What do we know about North Korea? (Fred Kaplan)
Kim Jong-il, the pygmy tyrant of North Korea, is dead at the age of 69. His 28-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, now assumes the throne of Pyongyang. According to various press analyses, the new leader is either a bumbling naïf or a clever, multilingual operator who’s already formed alliances with key generals. He will either push market reforms or preserve the status quo. He will reach out to the West or step up confrontation or do neither.Kaplan nevertheless manages to offer an intelligent and illuminating discussion of some likely possibilities and dangers for the near future, based mostly on analyzing the historical record. You can read it here.
Here’s the real answer: We really don’t know much of anything.
And by “we,” I don’t mean just the pundits. A few years ago, when the elder Kim was said to have suffered a stroke, and rumors churned of a succession crisis, I asked a fairly senior U.S. official whether even our intelligence agencies had much insight into the dynamics of internal North Korean politics. The official replied, “No.” [....]
In its foreign relations, the North Korean regime has always pursued a deliberate strategy of provocative belligerence, brinksmanship, and unpredictability, recently augmented by nuclear blackmail. This strategy has paid off in significant ways, and turned some of its intrinsic weaknesses into negotiating strengths, so it is likely to continue. The results are uncertain, though, and the stakes are, as Kaplan says, scary. Some highlights below.
Monday, Dec. 19, 2011
Will North Korea Stay Crazy?
We know practically nothing about its new leader and what he might do. That’s scary.
By Fred Kaplan
Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, says the regime’s politics are similar to the Soviet Union’s under Stalin, with one important difference: They are overlaid with a dynastic element, which underlies the ruling party’s claim to legitimacy.
Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-il’s father, was the first leader of North Korea, beginning in 1945, when the peninsula was split into two nations, the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea in the south. He was a guerrilla fighter, battling against Japan in the Second World War. Afterward, he mythologized his record into that of a “Great Leader” (his nickname forever after) whose triumphs secured Korea’s independence. Since then, the Korean Workers’ Party, the Kim family, and a nationalist ideology of Kim Il Sung’s invention have survived as the inseparable elements of a single package.
This package ensured Kim Jong-il’s ascension to the throne after Kim Il Sung died in 1994. And it will probably ensure that Kim Jong-un is at least given a lot of leeway.
There is, however, a difference between the two successors. Kim Jong-il was 52 when he succeeded his father. He’d been groomed for office, and had held senior posts in the party and the regime for a quarter-century. By contrast, Kim Jong-un was a total unknown until January 2009, when suddenly his father designated him as the successor. (Kim had two older sons, but they were deemed unsuitable; one had stirred a scandal by trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport, so he could visit Disneyland.) The following spring, Jong-un, despite a lack of military experience, was appointed to the National Defense Commission. In October 2010, he was elevated to the commission’s vice chairman with the rank of four-star general.
When Kim Jong-il became leader, he continued his father’s policies and displayed a similar shrewdness for handling power. Kim Il Sung had regarded North Korea as a “guerrilla state” that would operate—as Scott Snyder put it in Negotiating on the Edge, a brilliant book about the Kims’ diplomatic style—as “a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything.” Kim also (rightly) saw North Korea as “a shrimp among whales,” and so maximized his leverage by playing the whales—the much larger, often hostile nations all around him—off one another. One way of doing that was to sow an atmosphere of constant “drama and catastrophe,” which also served to rationalize his repressive domestic policies.
Kim Jong-il played this weak hand no less capably than did his father, threatening to launch wars, build and fire nuclear weapons, unleash terror of various kinds—using the threats as blackmail to obtain much-needed economic assistance, in the form of food, electrical power plants, or (through various banking schemes, which went unexamined for many years) hard currency.
The Kims were particularly agile at playing their great neighbor, and at the moment best ally, China. In recent years, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have tried to persuade the Chinese to join them pressuring North Korea—through sanctions and other means—to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. Nearly all of North Korea’s trade comes through China. [JW: And North Korea relies on substantial Chinese subsidies to keep going.] If anyone has leverage over Pyongyang on these matters, it’s the leaders of Beijing.
But the Chinese are willing to go down this road only so far. They have no interest in seeing North Korea build a substantial atomic arsenal. Yet they have even less interest in seeing its regime collapse, which would probably send millions of North Koreans dashing for the Chinese border, creating a humanitarian crisis that Beijing has no desire or ability to deal with. [....]
When Barack Obama entered the White House, he was initially interested in resuming serious talks with the North Koreans. But now Kim Jong-il was resistant. It soon became clear that talking with the North Koreans was pointless and that the best thing to do was simply to ignore their antics, stop playing their game.
But the North Koreans do have nukes, perhaps as many as a dozen (even though they’ve tested only two bombs, each of very small explosive yield). They are working on missiles (even if all three of their long-range missile tests have fizzled). An unstable country with these sorts of things can’t be ignored for very long. Nor can it simply be bombarded. As the Joint Chiefs made clear to Clinton and Bush, when they entertained the notion, we don’t know where all their facilities are, and they have a few thousand artillery rockets near the South Korean border, which they might fire at Seoul in retaliation, easily killing 1 million or more civilians.
At some point, then, the game will start again. What the stakes and tactics will be, no one knows. Much of what happens will depend on a dynastic inheritor, not yet 30 years of age, about whose character, style, disposition, intelligence, and just about everything else, we know very little. That’s nerve-wracking.
If North Korea’s new leader is smart, he will play on that fact. He will, at certain key moments, behave like a loon. And that will raise two further questions: Is the craziness strategic, or is it real? And which of those two possibilities is more dangerous?