The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in an appalling condition. Not only are its civilians starved, but its armed forces are extremely short of food as well. Soldiers regularly steal food from farmers and even elite border guard troops need to invent ways of feeding themselves. When they began venturing across the border into China in order to thieve money and food, occasionally killing Chinese citizens in the process, Beijing officially complained to Pyongyang – but to no avail. The incidents angered the Chinese and strained their relations with North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un. It became publicly evident in Beijing in early September 2015.
Mr Kim, a portly 32-old who represents the third generation in a family that has run one of the most secretive and brutal regimes in the world, is as busy as ever issuing restrictive regulations.
Plucking up evil
For example, three or more North Koreans are now not allowed to gather at anytime, anywhere – apparently to exclude conspiracies that might aim to overthrow the government. Penning ‘anti government’ posters, distributing ‘reactionary’ leaflets or engaging in ‘superstitious practices’, such as palm reading, may all lead to extreme punishment of those found guilty. How can such a policy be enforced?
As compared to his predecessor and father Kim Jong-il, who ruled the country from 1994 to 2011, the present leader of North Korea sets a new standard for ruthlessness. He doesn’t merely order people to be executed when they dare to disagree with him – or when he simply doesn’t find them agreeable enough. Every single member of the condemned individuals’ families, their spouses, young children and grandparents must also end up dead or at least incarcerated. Mr Kim believes in the policy of ‘plucking up evil by the roots’ as the best way to deal with dissent.
As a result, both ranked officials and local cadres in North Korea are terrified no less than ordinary citizens. They are convinced that anyone can get executed now and that their physical survival is contingent on vigilantly suppressing civilians, in every aspect of life, as a way of demonstrating their ardent loyalty to the supreme leader.
With all this thick fear in the air, the North Koreans are also getting desperate. They have lacked access to enough food for more than 20 years – this holds true especially for those who live outside of the capital city Pyongyang – and they don’t see any prospects for improvement in the foreseeable future. Some dare to argue and shout back at officials in the public, consequences be damned. When – despite the prohibition – North Koreans find a chance to band together, they let out their frustration and anger towards their rulers with increasing vehemence.
Killings for food
How long, then, can such a system of rule last? When may the nightmare of the North Koreans end?
No one really knows. With its omnipresent controls combined with economic poverty and assuming no intervention from the outside, the regime can continue for a hundred years – or collapse overnight. The way the Soviet-style Communism in Central and Eastern Europe cratered in the summer of 1989 was quite instructive on the frailty of sclerotic regimes.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is, as nearly always, in bad shape. Its armed forces are extremely short of food. Soldiers regularly commit robberies. Late last year, a North Korean soldier went over to China and killed four members of a Chinese family in the process of looting their house in the border town of Helong.
Beijing lodged a rare diplomatic protest to Pyongyang, but to no avail. The incidents angered the Chinese and strained their relations with Kim Jong-un, which surfaced in a surprising fashion in Beijing in early September 2015.
Just like many other heads of state, the leader of North Korea was supposed to participate in the World War II anniversary celebrations in Russia and in China. Firstly, Mr Kim received Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to attend Russia’s military parade in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9th and accepted it, but changed his mind at the last minute and did not go. On September 3, 2015, it was China’s turn to put on a lavish show of its military might in Tiananmen Square. For Beijing, just as for Russia three months earlier, national prestige was at stake – yet Kim Jong-un declined the invitation.
According to a trusted source, the North Korean leader had requested to sit next to Chinese president Xi Jinping, but China refused. Angered Kim decided to strike back. He selected Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, his former military second-in-command, to represent him in Tiananmen Square. The marshal had briefly replaced Kim’s executed uncle, but by April 2014 he was transferred to do ‘party work’. In North Korea, where army commanders wield much more power than party officials, it meant Choe’s severe degradation. The Chinese understood that by sending that man, Kim had meant to add insult to injury. To Beijing, such behaviour by Kim amounted to betrayal.
During the ceremony, Kim’s representative was given a place at the very end of the officials’ lineup, the least prestigious spot. At the same event, South Korean President, Ms Park Geun-hye stood next to President Xi’s wife. To insiders that signalled that China was moving closer to South Korea and distancing itself from North Korea.
Recipient of aid
The Pyongyang regime cannot survive without China’s support. Beijing does not reveal the scope or value of its endless aid to North Korea, yet a Singapore newspaper cast some light on the issue recently. Only in the year 2000, it reported that China had supplied North Korea with half a million tonnes of food, one million tonnes of petrol and two and a half million tonnes of coal. In the context of such assistance, the Beijing’s growing impatience with Kim Jong-un’s antics is even less surprising.
China’s leaders increasingly have to consider that their citizen’s views of North Korea have been changing. The Chinese people remember that during the Korean War (1950-1953) their country intervened, helping to create today’s North Korea, and paid a hefty price in lives lost and material for that. For long, they did not question the wisdom of that intervention. These days, though, it is hard to miss the vast difference between the lot of Koreans in the South and the North. As popular sentiment turns against North Korea, Chinese politicians have to take it into account as well.
In July 2015, Chinese President Xi paid a telling visit to a military base in Yanbian, in North-Eastern China near the border with North Korea. Although reports from the visit made no mention of North Korea, it was lost on no one that it followed a series of killings that were blamed on North Korean army deserters in border areas. China beefed up its border patrols.
Mr Kim is aggravating the last of his country’s old friends and not making many new ones.
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