Korea: The Great Hunger

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November 9,2008: South Korean intelligence officials are uncertain who is in charge up north. There is general agreement that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is, or was, quite ill earlier this year. He appears to have had a stroke, but recovered. Maybe. There is some belief that Chang Sung Taek, the head of the secret police and Kim Jong Ils brother-in-law, is actually running things. But then, that has long appeared to be the case. The problem has always been that there was no one in charge up north, or at least that was the impression diplomats and negotiators got. For decades, there has been a small group of paranoid communist bureaucrats and military officers, trying to survive amid self-inflicted economic decline. Decisions appear to be made at random. This is, has and continues to be a major problem.

The recent release of photos showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is alive and well, are either undated or photoshopped (digitally altered). At best, Kim is alive and well enough to be briefly shown at a few public events. At worse, he's completely out of it and his henchmen are unwilling to publicly admit it, or deal with the public reaction. North Korean propaganda has elevated Kim Jong Il to the level of a deity, whose demise is unthinkable, and unsurvivable (since no heir has been appointed.)

In North Korea, police have been ordered to find and confiscate all illegal cell phones. Police are being told to do this, and control communications in general, to halt the spread of "rumors" about food shortages. Foreign aid agencies, that have some knowledge of conditions inside the country, believe that over half the population will be starving this Winter. Recent deserters from the army (who have escaped to China), report that the military still has food, but less of it than in the past. Malnutrition is common in the military, and morale is low. Potentially disloyal families are being expelled from the capital, increasing the fear and paranoia.

A new legal cell phone service will begin next year. Those few allowed to have cell phones, will only be able to operate them on a state controlled network that does not allow calls outside the country. The news inside North Korea is universally grim. Social order is breaking down, and crime is on the rise. Soldiers and police, who are now on short rations, increasingly steal from civilians, as a way to get more food. It's difficult to maintain discipline when the guards are hungry. However, it appears that there will not be as many starvation deaths as there were in the 1990s (when up to two million died in the great famine). That's because there is now better food distribution, and legal food markets (where those with anything to sell can buy food.) But this time around, more people will be hungry, and not happy about their condition.

The United States is trying to persuade South Korea to do some serious planning for various forms of collapse (economic, political, social) up north. The United States has long worked on such plans, but because less than five percent of the troops available in South Korea are American, it's really up to the South Koreans to carry out any operations in a North Korea that has slipped into turmoil. South Korean media are increasingly full of reports from recent North Korean escapees who have witnessed growing disorder and social collapse up north. There are more public executions and roundups by the secret police up there, and more people who suffer the lethargy of malnutrition and fear. In the south, there is growing agreement that the situation in the north is approaching that point where it all falls apart. At that point, South Korea will have to do something, and doing nothing is not among the better options.

North Korea is not giving up its nuclear weapons, and has demonstrated that it will not allow the kind of inspections needed to insure that the weapons are gone, and their development is halted. But by delaying negotiations in order to get that concession, the new famine has had more time to spread. Hunger has now spread to the cities and military units, and there are a growing number of starvation deaths in the countryside.

North Korea is still making mysterious shipments, often by air, to Iran. Is this nuclear technology, or ballistic missile assistance? The U.S. is so anxious about this cooperation, that it convinced India to refuse over-flight permission to a North Korean cargo airliner last Summer. The North Korean aircraft had landed in Myanmar, and asked permission to fly over India to Iran. At the urging of the United States, India refused, and the North Korean cargo had to find another way to get to Iran.

October 24, 2008: North Korea admitted to China, last June, that it had produced 68 pounds of plutonium, and used 4.5 pounds of that for the bomb it tested two years ago. Given the primitive state of North Korean bomb design, they could produce about eight nuclear weapons with what plutonium they have.

 

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