September 22, 2020 13:54
North Korea is the blackest of black boxes, meaning we have very little verifiable information about what is happening inside the country. Recent questions about leadership dynamics are a case in point. Kim Jong-un's mysterious absences from public view and the apparent elevation of his younger sister Kim Yo-jong led to wild speculation about Jong-un's health and Yo-jong's decision-making power. In the end, we just do not know.
However, there is a consensus in Washington's policy community about one item -- that North Korea is entering one of the most challenging periods in the brother and sister's rule due to a concatenation of three events -- flooding, sanctions, and the COVID-19 pandemic. This triple whammy is bound to have an impact on the regime as we approach the U.S. election in November.
Fitch Solutions predicts an 8.5 percent contraction in the North Korean economy this year, which would be the worst performance since the famine of the mid-1990s. Kim Jong-un in August admitted the dire situation of the country by announcing plans for a Workers' Party congress in January to chart a new course. The North's state-run Korean Central News Agency also reported that the party's Central Committee admitted that people's quality of life is not improving.
Even casual observers of North Korea would understand the reasons for the sudden candor. The country suffered through some of its worst flooding as a result of eight typhoons this year. Floods in August for example caused all three of the major rivers -- Taedong, Chongchon and Ryesong -- to overflow, causing substantial damage to people's homes and farms. Kim Jong-un visited some of the worst-hit areas in Hamgyong Province, and announced the emergency release of grain, which defector Thae Yong-ho told me has not happened since the days of Kim Jong-il.
The flooding has impacted the food situation and presages a bad harvest. According to NGO reports, 43 percent of the terraced land in the country has been obliterated and fertilizer has been washed away by the floods. North Hamgyong Province and South Hamgyong Province -- the rice and corn baskets of the country -- have seen between 30 to 50 percent of their fields decimated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 60 percent of the population will suffer acute food insecurity this winter.
The regime still does not admit that the global pandemic has entered the country except for one case tied to a returning defector. There is little reason to think that this is true. As hermetically sealed as the country aspires to be, the origins of the virus in China created a unique transmission vector.
Reports say that Kaesong city has been shut down because of coronavirus concerns. Even flood relief being sent to the Hamgyong provinces has been impacted as authorities worry about the movement of troops and aid workers around the country and virus transmission.
As U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Robert Abrams noted on the Center for Strategic and International Studies' YouTube show Capital Cable last week, the concerns about COVID-19 have had a multiplier effect on the sanctions regime. The leakiest part of the UN sanctions regime has always been China because of Beijing's propensity to backstop its communist brother and prevent its complete isolation. However, the virus has prompted the North Koreans to seal their border with China, which has had a dire impact on bilateral trade. Commerce across the border has declined by as much as 70 percent on-year according to some experts.
How will this triple whammy impact North Korea and the U.S. elections? We should begin by acknowledging that Pyongyang has traditionally had overblown expectations of how its behavior can influence U.S. elections. It is not a major barometer that affects how Americans vote. But this year is arguably different, largely because President Donald Trump invested so much personal capital into his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. Therefore a North Korean provocations like a ballistic missile launch in the next two months would be terribly embarrassing for Trump and signal a massive failure of his policies.
CSIS Data suggest that North Korea has traditionally ramped up provocations in U.S. election years. Whether it is congressional elections or presidential elections, there is a pattern of increased activity that has continued into the Kim Jong-un years. The one exception was 2018, after Kim and Trump’s Singapore summit, when there was a lull in provocations despite U.S. midterm elections. That exception only proves the rule.
This means that all other things held equal, we should expect more provocative behavior by the North in the run-up to and after the U.S. presidential election. These provocations would naturally shape the outcome of any U.S. policy review on North Korea taken by the second Trump or new Joe Biden presidency. Such provocations would also indicate that the flooding, sanctions, and pandemic are not severe enough to affect the regime's regular patterns of behavior.
If the U.S. elections pass without North Korean belligerence, however, this might suggest that it is no longer business as usual, and that the internal problems of the regime are serious enough to impact its overall behavior. This would mean that a U.S. policy review on North Korea, for the first time in a long time, could be carried out without the result being determined in advance.
In the past, North Korean post-election provocations, like a ballistic missile launch only a few weeks after Barack Obama's election, tended to force a new U.S. administration's hand into a one-dimensional containment-and-isolation policy. Perhaps this is the one silver lining of the triple whammy, even amid the hardships North Koreans suffer.
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