Korea: The Succession Struggle


January 10, 2009:  Punishments for people caught trying to flee to China have been increased. Previously, most escapees were sent to labor camps for six months. But now it's a year or more. Trials are held immediately, after the accused is brought from the border back to where their home area, and are often over within a few minutes.  Even six months in these camps, especially if it's Winter, is enough to kill you. Thus a sentence of a year or more greatly increases the percentage of escapees who do not survive their punishment. Escapees are often beaten and tortured by North Korean border police, before being sent back for trial and the trip to the labor camps. Discussing these camps is not popular in South Korea. They remind people too much of the Japanese labor camps of World War II, which were similarly lethal, and often run by Koreans serving in the Japanese armed forces. The Japanese would not let Koreans join combat units, but support units were fine. That meant that the "Japanese" who tormented American prisoners of war during World War II, were often Korean. This is known to military historians, and many South Koreans, but not to the general public in the United States or elsewhere in the West. South Koreans also avoid dwelling on the death camps up north because North Korea reacts strongly to any criticism. For the last decade, South Koreans have come to believe that kissing up to North Korea, might make it easier to effect change up there. This has led to some success, like the industrial parks and some trade. But overall, North Korea remains an economic basket case and a brutal police state. In the last six months, a newly elected South Korean government has halted the nice talk and demanded that North Korea keep its promises. As a result, North Korea has accused the south of aggression and not playing nice.

While South Koreans play down the horrific labor camps up north, North Koreans, especially government officials, are more attentive. There is growing grass roots opposition up north to the 2008 crack down on escapes and black market activities. It appears that the senior officials behind the increased arrests and punishments are losing power, and jobs. Not a good sign for people trying to run a police state.

North Korea only produced about 80 percent of its food needs last year (and that was a good year). The shortfall, about 2.1 million tons of grains, is largely be supplied by the United States. Despite the current stalemate in negotiations (North Korea refuses to allow inspections to verify its compliance with destroying nuclear weapons facilities), the food aid will still be sent. Fuel shipments, however, will be halted until a verification deal can be worked out.

Despite official denials, North Korea is moving ahead to create a post-Kim Jong Il government. The parliamentary elections up north (where only candidates approved by the Communist  Party are allowed, and there are no choices) give no-show jobs (as "legislators") to favored politicians. This years elections are apparently going to include a wholesale replacement of older, pro-Kim family, officials, with younger officials, who have been quietly increasing their power over the last few years. These younger guys (women are discouraged from political activity) are more pro-Chinese in their economic views (that is, free markets in a communist police state).

Kim Jong Il has ordered everyone to stop talking openly about who succeeds him, at least until 2012. But that has not stopped the gossip, and apparently the factions are gathering their resources and preparing for a showdown when Kim Jong Il dies or has another stroke that completely incapacitates him. There are urgent decisions to be made, and Kim Jong Il has been avoiding making these decisions. Namely, what to do about the terrible economic conditions. China, Japan, South Korea and the United States will not provide much beyond food aid unless North Korea gets rid of its nukes and ballistic missiles. This, Kim Jong Il (and his hard line supporters) refuse to do. But most government officials see political and demographic disaster looming without some urgent economic aid. Food shipments are not enough. North Korea needs fuel and economic growth. Both are only available from China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, and the goodies will only be delivered if the nuclear weapons and missiles go.

The South Korean Coast Guard is buying four CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft to increase surveillance off its west coast. There, Chinese and North Korean fishing boats often poach in South Korean waters, and better air reconnaissance is seen as the best way to address this problem. Currently, the Coast Guard has only one aircraft for reconnaissance.




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