The keen observer of North Korea spread gloom and doom about the Hermit Kingdom of Northeast Asia, then relented and allowed a glimmer of light to shine through.

Victor Cha, a scholar at Georgetown University in Washington who is among a handful of American authorities on North Korea, told a gathering at the East-West Center here that the dictatorial rulers in Pyongyang had made “five bad choices” over the last six decades since the Korean War.

The author of a book entitled “The Impossible State,” Cha said that the bad decisions by Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, son Kim Jong Il, and grandson Kim Jong Un, the current leader, were responsible for upward of a million deaths from malnutrition and disease over those years.

The gleam of light, Cha said, came from the estimated 2 million cell phones in North Korea now and the 15,000 connections to the Internet. “This is something that is different,” Cha said, “and it is only going to grow.”

Cha suggested that the North Korean people would become gradually aware of what’s going on outside the Hermit Kingdom, notably in South Korea and Japan. He was quick to add, however, that he didn’t see a “democratic revolution” erupting but unrest could “fracture the system under its incompetent leadership.”

The scholar said he did not expect that awareness to have a profound effect on politics in North Korea because decades of close controls “has had an impact on the North Korean mind.” Thus, he did not see the possibility of an “Arab spring” in Pyongyang.

A critical question: Why should anyone outside of North Korea care?

Because North Korea is developing nuclear warheads and missiles that could reach the U.S., with targets beginning at the famed naval base at Pearl Harbor attacked by Japan in 1941 to bring the U.S. into World War II. Others would be the Army, Marine, and Air Force bases here.

The fear is that North Korean leaders, beset by economic difficulties, could become desperate. That, coupled with their ignorance of the outside world, especially of the U.S., could lead to miscalculation, historically the most frequent cause of war.

The seemingly unending stream of North Korean vitriol aimed at South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. has been toned down in recent weeks — but not gone away, by any means. Last week, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the official mouthpiece of Pyongyang, accused President Park Geun Hye of South Korea of “telling lies.”

KCNA also protested “the reckless nuclear war moves and confrontational racket against the DPRK being kicked up by the U.S. and the South Korean warmongers.” As for Japan, it was criticized for “the mass killings of Koreans committed by the Japanese authorities during the great Kanto quake”—90 years ago.

There was a sliver of comic relief: Dennis Rodman, the flamboyant professional basketball player showed up in Pyongyang to see his pal, Marshal Kim Jong Un, and seek the freedom of an American citizen of Korean heritage, Kenneth Bae. But Rodman told the Associated Press: “That’s not my job.”

The “five bad choices” that Cha ascribed to the Kim Dynasty in Pyongyang were:

  • In the 1950s, focusing on heavy industry instead of agriculture and light industry, the well-worn path that emerging economies have long trod;
  • Demanding that the people work harder and for longer hours instead of increasing productivity with innovation, imported technology, and joint ventures with foreign firms;
  • In the 1970s, during the U.S.-Soviet détente, North Korea could have sought foreign loans but it became evident that Pyongyang could not pay interest or repay the loan.
  • In the 1980s, Pyongyang suffered “Olympic envy” when South Korea put on the games successfully. Instead, the Kim regime launched mega projects, including a luxury hotel in Pyongyang that is still not occupied but is “a towering monument to economic failure.”
  • In the 1990s and beyond, North Korea has experienced crippling shortages of energy, massive floods, a refusal to reform, and diversions of food and funds to the armed forces. Foreign aid workers delivering food have been lied to constantly, which has led to “donor fatigue” and the departure of all but a few Chinese and South Koreans.

Maybe a sixth bad choice should be added, which is Kim Jong Un having North Korea line up with Syria. It has been accused of turning chemical weapons on its own people in violation of a slew of international agreements and standards.

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth