The Death of Dear Leader and North Korea’s Future

It’s unseemly to celebrate the death of another human being, but I believe most people would make an exception for Kim Jong-il, perhaps one of the most evil and insane rulers the world has ever known. Even a brief tour of his blighted fiefdom quickly reveals the horrific extent of his depravity, and that almost fictional level of villainy. He died a much more pleasant death – from a heart attack presumably – than he accorded to millions of his subjects (they can hardly be called citizens given their treatment).

This man – or deity, ostensibly to the North Koreans – had the rare distinction of being both terrifying and amusing, portrayed in media and popular culture as a living caricature and a buffoon, who at the same time ran one of the most isolated, oppressive, and inhuman regimes the world has ever known. It’s strange that someone so comic, so peculiar and downright silly could simultaneously have the blood of millions on his hands, and sow an almost unprecedented level of human misery.

One moment, we hear of his prodigious love of directing movies, his unquenchable thirst for French win, and his tendency to wear platform shoes (among other eccentricities) and then we learn that he’s using millions of human beings as leverage to further his own power, threatening to let them starve – as they did in the mid-90s – unless given aid that is ultimately squandered on the massive army anyway. Few tyrants, upon being Googled, will yield both inane factoids and acts of grand cruelty. To me, such a bizarre and surreal duality just made him and his mafia of a government even more disturbing. 

So it’s no surprise that his expiration, though foreseen a couple of years ago when he suffered a stroke and quickly named a successor, has been met with so much attention and muted satisfaction – except, of course, in North Korea, where the news was presented through choking sobs, and the entire nation will no doubt be expected – i.e. forced – to hysterically mourn the loss of their God on Earth. Given widespread indoctrination, however, I don’t doubt some of it is genuine.

By now, news of his death is now ubiquitous across social media, news sources, academic journals, and numerous foreign policy circles – not all of it is celebratory or relieved.

The death of Kim Jong-il provoked uncertainty, anxiety and calls for a peaceful transition on Monday as diplomats, military strategists and political leaders awaited some signal from North Korea on its nuclear intentions and its handling of the succession.

The response was colored by the secretive nature of the regime in Pyongyang which has groomed Mr. Kim’s youngest son, King Jong-un, as the heir-apparent, but allowed little of substance to be known about him.

From Beijing to London, outsiders peering into the opaque and unpredictable politics of North Korea said they hoped the transition would be achieved without worsening tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Most of its neighbors are on full diplomatic and/or military alert. Most foreign services all over the world have expressed lukewarm hope that the regime will remain stable and move towards greater freedom. While no one can help the initial hope that the North will change for the better, most are quickly reminded of how stark the prospect will be.

North Korea is the world’s only communist dynasty, a fusion of monarchy, Orwellian totalitarianism, and even theocracy. There’s no telling where things will go from here, especially given how little we know about the country as a whole, much less it’s opaque and complex politics. I for one am certain that the Kim dynasty wasn’t absolute in its rule, and that many other players have had a hand in running the show – they’ll no doubt see an opportunity given the apparent disinterest and noted inexperience of Kim’s presumed heir, who we know little about (and who’s two older brothers may covet the throne).

Perhaps a power struggle will ensue, leading to a bloodless coup or (less likely) a civil war. Or possibly a regency of sorts, made up of a coterie of advisors and relatives, will end up holding the real power, relegating Jong-un to the role of a figurehead (if they hadn’t already). Or maybe we’ll simply never know for sure. I’d like to think that North Korea will follow the precedent set by some countries – notably Franco’s Spain – and gradually move towards democracy following the death of a unifying tyrant.

But that is sadly very unlikely, as it assumes that the late Dear Leader was truly in full control, that the regime hasn’t already prepared itself for such challenges, or that his government actually has some moderate reformers within it, much as the Soviet Union did prior to its collapse (think Gorbachev). Even if Jong-un or some others were to be benevolent or reform-minded, the weight of the security apparatus would no doubt prevent any progressive actions. There are just too many unknowns, and what little we know paints a grim picture.  

Of course that hasn’t stopped numerous international relations scholars from trying to figure this puzzle out. There are already too many such analyses to share in one post, but a particularly good article came from Foreign Affairs, one of my favorite sources on such matters. I highly encourage you all to read the whole thing.

At first blush, the road ahead for the “Brilliant Comrade,” as Kim Jong Un is called, does not look smooth. Said to be around 27 years old, he is young and inexperienced. He has two older brothers and an untold number of relatives who may be eyeing the crown. Outsiders do not know how news of his ascension was greeted by the elites who prop up the Kim regime — whether they share the views of eldest brother Kim Jong Nam, who told an interviewer, “Personally, I am opposed to the hereditary transfer to a third generation of the family.” Perhaps most important, one wonders how the military feels about such a youthful figure suddenly being promoted to four-star general and handed the reins of power.

Aside from his internal challenges, Kim Jong Un will inherit a wreck of a country. Energy shortages continue to ravage North Korea’s already frail economy. The 1995–97 famine killed more than one million North Koreans and created an undernourished generation wracked by cognitive disabilities. A 2008 U.S. National Intelligence Council study on global health reported that half of North Korean children are stunted or underweight, while fully two-thirds of young adults are malnourished or anemic.

To make matters worse, North Korea is encircled by powerful adversaries. To the east is Japan, a military and economic powerhouse that annexed and colonized Korea in the early twentieth century. Below lies South Korea, which has 20 times the GDP of North Korea, twice its population, and a military alliance with the global hegemon. South Korea’s military is far more technologically advanced than North Korea’s and is staffed with well-trained and well-fed soldiers. Across North Korea’s northern border is China, an erstwhile ally that regards Pyongyang with a warmth that ranges from jaw-clenched resignation to total exasperation.

One of the more disturbing characteristics of North Korea is that it is at once unshakably oppressive yet perennially weak. This is a state that by all accounts should have collapsed, or at least weakened its grip considerably, as a result of a moribund economy (indeed, this is largely what led to the fall of most other communist regimes by the early 1990s). Yet it remains stubbornly in control of every facet of every citizen’s life. The people have become so broken by state-sanctioned starvation that they literally don’t have the strength to lead a revolt, no matter how eroded the state apparatus becomes (I try to avoid the term government as best I can, given how the authorities hardly govern anyone; for that matter, North Koreans can hardly be considered citizens so much as subjects, assuming they factor into the mind of their rulers at all).

We should also avoid overstating Jong-un’s apparently docile disposition, and whether that will have any deteriorating effect on the state’s repressiveness. His happily autocratic father was also a shy and seemingly benign youth, and personal accounts made similar claims that he had little gumption for leading the nation. There’s no doubt that he ultimately overcame these mitigating factors, perhaps with the help of relatives and other members of his dynasty’s inner circle.

At any rate, the North’s continued survival in the face of such odds – which should have, and ultimately did, claim other tyrannies – is a testimony to the evil genius of the first ruler and Kim family patriarch, Kim Il Sung. The North Korean state is a textbook lesson in how to craft a resolute and efficient apparatus of power.

However daunting all of this may seem, and however dim Kim Jong Un’s prospects appear, several factors, both internal and external, will work in his favor. He will rely on the system designed by his grandfather, the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung — a system that, as Daniel Byman and I have written, was designed for resilience.

Kim Il Sung devised this system to deter revolution from below and military coups from within. An elaborate ideology confers legitimacy upon the Kim family: according to the country’s founding myth, Kim Il Sung led a gallant band of guerilla fighters in the bitter winds of Manchuria to defeat the Japanese, liberate the Korean people, and establish the North Korean state.  As historians such as Charles Armstrong and Bruce Cumings have argued, this genesis tale secures Kim Il Sung as the father, son, and holy spirit of the “religion” that is North Korea. Like his father, Kim Jong Un enjoys the legitimacy of Kim Il Sung’s blood in his veins — and even bears a striking resemblance to his broad-cheeked grandfather. Kim Jong Un has allies who share his formidable pedigree. His aunt, Kim Kyong Hui (recently elevated to four-star general), is Kim Il Sung’s daughter; her husband, Jang Song Taek, is, as the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, Kim Jong Il’s number two. Kim Jong Un and these allies enjoy a great deal of legitimacy from this “great leader” (suryong) system.

Xenophobia is another ideological tool that helps prevent revolution. The regime’s propaganda inspires fear of dire threats from predatory Japanese and perfidious Americans, who are aided by traitorous South Koreans. These supposed dangers justify the powerful political role of the military, which already enjoys a glow of legitimacy provided by the Manchurian tale. By keeping North Korea on a perpetual war footing, the regime justifies spending a massive share of its budget on the military (25 percent of GDP, compared to South Korea’s four percent) — a great deal of which goes to internal security.

The risk of popular rebellion is also reduced by Kim Il Sung’s social engineering. In the communist system that Kim Il Sung created, North Korea has neither a middle class nor a clergy — groups that are frequently instrumental in fomenting revolution. Students and intellectuals — other would-be revolutionaries — have been intellectually defanged by the regime’s strict control of information. Heavily monitored, they are deterred from dissent by the threat of terrible punishment.

Indeed, perhaps the most important factor deterring revolution in North Korea is the government’s threat or use of force. Informants from multiple security agencies watch for any stirrings of dissent. People who commit relatively minor transgressions — failing to dust their Kim family portraits, for example — undergo “reeducation”: extra self-criticism sessions or more time forced to memorize the writings of the Great Leader. People who are accused of more serious disloyalty are exiled to harsh lives in the remote countryside, sent to brutal prison camps, or executed. North Korea’s would-be freedom fighters know that, according to the government’s “three generations” policy, they risk the arrest, incarceration, torture, and death not only of themselves but also of their parents and children. For all of these reasons, during the famine

“North Korea’s starving farmers did not rebel,” Andrei Lankov noted. “They just died.”

Suppressing dissent by allowing people to simply waste away and die off – such cruelty is almost unparalleled in human history, evoking similar tactics by Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin.

The article goes on to list several more advantages that favor the regime’s continued resilience – the creation of a parallel military force that answers only to the ruling family, a class system limiting power only to loyal and pampered elites who stand to gain from continued support, and a web of intelligence agencies that keep everyone – including each other – in constant check, leaving little possibility for dissent anywhere within the country’s borders.  Only the dystopian totalitarian state of 1984 could compared with this level of brutal, state-engineered domination.

But there is another (arguably more disquieting) factor that may ensure the authoritarian state’s survival – and the irony is as cruel as the regime itself:

…But today, North Korea’s greatest deterrent lies not in its power but in its weakness. The grim specter of the potential chaos associated with the collapse of the Kim regime in the event of war has led neighboring countries to treat it with kid gloves. Outside countries fear that the government’s collapse could unleash a civil war; send refugees streaming into China, South Korea, and across the sea to Japan; and let “loose nukes” from North Korea’s arsenal find their way onto the global black market. An already dangerous situation could grow far deadlier if — in order to stem refugee flows, track down weapons of mass destruction, or help starving North Koreans — China, South Korea, or the United States decided to unilaterally intervene and found their forces jostling together on the small peninsula.

…. despite all of the obstacles Kim Jong Un must overcome as he ascends the throne, powerful forces will encourage stability. Because of the regime’s many tools of authoritarian control, revolutions or military coups will likely be deterred, detected, or quashed. Because of the dread of collapse, North Korea’s neighbors will likely continue, at least to a certain point, to allow the regime to run its pathetic kingdom. The alternative is too dangerous.

As unloved and isolated that North Korea is, most states seem to have more interest in its existence than in its destruction. It’s a Faustian bargain – by keeping the odious regime around, in whatever form or fashion, the relatively more stable status quo can persist. As the article notes, “for a country as insecure as North Korea, Kim Jong Un will find himself in a bizarrely secure position: for all that people despise the Kim regime, no one wants it to collapse” – basically, it’s better the devil they know than the devil they don’t.

South Korea would be economically devastated by the cost of unification, given the desolate condition of the Hermit Kingdom, while China would rather prop up a frustrating but invaluable buffer state than end up having the South Koreans – and their American ally – suddenly bordering it. The US would no doubt fear getting tangled in another geopolitical mess with a rising power. And most states are too busy contending with economic strains and domestic problems to afford the financial and political burdens of addressing a power vacuum near the heart of rising Asia.

So at best, the fall of North Korea, as unlikely as it already is, would be bittersweet at best to the powers that be. Granted, no government or polity is monolithic: each of the countries involved has elements in their society or political leadership that will no doubt work to end or reduce the North’s power. South Korea has already seen growing interest, and outright preparation, for unification (including the touting of special tax intended to raise funds for the process, and blueprints for administering North Korean cities). 

But it’s as hard to predict the vagaries of international and domestic dynamics as it is to foretell where North Korea will go from here. Historical precedent points both ways, with some states falling under the weight of their own rot, and others – such as Cuba or Communist China – continuing along slowly but (so far) surely. But even comparing similar countries or events is unreliable, as no one nation or its circumstances is ever alike.

Ultimately, I think that all any of us can do is continue to watch, wait, and hope that somehow, someway, against all these overwhelming odds, the long-suffering people of North Korea will finally be free. It’s an all too familiar and tragic approach to a lot of seemingly devastated places. May I live to see the day that all societies are free, however, distant and naïve the prospect.


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