by Stephen Bryen
North Korea is a deeply impoverished country where it is said that things are getting so bad that the Korean regime is having trouble even feeding the army.
The country also lacks energy supplies and, aside from some few arms sales and probable transfers of nuclear technology to Iran, there is no real other source of revenue.
The short term and long term prospects for the regime have reached the crisis stage.
In this light, why is North Korea threatening nuclear annihilation of South Korea, Japan and the United States?
One rather obvious explanation, but not necessarily the definitive one, is that such circuses help to keep the population totally focused on a dire, external threat, reducing pressure on the regime to deliver anything more than fighting the enemy. You may be starving, but it is their fault, not ours.
Even a captive people, half starved, sitting in the dark, and freezing, hardly will buy this kind of nonsense for very long. Either the enemy is “there” and you have to fight, or the whole thing is a ruse. All of this means that this policy has only a brief half life –either back off with the result of an inevitable and bloody revolution at home, or go to war and get bombed into a wasteland. Each result is more or less the same.
Another explanation is that this is the negotiating style of the regime. What do they want?
It is unlikely they want some oil, food and money because there is little chance they will get it, or get enough of it to matter and solve their problem. In fact, they are rather late, probably too late, if this is the objective.
Another, more plausible, explanation is that there is underway a Kabuki-like negotiation with South Korea. What could it be?
Basically it is a negotiation for unification in which North Korea brings two assets: people to provide cheap labor for South Korean factories which will make Korean factories even more commercially formidable; and nuclear weapons that will turn the peninsula into a nuclear nation with both the bombs and the delivery systems needed to challenge their neighbors and become something more than just another Asian sweat shop: a united Korea becomes a major power capable of taking on its rivals, that could include Japan, even China.
There is no doubt that South Korea covets reunification. This would buy a much larger nation with a big labor force; the cultural reuniting of a divided people (as happened in Germany); free Korea from dependence on the United States, a kind of dependence that is not well trusted and, as American reliability elsewhere has made clear, is a big risk for a dependent nation, even a democratic one. Becoming a real independent nation, unified and dynamic, with nuclear power capability, is a tectonic shift in the region and globally. From such a vantage point Korea could properly define itself, create a truly integrated national identity, and exploit even more the resources it has, challenging a declining Japan and even challenging China, if China fractures or stumbles because of internal upheaval.
So one can suspect that sub rosa such negotiations could be going on. What deal would work? Probably the Kim dynasty would need to be liquidated because sustaining it is a deal breaker. The remaining elites could either be sent into retirement (many of them are quite old), paid off, or given prestigious (if meaningless) jobs.
What should we look for in this prospect? We should pay attention to any sign that Kim is faltering, or that there is some dissatisfaction with him or some part of his family, such as his pregnant wife. Any evidence that there is real pressure on the ruling dynasty will tell us that a deal is on the table, if not settled.
On the whole to pull something like this off must be done in a matter of weeks. When you light a short candle, it burns down fast. When it goes out, the game is over.