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.
But it is the reliance on this international food aid for Kim's political survival--and the dismal ability of the North Korean regime to feed its population--that may ultimately spell the end of his regime. The recent decisions by South Korea to suspend food shipments until the north will permit monitoring of how this aid is distributed (a position also taken by the UN World Food Programme) may also hasten this downfall. Pyongyang took yet another step in this direction this week by simply rejecting the latest tranche of food aid shipments from the U.S. without providing any explanation.
The central reason for the UN and South Korean insistence upon more on-site monitoring is that stealing and then selling this food aid has become big business in North Korea. Up to 30 percent of the food aid intended for the starving and needy in North Korea ends up being diverted by the military and other individuals with influence into a growing network of private markets. There this food aid is either sold outright or bartered for consumer goods.
These private markets--an ideological anathema in Kim's orthodox Stalinist state--are now the prime source of income for up to 80 per cent of the households in North Korea. This has two significant consequences for the KFR. One is that Kim may no longer use food to exercise the absolute power of life and death over the population as he has in the past. Access to adequate food was always something that the Great Leader could grant or take away, but he no longer has full control over these food shipments and these private markets are now a shadow economy that can provide a way out of starvation for those with money or influence.
The other dilemma is that to now to cut-off food donations entirely would cause the collapse of most of economic activity in the country. It is unlikely that those who are working in these private markets would sit still while their new-found source of income was taken away from them. Thus, this week's decision by North Korea to reject the latest shipments of U.S. food aid raises real questions about how soon this drop in food aid available for diversion will reverberate inside this semi-legal market economy in North Korea and what the reactions may be.
But the larger problem for Kim is with his military establishment. Some years ago, the London-based security, intelligence and defense information group Jane's published a report concluding that "the only significant power base that might challenge the regime is the military. Since Kim Jong-Il became Chairman of the National Defense Commission, however, he has promoted 230 generals. Most of the army's 1,200-strong general officer corps owes their allegiance to him."
This assessment of a strong allegiance by the military to Kim may no longer be correct due to three major factors.
1) A Weakened Military Establishment: The recent cut-off of this international food assistance is such a threat to the regime that it has prompted recent bellicose statements by Pyongyang, threats of a new missile launch and a statement that any attempt to shoot down this imminent test firing would mean war. The missile test is now announced by North Korea to take place sometime from April 4 to 8 when the north's recently-elected, but largely symbolic, parliament will re-confirm Kim Jong-Il's status as the nation's supreme leader.
The North Korean military has warned that any attempt to interfere with this missile test would have consequences. "Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war," was the official statement from North Korea military's general staff, as reported by the official Korean Central News Agency. Any interception of this missile, which Pyonyang has claimed is for a satellite launch and not a missile test, would prompt "a just retaliatory strike operation not only against all the interceptor means involved but against the strongholds" of the United States, Japan and South Korea, continued the statement.
At the same time North Korea has also shut down the military hotline to Seoul that permitted the two nations to exchange information about movements of people and goods across the border in protest of a 12-day long set of South Korean-U.S. joint military exercises. Cutting the hotline introduces an unstable element into the relations between the two Koreas. With military exercises taking place in the south and the north's armed forces on full-scale alert the now-dormant hotline is the only firewall there is to prevent an accidental, localised confrontation between units from the north and south from turning into a full-scale engagement involving multiple formations.
But, should the Korean military have to make good on its threats it would find it difficult to do so, which is problem number one for Kim. North Korea, despite having one of the largest land armies in Asia, may no longer be capable of prolonged or effective military operations, something that the same generals Kim has appointed may eventually decide has to change--along with the leadership in Pyongyang.
Pyongyang is almost the only spot in the isolationist nation offering close to acceptable living standards and access to modern consumer goods. Permission to live there is given to only those who are awarded for loyalty or descend from the proper "bloodlines," as North Koreans describe the caste-like system that denotes those who are of elite status.
Pyongyang's projected--by comparison with the rest of the nation--prosperity and the lavish demonstrations of almost servile obedience to the Great Leader seen in the yearly Mass Games that celebrate his birthday and other holidays are key to the personality cult. Yet that prosperity appears to drop off abruptly at the city limits. North Korean military units in Kandong, only 18 miles from Pyongyang, were told stop all training exercises last year due to inadequate rations.
2) Future Manpower Crisis: The longer-term impact of the food crisis on North Korea's military is that the chronic malnutrition among the population at large is decimating the ranks of potential future recruits. According to findings of the NIC, around 25 per cent of those eligible for military service will be rejected due to mental retardation caused by lack of proper nutrition. Overall, intellectual deficiencies caused by hunger among the young will make future economic development of North Korea problematic. Thus, not only political subservience to the regime, but also the future viability of the military as a credible fighting force is at risk.
What further erodes the loyalty of the military to the regime--as well as its prospects for attracting recruits in the future--is the now widespread national network of private markets has caused a number of young, military-age men to decide that the armed forces are no longer the best way to ensure a better life. Many have decided that these private markets are instead the best path for the future of their generation.
3) The Financial Lure Of The Private Markets: Kim Jong-Il has tried to stamp out or at least diminish the number and size of these private markets and has stated that they are "giving rise to egotism and collapsing the social order of the classless society." But, stamping them out is a near impossibility now. Their ability to distribute food aid--albeit by selling it--has kept millions of North Koreans alive in a manner that the government has proven it cannot do.
An ominous sign for the Kim regime is the manner in which his orders to put restrictions on these markets are being unevenly enforced--if at all. The police are given orders to crack down on them but the police--in another break with the past--now "don't always do what they are told," said one South Korean-based analyst. There are too many police, border guards and military officials making too much money for these markets to now be shut down, stated several reports. There are even incidences of military officials not only refusing to shut these markets down, but instead importing used buses from China and setting up transportation networks to allow these market traders to more easily move from place to place inside of North Korea. Kim and those around him are now in a sense hostage to these private traders.
There are also reports from more than a year ago about the number of people now escaping from North Korea. Only 41 North Koreans were able to escape to the south in 1995, but by 2007 the number of those crossing over per year had grown to 2,000, largely because the police, border guards and other officials are all now taking bribes to permit these people to leave.
Three elements are very clear, according to several China-based analysts who spoke to me. One is that there is too much money to be made by this private trading--whether it is trading in food aid and consumer goods or trading in people who want to cross the border. Two is that those officials in the military and secret police allowing people to cross the border or for these private markets to stay open are no longer afraid of retaliation for accepting the bribes they are paid to look the other way. Three, and most serious of all, is why they take what risk there is in accepting these bribes, which stems from their view of the regime's current viability.
"The situation in North Korea looks increasingly like one in which the organs of state security and the military have decided that they should try and make as much money for themselves right now - while they still have time," said one analyst familiar with the history of North Korean illegal trade and immigration in and out of China. "It means that those on the inside and in the best position to know have decided they think the Kim regime's days are numbered."
Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.