A keen observer of North Korea (DPRK) spread gloom and doom about the “hermit kingdom” of Northeast Asia, then relented and allowed a glimmer of light to shine through.
Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and one of the few American authorities on North Korea, told a gathering at the East-West Center in Honolulu that the dictatorial rulers in Pyongyang had made “five bad choices” since the Korean War.
The author of a book titled The Impossible State, Cha said that the bad decisions by former North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, his son former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and his grandson North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, were responsible for upward of 1 million deaths from malnutrition and disease.
The gleam of light, Cha said, came from the estimated 2 million cellphones in North Korea and the 15,000 connections to the Internet.
“This is something that is different and it is only going to grow,” Cha said.
Cha said that North Koreans would become gradually aware of what is going on outside the nation, notably in South Korea and Japan. However, he was quick to add that he did not see a “democratic revolution” erupting, but unrest could “fracture the system under its incompetent leadership.”
Cha said he did not expect that awareness to have a profound effect on politics in North Korea because decades of close control “has had an impact on the North Korean mind.” Thus, he did not see the possibility of an “Arab spring” in Pyongyang.
Of great concern is that North Korea is developing nuclear missiles that could reach the US, with targets beginning at the naval base at Pearl Harbor attacked by Japan in 1941 to bring the US into World War II. Others would be the army, marine and air force bases on the continental US.
The fear is that North Korean leaders, beset by economic difficulties, could become desperate. That, coupled with their ignorance of the outside world, especially of the US, could lead to a miscalculation, historically the most frequent cause of war.
The seemingly unending stream of North Korean vitriol aimed at South Korea, Japan, and the US has been toned down in recent weeks — but it has not gone away.
Last week, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the official mouthpiece of Pyongyang, accused South Korean President Park Geun-hye of “telling lies.”
KCNA also protested “the reckless nuclear war moves and confrontational racket against the DPRK being kicked up by the US and the South Korean warmongers.”
As for Japan, it was criticized for “the mass killings of Koreans committed by the Japanese authorities during the great Kanto quake” — 90 years ago.
There was a sliver of comic relief: Dennis Rodman the flamboyant professional basketball player showed up in Pyongyang to see his pal Kim Jong-un. As for seeking the freedom of a US citizen of Korean heritage, Kenneth Bae, Rodman told The Associated Press: “That’s not my job.”
The “five bad choices” that Cha ascribed to the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang were:
In the 1950s, focusing on heavy industry instead of agriculture and light industry, the well-worn path that emerging economies have long trod; Demanding that people work harder and for longer hours instead of increasing productivity with innovation, imported technology, and joint ventures with foreign firms; In the 1970s, during the US-Soviet detente, North Korea could have sought foreign loans, but it became evident that Pyongyang could not pay interest or repay the loan.
Fourth, in the 1980s, Pyongyang suffered “Olympic envy” when South Korea successfully hosted the Games. In response, the regime launched mega projects, including a luxury hotel in Pyongyang that is still not occupied and is “a towering monument to economic failure.”
Fifth, in the 1990s and beyond, North Korea has experienced crippling shortages of energy, massive floods, a refusal to reform and diversions of food and funds to the armed forces. Foreign aid workers delivering food have been lied to constantly, which has led to “donor fatigue” and the departure of all but a few Chinese and South Koreans.
Maybe a sixth bad choice should be added, which is Kim Jong-un having North Korea line up with Syria. It has been accused of turning chemical weapons on its own people in violation of a slew of international agreements and standards.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.