Last fall (see here and here) I wrote about the Great Currency Obliteration of 2009 and how the "currency reform" aimed at wiping away the influence of the underground economy also effectively wiped out (a) the means of survival for many in North Korea who relied on the markets to significantly supplement the meager amount of food supplied by the state and (b) the savings not just of the aforementioned North Korean peasants but also many low- and mid-level party cadres, especially at the local level, who would now no longer see loyalty to the regime as either their sole or even best means of taking care of their own.
In other words, we may have seen a dramatic change in the calculus at the individual level of two major tipping points: (a) the tipping point of death for individual peasants where they are more likely to die if they do nothing than if they do something, and (b) the tipping point of loyalty where a large portion of the party's lower-level rank-and-file don't see the continuation of the regime as in their best interests. If enough of the provincial hoi polloi and the local apparatchiki tipped then a critical mass of activity (mass emigration, refusal to enforce Pyongyang decrees, etc.) might be reached that could spell the end of the regime in ways reminiscent of the collapse of East Germany or Romania.
Dr Noland's own title ("Pyongyang Tipping Point") made me sit up and take notice — enough to use my university library's connection to get into the Wall Street Journal's paid-access section. And while I'm making no claim that he cribbed from my work (or even that he actually has ever seen anything I've written, though I do get a lot of hits from Honolulu), it does seem we are of a similar mind on what this all means:
North Korea likes to project an image of strength to the world. But back home, there is a serious economic crisis playing out that could have long-term repercussions. Historians may look back and see this as a tipping point.Well, if this does prove a tipping point, I'd like a little credit for noticing it from the get-go, historians be damned in favor of adventure epidemiologists with a background in Korea. I do like the term "confiscatory currency reform," which nicely reflects what Joshua Stanton at One Free Korea calls the "Great Currency Confiscation."
The crisis originated in November, when the government sprang upon the public a confiscatory currency reform that wiped out household saving and the working capital of traders and entrepreneurs. The value of the North Korean won predictably plunged as people abandoned it for foreign currencies and even physical goods--anything that could preserve value. The second shoe dropped a month later when the state extended its war on privately held capital, banning the use of foreign currencies.
Make no mistake, it is a confiscation by the state, but from the viewpoint of the hoi polloi, it doesn't matter so much that it was taken as it matters that it is gone, ŏpsŏjŏtta. The sociological mechanism that may lead them to stand up to the state with violent dissent is that they have no more means and the state is directly the cause of that, regardless of whether it was taken or just evaporated.
Anyway, back to Professor Noland, who speaks directly to another way in which the currency reform has effected a dramatic downturn in the food supply:
It appears the government persuaded farmers in cooperatives to accept cash in lieu of half of their annual in-kind grain allotment--then rendered the bonus worthless via the currency reform. Farmers are now hoarding grain however they can: The United Nations Development Program reports that post-harvest losses amount to 30%. The farm economy has been severely disrupted. But unlike the 1990s famine, which was largely an urban phenomenon and killed perhaps a million people, hunger is now reported in the countryside.Indeed, as I suggested, we may see a situation in which Pyongyang has less and less control over the population in the provinces, even if party loyalty doesn't completely turn but just softens as local cadres realize they have to go along with the disgruntled in order to get along (i.e., not become the targets of attacks, as some were). Indeed, it is possible that for now this is as far as erosion of support for the regime will go. As Professor Noland notes:
Widespread disillusion, even dissent, does not guarantee mobilization, however. The same survey found that the population remains atomized and mostly fearful of communicating these views, even to friends and family.This atomization is a problem, as political scientists have noted that there isn't even a nascent opposition around which dissent can coalesce (Dr Noland himself says, "the country is bereft of civil society institutions capable of channeling that discontent into constructive political action"). In the past I talked about how the situation in North Korea could, despite the absence of such formal resistance, nevertheless reach a critical mass of dissent amongst peasants and/or rank-and-file cadres where the power of the regime simply collapses in the face of angry hoi polloi and local party and military leaders no longer having strong loyalty to Pyongyang who see the writing on the wall and refuse to use violent means to rein in local citizens.
We saw that in East Germany when border guards simply stopped shooting at the people leaving for the West, and we could see it with North Koreans crossing into China. If there were a dramatic flood of refugees into adjacent areas of the PRC, Beijing itself may decide to pull the plug on its necessary-and-sufficient support of Pyongyang, opting for Seoul to take over its lost territory (in exchange for assurances of, say, no US forces stationed in former DPRK territory) to avert a costly refugee nightmare in the provinces along the Yalu and Tumen Rivers or even an armed conflict within its neighbor's borders that would make the refugee situation in China even worse.
That's just one scenario, the most obvious perhaps, but if Pyongyang loses effective control over outlying areas, there could be other tipping-point or critical- mass scenarios, some of them (e.g., military units forced to move in to reestablish control) ending with violence and bloodshed during the death throes of the regime. If anything, the fall of the Iron Curtain two decades ago taught us there are many ways for a totalitarian regime to die.
It's entirely possible that dissent could hum along without reaching the critical mass needed for a regime-ending event. I'm reminded of my pre-med days in chemistry class where we learned about the mechanisms involving catalysts. You can have a bath full of reactive chemicals but where something happens only in minute amounts on the edges of the equilibrium equation. But when that catalyst is added, the non-reactive material serves as a structure around which the reactive molecules more easily come together to produce something new and different — sometimes with explosive results.
It is looking increasingly likely that the ascent of Kim Jong-un may be that catalyst. Here is someone now two degrees removed from the beloved Sun King that founded the DPRK, having no real experience, and enjoying only shaky loyalty based primarily on him being the hand-picked successor of a man who himself inherited the position and then ran the country into the ground. How many will really have his back when the pitchfork mob starts pounding on the gates. It would be tempting for factions within the upper echelons to start thinking about a coup if support for the regime evaporated in the provinces in the face of increasing famine or the next plague to rain down from the heavens.
Given that we may finally be so close to the end of this regime, one has to wonder what role international aid might play in this impending implosion. Let me first quote Dr Noland again:
But an influx of aid, which would allow the state to keep goods on the shelves and satisfy key constituencies, would make it easier [to revive orthodox communism]. It is rumored that Kim Jong Il will visit China later this month and that the Chinese will extract a commitment by the North Koreans to rejoin the stalled Six Party Talks over its nuclear program.It's a horribly inhumane Hobson's choice to have to make, but we are facing a dilemma of whether to withhold aid in order to hasten (or at least allow) the regime's demise, which might cause numerous starvation deaths in the near term, or provide aid that would save lives now but lead to more deaths at the hands of this murderous regime in the long term, for as long as it stays in power.
If North Korea does agree, economic distress and the opportunity to wheedle more aid out of China and the U.S. may explain this change of heart. China has effectively taken up the mantle of the previous South Korean government's "sunshine policy," and within the U.S. government there are already discussions of another "food for talks" swap to bring the North Koreans back to the table.
Would massive amounts of aid be the political equivalent of diluting that bath of volatile reactants, preventing the desired reaction from occurring even with a catalyst thrown into the mix? Would that mean the survival of the DPRK with Kim Jong-un at the helm? If he can make it through the first few years and solidify his own support base, just as his father did, it might be decades more totalitarian rule before there is another opportunity like this.
Right now anti-North activists have been flooding DPRK airspace with balloons, crude but potentially powerful attempts to bring information about the failings of the Pyongyang regime to the attention of the masses. Honestly, I don't know how effective the balloons are — even if they've got dollar bills tied to them — but at the very least they seem to have the military scrambling to scoop them up, and that weakens they're ability to do their police state activities properly. But if these information-flooding activities, largely the work of Christian-based groups, are bringing news to the people, this may help compensate for and even overcome the aforementioned atomization of the masses, and bring the whole calculus closer to the critical mass and the national-scale tipping point that brings us to the end of the regime.