North Korea’s Succession Poses New Challenges – Part I

After years of suspense and speculation about the changing of the guard in North Korea, the new leader’s identity has been revealed. But the nuclear-armed nation remains a regional source of anxiety. This YaleGlobal series analyzes the regime’s long-term goals and the challenges they pose to China and the United States. In the first article of the two-part series, North Korea expert Byong-Chul Lee cautions that despite systemic crises since the early 1990s, the political structure is resilient, centering on a single family, a strong military and the ideology of juche sasang, or self-reliance. Fears of US attack keep the populace in rigid control, while protecting the family’s power and benefits bestowed on the military and other elites. North Korea is adept at multilateral manipulations. To end nuclear proliferation and relieve the misery of North Koreans, Lee urges the US to respond to North Korea’s call for direct, bilateral talks about the future of the country.– YaleGlobal

North Korea’s Succession Poses New Challenges – Part I

The US should talk with North Korea rather than wait for its collapse
Byong-Chul Lee
Friday, October 1, 2010

Star appearance: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's young son Kim Jong-Un  is revealed to the world as a four star general. Last known baby photo (inset)

SEOUL: The unveiling of “young general” Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang again gives lie to many past predictions about a “regime collapse” in North Korea.

Prediction of a “regime collapse” in North Korea has become an overused cliché, yet habit dies hard. With Kim Jong Il’s declining health and rumor of a monarchic succession amidst intrigues and upheaval have infused new life to the familiar old prediction. The point though remains that even if the political regime were to collapse it would not mean the same fate for North Korea. In a minor modification analysts point out that the fragile Kim regime has already entered into a phase of regime change, transforming its style of totalitarianism. The key question is not whether the regime in Pyongyang will collapse, but when and how a failed system will trigger reorganization of a new regime type. The resilience of the North Korean system demonstrated by the history of last 60 years might yet belie the predictions.

For sure, deepening systemic crisis, reflecting critical shortages of food, energy and hard currency, has far-reaching ramifications for the DPRK’s political stability and even survival.  In office as the “Great Leader” since his father Kim Il Sung’s sudden death in 1994, the young Kim Jong Il has ruled the communist country for almost two decades. In the eyes of Kim, aged 68, and his cohorts, the nightmare-like decades have been characterized by tough times of regime survival, called the “Arduous March.”

Until the early 1960s, per-capita income between the two Koreas was roughly the same, and the economic outlook was not that bad. The DPRK had a plenty of natural resources and was already relatively industrialized compared with the South whose only major resource was its qualified human capital with a zeal for higher education.

Until the early 1990s, North Korea was the only socialist communism state in Asia that had avoided a famine. Mongolia and North Vietnam alike experienced serious food shortages within the first decade of communist rule in the early 1930s and mid-1950s. Both the former Soviet Union and China suffered devastating famine in 1933 and 1959 to 1961, respectively. 

By the late 1990s the North Korean economy was on the brink. During the darkest days of crisis, the DPRK has suffered severely from natural and manmade disasters, mass starvation caused by food shortage and a series of economic policy failures, as well as tension over the nuclear standoff with the United States and neighboring countries including South Korea. More than a million people starved to death and the tragic famine threatened to engulf the entire nation.

Almost on cue, a handful of middle-level policymakers in the South Korean president’s office began speculation. One allegedly claimed in a telephone conversation with a counterpart at the Clinton White House that the North would collapse within two years. Reports were immediately put into the President’s Daily Brief before other agencies had an opportunity to analyze the situation and debate the conclusion.

North Korea scoffs at the numerous predictions of imminent demise for the Kim regime, muddling through internal economic hardship and external diplomatic pressures. Kim Jong Il’s governing skills, executed in January 1995 in the name of Military First Politics, helped consolidate his leadership months after his father’s death. But the young Kim, at age 34, was already unanimously anointed as official successor by the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) in February 1974.

The Kim family members have succeeded in turning themselves into the all-powerful monarchy of the hermit kingdom, while quashing earlier estimates that serious upheaval was probable in the immediate future – and three factors contribute to the analysis.

First, the self-reliance ideology, or juche sasang, still functions as a backbone of spreading the propaganda that capitalism is silly, an insulting term of American imperialism and nothing more than code for surrendering traditional moral values and principles. Above all, the Kim regime’s feudal ideology was certainly sharpened by the abrupt collapse of both the Soviet Union and some former communist states of Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

Japan occupied Korea for 35 years. Shortly after Japan was defeated in the Second World War, in August 1945, the Soviet Union virtually installed Kim Il Sung in power over the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Initially, before the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the North and South Korea experienced a taste of capitalism, reform and openness. But the North focused on indoctrinating the people into an ideological rearmament, that self-reliance was better at solving poverty than openness or reform.

Second, North Korea represents the confluence of the KWP and kleptocracy. The citizenry is tamed by gun-wielding troops, rewarded to protect a corrupt inner circle. Key posts are filled with cronies and relatives handpicked by Kims, a clubby group that work behind the scenes to promote all kinds of state affairs, while singing the praises for “Our style socialism,” a nomenklatura fully aware that the sanctions regime could end over time.

Third, military-first politics prop the fragile regime. Kim, accompanied by a troupe of commanders who wait for his on-the-spot guidance, is the military’s consigliore, so to speak. Given assumptions that Kim remains politically powerful and retains absolute support of the military and security services, it makes eminent sense for the military to serve as the backbone of the police state. It’s worth noting that vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the country’s de facto supreme guiding body, and director of the People’s Armed Forces Kim Young-choon joined Kim during five out of six visits to China.

The KWP and the military, the main pillars supporting a regime that thrives on the poverty of its people, exist in a mutually beneficial symbiosis. A priority for both is permanent existence of the regime rather than nuclear weapons. Not surprisingly, North Korea relies on nuclear blackmail in its struggles to deal with the US directly on political and national-security affairs, while limiting the role of South Korea to a mere provider of economic assistance.

The recalcitrant regime’s nuclear ambitions are politically useful, doubtlessly aimed at uniting its people against hyped external threats ahead of a transition in power. Washington knows that the Kim regime has so far capitalized on fears of a US attack on North Korea, keeping citizens in line. That said, the United States remains a secondary concern for the Kims, who seek an irresistible American offer that includes assurance of no attempts to change the regime in any way.

Any dealings with the wily regime require intelligence and courage. US President Barack Obama has yet to accomplish what so many of Koreans wish for him to do. To encourage a newly emerging regime to comply with peaceful dismantlement of its troubled nuclear weapons program, Obama must show an audacious courage – accepting Pyongyang’s proposal for direct, bilateral negotiations, rather than waiting for regime collapse or some other resolution that may likely never come.

History shows that the Confucian Choson Dynasty, which so emphasized order, survived more than 500 years before being dismantled by imperialistic Japanese rule. It too had a record of kings younger than the just revealed Kim Jong Un, in his late 20s.

Like Kim, North Korea is imperfect, but neither is on a path toward self-destruction.


Byong-Chul Lee is a senior fellow with the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, South Korea. Before joining the IPC, he served as foreign and national security policy planning staff member at the Presidential Office of South Korea from 1993 to 1999. His comments and op-ed pieces are published in many newspapers in South Korea and abroad.
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