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The Ghost of North Korea

North Korea's Unha-3 rocket ready to launch at Tangachai-ri space center on April 8, 2012. Image by Wikimedia Commons.

TOKYO – At 7:39 a.m. on April 13, North Korea fired a missile (which it called a satellite launch) in the face of opposition from almost the entire international community. In a perverse way, the world got its way, because the vehicle exploded a minute after takeoff, its debris falling harmlessly into the sea.

North Korea typically goes silent after such episodes: “failure” does not exist in its political lexicon, so it cannot be reported or discussed. The country’s media routinely meets any failure with outpourings of patriotic music and bombastic praise for the regime.

But this time was different. Behind the scenes in North Korea, failure does have consequences. In the coming weeks, we will most likely learn of a purge of those responsible. Indeed, the engineers and scientists involved in the launch probably put their lives on the line.

Moreover, North Korea could not deny failure this time, because the regime invited international media to attend the event – even allowing foreign reporters into the mission-control room – in order to legitimize it as a “satellite” launch and not a weapons test. The “failure” could not be concealed, so it was quickly admitted. » More

North Korea: What Not to Do

Watch out for policy mistakes in North Korea. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The announcement of Kim Jong-Un as Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army is one more step in the process of Pyongyang’s efforts to consolidate power as quickly as possible after the sudden death of Kim Jong-Il.  It is fairly certain that the proliferation of pronouncements and titles given to the young Kim are manifestations of a terribly rushed succession process.  Something that they hoped could be done over the course of a decade or more has suddenly been set in motion.

Many Western analysts believe the North has been planning such a succession for a long time and they are therefore methodically carrying out the power transition step-by-step.  I do not think this is right. » More

Development Possibilities in the DPRK

Informal markets – pointing the way forward?

Informal markets – pointing the way forward? Image: fresh888/flickr

Next Tuesday, July 19th, ISN partner organization the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) will be hosting a one-day conference in Washington, DC exploring various transformations inside North Korea that will have significant implications for the regime, as well as for US policy toward North Korea. Speakers at the event include a group of Seoul-based North Korean defectors, as well as various USIP experts.

Informal Markets and Peacebuilding in North Korea” is part of a multi-stage USIP research project on informal markets in North Korea, drawing upon key findings from ongoing interviews with defectors, as well as the Northeast Asia Track 1.5 dialogues. With regard to North Korea, the role of informal markets is largely understudied: most research either focuses or speculates on nuclear weapons development, or troubled relations with South Korea, the US and other Asian states. This conference breaks new ground in examining the remarkable transformations that have been taking place at the local level: Informal markets constitute important coping mechanisms and survival strategies for members of diverse socioeconomic groups close to the Sino-North Korean border. » More

Indexing Happiness

scatter plot GDP per capita / North Korean Happiness Index

Rich countries poor souls, according to the North Korean Happiness Index. Data source: shanghaiist/wordbank

It’s official: China is the happiest country on earth. North Korea comes a close second, while the American Empire (the U.S.) ranks at the bottom of the list. That’s according to a Happiness Index released by – surprise! – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For anyone outside Kim Jong-il’s monopoly of information, the index is a surreal and somewhat comical attempt to legitimize the government’s performance. The idea of measuring happiness in general, however, is not quite as far-fetched.

Indices like GDP per capita continue to dominate national debates about social and economic progress, but critics of this practice are no longer ridiculed. Traditional gauges of prosperity are seriously flawed; they do not, for example, take into account environmental degradation or the exhaustion of natural resources. And that’s only part of the problem. The more important argument is that measures such as the GDP disregard most factors that make life worth living.

The Economist has recently launched a debate about whether or not new measures of economic and social progress are needed for 21st century economies. Proposing the motion, Emeritus Professor of Economics Richard Layard argued that quality of life, as people actually experience it, must be a key measure of progress and a central objective for any government. An overwhelming majority of the readers agreed. » More

Begging for Food

What’s for Dinner? photo: oceandesetoiles/flickr

Officials from five aid agencies who have just returned from a trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) say they saw evidence of looming food shortages and alarming malnutrition, including people picking wild grasses to eat. The experts visited North Korea at the request of the DPRK government and were given unprecedented access to assess the country’s food situation. Their report now shows a nation on the verge of disaster. They are therefore appealing for quick assistance to feed the isolated country’s most vulnerable people. There are hurdles, however, to resuming aid to North Korea.

The charity workers – from Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision – spent a week in North Korea earlier this month. In their report, they say they visited hospitals, orphanages and homes as well as farms and warehouses. And they paint a very bleak picture. Last summer, heavy rains and flooding reduced vegetable crops by more than 50 percent, and a bitter winter has now frozen up to 50 percent of wheat and barley. Both the NGOs and the North Korean authorities estimate that food stocks will be exhausted before June.

North Korea has been suffering from food shortages due to economic mismanagement and natural disasters intermittently for the past two decades, when China and the former Soviet Union implemented hard currency payment systems that sharply reduced North Korea’s ability to import goods. The years of mismanagement thus resulted in famines during the 1990s which, according to some estimates, killed over a million people. In past years, therefore, South Korea and the US have been the primary external sources of food, either through direct food assistance or deliveries of fertilizer. But this year, with rising impatience and anger toward the North Korean regime, these reinforcements are in doubt. » More

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