After the electionTwo days before Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s leader since its founding in 1945, died on July 6, 1994, at the age of 82 from a heart attack, he chaired an economy-related meeting to discuss international sanctions and their consequences on the economy. There, he relayed what he had told visiting former U.S. President Jimmy Carter after the United Nations moved to impose sanctions over suspicious plutonium activity.
“We are not afraid of sanctions,” he said, according to his memoirs after death. “We have always lived under sanctions. More sanctions won’t hurt us,”
But despite the “Dear Leader’s” confidence, the North Korean economy was in deep trouble after its socialist peers — the Soviet Union and Eastern European bloc — crumbled, bringing an end to the stable flow of resources, aid and trade. It had since been forced to trade in U.S. dollars. During the same meeting, Kim ordered the authorities to ensure the steady import of oil even if the country had to pay for it. But he lost face by ordering the office to raise the funds on its own. A documentary film from those days showed Kim reprimanding an official in charge of the shipbuilding industry over why there was little progress on building 100 freight vessels. Many speculated that Kim died of a sudden heart attack because he had been under enormous stress.
The sanctions legacy was handed down to his son and his grandson Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim invited the toughest-yet sanctions from the United Nations and international society by conducting a fourth nuclear test in January and a rocket launch in February. On April 3, marking one month since the UN Security Council resolution took effect, Kim put on a brave face and issued a statement through the National Defense Commission, saying, “To us, sanctions are as familiar as air,” borrowing his grandfather’s pomposity. He went on to claim that North Korea had become stronger thanks to sanctions.
But the conditions of the reclusive state are far worse than in the days of Kim Il Sung. Pyongyang warned its people about another “Arduous March,” which refers to the Great Famine between 1994 and 1998 when two to three million of the population of 24 million died from hunger. Despite the spiteful words, the National Defense Commission’s statement admitted that sanctions were suffocating the country.
Even if the masses are somehow contained, the disturbance in the elite class has become evident. The reign of terror and dangerous brinkmanship of a 32-year-old leader during his four years in command has been the tipping point. He has enraged the old guard, who long believed they had contributed to the founding of North Korea. The graying officers and party executives have been publicly ridiculed, purged and executed by the young Kim. They cannot even travel abroad for medical treatment due to an international travel ban on the North Korean elite class. Many may be secretly plotting to flee the country.
Elites and workers residing overseas have already begun to move. Thirteen employees at a North Korean state-run restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province defected en masse to the South earlier this month. Seoul officials said the escape was the result of the sanctions. Their defection cannot be simply suspected as being choreographed to help the conservative party ahead of the April 13 general election.
Of course, some may wonder about the timing, but the Ministry of Unification’s explanation that it had to be discreet for safety and the propagandized accusation by Pyongyang that Seoul abducted them should be taken into consideration as well. This could not be the same as the bombshell inter-Korean summit announcement that the Kim Dae-jung administration dropped in April 2000 ahead of the general election.
The election is now over. The campaigning eclipsed Kim’s posing in front of a model of a nuclear warhead and Pyongyang’s announcement that it had successfully tested a rocket engine that could power an intercontinental ballistic missile. We stayed undisturbed and calm even when North Korea released a propaganda video warning of multiple rocket attacks and its People’s Army issued an “ultimatum.” Either we are overly mature or too insensitive on the security front. Even when our viability and standard of living hinges on the actions of the North, we seem to leave it up to the United States and China to tame the unruly ways of Kim.
Although the international community is tightening pressure on North Korea through its commitment to the UN resolution, we appear to have lost interest. Some are already saying sanctions are having little effect, citing first-quarter data on bilateral trade between China and North Korea. Some are already talking about reopening the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex that Seoul closed following the nuclear test. The work of containing North Korea’s weapons campaign demands strategic perseverance and consistency rather than flexibility. It can only be successful with public and political support, and unity behind the policy.
The 20th National Assembly may face an important turning point in the North Korean regime. The Korean Peninsula and inter-Korean relations could be swept up in turmoil. The legislature lacks an expert group that can draw up a thorough strategy on North Korea. Parties must become one when addressing North Korea and unification.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 15, Page 28
*The author is a specialist reporter on unification for the JoongAng Ilbo.