Friday, December 30, 2011

A Chip Off the Old Block...

Penned by myself in collaboration with the inestimable Cho Jong Ik here.
At 11AM yesterday morning, Kim Jong Eun gathered 100,000 or more Pyongyang civilians and soldiers in Kim Il Sung Square for a massive commemoration of the life of Kim Jong Il. However, in reality the event itself was more meaningful as a proclamation of the presence of a new leader of the North Korean people.

As such, the focus was less on memorializing the departed than about firmly establishing and demanding loyalty to both the dictatorship of Kim Jong Eun and the revolution. If Kim Jong Eun walking alongside the hearse carrying his deceased father during Wednesday's funeral cort├Ęge while shedding visible tears was intended to portray a son filled with 'filial respect', a highly valued emotion in traditional parts of East Asia, then yesterday was intended to show the people of North Korea and the world that the regime will go on, come what may.

It was Kim who stepped first onto the podium, followed by regime heavyweights Kim Yong Nam, Jang Sung Taek, Lee Young Ho and more. Once again, Kim was stamping the seal of the supreme leader in the people's minds.

In his comments, Supreme People's Assembly Standing Committee Chairman Kim Yong Nam demanded, "Carry forth comrade Kim Jong Eun as both the leader of the Party and the Supreme Commander of the military," adding for emphasis, "Completing the succession was Kim Jong Il's greatest achievement." It was not a eulogy, it was a call to arms.

Party secretary Kim Gi Nam spoke similarly, calling for loyalty by looking to the lineage of the new leader, pointing out, "We must accept and carry forth respected comrade Kim Jong Eun highly as the core of the leadership, and develop the strength of the Party of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il."

But Kim himself did not speak, something which did not come as a surprise. At a similar event upon the death of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il did not make a speech, either. As such, it may be that North Korea is planning to utilize the 'man of mystery' strategy in the process of Kim Jong Eun's idolization, just as Kim Jong Il did. 
Kim, lest we should forget, managed to make just one public statement in fully 37 years of rule. To those who are looking for a more open and approachable North Korean regime to emerge, it was a bad way to begin.
I'm firmly in favor of optimism, and in complete agreement with the diplomatic wait-and-see tactics that the allied Six-Party Talks protagonists appear to have adopted, but only the willfully blind would say that what we've seen since December 19th has been encouraging.

Simply, we would be wise to hope that a period of regime consolidation is seen in Pyongyang as a built-in and necessary part of an already existing program of modest change that the new broom has in store for an expectant world. That is what passes for optimism at this particular moment in time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Kim Who Is Now 'There' But Not 'There'

In April, 2011 I wrote this, suggesting reasons why Kim Jong Eun cannot rule through the National Defense Commission as his father did. It is worth briefly reflecting on.

On Tuesday, December 20th the National Intelligence Service, in a report to the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, stated, "(Kim Jong Eun has been declared the successor but until such time as he becomes the official supreme leader) they will establish transitional ruling organs with the Party Central Military Commission at the core, and there present policy will be discussed."

In its current incarnation, the Central Military Commission does not represent the long term answer to the conundrum of through what or whom Kim Jong Eun should rule. As such, if he cements his leadership in the coming months without crisis, Kim will presumably get around to taking on the mantle of Chosun Workers' Party Chief-Secretary, yes perhaps via a Party Congress, and may then begin to rule North Korea through the overall Party apparatus that way.

However, on the other hand I still cannot yet see any good reason to believe that he will, as I said back in April, "step into the leader's slippers" and move into the big chair in the National Defense Commission.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Slow Road to Yuanization

How can it be that the state is not giving the North Korean people distribution, rice costs 5,000 North Korean won per kilo, the Chinese Yuan is trading for up to 1,000 North Korean won in some markets, and yet nobody appears to be starving?

This, in essence, is the conundrum troubling North Korea watchers today.

Some are really concerned. Here's Joo Seong Ha of North Korea Real Talk (from Ask a Korean!);
The price of rice in North Korea is not cheap even compared to South Korea's rice price. Unless it comes from an expensive brand, the price of rice in South Korea is under $2 per kilo. In other words, North Korean rice price is around half of South Korean rice price. Considering the huge disparity between the incomes of North and South Korea, the fact that North Koreans buy rice at this price is astonishing.
Joo believes that there is at least the risk that these rapidly rising prices portend impending famine. But, whether or not he is correct, it is certainly noticeable that his concerns are rooted more in the fact that he cannot assimilate the situation in any other way given the evidence available to him than because he has actual evidence of encroaching devastation. He continues;
In the spring of 1995, in Pyongyang, I saw the rice price going from 50 won per kilo to 200 won per kilo in just two or three months. And then two or three months later, mass starvation deaths began to occur everywhere in North Korea, and the regime declared the March of Struggle. But it is the fall right now, when rice just finished getting harvested -- and the price is already rising. I would rest a little easier if someone could explain to me that this is not a repeat of 1995.
Admittedly, his worries seem on the prima facie evidence available to be valid. 5,000 North Korean won per kilo is not a sustainable price for people earning around 5,000 North Korean won per month, after all. 

So what's the deal? 

Obviously nobody is saying there is no hunger. There presumably is. Similarly, it is not that Mr. Joo is wrong. No; instead, I wonder whether he and many others are looking at the wrong signal. In other words, I wonder whether the Yuan has become so overwhelmingly ubiquitous that North Korea has become the first ever 'Yuanized' state, and that, as a result, the price of rice denominated in North Korean won is becoming irrelevant because the buyers buy and the sellers sell in Chinese Yuan, and almost nobody is prepared to keep their savings in domestic currency. 

Were that to be the case, while it may suit the media to devote column inches to the skyrocketing price of rice, if few people are actually paying in that currency, then it is irrelevant, isn't it?

However, that is not precisely cause for celebration either, for if the government keeps forcing those parts of the economy it still controls to operate on North Korean won then there may well be a great deal of hunger and possible starvation, just as Mr. Joo predicted. This fits well with the narrative of a degraded and hungry military that has been a feature of analysis for some time. Equally, it will come as no comfort whatsoever to the "vulnerable people who have no access to the market" or those charged with providing aid to those people, and equally the statement, "helping the completely helpless in a state with no social safety net nor obvious desire to help its own people is something that only aid can realistically do at this point," also appears doomed to remain true for the foreseeable future.