TOKYO — North Korea is an economic basket case that incomprehensively pours resources into nuclear weapons and cares only about enriching a tiny circle of elites when it can’t even feed its own people. It’s an “impossible state,” as one former U.S. diplomat put it, bound to collapse under the weight of its own failed policies, if just given a push.
Common sense, right?
We’ve all heard those descriptions thrown around in the media, from the White House, from the U.N. Security Council. But with North Korea facing yet more sanctions and punitive measures over its latest nuclear test, now might be a good time to re-examine those assumptions.
They aren’t as solid as they might seem.
KIM JONG UN IS CRAZY, ERRATIC, INCOMPETENT
Ridicule is a comforting way of letting off steam. But regardless of how morally reprehensible, criminal or even evil we may perceive an adversary to be, underestimation is dangerous.
There is little evidence Kim is crazy, erratic or incompetent.
He assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, with very little preparation and probably while still in his late 20s. Yet there are no clear indications he — or a circle of power-holding cadres acting in his name — is not solidly in power.
In a totalitarian dictatorship, balancing rival interest groups and keeping popular unrest at bay in itself is no small feat. It is to be expected that Kim would face potential challenges, but he appears to be navigating the balance of power quite deftly — and ruthlessly, if necessary.
The biggest known challenge to his power came early, and he dealt with it by executing his powerful uncle and former mentor, and purging his followers. That, apparently, was that.
Policy wise, Kim’s regime has been consistent. His stated goals have been to develop the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal while improving its standard of living.
GOING NUCLEAR IS IRRATIONAL
In terms of lost trade opportunities, sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea’s pursuit of a viable nuclear arsenal is a costly endeavor. It also uses resources that could be put toward badly needed infrastructure improvements.
The military calculus is different, however.
North Korea is surrounded by nuclear powers. Two of them — Russia and China — are, to some degree, friendly. But the trump card is held by the U.S., and by extension Japan and South Korea, which are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Washington can bomb North Korea into oblivion at will — as it nearly did with conventional weapons during the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea has long been able to keep South Korea at bay with its considerable artillery power near the Demilitarized Zone. But hitting the U.S. mainland has always been out of its reach. A viable nuclear deterrent, as North Korea calls it, would change that. Going to the table as a nuclear power would radically boost the North’s bargaining position should serious talks ever resume.
This may seem like paranoia to some.
The U.S. has no intention of invading North Korea, and has said so for decades.
But every year, U.S. troops team up with South Korean counterparts to conduct war games that, while always termed defensive in nature, have recently begun including training for precision strikes, or more colorfully, “decapitation” strikes on Kim Jong Un, along with scenarios for invading or destroying the capital.
To North Korea, that is a very real threat.
Threats, real or perceived, are also useful political tools. Few things rally a nation behind its leaders better than the fear of an attack — especially if the threat happens to be coming from the world’s strongest military.
NORTH KOREA’S ECONOMY IS A BASKET CASE
It faces severe international sanctions, is extremely wary of even the most basic forms of market capitalism and has a financial system that is, at best, skeletal. Still, North Korea’s economy is growing, and has been for years.
Economists, while working with admittedly flawed and incomplete data, largely agree things appear to have been getting marginally better. They estimate annual GNP growth at 1 to 3 percent.
Sanctions have certainly hurt. But they have not been crippling.
Despite region-wide concern over a nuclear North Korea, trade with Russia and China continues and is unlikely to end, considering the reservations both Beijing and Moscow harbor toward toeing any policy line that they feel is dictated by Washington.
North Korea remains among the world’s least developed economies. Stunting due to malnutrition, abject poverty and the lack of economic options surely persist. But no more so than in many other poor nations.
The U.N.’s World Food Program, which has an office in Pyongyang and conducts regular assessments, says North Korea’s food situation is precarious. Most North Koreans can’t count on a balanced, nutritious diet.
But are North Koreans starving en masse? Are they on the WFP’s list of nations most suffering from food emergencies ?
ITS REGIME CAN’T SURVIVE
Repressive, totalitarian dictatorships do have a tendency to implode. When they do, it’s usually a violent, bloody mess. And from the outside, it can seem to happen with amazing suddenness.
That scenario could play out in North Korea. But it has defied the odds for nearly 70 years, under three different Kims.
It survived the Korea War — which, thanks to massive Chinese help, ended in what is essentially a stalemate. It survived the fall of the Soviet Union and its Communist allies, major benefactors for decades.
Barring invasion, internal revolt or popular uprising, the biggest threat the regime faces could be a growing domestic consumer economy that arose as a coping mechanism during the famine years that followed the Soviet collapse and the capitalism-friendly transformation of China’s economy.
When North Korea stopped being able to provide necessities its people had come to rely on, they learned to fend for themselves. That helped North Korea weather the crisis, but also created a cash-based, entrepreneurial economy that continues to grow — and not necessarily in a way the regime can control.
But, then again, maybe it can.
Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013.