Slave to the Blog: Stories to Take Your Breath Away



In my past post, I helpfully reminded readers not to believe everything that they read in the newspaper. Consider yourselves warned.

A couple of weeks ago, UPI ran a story with the extraordinary headline “North Korea recognizes private ownership of land.” I think that the account is not quite correct—what the North Koreans appear to be doing is creating long-term lease arrangements on state-owned land—nevertheless, the story is important. 

North Korea needs a land market. Historically, for national security reasons, industrial activity was excessively dispersed. A more rational spatial allocation of economic activity would imply agglomeration and for this process to occur, one needs an urban land market: to permit the relocation of industrial facilities, to provide housing for employees moving in from other locales, and to facilitate the establishment of an ancillary social and commercial infrastructure to support this new population. The solution that many societies have hit upon is long-term leases: these permit the flexible development of land while retaining ultimate ownership for the state. For example, the first condo in which I resided in Hawaii, literally down the block from where I am currently sitting, was built on “crown lands” of the Hawaiian monarchy. The problem with this solution is when the long-term lease approaches its expiration date creating uncertainty for current (and potential future) leaseholders about the ultimate disposition of the property. (And indeed this is beginning to affect the status of the Queen Liliuokalani condos.) But such concerns are second-order in the North Korean case: this is progress.

But before we get too excited about reform prospects in North Korea, former Mongolian President Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat reminded us that the byungjin line posits an “impossible” task: the simultaneous development of nuclear weaponry and the economy. In an interview with Yonhap in anticipation of President Park Geun-hye’s current visit, Ochiribat argued that North Korea should first give up its nuclear program to seek economic growth, use the legacy of Kim Il-sung to build railroads and join the new Silk Road, and pursue market-oriented reforms. When it comes to North Korea, Mongolian presidents have an interesting tradition of speaking truth to power. It’s also notable that all the Olympic medals won by Mongolians are in combative sports (such as judo, boxing, and wrestling)—I wouldn’t mess with Mongolians.

So good, so far. But if you really want your breath taken away, try these headlines on for size: “N. Korea equipping its border patrol boats with U.S. Gatling guns,” “North Korea fitting U.S.-made machine guns to patrol boats: report.” The stunning headlines are self-explanatory: citing an unnamed South Korean insider, Yonhap reports that the North Koreans are outfitting their patrol boats with what are thought to be GAU-19s produced by General Dynamics. The triple-barreled Gatling gun can fire up to 2,000 rounds per minute and can reach targets five to six kilometers away, although the effective range is 2 km. It goes without saying, it would constitute a major upgrade from North Korea’s current gear, and significantly increase North Korea’s capabilities in close quarters naval warfare. According to Yonhap, the US and South Korean militaries are scrambling to try and figure out how this happened. Talk about a sanctions violation.

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