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Kim's Crumbling Regime

Are the Great Leader's days numbered?

12:00 AM, Mar 25, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Throughout history the initial signs of collapse of despotic regimes can usually be traced back to some apocryphal moment in which the armed forces, secret police or others charged with maintaining "public order" demonstrate that they no longer unquestioningly follow the orders of the dictator. There are famous stories from the 1917 Russian Revolution. For example, one of the dreaded crowd-suppressing Cossacks once winked at those demonstrating against Tsar Nicholas II rather than giving the standard order to mow down scores unarmed civilians. Another of the Tsar's Cossacks used his curved, razor-sharp cavalry sword to cut open sacks of state-owned grain for starving workers and peasants instead ordering a charge to cut them down Bloody Sunday-style. These and other similar moments are considered the beginning of the end for the Romanov dynasty.

Several recent analytical reports, including a study from the U.S. government's National Intelligence Council (NIC), are causing those watching the situation in North Korea to ask if we are not seeing a similar deterioration in the control over the military by the Kim Family Regime (KFR), as it is referred to by the U.S. military command in South Korea. Like the starving mobs in St. Petersburg who were demanding to be fed, the on-going food crisis in North Korea is having a crippling effect on the military establishment's loyalty to the Great Leader, and is permanently weakening the grip that the KFR has on the country.

International food donations are vital to the KFR's ability to maintain some semblance of stability, and without them the country would have collapsed long ago, which is why this multi-million dollar international panhandling by Kim has become an institutionalized part of the regime's scheme for staying in power year after year. Since the peak of North Korea's food crisis--causing up to 2 million deaths by famine--in the mid-1990s, donations from South Korea, the United States and the UN World Food Programme have been a regular staple of North Korean diet.

Up until recently Kim has been able to keep receiving food donations, deliveries of agricultural fertilizers, and other international aid using a combination of scare tactics. Threats of missile tests or the more recent fears that North Korea would take some rash action with its nuclear weapons program have been the chief cards that Kim's regime has to play.

Begging for food handouts with one hand while spending untold millions on nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile development programs in the other is more than contradictory. But these twin evils of a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs in the hand of an erratic dictator are a lesser concern to North Korea's neighbors than the nightmare that would unfold if the regime imploded. Both China and South Korea would suddenly become responsible for the care and feeding of millions of famished refugees streaming across their borders.

This scenario, more than any other, is what scares everyone--and what has kept food donations coming into North Korea until now. More than one analyst in Beijing that is aware of all of the possible implications of a North Korean economic and social meltdown has told me on numerous occasions that "it is to everyone's advantage for North Korea to stay exactly the way it is," and that "no nation has more potentially to lose from such an eventuality than [South Korea]." Therefore, it is better to buy off the KFR with these donations than risk the alternatives.

Parallels of the economic burden to South Korea having to unite with its northern neighbor, and the 1989 integration of the Federal Republic of Germany with the former East German Democratic Republic (GDR) are vastly understated. South Korea would have to try to absorb a number of people that is a far larger percentage of a total North-South population than East Germany's five states are to the total of the now united Germany.

Furthermore, income, living standards, and infrastructure disparities between Kim's worker's paradise and South Korea are far more pronounced then they were between West Germany and the GDR. Economic analysis of the two Koreas estimates that if South Korea could survive the costs of unifying with its northern half--and this is a fairly large "if"--it would still be a decade or more before incomes in the north even reached 55 per cent of those in the south.