China & Korea Diplomacy Famine & Food Aid Kim Jong Il NK Economics

The Unstoppable Self-Destruction of Kim Jong Il

[Updated below]  

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.

See also:

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. 


  1. I think a good candidate for what this means is something that you mentioned – and it is significant – Kim Jong Il losing some of his control of his people. I think it is more likely having to allow some loss of control…

    When strong, as he and his father have been for a long time, he could lop heads off at the top at will. He used the same kind of terror to keep control of the elites as he did the rest of the society.

    But, just as he had to live with allowing freedom of movement of much of the general population during the worst periods of the famine, as many families moved about in search of food, perhaps the state of the government’s shortfall in money and supplies has resulted in —- having to allow elements of the elite getting away with items like the trains – or perhaps something like the meth use that has been reported in country over the past year…

    That could be significant – it could be a sign that the regime is still hurting greatly.


  2. tend to agree with usinkorea – I think a great deal of North Korea today operates outside the apparatus of official government, and more in the vein of a raggedy, corrupt, self-serving elite.

    The fact of the trains going missing strikes me as the work of NK opportunists, not the regime. The same with the trucks. If you think of North Korea as a country run by a kind of quasi mafia, many in the lower levels have their own operations, independent of the upper leadership. The traffic I saw at the Dandong border, going in and out, was a mix of men in uniform, Chinese, and North Koreans not even wearing badges. I think in that sort of environment, official policy matters a lot less than Yuan does. The military is still the main enforcer, but everyone can be bought in North Korea.

    As far as the nuke test, not sure that was a stupid move at all from Mr Kim. Certainly seems to have paid off, both as a money cow, a military deterrant and a local propoganda tool.

    The test shot over Japan? Nationalist madness? Another domestic propoganda stunt? Probably a big mistake. The Syria reactor? Looks like it might not have been such a bad idea, if they got paid on time; doesn’t seem like there’s going to consequences for it, although i could be wrong, and time will be the judge of that.


  3. Stealing the railcars as well as Chinese response would be a local-level issue rather than actions by or signals from the political leadership in Pyongyang and Beijing. Several years ago there was a lot of debate amongst Korea watchers over what signal the chinese leaders in Beijing were sending to Pyongyang because they had cut off all economic interaction with NK. Was seen as a sign Beijing was getting tough, etc. It turned out to be the same incident as is not occurring, Chinese provincial officials stopping future rail deliveries until NK returned several thousands of railcars. NK returned them, Chinese trade resumed.


  4. I also remember reading about this issue before — tried but failed to find a link — but before, I didn’t really assess those reports as credible. I also find it difficult to believe (as I stated above) that KJI is the mastermind of this. I think it’s another symptom of regime decay at the local level, and probably we’ll see order temporarily restored in the usual manner: public firing squad.

    Remember the story about the slogan trees? Same deal, I suspect.


  5. I do think, however, that that control of local elites could be reinstated at pretty much any moment the regime gets enough cash and material wealth to dole out itself.

    I think it will be much easier then to keep the local, regional, and capital elite happy than it has been to get the same kind of control back on the local peasants as they had before the famine.



Comments are closed.