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“We Need Food and Fertilizer”: Is This the Real Message?

“We Need Food and Fertilizer”: Is This the Real Message?

Posted March. 29, 2008 08:19,   


As North Korea kicked out South Korean government officials from the Gaesong Industrial Complex on Mar. 27 and launched missiles on Mar. 28, inter-Korea relations are showing signs of rapid chilling. But stories from within North Korea tell us that the North would lose out in any frosting in the relationship.

Recently, the North’s central government has been experiencing rising tensions with some regional governments for neglecting orders, a behavior unprecedented in the strict cosmos of the North Korean governmental system. Why then did North Korea cast provocative messages towards the South?

▽ Central Power Collapsing

North Koreans say that the food shortage this year is as severe as it was in 1996, when the famine in North Korea was at its peak. Food prices have jumped 60% this month from its levels at the end of last year.

Accordingly, in recent days, regional government bodies that govern over citizens at the working level have ignored unrealistic orders from Pyongyang.

In October 2007, the central government ordered regional governments to expel women under the age of 49 from all markets. But no regional body has followed the order, and some of them have yielded to protests by citizens against the regulation.

In a recent issue of its newsletter, Good Friends, an organization that provides humanitarian support, wrote that when about 10,000 women came out on the market streets to protest the regulation in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province on Mar. 5. The regional government accepted their demands without approval from the central government.

Neither was an order from the central government early this year adhered to which limited regional governments to conduct trade only through designated custom houses. Nor was an order in January 2007 that the U.S. dollar be banned followed. Each year, the central government orders the regional governments to reduce non-tax payments of each household, but this order is ignored at the work level.

▽ The Real Story of North Korea’s Message

In a situation as bad as this, if South Korea stops subsidizing tens of thousands of tons of rice and fertilizer, the North Korean central government will lose the means with which to calm its citizens, thus further losing credibility.

The farming season is just around the corner, but no news has emerged from South Korea regarding subsidized fertilizer this year as in other years. Some also say that an increasing number of farmers do not go out to the farm because they ran out of food.

It is highly probable that the Lee Myung-bak administration’s change in attitude in such a bad situation led North Korea to take strong measures.

In particular, North Korea expressed sincerity early this year by proposing to send its officials as envoys to the inauguration ceremony of President Lee. But the offer was declined by then President-elect Lee. North Korea, with great pride, is likely to have felt quite insulted.

North Korea’s strong attitude, however, can be construed in several ways: it is a message that North Korea “cannot wait any more,” but simultaneously a way for North Korea to saying, “Please be easy on us.” In previous cases of negotiation, a “strong stance” often meant, “We want to talk with you.”

Therefore, it is unlikely that North Korea will take even stronger measures, such as shutting down Gaesong Industrial Complex. Since Pyongyang’s controlling power has weakened, shutting down Gaesong Industrial Complex, which provides more than 23,000 people with jobs, will only worsen public opinion.