Sanctions are having no impact on North Korea’s corpulent dictator, Kim Jong-un. Andrew Salmon suggests that he can remain in power, and continue to develop nuclear weapons
With the latest round of UN sanctions in March this year, in response to nuclear and missile tests, Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime has never looked more isolated. But recent history and more recent strategic developments suggest that the country’s de facto third-generation monarch will continue to achieve his aims.
The foremost of these – though unstated – is almost certainly regime survival. ‘The Marshal’s’ top official goal, to secure North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, is now written into the national constitution, and provides the most effective means to underwrite the regime. His second official policy goal, made clear in his long speech to the Party Congress in May, is to upgrade the living standards of his people through a Five-Year Plan.
Leaders such as US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye have intimated that these two goals are opposed, but current indications are that Kim is on the way to achieving both the former and the latter.
As regards his regime, Kim’s dictatorship is secure. Internally, there is no known individual or organisation opposed to his rule, nor is any guerrilla army massing on his border. He has no qualms about exercising power: since succeeding his late father in 2011 he has played the strongman boldly and ruthlessly, purging senior officials in both party and army, including even his own uncle, Jang Sung-taek, in 2013. He has assumed power over the most important organs of state. Even Seoul’s most anti-Kim ‘Pyongyangologists’ detect no signs of instability.
Moreover, while the average North Korean may be economically far more disadvantaged than his northeast Asian neighbours, he has seen his own standard of living rise in the last decade, for Kim has ridden the wave of marketisation that is transforming the North Korean economy. Amid the murderous famines of the 1990s, prompted largely by the collapse of the state distribution system (itself a result of the implosion of East European communism), survival markets sprouted nationwide, selling such necessities as foodstuff and medicines, secured by cross-border trade with China. Post-famine, the markets persisted and expanded in both number and sophistication. Today, they trade in multiple currencies and sell everything from high fashion to consumer electronics. They are no longer ‘black’ markets – they operate in plain sight, with official tolerance.
Shrewd operators have learned what to sell to China. North Korean exports are notably labour and natural resources (coal, rare earths, gold, seafood and mountain vegetables), but also semi-finished goods, such as textiles, and even some consumer goods, such as health tonics, alcohol and cigarettes. North Korea does not publish economic data, but the Bank of (South) Korea estimates the North Korean economy has been growing by an annual 1 per cent in recent years. Those who regularly visit the ‘Kimdom’ suggest the real figure is 3 to 5 per cent annually.
While the latest sanctions are the most stringent yet applied to the pariah state, these persons also recognise how adept North Korea – which has faced UN resolutions in 1993, 2004, 2006, 2009 (twice), 2013 (twice) and in March 2016 – is at bypassing them. Sanctioned companies regularly change their names and identities. Trucks cross the China border at night to escape satellite observation; couriers hand-carry forex in and out of the country. Illicit merchandise, such as weapons and pirated cigarettes, is hidden inside shipping containers and cargo holds, in or under legitimate goods.
While the elite have creamed off money from trade, marketisation has eroded state control. Corruption is so rampant that moneyed businessmen can bypass even North Korea’s most dictatorial strictures. The new trading class could be seen as a potential rival to the regime, but most indications are that they currently rely on elite patronage. This makes sanctions problematic. Defectors say that sanctions could weaken the economy but unify the country politically, as they reinforce Pyongyang’s message: that North Korea’s woes stem not from Kim’s governance, but from a US-led blockade.
The big question is over Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing. China has talked tougher than ever since the nuclear and missile tests early this year, but will it actually apply sanctions to cross-border trade and investment flows? Chinese relations with North Korea have soured since Kim infamously executed his own uncle, who maintained close contacts with Beijing’s elite. According to Chinese sources, there is now real anger in Beijing towards Kim, who is referred to, not politely, at party meetings as ‘that young person’, and even as ‘fatty’. There has been mid-level diplomatic contact between Pyongyang and Beijing, but nothing appears settled. However, this does not mean Beijing will let Pyongyang wither.
China, whose intervention in the Korean War guaranteed the continued existence of North Korea, has always viewed its neighbour as a strategic buffer against the raucous democracy of South Korea and its 38,000 resident US troops. Chinese academics admit that Beijing is not prepared to risk regime instability, nor do anything that might damage livelihoods – both of which could drive refugees into Manchuria. It is telling that, despite signing up to UN sanctions, China has never filed a single inspection report of a suspect North Korean cargo. Defectors in Seoul who maintain contacts in the north say that since the imposition of the latest sanctions in March, there has been no hoarding of rice, and food prices have not risen significantly.
North Korea remains China’s ally in a region where other neighbours – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and southeast Asia – side with the US. And now, Seoul and Washington may be driving Beijing and Pyongyang back into each other’s embrace. South Korea’s decision in July to deploy the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missile shield has angered Beijing, which considers THAAD a US defence perimeter against its own missiles, rather than North Korea’s. There is frenzied speculation in South Korea on the potential economic backlash – China is South Korea’s top export and investment destination – but the strategic ramifications may be more significant.
If the THAAD deployment helps thaw ties between Beijing and Pyongyang, it could not come at a better time for Kim. His country borders three nations: South Korea, China and Russia. The South Korean border is the world’s most heavily defended frontier, and since the closure of the South Korean-invested Kaesong Special Industrial Zone in February, there has been a total freeze in trade and investment between the two Koreas. Far more important to North Korea is trade across the Chinese and Russian borders. Both nations have also invested in facilities at North Korea’s strategically located warm-water port at Rajin, on the country’s northeast coast.
Washington and Beijing endlessly talk past each other on North Korea. The US blames China for not applying pressure on Pyongyang, while Beijing blames Washington for fanning tensions which have prompted the North Koreans to develop strategic arms.
If the gap between China, on the one hand, and South Korea and the US widens to a chasm, nobody will be better placed to take advantage of it than Kim. He already has two fissile programmes – uranium- and plutonium-based. He has successfully tested devices and is believed to be compressing them down to warhead size. He has succeeded in putting his delivery platform, ballistic missiles, into orbit. The next steps are to master re-entry technologies, targeting technologies and submarine launch technologies. Once he has these in place, his nuclear deterrent is operational. Thus far, the international community has failed to halt either the nuclear or missile programmes. Every test gives Pyongyang new data as it advances upon its goal.
There is next to no likelihood of Kim being ousted by assassination, coup or popular uprising. Short of a foreign military intervention for which no nation has the stomach, diplomatic isolation and sanctions may delay the achievement of Kim’s goals, but not halt them. All this suggests that the world’s most despised and best-fed dictator will continue to have his cake – strategic weapons and economic growth – and eat it.
Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based reporter since 2003, is the author of several books, including the award-winning Korean War history To the Last Round (London, 2009). His latest is All That Matters: Modern Korea (London 2014). This year he was awarded an MBE for service to British Korean War veterans.