Futility and North Korea

Many pundits have spent the past several years writing obituaries for the demise of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, as they did in 1994 when the founder and "Great Leader," Kim Il-sung, died unexpectedly at an exclusive summer vacation villa. The founder's sudden death reinforced the belief that the communist regime would be sooner or later replaced in one way or another.

But that was then. Today, no one can credibly say that the North, led by the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, will be gone any time soon. Instead, the pundits who insisted on the end of the Kims are moving toward consensus on the continued existence of a tyrannical regime where freedom of information, assembly, and expression are banned. There is expected to be another Kim "Leader" of some sort.

Right after the death of the founder, Kim Jong-il consolidated his political power in a very few hands who are fanatically loyal. Like the ‘Great Leader,' Kim Jong-il has ruled the country as if it were his private estate. He has jailed, tortured and killed his political opponents. Nonetheless, his hold on power has rarely been threatened although there have been small groups of dissidents. On April 22, 2004, there was a deadly train explosion at Ryongcheon that was obviously an intended assassination. Kim escaped the explosion as his train had passed through just a few hours before the attempted blast. Given that riots are not common in the North, it seemed inevitable that a small but important opposition of this kind would eventually force Kim's merry men to resort to brutal and effective repression.

South Korean intelligence institutions after the assassination attempt began to theorize that an orderly succession might be difficult for any of Kim's sons---Jong-nam, Jong-cheol, and Jong-un---without offering detailed explanations. While the idea is unthinkable that one of the world's most brutal regimes could be overthrown by unarmed men and women with knowledge that many of them might be killed, there does seem to be serious domestic threat or political opposition.

As has been widely reported, Kim, 68, is in bad health and protected by an elaborate security apparatus. There is little doubt that it is unlikely that he will rule into the year of 2012, the target year for achieving a so-called ‘Strong and Prosperous Country,' let alone the next decade. Still, the armed forces remain loyal and willing to carry out his orders. At every critical moment in the succession process, as in the past, Kim and his lieutenants have sought to plunge the South Korean government into a politically dangerous situation to distract it. The most recent example is the sinking in March of the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan.

While the United Nations Security Council is debating how to reprimand North Korea, few people in Seoul believe that any UN statement would help shorten the life of the enigmatic Kim or of the administration to the north. Seoul knows the Council's turf well, since China, one of the powerful veto-holding countries, has already explicitly and implicitly refused to cooperate with South Korea in sanctioning the North. In any case, Kim appears to be binding resolution-impervious. The United Nations imposed "unprecedented" travel and trade sanctions on the north in 2006 over its nuclear testing adventurism, and again in 2009, calling on all members of the international community to stop and search North Korea's ships for weapons.

South Korea is trying to deal with the North's attack in the context of a more global approach, whereas China is watering it down, describing the situation in purely inter-Korean terms. It's natural that South Korean military officers feel intimidated by China's arrogant but sophisticated statements, which amount to "South Korea should not sweat the small stuff." In diplomat-speak, that's a warning shot on the one hand. On the other, that's a diplomatic coming-out to declare that Beijing is Pyongyang's most reliable ally in the UN debate.

Much encouraged, North Korea has been faxing point-to-point rebuttals of the South Korean investigation into the sinking to a large number of liberal non-governmental and religious organizations in the South so as to seek to use the Cheonan case to its advantage. The North's propaganda tactic is as usual, placing the blame on its opponents or denying its involvement in unacceptable casuistry. It's no different this time.

This is upsetting to many moderate and conservative South Koreans. The hardcore conservative government of Lee Myung-bak, which has been busy calculating how tough to be, must be in a dilemma over whether to continue to work with the police state to the north. Disappointed that its investigative conclusions are being taken by Beijing as a snub, Seoul will highly likely be forced to opt for a tactical retreat. The Lee government will, it seems, focus upon its primary effort to force the dirt-poor North to get out of the nuclear business.

There's no way of knowing what will happen in North Korea after Kim dies. Inclusion of a regime-change scenario in the classified North Korea contingency plan is sure to rankle cronies on Kim's flank. Assuming their aim is not to take on the North's dependency in the wake of a collapse, Seoul and Washington must come up with a solution of engagement based on a diplomacy-is-better-than-sanctions strategy rather than letting the intelligence analysts write obituaries for Kim or his regime. He isn't going anywhere.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for peace and Cooperation in Seoul.