Are women equipped for challenges

North Korea
North Korea: Equipped for all challenges?

North Korea wants to demonstrate strength and unity with its massive parade. At the same time, the country is facing numerous challenges: Corona, the economy, foreign policy, food supply. It is clear that military development is also prioritized under Kim Jong-un. There will be no economic recovery and improvement in the living conditions of the population with this course.

Demonstration of strength

On October 10, North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Labor Party of Korea: with glamor, kettledrums and trumpets and with an arms show that left no one unimpressed. Observers had expected that the parade would be particularly massive and that new branches of weapon would be shown. But the sheer size of the event and the numerous new weapon systems came as a surprise.

While events in Europe were canceled en masse due to the corona pandemic and the pleading appeal for social distancing took on mantra-like features, in Pyongyang a fundamentally different picture emerged with the defensive mass marches. Masks and keep your distance? Nothing among the parade actors and tens of thousands of Jublers.

Did this major event with its dense, if well-organized crowd prove that North Korea is still Corona-free? The country, which is already largely closed, has sealed itself off even more massively since January to protect itself against Corona. The borders have been closed for almost ten months. What is really going on in this country can only be guessed at. While the parade is designed to demonstrate power and unity, the country faces numerous problems.

Power and feeling demonstrated

The parade was a clear sign that North Korea has used the past two to three years to further develop its own weapon systems. The summit diplomacy since 2018 between the USA and North Korea, as well as between the two Koreas, could not prevent this. Kim Jong-un announced a new strategic weapon last December. This latest development is a gigantic ICBM, which is expected to be named "Hwasong 16" (Mars-16). According to initial expert assessments, this is supposedly the largest mobile ICBM in the world.

A new anti-submarine ballistic missile was also unveiled. However, not only new developments were presented. In addition, it was surprising that numerous known, conventional arms showed significant further developments: tanks, artillery and infantry units. Observers often mock that North Korea's army is in a desolate state and hopelessly out of date. The parade also tried to counteract this impression. In his speech, Kim Jong-un confidently spoke of a massive development in the military that hardly any other country could compete with. He stressed that nuclear weapons only serve to protect the country and should never be used first. If another hostile power were to threaten the country, then one would strike with the full strength of the nuclear armed forces.

Martial words were only a small part of his emotional speech, which was primarily intended to present him as a man of the people. He thanked his people, sometimes with clear tears in his eyes, for their support in warding off the coronavirus and apologized for the severe deprivation of the population. Even for Kim, who has already appeared close to the people in the past, this speech was remarkable. His supposed care and emotional tone can also be explained by the fact that North Korea has to struggle with enormous challenges away from the paradise mile.

Is it actually corona-free?

While no masks were visible at the military parade, television pictures of other events the day after show spectators, soldiers and representatives of the nomenklatura with masks. This seems paradoxical and can hardly be explained plausibly. In his speech, Kim proudly announced that North Korea was free from Covid-19. This is hardly verifiable, because there are hardly any representatives of international organizations or diplomats in Pyongyang. Your freedom of movement has always been severely restricted. Now, in the course of the corona protective measures, it is completely impossible for the few remaining foreigners to get an impression of the country.

Military boom, economic stagnation

In order not to endanger the summit diplomacy since 2018, the imposition of new sanctions has largely been suspended. Nonetheless, trade relations with foreign countries are extremely weak and the economic outlook is poor. The massive corona protective measures prevent trade. Tourism income, especially from China, is also lost. In recent months, Kim Jong-un let it be known in several speeches that the economic goals of his five-year plan could not be met. When the plan was announced in 2016, he had actually promised that the population would “never have to tighten their belts again”. That promise is now void and partly explains his emotional speech.

Satellite imagery suggests that many prestige construction projects are stuck. The new hospital in Pyongyang is finished from the outside, according to the specialist portal nknews North Korea's diplomats around the world are looking for opportunities and donations to obtain medical equipment. So here, too, more appearance than reality? Another indication of a difficult economic situation is that Kim Jong-un called an 80-day "speed battle" before the new five-year plan is to be announced in January. Such “speed battles” are massive state mobilization campaigns in which the population is called upon to “voluntarily” do extra work in order to achieve the state's economic goals. This “voluntary” overtime mainly includes tough tasks in the agricultural or construction sector and thus additional hardship for the people.

Severe weather disasters and crop failures

The supply situation in North Korea has always been precarious, even if a famine like the one in the 1990s does not seem to have occurred since then. According to various estimates, between 240,000 and three million North Koreans were starving to death at that time. Earlier this year, the UN World Food Program warned that 10 of the 25 million people in the country could suffer from “massive food shortages” and malnutrition. The US development aid organization USDA even spoke in August of 15.3 million people who were in a very "unsafe food situation". Because of the difficult access to and in the country, such information is based only on indicators and rough estimates.

In 2020 there was a particularly rainy monsoon season on the Korean peninsula. This included three severe storms in August and September. They led to massive flood damage even in highly developed South Korea. Therefore, in the north, where the infrastructure is ailing, very serious damage can be assumed. There is a high probability that there will be massive crop losses. Despite the poor supply situation, North Korea largely refuses outside help out of concern about Corona. Only individual large deliveries of food through Russia and China have come to light in the past few months. The government now uses the weather phenomena and corona to explain the poor economic situation.

Trump preferred interlocutor

North Korea is now waiting for the US presidential election in November and will hold back with provocations until then. Most experts see Trump as North Korea's preferred interlocutor, as Biden would reduce the likelihood of an advantageous deal. In the past, North Korea often tested nuclear bombs or ICBMs shortly after the US elections. This should remind the US that it has foreign policy priority, if you please. Whether Biden or Trump, North Korea will probably want to test its new weapons - only to demand high concessions. This further prioritization of armaments, military and foreign policy pressure means in the medium and long term that improved living conditions for the population will be a long time coming.

Dr. Christian Taaks is head of the FNF office in Seoul.

Tim Brose is an expert on North Korea in the FNF Korea office in Seoul.

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