We often hear reports that China has curtailed or cut aid to the North Korean regime. I’ve usually been skeptical of those reports because I believe that Kim Jong Il’s arch-patron China wants us to believe that it’s being “helpful” in disarming North Korea of its nuclear programs, but actually considers it a useful distraction for American power in the region.
Now, a new report claims that China is holding up cross-border rail traffic to the North over an absurd case of hand-biting: North Korea not only demands trainloads of aid, it scraps the Chinese rail cars the aid arrives in (and probably sells them back to China as scrap). Despite inconsistent statements by some Chinese officials, I rate this report as more credible than previous ones, and I’ll tell you why in a moment:
China has reduced rail freight traffic to North Korea in recent weeks, holding up some shipments of humanitarian aid to the impoverished country, an aid agency and rail authorities said on Friday. The move was apparently taken in anger over Chinese rail cars going missing in North Korea, where analysts say they are sometimes disassembled and sold as scrap metal.
“A lot of Chinese rail cars have piled up in North Korea and have not come back,” said an official in the cargo division of China’s Railways Bureau in Dandong, the Chinese border city through which most freight to North Korea passes. “So on this side, we reduced the number of rail cars going to North Korea,” said the official, who declined to be identified. [Reuters]
This report comes by way of a trusted reader (thank you) and a reliable source I’ve been asked not to name. It’s a name you’d probably recognize. There is also independent confirmation:
“We have 8,000 tonnes of maize and wheat flour that has been purchased and is ready and we are unable to deliver it to the people who need it,” said Paul Risley, the Asia spokesman for the World Food Programme. The food was sorted and bagged but was being held up on the China-North Korea border, he said. “These delays have postponed critical food distribution for our beneficiaries.” [….]
ReliefWeb, a United Nations-run Web site, said in an Oct. 15 report that transport of the WFP’s food stocks to North Korea were “critically affected by the cessation of cross-border movement of railway wagons from China following a long-pending dispute over delays”.
The excellent Anna Fifield has more in the Financial Times, via the Freepers.
It would be easy to read too much into this. After all, this is probably more the result of Kim Jong Il losing control over his own society and economy than a scheme to rip the Chinese off for the price of scrap metal. Still, it’s hard to imagine how Kim Jong Il, who presumably has enough manpower to guard large steel objects, let things get to this point. Nor can we rule out any course of North Korean action merely because it happens to be irrational. It may be time for a few more us to simply admit that we aren’t equipped with the mentality required to understand or predict North Korean behavior.
For example, some readers will recall this post, in which I passed along reports that North Korea had also counterfeited Chinese currency. The blatant, self-defeating illogic of such a course defies belief. Yet it’s not much more illogical or incredible than the idea of Kim Jong Il earning a relative pittance from counterfeiting dollars at the risk of bringing down the awesome wrath of the U.S. Treasury Department, or kidnapping Japanese citizens to train spies, at the cost of billions in trade and remittances. And what fool can’t see that shooting missiles over Japan and testing nukes would merely drive Japan into America’s arms, force even the U.N. into action, and further annoy the Chinese? (Yes, I think that actually testing one was a step too far, even for China.) My all-time favorite: stealing the trucks that the late Hyundai chairman Chung Ju-Yung used to send 1,000 cattle to the North at the height of the Great Famine. Kim Jong Il has slapped the faces of his South Korean benefactors more times than I could recount in an hour.
You also have to wonder how much Kim Jong Il earned from selling Syria a nuclear reactor, as details about the discovery and destruction of that reactor are gradually coming to light and putting intense pressure on President Bush to justify, and even reconsider, the value of a nukes-for-aid deal that could still lead to the full normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations, an incalculable benefit to Kim Jong Il. Now, Bush is forced to say things like this:
”They have declared that they will show us weapons and get rid of the weapons programs, as well as stop proliferation…. If they don’t fulfill that which they’ve said, we are now in a position to make sure that they understand that there be consequences.” — President George W. Bush, Oct. 17, 2007, via Kyodo
You never know. It might not be all talk. While some optimistic reports are laying out a road map for normalization before President Bush leaves office, Chris Hill has just been quoted as demanding that North Korea hand over its plutonium before things move forward. And even normalization talks will have to show some progress on human rights, a difficult contingency to even imagine given where things stand right now. So far, Kim Jong Il has done absolutely nothing that can’t be undone in an instant, and still seems as unlikely as ever to do so.
What a difficult thing it is to be a friend to Kim Jong Il. Throw him a lifeline and he’ll pull you into the whirlpool. Consider: Roh Moo Hyun squandered billions of dollars and his presidency to save him. George W. Bush squandered much of his support among foreign policy conservatives and key members of his own party. And only a few accountants in the Forbidden City know how much China has squandered on preserving his misrule. Kim Jong Il’s dependence on so many outreached hands won’t doom him, but his incomprehensible persistence in biting them could, especially in the hour of his greatest need. Which, again, is now:
According to the study conducted by DailyNK in late September this year, the rice price in the northern part of North Korea increased by 500 North Korean won on average between early July and September. In the market in Sinuiju of North Pyongan Province, the rice price rose from 980 Won/kg to 1,400 Won/kg. [….]
It was believed that the surge in food prices resulted from the massive flood damage which stroke North Korea in early and middle August. When vast areas of land in South Pyongan and Hwanghae Province, the major granary of North Korea, were submerged during the flood, it was expected that domestic crop production would decrease. [Daily NK]
Here’s my post on the floods and their impact on the food situation. The Daily NK report adds several other important details, which I’ll try to put in context. Recall that in North Korea, rice is the food of privileged people only, and the poor who can afford to eat at all eat corn. Corn prices appear to be stable, so for now, there is no immediate threat of famine. The shortage of rice means that the North’s relatively privileged citizens are facing a significant and adverse change of lifestyle because domestic production is sharply down, and because (as the Daily NK also reports) international aid isn’t flowing in. The problem may be further compounded by hoarding.
For now, the regime is still issuing rations, but those rations will only last through the winter. A new Reuters report, quoting a South Korean think tank, notes that state food stockpiles are nearly gone. Without a major new infusion of aid, things could be desperate by spring, typically the hungriest time of year, right after winter stores run out.
Kim Jong Il may not be “crazy,” but we give him too much credit if we infer from this that he is rational. In the past, he has reacted quite rationally to clear threats and deterrence, but given an opportunity to grab at some relatively trivial gain, he has a disturbing tendency to make irrational and inept reaches. Somewhere in his storied collection of cartoons, Kim Jong Il must have a few seasons of “Pinky and the Brain.” He seems at times to have pattered his life after it. Few leaders in history have done so much to weaken themselves, their subjects, or their nations to achieve such dubious benefits.
In the short-term, Kim Jong Il always seems to come out ahead in his diplomacy with other nations, but it’s hard to know how much to credit him for this when he is arguably as much a beneficiary of his squabbling foes’ ineptitude as the architect of masterstrokes. History will be decided, as so often before, by the balance of incompetence.
Update 1: The Republican rebellion on North Korea spreads, as another influential GOP member joins Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in asking, “What happened in Syria?”
Over the last few weeks, State Department officials have reported major diplomatic breakthroughs that will roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, allow Pyongyang to be removed from the U.S. state sponsors of terror list, and normalize relations between our two countries.
North Korea reportedly has agreed to disable its nuclear facilities and has, as it has done many times before, promised to give a full accounting of its nuclear program. The latest deadline is Dec. 31, 2007. Congress has been asked to support this agreement, which State Department officials claim will benefit our nation and promote regional stability. [Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter Hoekstra in the Wall Street Journal]
You’re on your own for the rest, because it’s behind the Wall of Subscription. Pete Hoekstra is the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, chaired semi-ably by third choice Silvestre Reyes. (Reyes had me as a fan early on and then lost me with that regrettable Shiite-Sunni business). Ros-Lehtinen, as you probably know, is ranking member of House Foreign Affairs. I’m officially glad she became the ranking member. Not all of the other choices might have been as good, and one Dick Lugar is enough for one Congress.
Ordinarily, I’d be understanding of White House secrecy on intelligence matters, but secrecy from the intelligence community and ranking members of congressional committees is another matter. It’s genuinely odd how secretive and adversarial the relationship between the White House and congressional Republicans has become on North Korea, and State’s efforts to talk them out of their nukes. Clearly, those who are actually running Bush’s Korea policy don’t see themselves as Ros-Lehtinen’s or Hoekstra’s co-partisans.
A hat tip and a recommendation to this post at Michelle Malkin’s blog, which explains why the proposed Law of the Sea Treaty could threaten our efforts to enforce the Proliferation Security Initiative against the North when (not if) diplomacy fails. Again. I haven’t read the treaty and can’t offer much intelligent commentary on it, but I do know that any legal, moral, or physical space the U.N. occupies becomes a haven for anarchy.
The Norman Hsu story has just reminded of what I liked the least about Al Gore in 2000. The L.A. Times tracked down the contributors whose money Hsu was bundling into Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Many lacked the independent means to make those contributions, others were legally ineligible to give them, and still others appear not to have existed. Spoken but unproven so far are suggestions the Chinese government played a role in this.