Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Pillar of Stability

North Korea

Korea, as an un-divided nation was united by the Silla Dynasty (668–935) in 668 A.D. Since then, Korea has been forced to contend with the expansionist ambitions of its neighbors and “friends” from afar.

All was well, until in 1910, Korea’s Chosun Dynasty (1392–1910) was forced to a close with the annexation and colonization of Korea by its “good” neighbor — Japan.   Although resistance groups formed in Korea and China — typically adopting “leftist” politics in reaction to the harsh “right-wing” Japanese management style — it would require a world war to force the Japanese out. It is of little surprise that as a result of the Japanese Imperial Administration’s oppression, inferior relations between the people of both Koreas (North & South) and Japan continue today.

After Japan’s WW II defeat in 1945 the Soviet Union and United States divided the post-war control of the Korean peninsula between themselves.   On August 10th of that year, a line was drawn establishing the U.S. and Soviet controlled occupation zones at the “38th parallel”. The divide was intended to be temporary; a mere footnote in Korea’s long history, but the onset of the Cold War made this a pivotal event indeed.

In search of a method to ensure the upkeep of their respective influences in Korea, the U.S. and the USSR installed Korean leaders sympathetic to their own cause.

The United States handed control of the southern half of the peninsula to Syngman Rhee, while the Soviet Union gave Kim Il-sung power in the north.  As you’d expect, mistrust on both sides prevented cooperation on elections that were intended to select a leader for the entire peninsula. The unfortunate result: both sides claimed to be the legitimate government and representative of the entire Korean population.

On August 15, 1948, Syngman Rhee (the US appointee) declared the formation of the Republic of Korea in Seoul, claiming jurisdiction over all of Korea.

Shortly thereafter, on September 8, 1948 Kim Il-sung (the USSR appointee) declared the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in Pyongyang, also claiming authority over all of Korea.

Nearly two years later, the conflict that is known as the
Korean War Begin on June 25, 1950 when Kim Il-sung attempted to unify Korea via military force.  By far the most destructive and disruptive event in Korean history, the war changed the life of almost every Korean; some historians claim that the U.S. dropped more napalm on urban centers in Korea than during the entire Vietnam War, (1954–1975).  Bombing sorties reduced North Korea’s Capital City Pyongyang, to rubble, and the North’s population was reduced by 10%.

As you know, 3 years and two days later (June 27, 1953), an armistice ending major hostilities was signed. The DMZ (demilitarized zone) was established at almost the same position as the border had been before war began.

Having survived the war, Kim Il-sung “remodeled” North Korean society along the lines of the Juche Ideology — loosely translated as “self-reliance,”— a unique, Korean-flavored variation of Stalinism with a hefty dose of national spirituality assigning supernatural feats and deity status to the “Great Leader” (Kim Il-sung . . . the father), “Dear Leader” (Kim Jong-il . . . the son), and more recently, “Supreme Leader” (Kim Jong-un . . . the grandson) as the "living" leaders of the Korean people.

You might be surprised to learn that from 1953 to the early 1970’s North Korea was considered by some external observers to be quite the successful state.  During this period, many North Koreans were actually better off economically than their southern brethren living in South Korea.

North Korea’s wildly nationalistic ideology promoting Korean autonomy quickly seized control of all private property and organizations . . . Officially, everything in the country, from businesses to the clothes on everyone’s back, belonged to the North Korean state. The regime rebuilt Pyongyang as a socialist capital and erected numerous monuments dedicated to Kim Il-sung as part of a nationwide effort to build a “cult of personality” that would secure the absolute obedience of the public. The state took control of all media and restricted international travel. Furthermore, Kim Il-sung worked constantly to centralize power under the Workers’ Party of Korea that was under his rule; during the process he implemented a perpetual purge to rid the country of potential internal opponents.

How things change or what a difference the loss of a few civil liberties make. By the 1970’s, the early gains of postwar renovation and modernization began to dissipate, and Kim Il-sung’s ideologically driven governance failed to continue yielding prosperity. Since North Korea was so dependent on trade and aid from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries; when the economies of those nations began to decay it adversely affected North Korea’s economy too. The people’s quality of life deteriorated into the 1980’s and remained in decline until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, at which point the North Korean socialist command economy stopped functioning almost completely.

To make matters worse, poor agricultural policies and environmental negligence increased North Koreas susceptibility to extreme weather conditions which increasingly brought meager crop yields. Further, the regime had lost allies to fall back on when or if the economy failed. Simply stated, North Korea’s reserves swiftly ran dry.

These were the circumstances the country found itself in when Kim Il-sung died in 1994. “Great Leader” left the failing state to his son, Kim Jong-il or “Dear Leader” who took control in the post-Cold War era when North Korea was literally on the edge of ruin. Kim Jong-il, believed there was a need to deal with external and internal unrest so he established a “military first” policy that prioritized or favored the military and elites over the general population to an even greater extent than had been established by his late father, “Great Leader”.    In the end, the policy made the oncoming food shortage even worse for ordinary North Koreans. In fact, many North Koreans blame Kim Jong-Il’s leadership for the famine although in truth, his policies only hastened the emergence of a catastrophe that was long in the making.

The economic downfall and ensuing famine in North Korea reached its peak in the mid-to-late 1990’s. It’s estimated that up to one million people died—roughly 5% of the populace; many, who survived, suffered immensely, particularly in that childhood starvation stunted the growth of an entire generation . . . Need, Proof?—The North Korean government found it necessary to reduce the minimum height requirement for soldiers because 145 cm / 4 feet 9 inches, was too tall for most 16-17 year olds (2012 minimum height requirement: 139.7 cm / 4 feet 7 inches). In a 2009 publication, author Barbara Demick’s part-novelization of interviews with refugees from North Korea, Nothing to Envy” , conveys the story rather well . . . wherein one particular recount of a North Korean doctor telling of when she became desperately hungry; she took flight to neighboring China . . . once there, she discovered a bowl of food that had been left out for a dog. Upon inspecting the white rice and generous chunks of meat, she concluded that “dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

The need for food soon forced the North Korean people away from the regime’s control, and when the government stopped providing food, the survivors found alternative ways to feed themselves. They scavenged and sold about anything so they could buy food at small, illegal markets that began to spring up, creating a process known as “bottom-up marketization”. The more fortunate fled to China, leading to a wave of refugees; all the while though, information about the “world” beyond North Korea slowly began to seep back into the country.  As a result, the highly ordered culture soon gave way to a disorganized and fluid society, with new paths to wealth and power for those who defied the regime and pursued the new bottom-up marketization.  

By the early 2000’s, the citizens of North Korea began to recover. The “bottom-up markets”, which originally emerged as a method for survival, gradually grew to include a wider range of goods and services and became better established. Today such markets are the major source of food for the everyday North Korean.

Then too in 1998, it certainly helped the well-being of an untold number of the North Korean population when their southern neighbors (South Korea) adopted the “Sunshine Policy” wherein “unconditional aid” to North Korea, including an increase in economic cooperation between the Koreas was implemented.   The Kaesong Industrial Complex located just north of the DMZ was part of this policy and allowed South Korean companies to hire more than 50,000 North Korean workers.   In-any-event, this often “strained” policy officially ended in November of 2010 when the South Korean Unification Ministry declared the Sunshine Policy a failure, thus bringing it to a close.  Most observers agree that North Korea’s obsession with obtaining nuclear and missile technology simply placed too much anxiety on the “good-will” program. 

China has gradually reinforced her economic relationship with North Korea, and today is by far North Korea’s most important economic and political partner. Regardless, ordinary North Koreans continue to face the severe challenges of chronic food shortages and relentless poverty, while their basic freedoms are curtailed by a repressive regime whose only concern seems to be limited to “staying in power”.

Always uneasy about the progression of the “bottom-up markets”, in late 2009 the Kim Jong-il regime made a drastic effort to restrain the markets with a currency reform designed to eliminate private wealth. Market disruptions and severe inflation reversed the people’s hard-won progress, however more than a few regime projects were also derailed. Many North Korean refugees have termed this as a turning point in their fading belief in the regime. Regardless, it now appears to be absolutely clear to the current regime that the markets are simply a fact of life.

In December of 2011, Kim Jong-il died and his 2nd son by his 4th wife, Kim Jong-un (Kim Il-sung’s grandson) inherited control of the nation.   Only 27 or 28 years old at the time of his succession, Kim Jong-un was relatively unknown to the people of North Korean and the outside world.  Before taking power, he had hardly been seen in public, and many of the actions of both Kim Jong-un and his government remain cloaked in secrecy.  Even details such as the year he was born, and whether he attend a Western school under a fictitious name, are difficult to verify with absolute certainty.

The few North Koreans who escaped the country in 2011 reported that there had been very little propaganda about Kim Jong-un during 2011. By contrast, Kim Jong-il, his father, was much better known to the North Korean people when he ascended to power in 1994.

During his early years in power, Kim Jong-un has implemented a PR style that has portrayed him as a modern version of his grandfather; all the while purging, executing, and demoting regime officials and kin folk to secure his power base. His leadership has moved to crack down on illegal border crossings and the influx of foreign media while increasing repression in the border regions, thus reducing the number of defectors who managed to make it to South Korea by almost 50%.

A few fleeting reports suggest that there has been signs of cautious experimentation with economic liberalization in an attempt to adjust to the reality of the entrenched bottom-up market system inside the country.

On the other hand the few North Korea “escapees” have revealed what life is REALLY like under Kim Jong-un:  70% continue to go hungry; 25% do not have access to adequate healthcare; and 20% lack clean water facilities and proper sanitation.

Further, a UN Commission of Inquiry has found that North Koreans are being subjected to growing levels of murder, rape, torture and forced abortions under the rule of Kim Jong-Un.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group (otherwise known as the Crisis Group), which is a transnational non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 1995 . . . concluded, from “interviews and observations” from within North Korea, that Kim Jong-un “could be in power for decades.” They predict that “reform prospects are dim” and worse, he could have “a growing nuclear arsenal.”

The vast majority of the civilized world has been predicting North Korea's collapse for almost a generation. In years past, the Stalinist, totalitarian nation-states of the world collapsed so steadily and in such quick succession that this one, some say, the dimmest star of the Soviet group, was surely expected to follow.   If the Soviet Union, with all its weapons and vast reserves of natural resources, couldn't hold back the “tides” of history, how is it possible that impoverished little North Korea continues to survive? Some say,Impossibly”, the North Korean system continues to goose step along basically unchanged . . . its food stores bleak, at best, and its prisons and labor camps stay jam-packed.

It seems clear that there is a common theme to the Crisis Group's findings: The Kim Jong-un regime has somehow managed to turn North Korea's various flaws — poverty, hunger, insecurity, corruption, and et cetera into not just strengths, but into pillars of stability.

Most of us, on the outside looking in, remain bewildered at best.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Few Little Lies

In yesterday morning’s ‘tweet’, US President Trump expressed his ongoing frustrations with the Republican Congressional Party by tweeting: “when the Dem’s regain Congressional control, come 2018, I’ll have no choice but to switch my Political Party affiliation back to the Democratic tent”.  The President went on to say: “everybody knows I’m a winner, and to stay a winner, I’ll do whatever it takes to make America great again”. . . “No big surprise, it’ll probably gain me votes in 2020”.

Most political pundits theorize that since Republican President Trump already controls a 27% voting bloc (8% of which are registered Democrats); as a Democratic candidate in 2020, he’s sure to gain an even larger voting bloc among the Dem’s; some predict as much as an additional 33%.  By combining his Republican and projected Democratic voting blocs, analysists consider it unlikely that Trump would have serious competition in a re-election bid.  

Long time Trump supporter, Jeffery Lord, called the pending party affiliation switch “simply brilliant”. Lord, you may recall was an aide to former President Ronald Reagan and has been a popular CNN commentator since the summer of 2015.  He’s also among the few US Citizens who can fluently speak ‘Americanese’, Trumps tweeting language of choice.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a rare interview with the BBC today, insisted Trump’s Party affiliation shift is “my idea”.  Putin said with a terse smile “Trump must do as I say; else I will annex Poland”.  Later during the dialogue, Putin stated in broken English that “Trump is my best Western friend, and he will always be my little lzhetsy” (‘lzhetsy’— Russian term for liar).

Who knows, with the help of a new Democratic base, perhaps The Donald will eliminate that pesky term limits “thingie” too!

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Everything else is "Fake News"!