and now having no way to blackmail NATO into leaving him alone.

One wants to wonder if the world is not viewing a chastened state. Kim is watching the world as shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of the firelight behind them and then presumably beginning to ascribe forms to these shadows. It has been reported, although without verification, that he remains so isolated in his 17 luxurious palace cocoons that subordinates never really reported to him just how bad the starvation of the mid-1990s was – although it is questionable if he had cared. The ailing leader, aged 70, is looking into the world through the prism of pseudo-reality. While Kim is allegedly a big fan of the Hollywood films, the ageing dictator is no better than a blind man in seeing the free world.

Kim may believe what he himself sees and experiences only. It is not an exaggeration, from my own government experience, to point out that none of the reform-minded apparatchiks around Kim, if there are any, dare to convince the dictator that he perceives only illusions, for fear that they will be killed. And certainly, during the famine years, the apparatchiks in charge didn't dare tell him how many people were dying of starvation.

The nuclear weapons program is a clear allusion to the external guarantee of regime survival. Just as his father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, once rushed into an indigenous nuclear development based on an adaptation of Soviet models out of the fear of the collapse of his regime, Jong-il has spent decades sparring over what it would take to develop nuclear weapons in the wake of his father's sudden death in 1994. They have radicalized the small possibility, well-suited for the stability of the regime as well as for the contribution to its national security, that nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent in the event of the 'imperialistic US's attack.' They're wrong.

While South Korean leaders have played pivotal roles in achieving the economic liberalization and political democratization in South Korea, the Kim dynasty in North Korea has failed to rescue its shattered regime from great peril since the internecine 1950-53 Korean War. The cave is no longer a haven for Jong-il and his heir apparent Jong-un, age 29, especially in the era of the Internet.

Given the North's moribund economy and broken community, it is clear that Kim has failed. More concerned about perpetuating his regime than about the fate of his starving people, he can by no means resolve the worsening famine without massive relief from outside, as clearly evidenced in the period of the 'Arduous March' in the early 1990s in which so many died.

Yet, if Kim later decides to travel out of his cave to witness daylight and look upon the rapidly changing world, Seoul and Washington should remain ready to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive solution to Pyongyang's desire for advanced nuclear weapons. China, the Kim regime's closest ally, is keen to engage with the North Korean nuclear troubles. China's influence on North Korea is already set in stone, which means that no talks over the North Korean nukes can succeed without Beijing's full cooperation.

While the stalled six-party talks are still needed, the member states – in particular, South Korea, the United States and China – must find a way forward through diplomatic negotiations with North Korea. Unless these key states take for granted the possession of North Korean nuclear weapons, it is time for a triangle of Seoul, Washington and Beijing to smoke the phantom-like leader out of the impoverished cave.

LEE, Byong-Chul is a senior fellow with the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, South Korea.