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HONOLULU (Apr. 6, 2009)—As the international community weighs its response to North Korea's rocket launch over the weekend, it is well worth stepping back to examine some of the issues that lie behind the launch headlines.

In several recent publications – all of which are available free of charge online – scholars affiliated with the East-West Center in Honolulu have examined a variety of subjects that help shed light on the inner workings of one of the most secretive regimes on earth. These include: food, sanctions and succession.

In three separate publications, East-West Center Senior Fellow Marcus Noland examines North Korea’s ongoing food shortages, the minimal impact of UN sanctions following North Korea’s nuclear weapon test in 2006 and the murky scenarios for regime succession brought to the fore by reports that leader Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke last summer.

In the Asia Pacific Bulletin brief The North Korean Food Situation: Too Early to Break Out the Champagne , Noland and UC San Diego professor Stephan Haggard write that North Korea’s people have suffered chronic hunger problems for two decades, including the 1990s famine that killed up to a million people. While most observers believe that the recent harvest is the best in years, they write, shortages have remained endemic, and even under optimistic scenarios, food-related distress is likely to continue.

Looking forward, Noland and Haggard say, there are three key issues of concern for North Korea’s food situation: the overall availability of food, its distribution across the population, and the future of the international aid program. Although positive reports on the 2008 harvest are certainly good news, their assessment is that North Korea remains at risk.

“The immediate post-harvest period is always one of relief, but credible reports by outside observers noted that stocks were largely depleted by last summer; even with a good harvest total supply remains on knife’s edge,” Noland and Haggard write. “Given the uneven distribution of food across the population, particular groups are likely to experience severe distress, even if there is a surplus at the aggregate level. The availability of aid will depend on a more forthcoming posture on the part of North Korea toward the donor community and the nuclear issue, but such accommodation is currently not in evidence.”

In the East-West Center Working Paper Twilight of the God? , Noland and Haggard write that speculation about Kim Jong-il’s health and possible succession scenarios – long a staple of the intelligence community given the personality-driven nature of the North Korean political system – reached fever pitch after Kim, who is in his late 60s, apparently suffered a mild stroke in August.

“There are three centers of power in the North Korean political system: the extended Kim family, the Korean Workers Party, and the military,” they write. “Each appears riven by rivalries, and there is some evidence of coalitions across the groups. … If Kim Jong-il is incapacitated or dies, a plausible scenario would include a family figurehead … but with a strong show of support from a core group of high-ranking military, party, and administrative personnel.

“In the short run, the combination of political uncertainty and economic hardship will push the leadership to focus on consolidating political power within the state, party, army, and society as a whole. This will imply caution with respect to major policy initiatives, and a ratcheting up of repression. However, it is possible that the North Koreans could act provocatively to test the resolve of the incoming Obama administration and to keep the issue on Washington’s agenda.

In the East-West Center Working Paper The (Non) Impact of UN Sanctions on North Korea, Noland argues that the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions following North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test have had no perceptible effect on trade with its two largest partners, China and South Korea.

“Before North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, it was widely believed that such an event would have cataclysmic diplomatic ramifications,” he writes. “However … no evidence is found to support the notion that these events have had any effect on North Korea’s trade with its two principal partners.”

In fact, Noland argues, other punitive measures against the North Korean regime seem to have been more effective than the UN sanctions, such as the U.S. Treasury Department’s decision to use the Patriot Act to forbid U.S. companies to deal with a Macau bank that held about $25 million in North Korean assets tied to missile proliferation, unrecorded gold sales and allegedly Kim Jong-il’s political slush fund. That action, he writes, “led to a fall in the black-market value of the [North Korean] won , a squeeze on legitimate commerce and reportedly … a scaling back of festivities associated with Kim Jong-il’s birthday. More importantly, the accounts of the Six Party Talks reveal a strong North Korean interest in resolving the [Macau bank] issue and a willingness to make concessions to do so.”

Noland concludes that “North Korea may have calculated quite correctly that the direct penalties for establishing itself as a nuclear power would be modest indeed. Presumably this experience will condition North Korean policymakers’ reactions in the future, making deterrence on this issue and other sources of conflict more difficult. Sanctions, fecklessly applied, may be worse than useless: They could actually encourage other states to pursue undesirable behavior. If trade sanctions are to deter behavior in the future, they will have to be much more broadly targeted and enthusiastically implemented.”

Is North Korea Exporting Weapons of Mass Destruction?
The possibility that North Korean ships may be smuggling weapons of mass destruction has been a matter of intense security concern in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. But in her Asia Pacific Issues paper North Korean Shipping: A Potential for WMD Proliferation?, EWC Visiting Fellow Hazel Smith draws upon a detailed analysis of North Korea’s “substandard” shipping industry to conclude that there is little hard evidence to suggest that the government of North Korea is involved in the illicit shipping of WMD through its own merchant fleet.

Smith cautions, however, that North Korea “has other ways to transport WMD besides using its own ships. State-to-state trade, for example with Iran or Pakistan, can be a carried out using aircraft or ships belonging to allies.” On the other hand, she writes, “The [North Korean] government has no record of selling WMD to terrorist groups, and there are no serious allegations from any source, let alone evidence, that it is doing so now.”

While state-sponsored smuggling aboard North Korean-flagged ships seems unlikely, Smith writes, “North Korean shipping is, however, vulnerable to criminal exploitation by owners, managers, and individual crew members because of the structure of the shipping industry. Working conditions on the ships are poor, official wages for North Korean sailors are likely minimal, and opportunities and incentives for transporting illicit cargo are probably plentiful.”

Addressing current policy, Smith concludes by recommending that anti-proliferation efforts should abandon the “divisive and unsuccessful” Proliferation Security Initiative – a U.S.-led effort that focuses on interdictions of ships at sea – and “concentrate on negotiating North Korea’s entry into international arms control treaties, maintain stringent port controls, and negotiate technical assistance to reduce the vulnerability of the North Korean shipping industry.”

Japan-North Korea Relations: The Forgotten Agenda
Ever since former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his historic visit to Pyongyang in September 2002, Japan's relationship with North Korea has been dominated by a single issue: the plight of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In an EWC Asia Pacific Bulletin brief titled Japan-North Korea Relations: The Forgotten Agenda, Australian National University Professor of Pacific and Asian history Tessa Morris-Suzuki argues that as a new U.S. administration takes the reins in Washington and a significant national election looms in Japan, there is both an opportunity and a need to reassess Japan's interactions with North Korea and broaden the agenda of discussion by reviving diplomatic issues that have been overlooked in recent years, including the problems of Korean residents in Japan.

“The abduction issue has frozen broader bilateral relations and resulted in the neglect of other crucial issues in the Japan-North Korea relationship,” Morris-Suzuki writes. “The current Japanese government approach has failed to produce a breakthrough on the abduction issue, and has severed channels of bilateral communication which might help in obtaining further information about the fate of the abductees. It has also restricted the role that Japan plays in the Six Party negotiations on the North Korean nuclear issue.”

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