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We Will Threaten You To Death
by James Dunnigan
March 20, 2013

North Korea has put many combat units on alert and mobile ballistic missiles have been seen being moved to firing positions. This is apparently yet another response to the new sanctions and China becoming openly hostile to the North Korean leadership. These latest moves are apparently in preparation for the end of scheduled South Korea-U.S. military training activities (on April 30 th ) that North Korea has always protested as “provocative” and this year has declared as a cause for a war. This annual training exercise began March 1 st . These joint exercises have been going on for decades, but North Korea insists they are rehearsals for an invasion of North Korea. South Korea has said it would not just retaliate if North Korea fired on them again (as has happened many times before, especially since 2010). This time South Korea says it will hit back a lot harder.

While outsiders are perplexed at the sudden increase in outrageous threats from North Korea, people inside the country are not. In the last few years life has gotten much worse. Starvation deaths, suicides, crime, and divorces (official and otherwise) are way up. The North Korean leadership has less and less to work with. Their armed forces have been falling apart for two decades and little else works up there.

The North Korean leadership continues to be split between those who want to follow the Chinese path and allow economic freedom while continuing to run a dictatorship and those who oppose economic freedom for the masses because it might make them powerful enough to overthrow their tyrants. It appears that all this is part of a generational dispute over how to maintain the wealth and power of the few thousand families that control the country. No one is talking democracy here, just basic survival. There is much to be done, because the economy is a mess and the police state is losing its ability to control the population. Last year the government distributed, to thousands of senior officials, details of new economic reforms. Although not as extensive as China is advising, the new reforms would give entrepreneurial managers more power to compete and do better. This includes more economic freedom for farmers. Alas, the new rules also provide more opportunity for corrupt officials to steal and have not been implemented. The hardliners remain in control and continue to demand more repression and dependence on fear rather than prosperity (as the Chinese communist have successfully done).

While China has officially joined the many nations backing sanctions against North Korea, it has not cut off trade (China is North Korea’s largest, by far, trading partner) or aid. China is the only source of petroleum for North Korea and a major source of much-needed food imports. Even more crucial is Chinese connivance with North Korean smugglers. This allows North Korea to get its illegal exports (weapons, drugs, and counterfeit currency) out of the country and smuggled items (weapons components and industrial equipment, as well as luxuries for the leadership) in. China has long been pressured to crack down on this illegal trade. That pressure has increased since China finally agreed to back sanctions (at least the most recent bunch). Chinese diplomats listen to these pleas but have so far not agreed to apply its own sanctions, that would really put the hurt on North Korea. Inside China, public opinion, despite decades of pro-North Korea propaganda, has turned against North Korea. More ominously (for North Korea), censors and state controlled media are not hiding this anger. When the Chinese want to make a big policy change, they usually make a big show of popular support for the shift. This has made many Chinese businesses along the North Korean border visibly nervous. Trading (legally or otherwise) with North Korea has been very profitable for most Chinese businesses involved. The North Koreans will occasionally try to scam or steal from their Chinese suppliers and investors but the North Korean government only tolerates such bad behavior to a limited extent. Most actions that would drive away Chinese traders and suppliers are severely punished in North Korea. Those prohibitions have weakened over the last few years and Chinese suppliers have had to be more strict (as in all or part of the money must be up front in cash). The North Koreans complain but they go along with it. There is no other source for much of what China supplies. But even on the border, Chinese were upset at the February 12 nuclear test (which could be felt, as an earthquake in some parts of northeast China) and fear worse is to come.

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