Marcus Noland and Stephen Haggard at Witness to Transformation cautiously chuckle about the spectacle of North Korea and Syria signing an agreement, “to increase cooperation on trading and the exchange of technologies”. What “technologies” are is uncertain, but arms or even missiles are possibilities. One worrying illustration of how this agreement could play out is a September, 2012 Reuters article about a Syrian-bound North Korean plane suspected of transporting arms that was intercepted by Iraq. Noland and Haggard tie the agreement to speculation, that Pyongyang will reimpose price controls, to tackle inflation.
It could get worse, on both ends of this joke. Andrew Natsios warns, that, with winter approaching, famine is poised to tighten its already-firm hold on the North Korean people.
While U.S. media and policymakers are focused on the chaotic situation in Libya, the civil war in Syria, and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, another rogue state—North Korea—has been relegated to the back burner of public attention. But not for long, because the U.N.’s annual crop assessment for North Korea will shortly be published. These annual assessments have been published since the Great North Korean Famine of the mid-1990s killed as many as 2.5 million people, and they are supposed to warn the international humanitarian system of an impending famine. This assessment will show that drought early this summer seriously damaged the crop so that the harvest will drive the country, always on the edge of starvation, ever deeper into nutritional disaster.
The one attempted military coup in North Korea’s 60-year history took place during the 1990s famine in the region with the highest death rates. The death rates were so high in the epicenter of the famine that a truck would search street by street each morning collecting hundreds of dead bodies to bury them in mass graves. It was likely that the severity of the famine drove the military to mutiny.
For 40 years the regime successfully used the food system—under which each non-farm family would get a twice monthly ration of food through the public distribution system—but it collapsed during the last famine. Repeated attempts by Pyongyang to resuscitate it have failed. Instead most people are now getting their food through the farmers’ markets which have grown more powerful and more extensive as the sclerotic old order has slowly died. A de facto market economy has been spreading in North Korea despite official opposition to it, with a growing middle class of merchants and middle men who run the markets and the transport system which supplies them. The cradle to grave system promised by the old order in exchange for the population’s servile loyalty and its relinquishing of any individual freedom is no longer a viable economic system. The new economic order taking its place will ensure the people are no longer dependent on the state for their survival which will make them less servile and more prone to dissent. We saw remarkable evidence of this dissent in January 2010 when popular opposition to a currency manipulation scheme announced by Pyongyang led to public demonstrations, the burning of a police station, and a graffiti campaign by the public attacking the policies which the regime was forced to rescind. This may be the first time in North Korean history Pyongyang responded to public opposition to any of its policies.
In the midst of these changes the North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, leaving his 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, in charge of a government run by an aging party apparatus and military command structure. When Kim Jung Il told the Chinese leadership of his plan to appoint his son as his successor, the shocked Chinese told him in no uncertain terms that he should not put the country in his son’s hands. The Chinese leadership reportedly regards the young man as reckless, irresponsible, and unfit to run the country. Bowing to Chinese pressure Kim Jong Il appointed the boy’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, as Regent. To ensure the party cadres and military are loyal to the new leader, Taek has been forcing officials and generals into retirement to purge the system of the old order and ensure the loyalty of the new one. The purge, however, has created a class of officials angry at the new leadership for their loss of power and its perquisites. When Mao and Stalin purged officials they executed or exiled them to the prison camps for a slow death. These officials are simply being retired.
This could not come at a more inopportune time, because Jang Song-taek appears to be forcing economic and agricultural reforms, which were announced over the past two months, on a resist bureaucracy. But Pyongyang is now reconsidering them, as the leadership fears the food crisis could destabilize the already stressed system so much that the reforms could cause the teetering system to collapse.
Natsios identifies two precedents for Pyongyang’s reaction to another catastrophic famine: Chinese intervention, or an opportunistic attack on American or South Korean military forces, to distract its people from the severity of their plight. Adding to those precedents, Pyongyang might now increase military exports to Syria.
On the other end of the world, Syria has a “unified” opposition.
A day after Syrian opposition groups agreed on a new unified opposition council following a week-long meeting in Qatar, those inside Syria say they are pleased with the development but will place little weight on it until the new leadership produces results. Many Syrians have long felt let down by the international community and their own leaders abroad for failing to provide enough support.
Yet, for all the skepticism expressed, I’m surprised no one has acknowledged, that the likely result of this political deal will be to facilitate armed resistance to the Assad regime, which would have little choice but to strengthen ties to odious regimes, like North Korea. Damascus’ options are only constrained when Israel and Syria are exchanging mortar rounds and missiles at the Golan Heights.
The Syrian army is in the area to pursue rebels who have taken refuge in the village of Be’er Ajam, a few kilometers from Israel. The Syrian shell exploded near an IDF outpost at Hezakia on the Golan Heights.
“We will not allow anyone to breach our borders or to fire on our citizens,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said following the incident.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said earlier Monday, before the second shell hit Israel, that Syrian President Bashar Assad was being very careful regarding the border with Israel.
Ya’alon noted, however, that there was very heavy fighting taking place near the Golan Heights as well as in Damascus, referring to Syria’s ongoing civil war.
On Sunday, after a similar incident, the IDF fired an advanced Tapuz-type missile at a Syrian artillery cannon aimed toward a Syrian military target, deliberately missing the cannon.
“In the midst of Syrian infighting, a mortar shell fired by the Syrian army struck near an [IDF] outpost at Tel Azeka,” IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai said Sunday.
And, what would happen if one of those shells in the future had curious markings stenciled in Korean characters?
It’s no joke.