In his new year’s speech, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak claimed that the Korean peninsula was at a “turning point” and that there were “opportunities for change.” While he did not state this explicitly, he was clearly referring to the recent death of Kim Jong Il, the controversial despot of North Korea who ascended to power in 1994. Since Kim’s death last month, the whole world has turned its eyes to the politically isolated country of North Korea and held its breath in anticipation of the arrival of its next leader, Kim Jong Un.
Countless media outlets and diplomats, including former US envoy to North Korea Steven Bosworth, have become optimistic about a potential change in North Korea’s previously belligerent stance toward nuclear weapons and a revival of six party talks aimed at achieving denuclearization. However, such optimistism about a mysterious country with such unpredictable domestic politics is naive, particularly considering the role of communist party bureaucracy and the army. Although the death of Kim Jong Il and the ascension of a young, inexperienced Kim Jong Un has given the world hope for a less belligerent North Korea and a new era of East Asian politics, we should take a less optimistic outlook as the new regime’s stance on nuclear weapons and food aid is unlikely to change.
A Stagnant Government
To begin, three levels of North Korean society will refuse to change despite the succession of Kim Jong Un– the government, the army and the people. A similar wave of hope swept the world in 1994 when Kim Jong Il assumed power following the death of his father Kim Il Sung, who continues to rule North Korea from his grave as its “Great Leader” and “President”. But Kim Jong Il did not foster the expected collapse of North Korea. Instead, he oversaw the death of anywhere between 900,000 to 3.5 million people in a massive famine and played a dangerous multi-decade game of using nuclear weapons to blackmail the world. The transition of power in 1994 demonstrates one thing in particular – simply changing who holds power in North Korea will not radically alter the policies of the North Korean government, because the state bureaucracy is composed of more than just the dictator. Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister, Jang Song Taek, the former’s husband, and General Ri Yong Ho, have been selected as a troika of regents for the inexperienced Kim Jong Un. Given that all three of the most important decision makers in the current regime have been long-time confidants and allies of Kim Jong Il, it seems highly unlikely that North Korean policy with be altered in the near future.
A Powerful Military
This pattern also applies to the Korean People’s Army, which wields significant sway over government policy. A group of elite generals benefit significantly from cross-border profiteering, corruption, black markets, social inequality and the mammoth USD$6 billion per annum in funding. The army is notoriously bureaucratic and incredibly stagnant, with a standing army of approximately 1 million and a reserve force of approximately 7 million. Although North Korean officials met US envoys in Geneva with interest to re-start six party talks in November 2011, powerful generals who make up the upper levels of the state bureaucracy will be unwilling to agree to a policy of denuclearization and diversion of funding from the military to agriculture, a key concession demanded by both the US and South Korea. Marcus Noland, a North Korea specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, states that North Korea’s policy is influenced much more by domestic political considerations rather than “punishments and rewards” from abroad. International interference has never succeeded in altering North Korean policy, as demonstrated by Kim Jong Il’s reneging on 1994’s “Agreed Framework” with the Clinton Administration, a proposal which stipulated that North Korea would eliminate its nuclear facilities in exchange for two light water reactors from the US. Kim Jong Il also pulled out of six party talks in 2008, and US sanctions have consistently failed in influencing his regime. While diplomats from China, Japan, South Korea, and America should continue to focus on coordinating their efforts on negotiating with North Korea on denuclearization in exchange for aid, past experience indicates that the military ultimately overrides international influence. North Korean generals have a vested interest in maintaining a huge state military without focusing on alleviating famine, a strategy which will preserve the status quo regardless of how diplomats try to tinker with the new regime.
A Scared People
Finally, the new regime’s policies will remain unaltered due to lack of pressure from the people of North Korea. Immediately following the death of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s KCNA News Agency released videos of distraught North Koreans weeping and moaning as the news of the death of their “dear leader” broke. Although it remains unclear how much of the mourning was orchestrated, visitors to the country report that a large degree of the reverence towards the Kim family is genuine. Kim Il Sung in particular still commands a large base of hero-worship given his role in freeing North Korea from the Japanese and from fighting back against the Americans during the Korean War. North Korean society has also undergone decades of indoctrination and have embraced the idea of “juche”, or North Korean autonomy. If anything, society is paralyzed by a fear of the regime given that one in twenty of the country’s 23 million people have passed through the country’s gulags. Even if North Koreans wanted change in the form of government reform, there are few tools that might enable them to mobilize. The population is too rural to allow people to coordinate themselves into organized groups, and a brutally effective state-wide system of repression courtesy of the state police and army is in place. The most outstanding piece of evidence for the above is simply that Kim Jong Il, a brutal and merciless tyrant, was allowed to die peacefully and of natural causes. Given the amount of misery he inflicted upon his people, it is obvious that in the case of North Korea, misery does not breed revolt.
Structural vs Voluntary Changes
If anything, Kim Jong Un may feel the need to do something radical and belligerent in order to assert himself as the new leader of North Korea. Despite having 14 years of preparation for his job under his own father, Kim Jong Il spent three years in seclusion after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 in order to consolidate his power. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, has only been acknowledged by Kim Jong Il as the latter’s successor for less than two years, a very short span of time to develop ties to important players in domestic politics and establish his credibility as the next ruler of the country. Jong Un is also armed with something that Jong Il did not have in 1994 – an arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at South Korea and Japan. Kim Jong Un also helped plan attacks on South Korean targets in 2010. He also issued his first threat of war on South Korea on December 30th, stating North Korea would “smash the stronghold of the puppet forces” in the South in retaliation for “hideous crimes” committed during the mourning period for Kim Jong Il—not very promising statements from a man who carries the weight of the world’s optimism on his shoulders.
This is not to say that the prospects of gradual change in North Korea are completely dismal. The country is more likely to change due to underlying structural factors stemming from Kim Jong Il’s reign rather than because of the role played by Kim Jong Un. Although many Koreans still revere Kim Il Sung, the younger generation of North Koreans did not live through World War II or the Korean War and thus do not share the sense of common struggle for independence and national sovereignty that their parents and grandparents do. In fact, this disconnect is commonly cited as a contributing factor to the collapse of the Soviet bloc, as younger citizens could not identify with the ideology responsible for brainwashing the older generation during WWII and the early Cold War. Moreover, a middle class is developing outside the state economy. Those with relatives in China and South Korea are responsible for introducing imported clothing, high-heeled shoes, DVDs of South Korean dramas and mobile phones with international dialing into the country. These connections are showing an increasing number of North Koreans that the state’s description of the outside world is not wholly accurate. Hundreds of black markets have sprung up across the country in response to the failure of the state-run food allocation system. But once again, more is needed that just a discontent population and a small group of middle class traders to overturn the gargantuan bureaucracy of North Korea.
On December 30, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency declared “on this occasion, we solemnly declare with confidence that foolish politicians around the world including the puppet forces in South Korea should not expect any changes from us.” They could not have put it any better. We should take international optimism springing from the end of Kim Jong Il’s reign with a bucket of salt and expect little change from his son.