It's Almost 3 AM and North Korea's Calling
President Obama has a situation on his hands where charisma and media support do him no good. He is dealing with a nuclear-armed regime with a history of military attacks, provocations as a means of extortion, and brutality. Now they have announced they are restarting a reactor that produces enough plutonium to make a bomb a year -- a reactor that had been shut down before as part of a previous deal in which the North Koreans got things of value in exchange for shuttering it.
Worse yet, the dictatorship is now in the midst of a possible power struggle. Kim Jong Un is a man barely thirty, if that (we don't really know for sure), advised by his aunt Kim Kyong Hui and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, reportedly taking power from military factions and giving lucrative sources of income, including drugs and counterfeiting, to party factions. Gordon Chang writes:
Every year, Pyongyang makes bombastic threats before the U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Then, the North Koreans go quiet when the drills begin. This year, however, the tantrum has continued and the words have become increasingly dire. This month, for instance, Pyongyang abrogated the armistice ending the Korean War and threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the United States. The one-a-day rhetorical blasts suggest something is terribly wrong inside the North Korean regime.
Chang explains what he believes is happening inside the power circles of Pyongyang:
Jang has stripped the military of much of its coveted revenue streams from illicit activities. About 70% of North Korea's foreign currency business was conducted by the flag officers under Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un, under Jang's tutelage, has set about gaining control of that business. The new leader, for instance, shuttered Taepung International Investment Group, which has been described as the military's conduit for investment abroad.
Jang is also said to have been behind the shutting of the notorious Room 39, the "slush fund" that was the center of disreputable activities, such as drug smuggling, the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, and the making of fake Viagra. This is not to say the Kim regime is exiting illegal activities. As the Korea Times reports, "Experts say the developments may shift responsibility for attracting outside money to the party, which has been refurbished after gathering cobwebs under Kim Jong Il."
Moreover, Kim and Jang have sacked top flag officers, most notably Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the respected chief of the General Staff. Some analysts believe there was a shootout between forces opposing Ri and those loyal to him when he was deposed last July. Whether or not these rumors are true, it has become clear that Kim's removal of the popular Ri did not sit well with front-line commanders. In a further sign of turmoil, Ri's successor, Hyon Yong Chol, was subsequently demoted.
It is bad enough that China Is Taking Steps. According to a report by Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon:
China has placed military forces on heightened alert in the northeastern part of the country as tensions mount on the Korean peninsula following recent threats by Pyongyang to attack, U.S. officials said.
Reports from the region reveal the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) recently increased its military posture in response to the heightened tensions, specifically North Korea's declaration of a "state of war" and threats to conduct missile attacks against the United States and South Korea.
According to the officials, the PLA has stepped up military mobilization in the border region with North Korea since mid-March, including troop movements and warplane activity.
Make no mistake: China is not trying to pressure the North Koreans. It is signaling that it will stand by its ally (or at least look like it is doing so). After all, the only formal alliance China has is with its troublesome socialist brother across the Yalu River. China does not want the North to fall, as that would flood it with refugees and raise awkward questions about the fate of the Korean minority on the Chinese side of the Yalu. It considers North Korea the Americans' problem and does not mind that North Korea ties down a considerable portion of American military assets.
The worry that any serious president has to have is that the North Koreans are "crazy" and could launch a suicidal attack, perhaps carried out by a dissident faction of the military. It cannot be ruled out, because nobody has truly reliable intelligence on the regime.
But there are signs that this is just for show. The Chosun Ilbo, a prestigious Seoul Daily with circulation in the millions, reports:
A senior North Korean official has assured Chinese tour operators that there will be no war on the Korean Peninsula. The assurance came at a time when the North is ratcheting up its belligerent rhetoric.
Visiting Xian in Shaanxi Province in mid-March, Kim To-jun of the North's General Bureau of Tourism, told Chinese tour operators, "Don't worry. There'll be no war on the Korean Peninsula, so send as many tourists as possible."
The regime is expected to resume package tours in July via non-stop flights between Xian and Pyongyang. The route opened in July 2011 and the package tours started a year later.
After all, the North Koreans have a pattern:
Joel Wit, visiting fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that from the North Korean perspective, Kim Jong Un and his lieutenants "aren't crazy" and are falling back on a tried-and-true strategy.
"They're a very small country dealing with much more powerful countries, and they can't show any weakness. For them, the best defense is a good offense," he said.
So the world remains on a knife's edge, with the U.N. secretary general adding to the alarm.
So far, there are no signs that the Obama administration is operating any secret diplomatic approaches, but then again, a successful secret initiative by definition would not be known. Mike Chinoy, writing in the Washington Post, avers that our policy toward North Korea isn't working. I would have to agree with his verdict, if by "working" we mean that the regime is brought down. That isn't what he means, though. His solution (personal diplomacy between Kim and Obama) is wrongheaded, because it would give an enormous boost to Kim to be seen as a peer of the president of the United States, worthy of direct talks. That would add greatly to his internal power and to the stability of his regime, which has to be the fundamental unifying concern of every member of the official elite. They know that word is leaking into the country of life overseas, especially in the South, because of the proliferation of cell phones, DVD players, computers, and other information appliances brought into the country (from China, mostly). Internal security has to be the North Koreans' foremost concern.
In understanding the North Koreans, an unspoken factor that must be considered is that the North Koreans know they are phonies, that they carefully distort reality to impress the rest of the world with how successful they are, even in the midst of economic collapse and mass starvation. North Korea is a Potemkin country, where mass rallies and the façades of tall buildings in Pyongyang look good from a distance -- but up close, they are shabby barracks.
The entire regime is built around creating appearances that mask the rot underneath. For instance, the Pyongyangsubway, whose only two stations open to foreigners are done in Stalinist Russian style, and where some observers contend the same passengers are seen riding the trains and escalators all day long, apparently for the purpose of impressing the few foreigners in the capital that there exists a functioning underground railroad system. It must be noted that Pyongyang is a city of broad, empty boulevards featuring trolley busses and very few private cars, with no need for a subway.
The ultimate symbol of the way the regime operates is the fiasco of the Ryugong Hotel, which at 105 stories would be the world's tallest hotel, if it is ever able to open. Begun in 1987 and abandoned in 1992, it stood for over a decade as a rusting, hulking symbol of a regime that could not live up to its hubristic plan to put to shame South Korea's skyscraper-building boom. Reports of elevator shafts that were out of alignment, and of chunks of concrete falling, leaked out of North Korea.
Here is a bootleg video of the hulk in 2006.
In 2008, work resumed on the hotel -- at least on the exterior -- as a foreign company, Orascom Telecom Holding of Egypt, went to work sheathing the building with reflective glass and completing some work at the very top, where a rusting construction crane had long stood. Coincidentally, Orascom got the contract to install a 3G wireless network in North Korea. A series of photographs on Kernbeisser's flickr (hat tip: Architizer.com) documents the exterior transformation.
The exterior is looking pretty spiffy these days ("shirking its brutalist frame for a glossy vision of a jet-age mecca"), but plans previously announced to open 150 rooms at the top of the hotel under management of the Kempinski Group have fallen through owing to "market conditions." At last report, the interior is unfinished bare concrete.
Keep in mind that Kim Jong Un, his aunt and uncle, and the entire leadership of North Korea know that the biggest object in their capital city is but a shiny façade over an empty and possibly hopeless interior. Imagine what they know about other problems in their country, and in their military.
In the end, it is a good thing that Barack Obama's early-morning phone call these days is coming from a bunch of people who probably know they can't deliver on their threats. That's the best hope we have while the role of commander in chief rests upon Obama's shoulders.