Kim Jong Un's pensive pose in a green rice field in late May 2016 is a piece of cliched political theatre. It mirrors Mao Tse Tung's famous visits to rural China at the time of the Great Leap Forwards after 1958 in which at least 20 million peasants died of famine. Propaganda posters for it too depicted Mao as an agricultural genius in rich fields.
North Korea is once more, as it was in the 1990s, on the brink of
famine and faced with internal elite discontent given the fact that the
limited increase in wealth, for those who have joined the expanded
Party, has been threatened by global sanctions, which China too
ratcheted up in April 2016.
China's sanctions, placed on essential
revenue earners such as coal, iron, iron ore, gold, titanium and rare
earths, reflected Beijing's concern and anger at the North's increased
nuclear and ballistic missile tests, moves which have given the US all
the more of a pretext to deploy THAAD missiles to South Korea.
on the face of it summits between President Obama and President Xi
Jinping profess their devotion to denuclearisation of the Korean
Peninsula, the real underlying fear in Beijing is that these missiles
are part of a missile shield which could be used to downgrade the
nuclear deterrent China possesses.
When added to US diplomatic
moves elsewhere to the south in Vietnam, where Obama has indicated
Washington seeks better relations with Hanoi and to lift sanctions on
the sale of lethal weapons-as well as increasing US military presence in
the Asia-Pacific theatre-the fear in Beijing is of encirclement.
is why North Korea remains a deeply destabilising flashpoint in an
increasingly volatile geopolitical situation in East Asia. The threat
that the North Korean regime could collapse in the near future no longer
seems impossible. Pyongyang is investing so much in its nuclear
programme and famine looms.
The attempt to shore up the authority
of Kim Jong Un since 2011 through using hard currency earnings is
failing. The policy of gift giving for service to the regime, along with
ruthless purges, has failed to stem resentment in the general
population who have received 'toothpaste or a bottle of liquor' for
At the same time calls for 'an ardous march' would
indicate that famine is present again as the term was first used
leadership in 1993 as a euphemism for the four-year famine that from
1994 resulted in 3.5 million deaths. Going for full nuclear protection
of the regime means it has the ultimate form of blackmail.
start, it would signal no matter who hates the regime, it is permanent
and no external power can bring about 'regime change'. If the regime
were to collapse it would lead to the nightmare of a chaos in which any
attempt to end it through reunification would raise the spectre for
Beijing of being flanked directly by a US client state.
should the North Korean regime survive, the threat of nuclear
proliferation would also increase, not least if it developed an
effective nuclear arsenal-and it already has nuclear weapons anyway-
then the question would be how best to contain it without allowing
possession to stimulate a regional arms race.
circumstances, the only option left is for the US to accept that
sanctions have failed and that it would be better to work with China to
negotiate with Pyongyang and offer economic incentives for it to prevent
the nuclear programme developing further and else South Korea and Japan
develop them too.
In time, North Korea might be persuaded to
rescind its nuclear programme. Yet a spiralling arms race, rising
nationalism and potential conflicts between fossil fuel deprived Asian
nations and China over sea lanes and the oil and gas reserves in both
the East and South China Seas, spells the potential for catastrophe.