Kim Jong Un and the show of North Korean military might

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Kim Jong Un gained power by birthright, and the world is watching as he attempts to rule in his own right.

His grandfather, the “Great Leader”, passed power to his “Dear Leader” son, the erratic, eccentric Kim Jong Il. And he in turn passed power to a third generation Kim, the so-called “Supreme Leader,” not yet 30.

“He is the youngest head of state in the world,” said analyst Patrick Chovanec. “There’s still a lot of debate about how much power he has, whether other family members are in control or the military.”

Before Kim Jong Un is one of the largest armies on the planet. It is a war machine, still fighting a battle from more than half a century ago. They move in lockstep, legs kicking and arms swinging as one, discipline and focus measured in millimeters. A vast arsenal of weapons, missiles and tanks, paid for by the suffering of the people it is primed to defend.

Kim Jong Un may struggle to emerge from the shadows of his father and grandfather, but the gun here looms even larger. As young and green as he is, he knows this much: Without it, his rule and the regime itself will not survive.

North Korea rocket system based on old Soviet technology

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The missile that North Korea fired Wednesday appeared to be a four-stage rocket based on old Soviet technology, much less advanced than the rockets being used across the border in China, said Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer and the author of “Rocket Boys.”

“What the North Koreans have done is taken the technology the Russians developed 50 years ago and upgraded it a little bit and they’re trying to use that old technology to cause a splash in the international scene and to get paid attention to,” he said.

And it seems to have worked.

Chung Min Lee, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University, says the launch was designed to send a message to the United States and China. “Kim Jong Un has told President Obama and Xi Jinping, ‘I am not going to do business as usual. I’ll go down this particular path, come what may.’”

So after 14 years of painstaking labor, North Korea finally has a rocket that can put a satellite in orbit. But that doesn’t mean the reclusive country is close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Experts say Pyongyang is years from even having a shot at developing reliable missiles that could bombard the American mainland and other distant targets, though it already poses a threat to its more immediate neighbors.

The cost of the North Korean rocket launch

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While only the highest echelons of North Korea’s opaque leadership will know the full financial cost of Wednesday’s launch, South Korea’s government estimates Pyongyang spent $1.3 billion on its rocket program this year.

Though the price of North Korea’s rocket launches might be lower because North Korean workers earn much less than their southern neighbors, says Cheong Wook-Sik, Director of South Korea’s Peace Network in Seoul.

According to an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the two rockets launched this year — this week’s mission and a failed attempt in April — cost $600 million, while the launch site itself is estimated at $400 million. Other related facilities add another $300 million.

[$1.3 billion] is equivalent to acquiring 4.6 million tons of corn,” a South Korean official said. “If this was used for solving the food shortage issue, North Koreans would not have to worry about food for four to five years.”

But the financial cost and any risk of further sanctions may be a tradeoff for internal political gain as leader Kim Jong-Un tries to solidify his grip on power. Cheong Wook-Sik, Director of South Korea’s Peace Network in Seoul, said, “If North Korea succeeds in launching a satellite, North Korea propaganda may spin this by saying the country has become a prosperous and strong nation. That will help Kim Jong-Un both consolidate his power and help maintain the legacy of his father.”

If there is a message to the international community, adds Cheong, it may be that North Korea is implying “our satellite launch means we have nuclear weapons, we have a delivery system.”

Whatever the cost, what is known is that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with an economy worth just $40 billion, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Successful North Korean rocket launch

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North Korea fired a long-range rocket Wednesday morning and declared the launch a success. A similar launch in April broke apart shortly after liftoff.

North Korea says the purpose of the rocket launch was to put a weather satellite in orbit but critics say it is aimed at nurturing the kind of technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile. North Korea added that it chose a safe flight path so debris wouldn’t endanger neighboring countries.

The launch had been timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong-il. This year is also the centennial of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

North Korea is banned from testing missile or nuclear technology under U.N. sanctions imposed after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear weapons tests.

The curious timing of North Korea’s rocket launch

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The curious timing of North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket launch, outside of its usual spring-summer launch window, raises questions about the political motivations behind Pyongyang’s attention-grabbing move.

On Wednesday morning, just before 10 a.m. local time, South Korean news agency Yonhap and the Japanese government reported that the rocket had been launched. It came just days after North Korea extended the launch window due to technical issues.

Taking heed of launch and the usual caveats about reading North Korean government behavior, we can discern three motives underlying Pyongyang’s latest move: international bargaining, domestic legitimacy and strategic leverage.

With Barack Obama’s re-election in Washington and Xi Jinping named as the new Chinese President, the region awaits the outcomes of the Japanese election on December 16 and the South Korean presidential poll on December 19. Proliferation-related negotiating activity is on hold, leaving a diplomatic vacuum until the new governments are settled.

External aid fills gaps in the domestic economy and satisfies vital needs such as food and energy that the regime cannot provide for indigenously. The gambit fails if there are no negotiations. While North Korea appears to have no intention of relinquishing its nuclear or missile capabilities, its habitual tactic of engineering crises to leverage aid from the international community in exchange for de-escalation or proliferation freeze agreements is predicated on negotiations actually taking place.

A December rocket launch sends a strong signal from Pyongyang to its regional interlocutors to ensure that North Korea does not get overlooked amid the bureaucratic maelstrom that usually follows changes in government.


On agricultural reform in North Korea

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North Korea has long relied on socialized agriculture, placing several families on a common piece of land to farm for the state.  The result has been malnutrition and even starvation.

Reforms reportedly have been adopted to reduce the number of families per plot, and establish a production quota above which farmers can keep the excess. The objective however may not be greater freedom but reordered regulation.

There are indications that the regime is manipulating prices in an attempt to eliminate private markets and seizing privately farmed plots of land for collective use.

Open Radio for North Korea reported that “North Korean citizens, who experienced the similar situation in 2002, are preparing for Kim Jong-un’s New Economic Management System.  To prepare for the prices skyrocketing, they are hoarding Chinese money, and prices and the exchange rate keep rising.”


North Koreans ready for liberalization and change?

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The North Korean people appear ready for change.  Certainly ever fewer believe DPRK mythology that they live in a world of plenty compared to an impoverished South Korea.

Refugees who have experienced life in China and regime elites spread information about the outside world.  DVDs of Chinese and South Korean television programs circulate; some observers describe a “mania” for South Korean culture.  A million North Koreans own cell phones.  Famine forced many people into the black market to survive.

The regime is aware of the risks of liberalization and has embarked upon what author Scott Thomas Bruce called “the ‘mosquito net’ strategy, meaning that Pyongyang will allow foreign investment … while blocking potentially harmful news and culture from the outside world.”  This strategy is risky, since the multi-headed genie cannot easily be put back into the bottle.

Indeed, the regime has tightened border enforcement along the Yalu and enhanced punishment of would-be refugees, targeting their families as well.

Nevertheless, Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric may raise expectations without yielding results, setting the stage for further unrest.



South Korea one of the world’s great success stories

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Sixty years ago, South Korea was an economic wasteland. Today, it is not only the world’s 11th largest economy, but also a vibrant democracy and an emerging cultural force.

Daniel Tudor, the Korea correspondent for the Economist, suggests “South Koreans have written the most unlikely and impressive story of nation-building of the last century.”

Korea has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. This is due to Korea having been a developmental, high-growth country where things were sacrificed to barrel ahead. It was a matter of growth above all else.

If you go back to the 1950s and the early 1960s, Korea was really one of the poorest places in the world. People didn’t expect it to survive, and many people expected North Korea to take it over eventually. An adviser to former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee said, “We were the poorest, most impossible country on the planet.”

For South Korea to have gone from this sort of messed-up, disorderly, broke country into a wealthy democracy — it would have been impossible to imagine. But the Korean people have done it.

Thanks in part to its neighbors though, South Korea is all too often overlooked. Korea probably gets overshadowed by China, Japan and North Korea. China is a massive growth story. Japan is famous as a cultural powerhouse. North Korea is just famous for being a pretty extreme dictatorship. By comparison, South Korea struggles to stand out.

And to South Koreans who are 20 years old, they don’t know much about North Korea, they don’t know anybody from North Korea, and they can’t go there, so it is simply not a reference point for them.


Satellite photo of North Korea at night

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In this image from Sept. 24, 2012 provided by NASA, the Korean Peninsula is seen at night from a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite.

City lights at night are a fairly reliable indicator of where people live. But this isn’t always the case, and the Korean Peninsula shows why.

As of July 2012, South Korea’s population was estimated at roughly 49 million people, and North Korea’s population was estimated at about half that number. But where South Korea is gleaming with city lights, North Korea has hardly any lights at all, just a faint glimmer around Pyongyang.

The wide-area image shows the Korean Peninsula, parts of China and Japan, the Yellow Sea, and the Sea of Japan.

Photo: NASA / AP

Born and raised in a North Korean prison camp

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A brutal North Korean prison camp was all that Shin Dong-hyuk knew for the first 23 years of his life. CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, after interviewing him, said, “Shin Dong-hyuk isn’t just somebody who was sent to a concentration camp. This is somebody who was born into a concentration camp. And for the majority of his life up until he was probably 22 or 23, had no idea that there was another kind of way to exist.”

Anderson Cooper: Growing up, did you ever think about escaping?

Shin Dong-hyuk: That never crossed my mind.

Anderson Cooper: It never crossed your mind?

Shin Dong-hyuk: No. Never. What I thought was that the society outside the camp would be similar to that inside the camp.

Anderson Cooper: You thought everybody lived in a prison camp like this?

Shin Dong-hyuk: Yes.

Anderson Cooper: Did anybody ever explain to you why you were in a camp?

Shin Dong-hyuk: No. Never. Because I was born there I just thought that those people who carry guns were born to carry guns. And prisoners like me were born as prisoners.

Anderson Cooper: Did you know America existed?

Shin Dong-hyuk: Not at all.

Anderson Cooper: Did you know that the world was round?

Shin Dong-hyuk: I had no idea if it was round or square.

Read transcript of full interview with Shin Dong-hyuk