What’s Up with North Korea?
In the era of information and growing interconnectedness, few countries have been left as opaque and unpenetrated by the forces of globalization as North Korea. While the country’s government was long ago exposed as a cruel, ruthless dictatorship masquerading as an ideal state, North Korea and its struggles seem to have faded from the public conscience. Instead, the world has been preoccupied with fears of Ebola, ongoing conflict in Syria, and the upcoming American midterm congressional elections. Since North Korea slipped from our the public radar, what exactly has been happening in the world’s most secretive country?
#1: Kim Jong Un is having health problems.
The Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, returned from his 6-week absence from the public eye on October 13 of this year when the North Korean state media released photos of him appearing in two public events using a cane, evidence that his immense weight gain is leading to serious health problems. According to Yoo Ho-Yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul, "We expected to see him at the Supreme People's Assembly, because he had attended that session every time. So we are speculating that he might have problems in his health."
#2: Kim Jong Un’s power may be slipping through his fingers.
Rumors regarding the health of Kim Jong Un have led to questions about his ability to continue governing North Korea. Originating with the high profile execution of Jang Song Thaek, his uncle, and all his relatives, questions about Kim’s dwindling power have been circulating heavily through the media. This month, the Washington Times reported that six officials have been executed, including General Ri Pyong Chol, Air Force chief Ri Yong Gil, and Chang Ung (who had connections to Kim's uncle). None of them have not been seen for some time.
Speculation about Kim Jon Un’s weight and the status of his relatives are the least troubling of the rumors being spread about North Korea. Some believe that the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), the government body that implements the decisions of the Supreme Leader, has actually seized control of the country and has decided to keep Kim Jong Un in power as their puppet. Some experts cite evidence of an attempted coup and secret plots against the leadership as proof that the North Korean government is becoming destabilized. While the dissolution of such a government would free millions from the cruel tyranny of Pyongyang, the chaos would most likely bring about a civil war, a renewed conflict with South Korea and the United States, or worse.
#3: The North Koreans may have experienced a nuclear technological breakthrough.
Here, the key words are "may have." According to General Curtis Scaparrotti, who commands U.S. forces in South Korea, the DPRK is now able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to sit atop a ballistic missile. But information about North Korea, especially pertaining to their exact nuclear capability, has been dubious at best. It is highly unlikely that North Korea has created or obtained weapons that could to reach American soil, as they have yet to successfully test such a device, and Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby once asserted that "we don't have a smoking gun piece of evidence" to indicate success in North Korea's development of a long-range missile.
However, considering the technology for the enrichment of uranium is nearly 60 years old, the ability to create weapons for a country already in possession of centrifuges should come sooner than expected. Even this small breakthrough for the North Korean missile program should be a concern for not just those nations in its immediate vicinity, but for countries around the world. One of the most politically backward countries of the modern world may have the ability to annihilate cities and entire regions in conjunction with a hatred of the West so indoctrinated in society that it rivals that of radical jihadism.
This means we must watch North Korea vigilantly. Long has North Korea and the threat that it poses resided on the backburner, brushed off as impotent and deemed unlikely to be worth the concern. North Korea's rise as a true threat may not occur for another year or ten years. Still, the threat is manifesting at a steady, ominous rate. We cannot rely on their nuclear incompetence as a buffer for our fears. Perhaps Kim Jong Un was the lesser of two evils, and whoever may or may not be truly running the show in Pyongyang will be capricious, fickle, and more difficult to deal with – a rather grim thought considering the already destitute state of affairs in North Korea.
- Kathy Dimaya