For decades, North Korea has proved to be a menace on the international stage and many US presidents have struggled to reach an agreement with Pyongyang to curb its nuclear program.
Is North Korea Collapsing on its Own?
Despite this, events over the last couple of weeks seem to suggest that the North Korean regime led by Kim Jong-un may be beginning to collapse from within.
According to North Korea News, the country’s ruling Workers’ Party elite will convene a plenary meeting on August 19th “to consider an issue of crucial significance.” Kim is expected to attend and possibly announce significant domestic and foreign policy changes. ABC News reports that the Workers’ Party intends to ‘develop the Korean revolution’ and increase the party’s “fighting efficiency.”
North Korea’s Many Challenges
During the December 2019 plenum, the North Korean leader warned citizens to expect economic hardship as his regime would no longer pursue talks with the US or seek sanctions relief for taking steps toward denuclearization. Kim was right to anticipate that 2020 would bring a plethora of issues that his regime would face later on in the year.
North Korea has received no sanctions relief as the US’s efforts to persuade Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear program in favor of the lifting of sanctions has failed. But North Korea has been able to resist the crippling effects sanctions have had on its economy thanks to its trade with China, even though that has declined in recent years.
In 2018, Chinese imports from Pyongyang plummeted by 88 percent. UN numbers show that Chinese imports of North Korean coal, iron ore and other natural resources increased dramatically from 2010 onward. Yet Beijing imported no coal from North Korea between January and March 2018. This shows that North Korea depends upon trade with China.
The Coronavirus Has Devastated North Korea’s Trade Relationship with China
Nonetheless, China’s economic fortunes this year have been affected by the global fallout caused by the coronavirus. Jong-un also took drastic action to curb the spread of the pandemic in his own nation. He ordered the city of Kaesong to be locked down last month, suspecting a defector who crossed back over the border from South Korea of introducing the virus to the north. But it is COVID-19’s economic effects that have had a more severe impact on North Korea.
The New York Times suggests that the country’s exports to China, impacted by the border shutdown, sank to $27 million in the first half of this year, a 75 percent drop from a year ago. Imports from China dropped to 67 percent, or $380 million.
There is some good news for Kim, as a Bloomberg report highlights that China’s industrial production has picked up growth and stopped shrinking in the retail sales sector. But China’s strong economic performance alone won’t save North Korea.
North Korea is in Severe Crisis
North Korea’s fortunes have also been affected by external factors. An unusually long monsoon season, as well as torrential rains in August, triggered floods and landslides in the nation. The natural disaster had damaged 96,300 acres of farmland and 16,680 homes, including roads and rail lines. To make matters worse, Kim refused to accept any international aid.
This is a regime that is in trouble. For decades, North Korea has been able to withstand sanctions and isolation from the outside world, but its luck may be running out now. As the country struggles with food shortages as well, the North Korean leader has ordered pet dogs to be confiscated in Pyongyang so that they can be used for meat. He claims that the pooches represent “Western decadence” and ‘a trend tainted by bourgeois ideology,” yet this is more of a desperate sign of a government that has reached its peak while failing to feed its own population.
North Korea’s situation is alarming. If its regime does not find a way to spark an economic recovery and fast, it is more than likely that both the economy and the government will collapse internally. As US sanctions are a contributing factor toward North Korea’s economic growth, Kim must ask himself an important question: are nuclear weapons more important than a starving population?