In the 21st Century, North Korea has demonstrated an almost uncanny ability to always land on its feet no matter the challenge faced. This has especially held true since 2011 and the death of Kim Jong Il. The ascension of his son Kim Jong Un to the position of Dear Respected Leader led to a wave of warnings from analysts and observers around the world forecasting an imminent collapse of North Korea ‘in the near future.’ These predictions have become commonplace ever since, popping to the surface in the wake of North Korean nuclear tests or reports of worsening conditions inside of the country. It’s fair to say the North, and Kim have dodged a number of bullets over the last ten years. To the point where it would appear North Korea has nine lives. Saber rattling, economic downturns, food shortages and political crises have been cited as events which could lead to a collapse. The North has weathered all of these at one point or another, sometimes in rapid secession.
There are multiple entrants from that pool of crises in play at the present time, creating an unprecedented, ambiguous dynamic. As well as a new one: Global pandemic. Despite official claims coming out of Pyongyang, COVID-19 did land in North Korea at some point. The spread of cases in the past year, and the course of action taken by the North Korean government to combat it has certainly led to a more unpredictable situation for the hermit kingdom. COVID forced lockdowns and borders to be closed, which led to an increase in economic hardship and food shortages. Continued UN sanctions have also played a role, as has the rash of typhoons the North has experienced in the past two years. The end result has been a North Korea sagging deeper into crisis.
As a rule, North Korean leaders never openly reveal hints about problems the nation is dealing with unless the situation is approaching dire status. Thrice this year, Kim has spoken publicly about the situation in the North, even going as far as making comparisons to conditions in the late 1990s at the height of the North Korean Famine. Naturally, this has brought about questions and concerns about how bad conditions in the North are and might become in the near future. Regional analysts are attempting to downplay the crisis North Korea is facing, pointing out that conditions are not as bad as in the 1990s and predicting China will do what is necessary economically to keep the country afloat and stable. In fact, China and North Korea are expected to resume cargo train service later this month. A positive development to be certain, but one that might not become reality at all, or if it does, may not have the impact anticipated.
So, this is the situation facing North Korea at present. Certainly enough to bring on a national collapse under certain circumstances. While the North has an admirable track record when it comes to getting itself out of tight spots, nothing lasts forever. Eventually, Kim and company will find itself in a position it cannot extricate itself from. That could occur in the next month, or years down the line. The point of this month’s project is to examine how a North Korean collapse can come about in the near future. In the next project entry next weekend, we’ll discuss why a North Korean collapse is considered a nightmare scenario by so many. Specific collapse scenarios will also be discussed briefly and then in depth later in August.
As North Korea celebrates Victory Day, the 68th anniversary of the Korean War, its leader Kim Jong Il appears to be girding the nation, as well as the rest of the world indirectly, for what might lay ahead. At an address made before thousands of North Korean citizens Kim compared the global pandemic’s effect on the country to what it experienced during the war years of the early 1950s. “We are faced with difficulties and hardship caused by the unprecedented global health crisis and prolonged lockdown no less challenging than how it was during the war.” He then went on to assure the populace that the future will bring better days. “Just like the generation of victors… our generation will continue this beautiful tradition and turn this difficult decisive period into an even greater new victory.”
In recent months, Kim Jong Un has not shied away from pointing out the urgency of the current situation for North Korea. As was the case yesterday, he has used his speeches to acknowledge the situation in his country. Part of this has stemmed from a desire to prepare the populace for more stringent times ahead. Along with this, Kim is also attempting to warn the world that without the suspension of economic sanctions North Korea faces a tumultuous future which could hold ramifications for the rest of the world.
South Korea has recognized the writing on the wall and extended an olive branch to Pyongyang. On Tuesday, Seoul announced that the Koreas have agreed to restore inter-Korea communications channels as the first step towards improving relations. Observers believe the North is also maneuvering to use the move as a stepping-stone to obtain aid to deal with COVID-19. In the past, the South Korea has expressed a willingness to provide vaccines to North Korea if requested. No such request has come from Pyongyang yet. However, with Kim likening current conditions in his country to what they were at the height of the Korean War, it might only be a matter of time before he reaches out.
North Korea has announced the appearance of the first ‘suspected’ case of COVID-19 in the country. Following a meeting with the politburo North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a ‘maximum emergency’ and locked down the city of Kaesong which is located in close proximity to the DMZ. According to the official government version of events, released through the KCNA news agency: “An emergency event happened in Kaesong city where a runaway who went to the south three years ago – a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus – returned on 19 July after illegally crossing the demarcation line.” In addition, the government has also launched an investigation to determine how a man managed to cross the heavily fortified DMZ.
Initially, North Korea was swift in reacting to COVID-19. In the earliest days of the pandemic Kim Jong Un ordered his nation’s borders closed, and thousands of people were placed in isolation. For months North Korea has boasted of complete success in dealing with the virus. Because the nation-state is extremely isolated, it has become impossible to confirm or dispute the reports coming out of the North concerning its fight against COVID. For months, however, medical professionals have doubted the claim that there were no active COVID cases in North Korea.
Now, all of the sudden a case has materialized from suspicious circumstances. According to the government’s story the virus has been brought into the country from the outside by a former defector. That detail seems to suggest that North Korea is preparing to lay blame for the virus coming into the country on a foreign power, most likely South Korea or the United States. Even though its unclear just what the situation is in the North, judging from the limited amount of information available, its likely that the government’s efforts to contain COVID-19 are failing. In the coming days and weeks a large portion of the population could develop the virus, pushing North Korea’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse. There is no conceivable way for the North Korean government to hide a large-scale disaster like this from the world. Therefore, Pyongyang needs a scapegoat to lay blame upon when the time comes.
The warring factions in Libya have agreed to restart ceasefire discussions, according to the United Nations. This news comes after days of intense fighting between the Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord. Over the past six weeks GNA forces, with Turkish support, has driven LNA forces almost entirely out of Tripoli and erased most of the gains Haftar’s forces had made there since the LNA offensive began last April. LNA forces claim to have retaken some ground on Monday.
The reason for both sides so readily agreeing to a ceasefire could be that they need additional time to prepare for the next round of fighting. According to the US military Russia sent fourteen MiG-29 Fulcrum, and Su-24 Fencer warplanes to an LNA-controlled airbase in central Libya last month, minus national markings. The Turks have been transporting a considerable amount of military equipment to the GNA. After a period of dormancy, due in part to the COVID-19 crisis, it appears a major escalation is on the horizon.
If these talks produce results, it will not be the first ceasefire in between the LNA and GNO this year. There have been two already but each was temporary, and the fighting never entirely ended during the ceasefire periods. The UN Mission in Libya has said it hopes the coming round of talks can help produce ‘calm on the ground’ and allow Libya’s health system to deal with a recent outbreak of the coronavirus. Because of the pandemic, and new outbreak in Libya, the coming round of talks will be conducted via video phone.
Relations between the United States and China were trending downward even before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared on the horizon. The Trump administration’s China policies have been a far cry from those of preceding administrations, and these policies have played a prime role in creating the toxic atmosphere between the US and China. Now, I am not a China apologist or anti-Trump pundit by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite in fact. So when I say that the current administration’s policies have helped bring about the rift in relations, I am not assessing blame. Again, quite the opposite. 😊
From the start of President Trump’s first term he has played hardball with China on practically everything from trade disparities, to geopolitical matters. The Trump administration’s approach to China is a striking contrast from previous administrations. Whereas the Obama and Bush administrations chose to handle China with kid’s gloves, the Trump administration has come out armed with brass knuckles and swinging. Washington’s primary objective has been reestablishing strategic and economic parity between the US and China.
The hardline US stance shook Beijing, and the Chinese government has been on the defensive practically since January, 2017. In many regards it has been trying to play catch up to the Trump administration in the geopolitical, and economic arenas but without much success. To complicate matters even more, China has been contending with alarming domestic issues even before COVID-19 came into existence. Economic growth was coming to a halt for the first time in decades. This has been exacerbated by the global pandemic, and now it appears the Chinese economy will almost certainly shrink for the first time in decades. Hong Kong erupted in protests last June over an extradition bill allowing the transfer of fugitives to mainland China. Months of protests and violence followed, transitioning to pure political upheaval for a period of time. The pandemic has brought an end to the protesting, but it is temporary. When the world returns to normal the protests will resume again. China has yet to figure out an effective solution to the Hong Kong matter.
The global pandemic has also contributed to the emerging new dynamic in US-China relations. Washington has challenged China’s handling of the initial outbreak, accused it of undermining the World Health Organization, and questioned the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths released by China. Beijing’s response has been a mishmash of propaganda, thinly veiled threats, and attempts to distract world attention from the case Washington is trying to make. When the world emerges from the global pandemic, US-China relations are going to be centerstage. For better or worse, the new form of the relationship is presently being shaped by current events. If the US-Chinese dialogue in recent weeks is a sign of what’s to come, relations could be looking at a deep freeze in the not-to-distant future.