How Long Can the Kim Dynasty Last?

What would you do if you were Kim Jong-un, or indeed the relatives seen by some as the power now behind the North Korean throne? Alternatively, what would you do if you were a top general who was outwardly loyal to the Kims but secretly harbored a burning hatred of the dynasty or were simply ruthless and ambitious? Or were a family member removed from power but with friends in high military places?

It is easy enough to condemn the late Kim Jong-il and indeed the whole Pyongyang set-up as a tyranny which has simultaneously oppressed and starved its people to an almost unique degree to sustain a regime which uses the crudest nationalism as its cover. But condemnation offers no guidance to those actually in power, or near power, in Pyongyang as to how to change without inviting their own instant destruction.

As things are, it seems unlikely that such a brutal and secretive dynastic regime can end in any way other than bloodshed. A popular uprising is perhaps possible but a more likely scenario is an elite revolt which sees the assassination of as many Kim relatives as necessary to kill the mythology that the family has built around itself. As often in closed regime, rivalries are settled by assassination or execution.

For outsiders, even the US, to make relatively friendly noises towards the new leader makes sense, but it is probably wishful thinking to expect Kim Jong-un and his immediate advisers to harbor any reform notions. A Swiss education, as enjoyed by Jong-un, is probably irrelevant to the palace politics of Pyongyang and the consensus that Kim Jong-il seems to have tried to build knowing that he would probably die relatively young. Even if they do not believe their own propaganda, the Kims surely know that preserving the status quo is their easiest option. They have their bomb as a bargaining chip with the outside world. They have grudging Chinese support. And they have good reason not to follow the Chinese or Vietnamese path of combining economic opening with one party rule. They know full well that significant economic opening must mean being swamped either by South Korean capital and industry, or becoming little more than a province of China. A market economy will undermine the role of the army as well as the party.

Their biggest problem however is the unique one they have created for themselves: the dynastic mythology. No other country has seen this combination of a quasi-Leninist party with dynasty worship which makes Thailand’s veneration of its royals, however badly behaved, seem modest. Economic change must not only open the country to capitalist and market methods but make the Kims claims as laughable to North Koreans as they are to the outside world.

Certainly, change for North Korea would be very much easier if the interests of the family could somehow be detached from those of the army and party without undermining the whole system. But already the propaganda machine is busy creating more myths about the genius and accomplishments of the pudgy 28-year-old now proclaimed as leader. Could he have the sense and power to deny this adulation, end the dynasty and allow someone else to climb to the top? It seems unlikely but perhaps there are pragmatists in the regime who can gradually move the system away from family infallibility to something more like other mature communist regimes.

However, it would surely be a lot easier if the Kims were to be booted out by an internal coup. The 70-plus-year-olds of Kim Jong-il’s generation and earlier may feel no need for change. But younger members of the elite must surely look to their own future and recognize that ultimately the system is unsustainable and that their own chances of surviving and prospering lie with trying to change before it is too late. They may see a need to sacrifice much of their political power and the privileged position of a tiny elite for the mix of political influence and money power achieved by their counterparts in China.

They do have two weapons at their disposal. The first is the nuclear bomb which the nation will not totally forsake but can be fenced by enough inspections and safeguards as to satisfy even the Americans. In return they could get the prize of US recognition and even some aid. The second is the nationalism that they have always worn on their sleeve, the pretence that they, not the South, have always been the guardians of Korean identity and self-reliance. This is of course largely a lie given their years of dependence first on the Soviet Union and then on China. Yet they do, as China has repeatedly found, have a core of almost fanatical nationalism which is constantly fed by the propaganda machine. The main enemies are of course the US and Japan but the Russians are now regarded as false friends and the Chinese with suspicion and little gratitude.

The regime’s place in Korean history can perhaps only be saved if it finds a way to move toward Korean unification. The almost equally nationalist South Koreans would forgive much if the Pyongyang regime was to accept a gradual unification timetable which not only kept the North’s elite alive and out of jail but got them government posts, board seats and all the perks of the advanced, outward looking economy that a united Korea could be within just a few years. Unification need not be the economic horror story often presented as a major obstacle. South Korean capital and skills could revive the North’s economy very quickly and many Korean factories in China relocated to the North. Even China, Japan, Russia and the US might all welcome a Korea which was united and neutralized in place of a division which has long been a source of potential conflict which could drag in outside powers.

It is even possible that Kim Jong-un and his relatives could negotiate such a transformation in the name of the dynasty’s founding father Kim Il-sung. Re-writing history and varying interpretations of nationalism come easily enough in a Korea where the North’s inspiration, Kim Il-sung was a Russian stooge and the South’s best known president, Park Chung-hee an officer in the Japanese army. For now though, the Kim dynasty is the main barrier to Korean unification.