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Mixed Signals Reveal North Korea's Dilemma

Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on January 18, 2010

A swing between confrontation and conciliation has been a standard tactic by North Korea for nearly two decades. Conflicting signals sent out by Pyongyang within hours of each other on Jan. 15 were nevertheless puzzling.

Shortly after South Korea’s Unification Ministry briefed journalists in Seoul that North Korea’s Red Cross had said Pyongyang would accept southern food aid, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) carried a harshly-worded statement by the powerful National Defense Commission, denouncing the Southern government and threatening to cut off all security-related dialogue with South Korea.

The conflicting signals underscore the uneasy psychology of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s regime. “North Korea badly needs outside help and hard currency to increase the supply of food and daily necessities,” says Dong Yong Seung, North Korea specialist at Samsung Economic Research Institute, a think-tank for Korea’s largest conglomerate Samsung. “What it can never compromise, however, is any challenge or threat to Kim Jong Il’s regime.”

The consensus among North Korea watchers: growing concern among the ruling elite in Pyongyang that their unprecedented family-run communist system will become vulnerable unless they maintain control over the country’s largely muted citizens. While there’s no sign of any organized dissent, Kim’s regime is stepping up a pre-emptive campaign.

So it’s not surprising that North Korea angrily condemned a Seoul contingency plan, reported in the South Korean media, to cope with the potential collapse of the Kim regime. In an unprecedented denunciation by the defense commission, which is led by the Dear Leader himself, the North warned that it would exclude the South from all negotiations for stability and peace in the Korean peninsula, unless Seoul apologizes and disbands the Unification Ministry and the National Intelligence Service, the equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, which Pyongyang blames for the contingency plan.

The Seoul government expressed regret over the North’s condemnation, saying it was based on an unconfirmed report. South Korea’s Munhwa Ilbo newspaper reported last week that the Seoul government recently revised a contingency plan in view of the North’s deepening economic woes and uncertainties over Kim’s health. Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong Joo denied the Munhwa report but added that the government was preparing for any probability. Lee declined to give more details.

The North’s response came one day after Pyongyang proposed talks with the South to resume joint tourism projects that once gave the cash-short communist state tens of millions of dollars a year. North Korea on Jan. 18 also notified the South that it will send a delegation to inter-Korean talks in the joint industrial zone just north of the Korean border aimed at further promoting economic cooperation.

The mixed signals reflect a dilemma North Korea faces. The reclusive nation, which has been further isolated since its second nuclear test last May, needs to mend ties sufficiently with the U.S. and its allies to prevent a further deterioration in the economy that could in turn hurt the regime. “As North Korean policies are driven primarily by political motivations, its step could lead to the economic dead-end,” says Koh Il Dong, who monitors North Korean economy at Korea Economic Institute, a government-funded think-tank in Seoul.

One example is a recent crackdown on unofficial markets and a currency redenomination. Last month, North Korea forced its citizens to change their old notes into new ones that lop off two zeros from the nominal value of the North Korean won. By setting a ceiling for the amount of money they can exchange, Pyongyang destroyed wealth of newly emerging class of merchants who not only earned money but also began deviating from the control of the ruling elite.

After hammering the activities of those merchants, who played a significant role in supplying daily necessities, the North will have to perform a balancing act of securing outside help while at the same time trying to keep Kim’s family dynasty going for another generation. “You will see North Korea continuing to play two cards of conciliation and conflicts,” says Lim Kang Taeg, a senior researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification, a think-tank for Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

Reader Comments

joe smith

January 18, 2010 8:53 AM

Flood North Korea with WiMax and Google. Then let God sort things out.

Carson Smith

January 18, 2010 2:18 PM

I agree with the google thing, but god isn't real.


January 18, 2010 4:43 PM

NK is a Kingdom - so let's start calling it that and dealing with them as if they are run by a King (admittedly, a slightly mad one).


January 19, 2010 3:14 AM

North Korea is not worthy of being called Kingdom. Under current regime, North Korean people suffered famines and mass persecution which their ancestors few hundred years ago did not suffer.


January 19, 2010 3:08 PM

So why is South Korea continuing to fund North Korea's regime? Face it, without South Korean aide, N. Korea will implode within 2 years.


January 19, 2010 5:26 PM

How about we call their bluff. Cut off all aid and then boost troops at the border.... put the next move in their hands.

C. H. Ng

January 19, 2010 8:25 PM

Cut off all aids is one thing but boosting troops at the border is tantamount to preparation for war. Easier to say that since it's not near your country's border..!

Btw N.Korea is nowhere a kingdom since her current leader doesn't even has a regal look; his father (the former leader) had more of it...if you ask my opinion.


January 23, 2010 10:33 PM

One thing I would like to point out, is that the North Korean regime, unless we enforce drastic sanctions, will not crumble. Any problems the country faces, the government can blame on the West or on South Korea. So despite any issues the state may face, it always has a scapegoat onto which the blame is passed.

And I doubt that Kim Jong-Il is mad. He has played the political field particularly well; whipping out the nuclear bargaining chip when it suited him, and has always managed to retain public support. The myth that he is insane, is based on our subjective perspective of the regime.

I am not supporting North Korea or its actions, but do not doubt the strength and support its government has.

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