Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mr. Kim's Travels

Earlier this month, we reported on the visit to China by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. When the trip was first revealed, there were hints that Kim would be out of the DPRK for an extended period of time, perhaps a week or longer. That gave rise to speculation that China was only an intermediate stop, and that Kim's train would carry him on to Moscow, for talks with Vladimir Putin.

The Moscow trip turned out to be just that--speculation. Kim remained in China for eight days (10-18 January), one of his longest stays outside the DPRK in recent years. His willingness to remain away from Pyongyang for that length of time suggests that Kim is confident in his hold on power--and the ability of his security forces to prevent "unpleasant events" during his absence. While anti-regime graffitti has appeared in public areas over the past year--an exceedingly rare event in the DPRK--there were no reports of unrest during Kim's trip to China, suggesting that domestic opposition (and I use the word loosely) is nothing more than an irritant, and an occasional embarassment.

Beyond its length, Kim's trip was also unusual because of his itinerary. The North Korean despot spent most of his time touring Chinese economic development zones, including the "original four" (Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zuhai and Shanghai) that helped trigger China's economic revolution. Kim's visits to those locations were designed to signal his "commitment to economic reform," aimed at both his Chinese hosts and the North Korean populace. Kim had lavish praise for China's economic development, and hinted that the DPRK hoped to follow that model.

Unfortunately for his country, Kim's actions have never matched his rhetoric. North Korea remains an economic basket case, where millions have died from starvation and the survivors couldn't exist without food donations from the outside world. North Korea's GDP actually declined in the 1990s. Power shortages became so common that rail service was severely impacted; western spy satellites imaged North Koreans riding on the roofs of electrified rail cars, because there was only enough power to operate a limited train schedule. Thousands of North Koreans--apparently tired of waiting for Kim's economic reforms--have fled across the border to neighboring China, risking imprisonment (or even death) if they are caught and returned to the DPRK.

The odds of North Korea replicating China's economic boom are Kim Jong- il understands that. But he also understands the p.r. benefit of talking the economic modernization game, since it makes the DPRK less menacing. That's a good image to project before the next round of six-party talks, aimed at neutralizing North Korea's nuclear program. Additionally, Kim knows that some South Korean congolmerates are willing to throw good money at marginal investments in North Korea, as a way of currying favor with his regime, and lessening the possibility of a military conflict. Those investments won't produce a lot of trade, but they will put more money in Pyongyang's coffers, providing a welcome supplement to the SCUD sales, counterfeiting and drug running that have been North Korea's only successful exports.

By all accounts, Kim had a swell time in China. And best of all, he managed to return to North Korea without a major explosion along his route of travel. That alone made it a successful trip.

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