The Current Round of North Korean Saber Rattling
North Korean troops ready to punish their enemies with “unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style“.
Pyongyang was lit up 24 hours a day, traffic jams clogged the streets (even the retired traffic girls were mobilized), the hotels and bars were impressively stocked with foreign luxury goods, new statues, murals, and even entire neighborhoods were unveiled and gifted to the public. The citizens were in good cheer with smiles on their faces as they enjoyed the gigantic military parades, public holiday gatherings, and massive fireworks displays – all to commemorate the 100th birthday of ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung.
There was also a missile launch, the failure of which was not reported to the North Korean people…….but everyone knew.
And now with the party over there is a HUGE debt, and with the suspension of American food aid sadly there also will be empty stomachs.
So where will the DPRK go from here? I’m not an expert, the focus of this blog is on my travel experiences, human interactions, and photography in North Korea, but I do have some on-the-ground observations and humble analysis I would like to share on the current saber rattling coming out of the DPRK.
While talking with our guides we freely discussed the topic of US food aid to the DPRK. Our guides explained to us that they were fully aware that the American Government gave food aid in the late 90’s in response to the mass famines that afflicted the country. When asked if this aid helped the USA to be regarded in a more favorable light by North Koreans, our guides said no, that the US did not give enough aid at that time for the average citizen to change their opinion on the US government – I’m sure ongoing anti American propaganda didn’t help either. A more enlightening revelation was that our guides admitted to us that they were unaware of continuing food aid supplied from the USA to the DPRK throughout the 2000’s.
While the food situation is believed to be better than the late 90’s, it is generally believed that food shortages and reduced rations do exist outside Pyongyang. People in the secondary cities we visited (Hamhung, Nampo, and Wonsan) looked to be in good health, but we did witness scavenging in the mountainous countryside in transit between these cities – our guides claimed not know what these people were doing when asked.
At the time when the DPRK government has proclaimed itself as achieving its goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, not only has it lost face with a failed missile launch – a costly blunder not only in the expense of research and development, but also in causing the loss of food aid – it is also faced with the tremendous expenses for the celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim il-sung.
During my summer 2011 visit blackouts commenced in the city at 2100 hours with only the foreign hotel and the largest city monuments still lit by midnight. I got a small peak at the expense and effort to light Pyongyang during this last celebratory period when during a trip to the Pyongyang outskirts for lunch at a mountain park, we passed the main road out to the port city of Nampo. Here dump trucks full of coal for the Pyongyang power plant where lined up and stretched out as far as I could see towards Nampo. This effort to light and power Pyongyang had to have been enormous, and ultimately I believe, unsustainable.
Kim Jong-un in the news at the Pyongyang Metro.
Kim Jong-un gave his first public speech to the North Korean people during the celebrations for his grandfather’s 100th birthday. Witnessing this broadcast from inside the DPRK was an incredible experience. The busy hotel lobby and bar hushed to a silence as North Koreans gathered around the bar television set. This was a big deal, remember that his father Kim Jong-il only publicly spoke once during his rule. Unfortunately to the eyes of us westerners Kim Jong-un’s speech looked terrible. He swayed and looked as if he was speaking without any kind of authority or self assurance. The North Koreans we met never talked about this speech so I assume it was viewed by them with some sense of unease.
Considering the situation the DPRK has gotten itself in (from my observations above), the current round of saber rattling is understandable, North Korea is desperately looking for attention and hopes to regain aid. Where could it all lead? Joshua Spodek, friend and travel buddy, argues in his book Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country, that the North Korean leadership is quite rational and rather pleased to continue with the status quo – it ensures their survival. Hard times may be ahead but the safe bet would have the North Korean government continuing as before. Brash talk, saber rattling, perhaps a small scale border skirmish, but in general more of the same with the people suffering in what their propaganda claims is a righteous honor – something the South has given up in their race for economic prosperity – as the North Korean Government would tell you.
But the food crisis, debt, and failure in faith of the top leadership could be worse than I imagine, and the consequences could be far worse than a continuation of the statues quo. Although I believe the leadership is rational, the possibility exists that if the hard liners believe their backs are truly against the wall they could follow their propaganda – 50 plus years of preaching to their military and people of a coming war to end all wars, and go for broke with a major military action. It would be a suicidal gesture with millions of people dying in both the North and South, but I do believe such an action is a possibility if the situation deteriorates badly enough and the hard liners see no way out.
Soldiers in Pyongyang walk home after a military parade.
While hard liners of the older generation maneuver to hold power, there are whispers that the younger generation is aware of the world outside the DPRK and that they desire change. A cell phone revolution has taken over North Korea and familiarity with the outside world is continuously leaking in via smuggled DVD’s. Western tourism is also helping to open eyes and change opinions. If conditions deteriorate enough, a clash between the hard liners and the new generation will be inevitable. The new and untested leader Kim Jong-un may find himself in the middle of this conflict, and with his own survival in mind, will probably back whatever faction seems to be winning out – that is if he survives that long.
It’s been an interesting time to have traveled to the DPRK, both before and after the death of Kim Jong-il, and no matter what happens there I wish the best of luck to the common people and hope they pull through the troubled times ahead with the least amount of suffering – the common people of North Korea are a good people and they deserve better than what they have been forced to endure.