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North Korea's nuclear weapons

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and if this studio audience could give a big fake round of applause to my guest today it's Ben Habib from the Politics Program. Thanks for joining me Ben.

Ben Habib:

Thanks. It's nice to be here.

Matt Smith:

You're here today to talk to me about North Korea, its use of nuclear weapons.

Ben Habib:

Yes.

Matt Smith:

And the politics that are involved in that but now saying if you could, what sort of political atmosphere does North Korea have at the moment? How long has Kim Jong-il been in power?

Ben Habib:

Yeah, that's an interesting question and how long he's going to last is sort of the 64,000-dollar question of the debate. He came into power in 1994 when his father Kim il-Sun died. That was a period of mourning until 1998 and then he officially assumed the reign. But he had 20 years to be groomed as the successor and his health is not too flash at the moment. He's designated an heir, which is a son who is in his mid-20s but it's not known if this young fellow has got the institutional backing to actually take over in the way that Kim Jong-il did.

Matt Smith:

What is its nuclear prominence like? Does it have a lot of nuclear weapons? Is it something that heavily relies on them? Why does it need those sort of thing?

Ben Habib:

OK. Best guess it's about six to eight nuclear weapons or enough fissile material for six to eight nuclear weapons. And the propaganda line is it's for national security because anti-Americanism, anti-Imperialism is an ideological pillar of their regime. That's how he says, no. We need this nuclear capability to defend against the United States because they're always threatening us with their nuclear weapons. We fought a war against them, which is technically still going on because they only signed an armistice, you know the, an official treaty. This is weapon to defend against the big enemy into the United States.

Matt Smith:

And they're using it for blackmail?

Ben Habib:

They're doing that too. So this is where it gets a bit more muddy and you have to look at what's going on inside the country. In the mid 1990s, they had a really great famine in North Korea. Average of 600,000 to maybe a million people died.

The old communist institutions of the state really started to crumble and fall apart. The economy was in tatters. The farming system was really not working anymore. Food distribution was troubled. And so, Kim Jong-il has just come to power after his dad died and he sees that his father's governing institutions are falling apart. So he reorganizes the institutions of the state to base them around the military as his new power base. It's called Songun politics, military first politics.

That system relies on heavy diversion of state resources to the military so they get first look in on any food that's produced and the energy supplies that are available and they get that probably access to everything. And the military now has come to really dominate the national economy. So that'll have whole sectors of full production chains will be in charge of the military relevant the old command economy system.

You see the problem is with the old command system, they were accessing a lot of inputs so the country doesn't have, from the Soviet Union let's say, Korean Peninsula negligible energy supplies when you're looking at oil. Now the country doesn't produce nearly enough food to feed it's full population so, in the Cold War, they were getting concessional food they didn't tried that ah, really low friendship process from the Soviet Union.

In 1991, Soviet Union collapses and all of a sudden bang, all these inputs that their economy was relying to on are no longer available. So the nuclear program, when you talk about nuclear blackmail, they used that to leverage the international community to get aid to fill these powers in the economy.

Matt Smith:

They wouldn't come out exactly and say it but they might use the nuclear weapons to get aid, is that right?

Ben Habib:

They'll engineer crisis. They'll threaten to withdraw the nuclear field from the reactor and start reprocessing it.

And in order to get them to deescalate they'll say, well we won't do this if you give us this amount of aid. So this amount of fuel, food, fertilizer, cash, etc.

Matt Smith:

Is that working at the moment then?

Ben Habib:

It seems to have worked for the last 20 years.

Matt Smith:

I thought the next logical step would be for North Korea not to get any aid unless they got rid of those nuclear weapons or to get limited aid.

Ben Habib:

Well here's the thing all the regional states. It's a very good reason they're afraid of North Korea collapsing. So in South Korea it's been estimated that that would cost them upwards a trillion dollars to reintegrate the North into United Korea. And so rightly, the South Korean government doesn't want to foot that bill. The Chinese are worried about that because they're worried about a refugee flow into Northeastern China that would be really destabilizing socially in those provinces up there. These are scenarios that regional states don't want. So that gives North Korea quite a lot of leverage.

The fact that regional states don't want to see them collapse so they'll prop them up and it gives them a longer leash to go and behave provocatively because they can a bluff with regional states. The nuclear program one way or another has been in placed for almost four decades. So over that time the government spent a lot of money and invested a lot of resources into establishing infrastructure to getting people trained up. In any country or in any institution once a program's established, it's really difficult to shove it down because of that effect of some costs and the knowledge base.

And also, you know, with these nuclear scientists and so forth, they have this really critical expertise. What are they going to do in the absence of the nuclear program? These would be hardly priced assets as defectors in the US and South Korea because of the intimate knowledge of the North Korean government than the scientific programs. There's a real inertia in place that would keep the North Korean regime from actually wanting to shot this program down.

Matt Smith:

Would the US really take effect us from something like that?

Ben Habib:

Oh absolutely, that'd be very priced.

Matt Smith:

What is it like at the moment for the normal people who were living in North Korea?

Ben Habib:

Well it's hard to know exactly because the country is pretty opaque but from the reports that you get coming out of there, the foods, security, situations are pretty dark. The rations that people get are quite low. What used to be a reasonably egalitarian system of distribution back in the Cold War era before the Soviet collapse. I mean the rations were small but still everyone was getting something. And after famine period when there was real food shortages, then the system sort of evolved in people who have access to high currency to international money.

They're the top of people that can afford to buy food clandestinely on the open market. So that's been a real change in North Korea, it's the same. The command economy is really fading away and this sort of this marketization of the economy from below. Some sort of black market trade in food and various other commodities. For ordinary people it's, it's a pretty bleak existence.

Matt Smith:

Would North Korea be better off without Kim Jong-un? Or will it just be the same sort of bad different paint job?

Ben Habib:

Yeah, that depends doesn't?

Matt Smith:

What do you think is going to be happening once Kim Jong-il is no longer in power because I mean he can never be in power forever?

Ben Habib:

No.

Matt Smith:

And it's unlikely to change while he is in power?

Ben Habib:

That's true. That's true. He has designated an heir, one of his sons. He is reasonably young. He's in his mid to late 20s but I'm not sure that this son of his has had enough time to cultivate the institution of support base necessary to take over the state. Does he have ties in the military? Does he have connections in the party that are willing to back him when the chips are down? It's possible you might see a kind of military junta ala Burma take over with the top generals who at the moment, the people here in charge of the economy and such.

Matt Smith:

Hmm.

Ben Habib:

You might see this kind of collective military leadership. These people might be a bit more pragmatic than the current leadership. They might be, through economic interest willing to will and do with regional states.

Matt Smith:

What about as far as the nuclear weapons go there?

Ben Habib:

Hard to say. Hard to say.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that it's likely to get to a point where outside countries are going to interfere directly with North Korea's political situation?

Ben Habib:

That's sort of a situation normal for international relations. You would expect so. One of the reasons the South Koreans try to engage with North Korean established these economic links. They're trying to change the north's economic system by stealth so it's sort of inject capitalism into what is not really a capitalist friendly economy. And of course the North Koreans are aware of this so they're a bit standoffish about any offers of economic engagement. And from their perspective probably rightly so.

Matt Smith:

Tell me about the negotiating process.

Ben Habib:

Yeah. Well there's a negotiating track that's been going since about 2002 called the Six Party Talks, which involves the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South and North Korea.

It exists solely to address the nuclear issue. The original rationale for the US was to put collective pressure on North Korea because US and North Korea negotiations were not getting anywhere. So Washington thought if we can get China and Japan and Russia to put pressure on the North. They might be able to extract something more than they were before. But the problem with this process is that Northeast Asia is quite a complex regional security environment and each of these regional states has different strategic goals that are not mutually compatible. So that really restricts their ability to work together to come to a coherent position on the Korean nuclear question.

Matt Smith:

They aren't even united in their approach by the sounds of that.

Ben Habib:

No. No. So when the United States out tough economic sanctions on North Korea, the Chinese and to a degree the South Koreans disregard that for their own reasons.

So that's a loophole and sanctions don't have the desire to take the North Korea because they're not stringently applied by everyone.

Matt Smith:

Well Ben Habib thank you for your time.

Ben Habib:

Thank you.

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