As military and political tensions persist on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea is trudging through another winter of shortages, bitter cold, not much food and precious little fuel.
A recent report from the North described the longest stretch of subzero freezing temperatures since 1945. A number of countries and international aid groups have reported desperate appeals from Pyongyang for humanitarian food aid in the past few weeks. And an epidemic of foot and mouth disease has infected more than 10,000 cows, pigs and draft animals.
However, even in the face of such hardships, analysts said the Communist government showed no sign of relaxing its political grip or opening up its economy beyond a modest opening to Chinese trade and a limited tolerance of private traders.
“Reforms mean death,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “It’s a matter of survival and control.”
Recent refugees, scholars of North Korea and South Korean government officials see no signs that the economic hardships are pointing toward political instability.
They see no existential threat to Kim Jong-il and his government, whether through civil unrest, political factionalism or a military revolt.
Regime change, as tantalizing as it might be to Seoul and Washington, seems remote. Kim, who turned 69 this month, looks to be in passably good health, and the apprenticeship of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, appears to be under way, albeit slowly and quietly.
Ordinary North Koreans certainly struggle to eke out a living, but they are not starving. And the situation is nothing at all like the so-called Arduous March famine of the mid-1990s. More than 1 million North Koreans reportedly died from starvation then when aid from Russia stopped, crops failed and the socialist system of food allotments fell apart.
“The gap between the elite and the rest of the country has probably never been wider,” said John Everard, a former British ambassador to North Korea who is now a fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford.
However, at the same time, he added: “There’s no reason to expect things to change anytime soon.”
China, North Korea’s principal benefactor and only major ally, has suggested that the North might do well to consider making some market-style changes. The message is, profit by our example.
However, North Korea has “a long track record of listening politely to — and then ignoring — these Chinese requests,” Everard said.
China has been making major investments along its long-neglected northeastern border, its Rust Belt, and Chinese enterprises have struck major deals with well-connected North Korean trading companies, principally swapping roads, dams and bridges for iron ore and coal.
Because they are described as “humanitarian development,” these deals circumvent the various international sanctions in place against North Korea.
“They’ve clearly opened up to China in a way that’s unprecedented,” said Bradley Babson, chairman of the DPRK Economic Forum of the US-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
However, “I don’t sense they’ve adopted a reform mentality at all,” he said.
A New Year’s Day editorial, which typically sets the political tone and economic priorities for the coming year, said light industry would serve as a kind of defibrillator for stimulating the economy heading into the landmark year of 2012 — the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founding president, Kim Il-sung.