Open Sources, Feb. 17, 2013

THE POOL IS STILL OPEN:  It’s no longer Kim Jong Il’s birthday in Pyongyang, but there will be more opportunities for North Korea to make good on its threats to conduct more nuke or missile tests, including Park Geun-Hye’s inauguration and Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

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A COUPLE OF STARK-RAVING PAULIES were the only members of Congress to vote against a non-binding resolution condemning North Korea’s nuclear test.

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WELL, THAT’S CERTAINLY PERSUASIVE TO ME!  Chris Hill endorses Chuck Hagel for SecDef.  Something is wrong with our political culture when the endorsement of someone with such a questionable reputation and record is seen as a net positive.  I’d still like to know why Hill’s tenure in Iraq was so short, after such a difficult confirmation.

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I’VE BECOME A FAN OF MINXIN PEI’S WORK and would strongly recommend this piece, sketching out scenarios for China’s possible transition to a democracy.

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THE VICE GUYS DO IT AGAIN:  I thoroughly enjoyed this Vice Guide to the North Korean logging camps of Siberia, although in places, I was afraid that they were getting the North Koreans in trouble.  It’s still well worth watching, especially if you’re considering a trip to Russia (which seems like a pretty awful place based on this).

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THEY WILL ALSO SELL EACH OTHER THE ROPE:  Yes, the arrangements between North Korea and various Chinese companies that use North Korean workers probably amount to forced labor, and I have no doubt that both parties take pains to keep the workers isolated from any subversive influences.

Viewed another way, however, this is really just another sign that China is starting to hit a great wall of a different kind.  All societies hit it at some point after they achieve full industrialization, when annual growth rates of 8% are no longer sustainable, and when workers begin to demand a living wage and force labor-intensive industries to shut down or move elsewhere.  (For more on this historical pattern, this post by Steph Haggard is must reading.)  My unscientific assessment is that America and Europe hit that wall in 1929, Japan hit it in 1990, and South Korea — along with much of Southeast Asia — hit it in 1997.

Because cataclysmic economic change can translate into cataclysmic political change, governments use artificial means to forestall it.  Such fundamental structural changes can be deferred, but that also means the changes will eventually hit with even greater force.  China will also have more trouble coping because its political system is undemocratic, unresponsive, and therefore insufficiently malleable to answer to the mood on the streets. What will catalyze the end of North Korea?  If I had to pick the most likely cause today, it’s a severe economic crisis in China.  China’s censorship is not so effective that it could avoid having to justify aid to North Korean as Chinese people suffered.



  1. I believe North Korea has a strong incentive to test another nuke or ICBM, sooner than later, and shall–perhaps as early as in the coming days, even tonight (morning of Feb 18, local time, just hours before the dawn of US President’s Day). They do delight in doing such things on a US holiday (the seven-rocket salute on July 4, 2006, first nuclear test on Oct 9 that year, which “happened” to be the eve of their Party Founding Day and Columbus Day in the US, and their second nuclear test on may 25, 2009, Memorial Day in the US). One main goal NK has is to be accepted as a bona fide nuclear power and, subsequently, raise the stakes and call for mutual disarmament talks and evict the USFK. And in the event they do two tests in a row over a week, yes, it’s certainly adding insult to injury and, therefore, the Americans and Chinese will be even more indignant. But after a cooling off period of, oh, I don’t know, three weeks, the public perception is likely to harden toward regarding NK as a de facto nuclear power.

    Of course, should I be wrong, I can shamelessly invoke Philip Tetlock’s recent findings that “expert” predictions, based on over 27,000 cases, are about as accurate as a dart-throwing chimp.

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