The Duck of Minerva

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Tears of Appreciation (and McDonald’s) in North Korea

July 26, 2011

Sorry for the blogging hiatus, I’ve been on the road in South Korea and Japan for the past six weeks and not able to blog. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to folks in Seoul about the situation in North Korea and whether or not we are likely to see any movement in the relationship. North Korea is again suffering acute food shortages and another famine appears to be unfolding.
The poster above, according to North Korean Central Television as reported in the Korea Times

was reportedly made by soldiers working at a construction site, contains an image which shows that soldiers wipe away their tears, and the word, “Oh, bulgogi!!!” and “Soldiers are choked by Kim’s ‘passionate love’ toward them.”

In another image, a group of soldiers sit down together and eat bulgogi.

While North Korean Central Television was reporting on all of this “passionate love” for the glorious leader, the international media uncovered a different story. Last week we heard news that the regime (in defiance of the international sanctions) has increased its level of importing luxury goods from China — including having McDonald’s hamburgers flown in and delivered to the homes of key government and military officials (to ensure their loyalty to Kim Jong Il during the on-going planning for power transition to Kim’s son).

The real question here in Seoul is the vulnerability of Kim Jong-Il’s regime. Almost no one thinks we’ll see any kind of “jasmine revolution” in North Korea — there is no functioning civil society. There is a general sense that at some level Kim Jong Il and others in Pyongyang understand that the country needs to open up to save the country, but doing so would almost certainly threaten the regime by exposing its lies, propaganda, and dysfunctions.

Yet there is clear anxiety here about the future of the regime — especially in the midst of the power transition that is now underway. Seoul is bracing for more provocations from the North as power is transferred in the coming months/years and the current South Korean government under President Lee plans to respond aggressively. The defense establishment here has a plan for that.

What the South Koreans don’t have a clear plan for, and the cause of significant anxiety, is what happens if the regime — under the weight of another famine and apparently being held up by McDonald’s hamburgers– simply collapses.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.