By Tom Arms
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un doesn’t often admit problems. How could the hermit kingdom/nuclear-armed rogue state admit failures or even difficulties? Such a thing is an oxymoron as North Koreans, by definition, live in a socialist paradise.
So, when the Great Leader goes before the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, swallows his pride, puts his reputation on the line and basically says “the food situation is tense,” it is a political earthquake in North Korea. It also means that North Korea is in a famine situation or, at the very least, heading rapidly in that direction.
The following day, Kim shifted his focus to foreign affairs and offered both a stick and a carrot to a sceptical Biden Administration. “Prepare for confrontation,” he told the Central Committee,” but added that Pyongyang should work to “guarantee a peaceful environment.” Washington is likely to adopt the time-honoured diplomatic tactic of downplaying the unpalatable (the first part) and grasping at the straw in the second part of his foreign policy statement.
Regardless, the two positions provide both opportunity and danger for the West.
But first, to understand the enormity of the food problem we need a quick geographic and history lesson. When Korea was divided the North ended up with the donkey’s backside in agricultural terms. South Korea is blessed with a large flood plain that allows it to produce two rice crops a year. North Korea, on the other hand, is cursed with a largely mountainous terrain that leaves only twenty per cent of its land available for arable crops.
The result was that for the first roughly 45 years of its history, North Korea was heavily dependent on Moscow for aid, mainly in the form of food and cheap energy. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow demanded that North Korea pay for future, present and past aid. This was an economic impossibility for Pyongyang and Moscow cut off its lifeline.
The result was the famine of 1994-98 in which up to 3.5 million people died. That is out of a population of 22 million. The famine was dubbed “The Arduous March” by Kim’s father Kim Il-sung. His son used the same term this week and there must have been a collective intake of breath from delegates when he did so.
This time the famine is being blamed on the coronavirus pandemic, economic sanctions and poor weather conditions. China has replaced Russia as North Korea’s main aid provider and economic pillar. But Kim has closed the border with China to contain the pandemic. As a result trade with Beijing has dropped 80 per cent. And it was already low because of UN sanctions.
At the same time, the regime has stopped international food agencies such as the UN’s World Food Programme, from distributing emergency food supplies, possibly because it doesn’t want news of the country’s dire straits leaking out to the rest of the world.
There is some justification for this. In the 1990s a number of Western strategists predicted that the famine would—if they played their cards right—lead to the end of the regime. They were proved wrong because the elder Kim used what money and resources there were to keep the military sweet and himself in power. All the signs are that his son is adopting the same strategy.
Kim is continuing to pour what little money there is into North Korea’s nuclear missile programme. He recently announced a birthday wish list of a nuclear submarine, super large nuclear warheads, spy satellites and more accurate long-range missiles.
The response from Joe Biden was to call Kim a “thug” and promise “strong deterrence” matched with diplomacy. He won multilateral backing for this approach at both the G7 summit in Cornwall and at the NATO summit in Brussels where Kim was urged to abandon his nuclear and missile programme and resume negotiations.
In theory, the West should be able to use offers of food relief to wring political concessions out of the regime. There are already reports that South Korea is secretly negotiating to provide surplus rice in return for a resumption of the family reunification programme.
Accepting help from fellow Koreans in the south is possible. Accepting help from the US or Europeans is another matter, especially if that help is tied to military concessions. Kim needs the military to stay in power and the military wants nuclear weapons as much as Kim does.
This leaves the possibility of tightening the sanctions’ screw to force regime change, a policy fraught with unknown dangers. What would the regime change to? How would the Chinese react? Would Kim lash out with his limited nuclear arsenal if backed into a corner? There are no easy answers and each one has consequences.
Israel’s new anti-Netanyahu razor-thin government has a slim chance of staying in power for its full four-year term. But it does have a chance. This is because as his 12-year rule progressed, Bibi fell victim to hubris and the lure of strutting his stuff on the world stage. In doing so, he failed to pay sufficient attention to bread and butter domestic politics. That is not to say that the Israeli economy is doing badly. It isn’t. Its per capita income is tied with Britain at $43,680. Israel is among the world leaders in the high-tech, chemicals, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and defence industries. But at the same time, it has three times the congestion on its roads with nearly half the number of cars as an equivalent European country. One reason Netanyahu was eager to vaccinate early and fast was that Israeli hospitals have the worst congestion problems of any OECD country. Productivity rates in Israel are the third-worst in the OECD. A recognised key to sorting Israel’s problem is education reform. Israel has one of the longest school days in the world, but according to the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research quantity is pursued at the expense of quality. It argues for more emphasis on science, maths and English to feed the growing high-tech sector which is being forced to recruit increasing numbers from overseas. It also wants more research universities. Israel’s seven institutions are world-class, but no new ones have been built since the 1970s. Reaching a coalition consensus on infrastructure projects—social and physical—will be easier than pursuing coalition agreement on West Bank settlements or talks with Palestinians. Netanyahu has done the donkey work in the contentious areas for the new hardliner Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The new man can concentrate on the less contentious issues while Israel enjoys a period of consolidation. That is if Netanyahu and Hamas will let him.
Sandwiched between the past week’s brouhaha of the G7 summit in Cornwall and the Biden-Putin face to face in Geneva was a barely recognised and poorly reported meeting of NATO heads of government in Brussels. This was a pity because it was very important on several counts. First of all, it allowed Joe Biden to stress that the Trump Era was over and “America is back” to the people who matter—America’s longest-standing allies to whom it is tied by a legally binding treaty. Next, it made vitally important policy pronouncements on China and cybersecurity. On the latter, it equated a cyber-attack with a military assault and drew attention to the three musketeers all-for-one, a one-for-all clause that commits NATO members to mutual defence. It added that NATO is willing “to employ the full range of capabilities at all time to actively deter, defend against and counter the full spectrum of cyber threats.” Of course, in a true diplomatic fashion, the members inserted a get-out clause—“in certain circumstances”– to allow wriggle room in an uncomfortable showdown. Nevertheless, Biden was cleared to reinforce the threat at Geneva; which he did when he intimated that the West might counter another attack from Moscow by closing down the Russian oil industry. Next is China. The Alliance did not say it was extending its military operations to East Asia, although Britain, France and Germany have all recently despatched naval missions to the region. No, the statement on China was a vote of support for America’s growing Sinophobia and the shift in American military resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This, of course, will put increasing pressure on the European members of NATO to up their spending as their joint capability lags far behind Europe’s primary threat—Russia.
It is Election Day in Ethiopia on Monday. It is worthless. Only selected parts of the electorate will be allowed to cast their ballot. Voting is banned in large parts of the country, including embattled Tigray Province, home to 4.3 million Ethiopians before tens of thousands started flooding out of Tigray to seek refuge in neighbouring Sudan. The election will only fuel Ethiopia’s growing instability and that of the wider strategic region. Turn the clock back two years and it is a completely different picture. Ethiopia’s young and dynamic Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to Ethiopia’s 20-year war with Eritrea. Abiy talked of widening his country’s base and democratising. This, however, did not go down with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who effectively put him in office. Then coronavirus struck. Abiy Ahmed decided elections scheduled last year should be postponed. The TPLF branded the postponement a political ploy and held their own elections. Abiy sent in the army “to restore law and order.” This was soon followed by an alliance with former enemy Eritrea who despatched their own military to Tigray. The exact details of the subsequent fighting are unknown. Diplomats, journalists and aid workers were banned from Tigray. The internet and telecoms links were cut. The only news that the world had comes second hand from the thousands filling refugee camps in Sudan. They report that the Eritreans—who come from a brutal dictatorship—are taking vengeance against Tigrayans who led the fighting during the war. There is talk of ethnic cleansing and mass graves of hundreds of victims. There is also no fear of famine throughout Ethiopia caused by a combination of the pandemic, a double plague of locusts and the fighting in Tigray. In two short years, Abiy Ahmed has gone from hero to zero.
Surprise, surprise, Donald Trump is writing a book. And true to his penchant for hyperbole, the former president has announced that his literary effort “will be the greatest book ever.” Of course, in saying so, Trump has managed to offend evangelical Christians, Muslims, Hindus and any other religious group that believes that their primary religious work is cloaked in the infallibility and thus worthy of the “greatest ever” book title. But then Trump is used to offending. More important is the name of the publisher. Word is that the industry’s big (and small) boys are pulling out the barge poles to push the ex-president away from their doors. They are concerned that the pages of his memoirs will be littered with libellous—and thus expensive– statements such as his claim about winning the 2020 elections. They are also worried about losing angry staff and authors. Of course, Donald could always go the self-publishing route. It is all the rage these days, although a traditional publisher would give him the credibility he sorely lacks. Whichever way Donald goes he faces the problem of the all-important title. Here are a few suggestions canvassed from friends and relatives: “Delusions of Grandeur,” “Master of Delusion,” “Trump Through the Looking Glass,” “Unquiet Flows the Don,” “Towering Ego” and “The Greatest Man Alive.” If you have any suggestions post them on Twitter or Facebook. Donald Trump needs your help.