Hawaii-based experts are vigilant as food shortages and a frigid winter intensify pressures in North Korea
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 1, 2011
While wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, revolts across the Arab world and natural calamities in Japan have captured headlines for weeks, tensions on the Korean peninsula have hardened into a time bomb that could be detonated by an implosion within North Korea or an explosion between North and South Korea.
In North Korea, a decade of starvation has gotten worse this frigid winter. Shortages of electricity, what one observer called "cascading corruption," and soldiers walking away from their posts has given rise to fresh speculation that the regime of dictator Kim Jong Il may be the target of an uprising like those in the Arab world.
Former President Jimmy Carter, after a 48-hour visit to Pyongyang last week, noted the food crisis and said: "We will urge the international community to be generous in sending food aid to the DPRK as a matter of urgency," Democratic People's Republic of Korea being North Korea's formal name.
Beyond that, Carter, whom Kim Jong Il declined to meet, was unable to accomplish his stated goal of relieving tension between North and South Korea. North Korean officials merely repeated their call for negotiations with the U.S. without conditions, meaning without reference to past provocations.
In South Korea, leaders have warned that another North Korean provocation like the sinking of a South Korean warship or the artillery assault on a South Korean island last year would trigger retaliation. The commander of U.S. forces in Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, told Congress last month that South Korea "will immediately strike back in a proportionate self-defense manner" if North Korea commits more aggression.
Adm. Robert Willard, who commands U.S. forces in the Pacific from headquarters overlooking Pearl Harbor, told foreign journalists in New York last month that responsibility for danger in Korea rests with North Korea: "What will ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula will be a cessation of the provocative acts that have been ongoing for the past year by the North Koreans."
In a speech in Washington, Willard noted the internal dissent building up against Kim Jong Il, asserting that the North Korean leader "will undoubtedly remain bellicose and unpredictable to the end."
An authority on North Korea, Victor Cha of Georgetown University in Washington, cautioned that North Korean provocation leading to South Korean and U.S. retaliation could escalate. He told a congressional committee: "This sort of miscalculation on both sides, ladies and gentlemen, is how wars start."
The consequences of an implosion are impossible to gauge while the consequences of an explosion can probably be forecast. It would surely add to the strain on U.S. forces already engaged in South Asia and the Middle East. A senior officer in Honolulu, asked if he was worried about North Korea, was succinct: "Every day."
For Hawaii, an implosion or an explosion would cause an immediate disruption in trade, tourism, and other economic activity in the Asia-Pacific region. Militarily, aircraft assigned to the Pacific Air Forces, warships of the Pacific Fleet, soldiers in the 25th Infantry Division and others in the U.S. Army Pacific, and Marines in Kaneohe would quickly be engaged.
Much information from inside secretive North Korea comes from a Buddhist organization called Good Friends that publicizes the sufferings of North Koreans in an effort to get aid for them.
Good Friends recently quoted an unnamed North Korean official: "This year's food shortage is the worst we have seen in the last couple of years" and more severe than the famine of the 1990s. Despite Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy, in which the armed forces get priority in almost everything, the official said: "There is no food for the military right now."
Equally serious, many homes get electricity, needed for cooking and heating, for only one hour a day. Freezing to death has become commonplace. An exception: The Joong or Central district of Pyongyang where senior government and Communist Party officials live gets electricity 24 hours daily.
Despite the regime's efforts to block information from coming into North Korea, enough has penetrated so that North Koreans are aware of the economic progress in China and South Korea. "China is rich and South Korea is rich," they say to themselves, according to a Westerner who has been in Pyongyang, "but North Korea is poor."
Marcus Noland, an authority on North Korea who coined the term "cascading corruption," says it occurs at all levels. Shopkeepers pay off policemen who trump up criminal charges, company executives pay off bureaucrats to get licenses, and foreign investors pay off party officials to gain access.
Noland, an adjunct fellow at the East-West Center in Manoa, has focused his research on hundreds of North Koreans who have fled to China and South Korea and found "distinctly negative views of the regime, and, crucially, a greater propensity to communicate those views to peers."
Peter Beck, recently a visiting fellow at the East-West Center and another authority on North Korea, says more information is seeping into that country than before and thus many North Koreans are aware of the Arab revolts.
Good Friends reported Thursday a rare instance of open dissent, saying graffiti had appeared on the wall of a factory run by disabled veterans: "The revolution is fizzling out as it runs out of food." That set off an investigation in which every worker was interrogated and handwriting compared. The culprit was not found.