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The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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05 October 2006 Blog Home : October 2006 : Permalink

Implosion of the Tantrum-Throwing Child of Asia?

Thanks to this, that and the other, the attention of US politicians and news media is not focussed on East Asia. Neither, for various reasons, is the attention of anyone else; in Europe, for example, we've got immigrants and Afghanistan to worry about, not to mention our dynamic economy and the health of our national champions.

This is a pity because it means that the world really isn't paying any attention to the increasingly desperate attempts by North Korea to get world attention. We do not, of course, know what is going on inside N Korea (other than that in general terms its pretty dire), but such reports as are available seem to indicate that the sanctions imposed by the USA, Japan and others, not to mention the banking crackdowns by even friendly nations such as China, are having a negative effect on the leadership. If you are the leadership in such a country then this situation is bad - very bad - because the only way you can survive is to buy sufficinet foreign luxuries (with foreign currency) to keep those of you just below you happy.

Hence I suspect the recent threats by the DPRK about a nuclear test. The problem is that, as the BBC reports, such attention as is being paid to events in that corner of the globe are not, so far at least, providing the usual bribes to shut up and keep quiet. In fact rather the opposite is occuring with just about everyone saying that you really really do not want to do this. From the outside the timing of this announcement seems rather odd. America is busy worrying about its mid-term elections and Japan has just produced a new PM who has made somewhat bellicose statements about N Korea and Japan's possible militarization.

In fact given the upcoming visits by Abe to China and S Korea, where pressure might be expected to be placed on Abe's views on Yasukuni etc., a nuclear test could well combine to make Abe's visit focus on other things and provide Japan with the sort of diplomatic cover it needs to actively start remilitarizing. [It should be noted that experts reckon that Japan can build a nuclear bomb and a delivery missile within about 6 months to a year of deciding to start making one.] Indeed the AP reports that this seems to be precisely what is happening with China and S Korea being rather more supportive of Japan than they were in July:

The cooperative efforts displayed by Japan, China and South Korea marked a sharp contrast with the fractured reaction to a series of North Korean missile tests in July. In that incident, China and South Korea accused Japan of overreacting.

On Wednesday, China — the North's main ally and key benefactor — appealed to Pyongyang to show calm and restraint, issuing an unusually pointed statement that referred to North Korea by name, instead of its usual appeals for all sides to remain calm.

Japan, China and South Korea announced a series of summit meetings over the next week to repair damaged ties and coordinate a strategy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Monday. Roh will then visit Beijing for talks with Hu and other officials on Oct. 13.

Indeed Korean newspapers report that threatening such activities makes the Roh government of S Korea very unhappy

Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear test threat will likely add to a chill in the inter-Korean relationship, according to the analysts.

It came as the two Koreas' relations have dropped to their lowest ebb due to the North's missile tests in July, since the leaders of the two Koreas held a historic summit in Pyongyang in 2000.

Seoul has cut its regular food and fertilizer aid to Pyongyang since the missile tests, although it shipped a one-time aid package to help the communist regime recover from flood damage in the summer.

"We express grave worry and concern because North Korea's position that it will carry out a nuclear test is a fatal threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula and has a decisively bad influence on the inter-Korean relationship," said Yang Chang-seok, spokesman for the Unification Ministry.

The immediate victim of the nuclear test threat is likely to be inter-Korean economic projects such as the Gaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Geumgang tourism resort, the analysts said.

The threat will spook potential South Korean investors away from the industrial complex and the number of tourists to the scenic mountain will likely decline because of security concerns.

In other words a rational observer would think that N Korea had far more to gain from being nice than being nasty right now. So given that N Korea is making these increasing desperate attempts to get attention I think it is likely that the regime is in deeper kimchee internally than has been hitherto believed. In other words we could be about to see N Korea implode, collapse etc. etc. I have no idea what the N Korean harvest has been like this year (i.e. has it been catastrophic or just merely dire) and what other drivers might be present but it would not surprise me to learn that the closing down of much of N Korea's money laundering, counterfeiting and drug smuggling has severely impacted the living standards of the appartchiks who would normally be supportive of the leadership.

Maybe the likely selection of a S Korean head of the UN will turn out to be particulalry useful in getting the world to contribute to the reconstruction of the rememnants of N Korea next year?

Update: James at Nourishing Obscurity has a fascinating quote from Pyongyang and Austin Bay suggests that China has geven up on trying to rein in N Korea

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