Get Ready to Starve

The West was just gearing up to send food to a hungry North Korea. Then came the death of Kim Jong Il.

It is extremely hard to know what North Koreans are really feeling as they mourn the death of Kim Jong Il today. What's clear, though, is that there is plenty to be anxious about. It's not just that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea faces a prolonged period of uncertainty as the Dear Leader's putative political heir, the 27-year-old Kim Jong Un, settles into his new job. There's also the not inconsequential matter of getting enough to eat as North Korea's infamously hard and barren winter approaches.

North Koreans have been starving for years, needless to say. Stories about widespread malnutrition in the country have been making the rounds at least since the early 1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived Pyongyang of a host of vital industrial subsidies, and the resulting collapse of the North Korean economy was compounded by a series of floods and other natural disasters later in the decade. No one knows precisely how many North Koreans died; most of the estimates range between half a million and two. As journalist Blaine Harden notes in his forthcoming book Escape From Camp 14, one million dead in North Korea (pop. 24 million) would translate into roughly 12 million victims in a country the size of the United States.

The survivors, meanwhile, have to contend with the cumulative effects of years of starvation and malnutrition. Studies show that North Korean defectors are routinely several inches shorter and considerably lighter than their counterparts in the South. But even in flush times, the nagging problem of hunger has continued to plague North Korea even as the famines have forced the government to tolerate a variety of bottom-up coping mechanisms developed by ordinary people to shield themselves from starvation. The most prominent: private markets and grassroots trade (much of it illegal) with China. Increased aid from South Korea, the result of a rapprochement between Pyongyang and left-of-center governments in Seoul, also brought a measure of relief for a few years in the first half of the last decade. None of this, of course, really addressed the core problem of the Kim regime's chronic mismanagement of the economy and the environment. But the band-aid was better than nothing.

Now even that small room for maneuver appears to have vanished. A few years ago, worried about a potential loss of political control, Kim Jong Il's minions began cracking down on markets and illicit cross-border trade. Meanwhile, North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006 dealt a blow to those in Seoul and elsewhere who had argued that generous provision of assistance would change the North for the better. Riding the resulting wave of skepticism was the conservative politician Lee Myung-bak, inaugurated as South Korea's president in 2008. Lee announced that he wanted to see the North offer more concessions in return for Southern aid -- a stance that contributed mightily to a cooling of inter-Korean relations.

Another North Korean nuclear test in 2009 didn't help much. And then, in the spring of 2010, a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sunk, killing 46 sailors after an enormous explosion that Seoul and various international observers blamed on a North Korean torpedo. A few months later, as if to avoid any ambiguity in the matter, the North Koreans fired off barrages of artillery shells at a South Korean island. The Lee administration put relations with Pyongyang in the deep freeze and aid from the South, already down to a trickle, dried up.

This summer, floods hit again, washing away cropland and plunging the North into a new state of emergency. A procession of humanitarian aid officials visited North Korea and issued dire predictions about another food crisis in the offing. Statement after statement called upon the governments in Seoul and Washington to donate money for aid.

But nothing happened. At the end of September, a consortium of five U.S. humanitarian aid organizations issued a statement warning of a "potentially catastrophic food crisis" emerging in the North: "We fear that millions of North Koreans are caught in a political crossfire."

The text was notably silent on the precise nature of the politics involved, but most Korea-watchers understood what was meant: The stalemate in North Korea's relations with the West -- and particularly the breakdown of talks over the North's nuclear program -- was blocking the delivery of desperately needed aid. To be sure, officials Seoul and Washington have continued to profess belief in the hallowed principle that humanitarian concerns should be separated from political ones. But things are never that simple when it comes to North Korea -- especially given the urgency of international efforts to block its nuclear weapons program. North Korea itself, indeed, has all too often demonstrated that it is perfectly happy to make aid shipments the object of eminently political bargaining.

The logjam finally appeared to shift this past weekend, when reports began to emerge that the North Koreans had declared their willingness to enter into talks about limiting their uranium-enrichment program -- a major bone of contention in the complicated efforts to restart the long-dormant Six Party Talks aimed at curtailing the North's nukes. In return, Seoul and Washington made it known that they would re-open the aid spigot -- at least enough to relieve some of the most urgent needs.

For a brief moment it looked as though a spirit of common humanity might prevail. In fact, as we now know, Kim Jong Il, the man at the top of North Korea's political pyramid, was expiring from a heart attack just around the time that Western officials were bruiting about the prospect of a deal. (Though the news of his death was released on Monday morning on the peninsual, the North Korean news agency claims that he actually died two days earlier, on Dec. 17.) Officials at U.S. aid organizations say that they didn't even have time to confer with their counterparts in the U.S. government about whether the purported delivery of food assistance was actually going ahead.

For the time being, it has all been put on hold. The Americans, the South Koreans, and the other parties involved will be inclined to wait for a few weeks until they can learn more about the new regime in Pyongyang. And as for the new Kim on the throne, there is no telling how long he will need in order to feel secure enough to chart his own foreign policy. Kim Jong Un is strikingly young and inexperienced compared with his father, who despite almost a decade of preparation still needed several years to consolidate his hold on power. One thing is for sure: dramatic policy initiatives are unlikely to make the running. And concessions on the nuclear program are about as dramatic as it gets. If Seoul and Washington are only prepared to deliver food in return for a pledge on nukes, hungry Northerners could find themselves in for a wait.

The losers, indeed, are the ordinary North Koreans, who once again face the prospect of a winter with less than enough food to go around. Jim White, who is vice president of Mercy Corps, one of the five humanitarian organizations in the consortium that traditionally provides U.S. food assistance to North Korea, puts it this way: "We believe that there is still a great need for food assistance -- regardless of political transitions and regardless of nuclear issues." One can only hope that the greater need will prevail. But I wouldn't bet on it.

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Assessing Assad

The Syrian leader isn't crazy. He's just doing whatever it takes to survive.

The assessments of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following his interview with Barbara Walters in early December all strike a common theme. A U.S. State Department spokesman, for instance, declared that Assad appears to be "utterly disconnected with the reality that's going on in his country." One analyst opined, "It's now clear that Assad meets his own definition of crazy."

What prompted these conclusions was Assad's answer when Walters asked, "Do you think that your forces cracked down too hard?" He replied, "They are not my forces; they are military forces belong [sic] to the government.… I don't own them. I am president. I don't own the country, so they are not my forces." In a Western democracy, it's hard to imagine how a leader could so blatantly deny responsibility for the actions taken by his own government. But is it Assad who is out of touch with reality? Or is it us?

Following the logic we set out in The Dictator's Handbook, we believe Assad has been misunderstood and maybe, just maybe, even misjudged. In the book, we argue that no leader -- not even a Louis XIV, an Adolf Hitler, or a Joseph Stalin -- can rule alone. Each must rely on a coalition of essential supporters without whom power will be lost. That coalition, in turn, counts on a mutually beneficial relationship with the leader. They keep the ruler in office, and the ruler keeps them in the money. If either fails to deliver what the other wants, the government falls.

Assad is no exception. Just as he said, it is not his government. He cannot do whatever he wants. He might even be a true reformer, as many in the Western media believed prior to the Arab Spring, or he may be the brute he now appears to be. The truth is, he is doing what he must to maintain the loyalty of those who keep him in power.

Assad depends on the backing of key members of the Alawite clan, a quasi-Shiite group consisting of between 12 and 15 percent of Syria's mostly Sunni population. The Alawites make up 70 percent of Syria's career military, 80 percent of the officers, and nearly 100 percent of the elite Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, led by the president's brother Maher. In a survey of country experts we conducted in 2007, we found that Assad's key backers -- those without whose support he would have to leave power -- consisted of only about 3,600 members out of a population of about 23 million. That is less than 0.02 percent. Assad is not alone in his dependence on a small coalition. Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's coalition is even smaller. His essential supporters include the Revolutionary Guard's leadership, the economically essential bonyad conglomerates, key clerics, and a smattering of business interests, totaling, according to our survey of Iran experts, about 2,000 in a population of well over 70 million.

Any political system that depends on such a small percentage of the population to sustain a leader in power is destined to be a corrupt, rent-seeking regime in which loyalty is purchased through bribery and privilege. Syria possesses these traits in spades. Transparency International reports in its latest evaluation that Syria ranks in the top third of the world for corruption. So, when Assad says it is not his government, he is right. If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. Of course, the uprising or international intervention might eventually end his rule. But those possibilities remain potential. Should the loyalty of his 3,600 supporters falter and they stop working to neutralize protest, Assad will be gone immediately. Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion.

There is, in fact, real evidence that Assad has modest reformist tendencies. During his 11 years in power, he has increased competitiveness in the economy, liberalized -- a bit -- the banking sector, and did, according to our 2007 survey, expand his Alawite-based winning coalition by about 50 percent when he first succeeded his father (though, having secured his hold on power, he was able to purge some of these surplus supporters and by around 2005 had reduced the coalition's size back to what it had been under his father). Syria has enjoyed a respectable growth rate under his leadership, though it is also suffering from high deficit spending, deep indebtedness (about 27 percent of GDP), and high unemployment, especially in the countryside and in Damascus's poverty belt. Although official unemployment figures claim about 8.9 percent unemployment, at least one well-regarded Syrian economist estimates the rate at 22 to 30 percent.

And with the Arab League endorsing stiff economic sanctions, Assad's regime now risks steep economic decline. With Syrians facing a society in which the rewards go to so few and confronted with the example of the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, it is little wonder that the people have rebelled. It is equally unsurprising that the privileged few have responded brutally to preserve their advantages.

There are two effective responses to a mass uprising (other than stepping down, of course, which leaders almost never do until all other options have been exhausted): liberalize to redress the people's grievances or crack down to make their odds of success too small for them to carry on. Leaders who lack the financial wherewithal to continue paying off cronies often choose to liberalize. (Remember South Africa's F.W. de Klerk, who negotiated a government transition with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress when economic decline made the apartheid system unsustainable.) Those who can muster the money to sustain crony loyalty do so. This is why the rich oil states to Syria's south have resisted reform and why, despite its popular uprising, Libya will not become democratic. Here is another case where Assad's statement that it is not his country is true, but only partially. As president, he could liberalize to buy off those rebelling, but his key backers will almost certainly not allow him to do so as long as there is enough money to keep paying foot soldiers to crack heads. With Syria's oil wealth in decline and with stiff economic sanctions, the regime's two choices are to liberalize or to find new sources of money. They have succeeded in the latter pursuit.

Reuters reported on July 15 that Iran and Iraq offered Assad's regime $5 billion in aid, with $1.5 billion paid immediately. The $5 billion is equal to about 40 percent of Syrian government revenue. Since the announcement of Arab League sanctions, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela have signed agreements to expand trade and investment in Syria to the tune of more than $7 billion in 2012, including building an oil refinery. That is just what Assad's political-survival doctor ordered. This injection of cash in the short term is likely to keep the military and security forces on his side. The military core of his coalition is likely to do whatever it takes to keep the president in power as long as that money keeps on flowing. That is the essential synergy of all leader-coalition arrangements.

In the long run, meaning two to five years, reform is likely in Syria, perhaps through internal uprising and perhaps driven by forces outside the country. It could be that Assad will turn out to be the instrument of change, but the process of getting to that point will continue to be ugly, painful, and brutal as long as the likes of Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela care more about currying favor with Assad's regime than they do about the well-being of the Syrian people.

How long they can do so is open to speculation. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is rumored to be terminally ill. Will his successors care about sustaining the costs of closer ties with Syria? With Iran facing its own economic problems, how long will the Islamic Republic's regime sacrifice to sustain Assad? If Iran's regime focuses more of its energy on internal affairs, will Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government, itself likely to face stiff internal resistance, continue to build closer ties with its Syrian neighbor? In each of these cases, we don't believe the current arrangement will last long. That, in the end, may be the greatest hope for the Syrian people.

Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images