Saturday, January 16, 2016

Death Watch

The North Koreans are really a sensitive lot:

North Korea warned of war as South Korea on Saturday continued blasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda across the rivals' tense border in retaliation for the North's purported fourth nuclear test.

North Korean propaganda is filled with threats of violence, but the country is also extremely sensitive to criticism of its authoritarian leadership, which Seoul resumed in its cross-border broadcasts on Friday for the first time in nearly five months. Pyongyang says the broadcasts are tantamount to an act of war.

Which is odd considering their fragile state that really shouldn't be shaken too much by something as risky and costly as war:

The short-term questions about North Korea's alleged nuclear test are important. Has there been a real test? What does this mean for the regime's position? Is Kim Jong Un still trying to consolidate power by pandering to the hardliners of his regime? How will China react?

All of these are important questions. But all of them distract from the fundamental issue anyone must address to discuss North Korea seriously: It's not a question of if North Korea will collapse, but when.

The regime cannot go on indefinitely. It is astonishingly corrupt and criminal. Even if it wanted to, it probably couldn't manage a China-style policy of opening up its economy to raise people's standards of living while maintaining an authoritarian government to prevent societal collapse. The technocratic know-how simply isn't there. And the only thing holding the regime together is absolute fear, and the total brain-washing of the population — brainwashing which is slowly dissolving as, inevitably, mobile phones and media, including Bibles, seep into the country.

But perhaps the North Koreans worry that even loudspeaker broadcasts along the DMZ are too much to bear, which would require the activation of those new escape tunnels.

Since early 2015 reports have been coming out of North Korea about a new series of tunnels being constructed. Like everything else in North Korea tunnel construction is a state secret and it took a while for enough information to leak out (via business visitors hearing gossip or defectors with personal experience) so one could make some sense of this new mystery. It turns out the new tunnel system consists of escape tunnels for leader Kim Jong Un. These are being built at all the places where Kim spends a lot of time and for obvious reasons details are being kept secret. One tunnel, several kilometers long, leads to the Chinese border. Others lead to airfields or small ports. Apparently there are contingency plans for each tunnel.

Which is interesting, especially if you think our policy is failing and we have to return to the days of bribing North Korea. (But this time with Smartitude! And nuance, naturally.)

I say our policy is working out okay.

I long ago stopped trying to predict when the North Korean state or regime collapses. The Ottoman Empire lasted a long time as the "sick man of Europe," after all.

But the trend is clear. The only question is the cost in blood and treasure and whether it includes nuclear strikes during the collapse.