The military threat posed by North Korea since the Korean War’s end has grown in all areas save one. Ironically, the cause of this diminishing threat manifests itself today in never-before-seen domestic unrest there, which ultimately could cause North Koreans to turn against their brutal leader. The question then becomes whether the success of the Arab Spring’s unrest in bringing down leaders could be replicated in North Korea.
The diminishing threat is the size of the North Korean army—not in numbers of soldiers in uniform but in the size of the uniforms they wear! For more than a generation now, the physical size of North Korean soldiers has been shrinking. While the average height and weight of those serving in other Asian armies have increased over the decades—most notably in South Korea—just the opposite has occurred in the North.
Years of famine, during which millions died, have finally come home to roost as a malnourished generation of North Korean children now serves in the military. Last year, Pyongyang reduced height standards for conscripts from 140 cm (55.1 inches) to 137 (53.9 inches). Today, schoolchildren in South Korea are 15 pounds heavier and tower almost a half a foot over their North Korean counterparts. With North Korean conscripts averaging just under four feet six inches tall, the father/son dynasty of Kim II-sung/Kim Jong-il has succeeded in starving generations of children, creating an army of hobbits. It is estimated that from 2009 to 2013, 17% to 29% of conscripts will be disqualified for malnutrition-generated cognitive deficiencies.
Recognizing the importance of favoring the organization upon which he depends for his power, dictator Kim Jong-il initiated a “military first” policy that gives top priority to the army. This has resulted in international food shipments being distributed to soldiers first, leaving little for the general population. But, as North Korea has continued to conduct unprovoked attacks against the South, Seoul and Washington have cut off those food shipments. This, plus floods and poor crop yields, now leave Pyongyang hard-pressed to feed its million-man army, let alone its people.
In the past, North Korea reverted to aggression against the South in such times to stimulate negotiations leading to Seoul’s donation of food, fuel or funds as tribute to entice Pyongyang to behave. But, after sinking a South Korean destroyer and then conducting an artillery attack against a South Korean island last year, Pyongyang was warned by China—its closest and most influential ally—to stop. Seoul and Washington will not enter into discussions with Pyongyang absent an apology and its exhibiting some “audacity of hope” it will change.
There is only so much the North Korean people can endure. An empty belly does much to dispel one’s fears about acting against a brutal ruler. It causes one to choose between slowly dying from hunger or dying quickly by fighting a government whose solution to famine is to let enough citizens die so the problem goes away.
While the army enjoys priority under Kim, there are signs unrest among the military is stirring, as they know their families suffer. Adding to the army’s discontent is its top-heavy command structure created by Kim’s promotion of more officers to general in the first decade of his rule than his father promoted in nearly a half century of his.
The North Korean people are close to reaching a boiling point. Lacking food and dealing with corrupt, better-fed government officials, the people are resentful. Adding to this was Pyongyang’s disastrous 2009 currency reform policy, which saw evaporate what little savings people had. Despite their isolation, they are learning, as hardships reach unbearable levels, that their “Dear Leader,” as Kim is called, is not the all-knowing god-figure he has been portrayed to be. As did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the North Korean people may be close to pulling back the curtain to expose Kim for what he really is—a self-indulgent tyrant.
The big question, however, is what happens if a “Pyongyang Spring” erupts.
Absent total support by the army, it would fail. Even with the army’s partial support, there would be little guarantee of success because a major contributing factor to Arab Spring successes is missing in North Korea. North Korea earned the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” due to its isolation from the outside world. But domestic isolation exists too, as all forms of communication are limited. At one time, Pyongyang even outlawed bicycle ownership fearing it would enable villagers—restricted from venturing outside a certain radius—to communicate with each other. Various communication forms were available to participants in the Arab Spring, including Facebook, Internet, Twitter and cell phones. These are unavailable to, or even known to exist by, most North Koreans. Such technology was critical for Arab government opposition movements to organize.
As Kim imports $700,000 worth of cognac annually, eats lobster, caviar and roasted donkey meat, he remains out of touch with his starving people. Two centuries ago, France’s Queen Marie Antoinette, suggesting her hungry people “eat cake,” was beheaded for the same offense. Kim leaves his people to eat grass and tree bark.
Meanwhile the fate of the North Korean people rests in the hands of a hobbit army.