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October 13, 2006
Is Kim Bluffing?

Kim Jong-Il has made a career lately of issuing threats and rattling sabers, but Westerners who do business in North Korea report that the populace has little inkling of war on the horizon. In fact, recent reforms have allowed capitalism to gain some momentum after the massive famine nearly leveled the nation:

Western businessmen who work inside North Korea, including several from Britain, provide a very different view of the country from the goose-stepping parades and patriotic dance festivals that are its most celebrated public face.

Many say that behind the military rhetoric of its relations with the United States is a country that is keen to reform itself economically and many of whose residents seem increasingly "normal" to outsiders. ...

Visitors to Pyongyang report that private markets, once banned, now sell a variety of consumer items such as television sets and a wider range of food, albeit expensive, than the rice and cabbage which has been the common diet in recent years. Some residents had even read Harry Potter, while smuggled mobile phones and South Korean DVDs have made ordinary people more aware of the outside world.

Some reforms went into reverse in 2005, when supply of basic foodstuffs reverted to state control, but Huang Yiping, chief Asia economist for the American Citigroup bank, recently visited Pyongyang and in his report compared reforms to what happened in China in the 1980s.

Another British businessman, who asked not to be named, said there was no sign on the streets of the military tensions. "If you ask people [about the nuclear issue] they just say they need it for defence."

The London Telegraph, which reported this story, does not lend itself towards appeasement of dictators, which makes this analysis both intriguing and vexing. Kim apparently wants to introduce some economic reforms, which makes sense if he wants to avoid more massive starvation and outward migration. The introduction of limited capitalism and private property ownership has raised the standard of living, and his subjects have begun to shed their blinkers about the outside world.

If that's true -- and again, the Telegraph isn't the likeliest place for a Communist fantasy -- then Kim's actions seem all the more inexplicable. In order to go to war, even in a blinkered dictatorship, a leader must prepare the population for the sacrifices necessary. It appears Kim has done none of that. He hasn't even started restricting goods again, according to this article, and the people in North Korea have no sense of imminent attack or danger.

Kim's playing a game, but its purpose is hard to discern. He doesn't appear to want war, but he's playing for peace on his own terms exclusively, which he might get. The most logical explanation is the most worrisome. Kim may have decided that the fastest way to get hard currency is to set up shop as a nuclear proliferator, especially since his counterfeiting operations have been shut down by American sanctions on the bank that acted as his fence. Therefore he's willing to risk everything on the notion that the world will do nothing effective to stop him from producing nuclear weapons -- and once in production, that he can slip them by everyone to make his sales.

He may well be correct. In order to stop that, we need China to exert its influence on Kim to move him away from that strategy, and China is the only nation with that kind of influence. Any unilateral effort by the US would be doomed to failure, because our track record with Kim is why he has banked on victory. We do not instill fear in Kim any longer, and we can't take away anything he needs. Only China can do that, and to a lesser extent Russia. The multilateral approach to the North Korean crisis is still the only possible method, outside of the temporary method of paying extortion, to end the nuclear threat.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 13, 2006 5:57 AM

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