North Korea appears to be continuing its slow, steady recovery from the depth of the leadership crisis that began when Kim Jong-Il died on Nov. 17, 2011. The unexpected stability brought on by the new young leader, Kim Jong-un, now 30, is confounding those who expected an apocalyptic collapse. The North’s controversial missile and nuclear weapons programs continue to develop in the face of global sanctions that continue to weaken over time.
Much of the North Korea watchers’ wishful thinking eventually fogged the windows. However, here is my own analysis on the four hypotheses about the North Korean leadership in the making.
First, the theory that Kim Jong-un’s age and lack of experience would shorten the life of the regime is wrong. It was at the age of 36 that Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, established the regime in 1948 with the full support from the Soviet Union. In case of Kim Jong-il, he was already unanimously anointed as official successor by the Korean Workers’ Party in February 1974 at age 34.
At the moment of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-un was already a four-star general as well as a vice chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. Soon after his father’s sudden death, Jong-un became Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and acquired the title of Supreme Leader. Although young, he is not without experience and he is backed by the same cadres that were in place around his father
Kim Jong-un is being well-trained by a trio of advisors that includes Kim Kyong-hee, Kim Jong-il’s sister and Kim Jong-un’s aunt; Jang Song-thaek, Mrs. Kim’s husband; and Choe Ryong-hae, Mr. Jang’s trusted ally. It thus is safe to say that Kim Jong-un’s familial connections, plus his personal traits, although exaggerated by propaganda in an attempt to create a combination of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il images, make him seem a good choice to North Koreans, delivered with a healthy dose of aggrandizement.
Second, there is a perception that Kim Jong-un is a leader with a reform mindset. Not necessarily. While some assume his well-publicized high school life in Switzerland gave him a wider perspective, the mere exposure to a Western education is not enough to explain the claim, any more than it civilized the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who studied in the United Kingdom where he met his current wife, who had worked at JP Morgan after graduating from King’s College.
Jang Song-thaek is regarded as ‘more flexible’ than others inside the North Korean government, but he is reportedly facing huge pressure because of his arrogant and capricious attitude with regard to economic policy. Regardless of the domestic feud, however, it is certain that reform and openness should function to right a disastrously distorted economy. It remains to be seen if Jang has the political muscle to push through reform.
Third is the assumption that China would never abandon North Korea. That is half-correct. As a longstanding ideological ally of North Korea, China has become an advocate of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. In fact the US and China together could fashion a competitive power-sharing arrangement in the course of Korean unification.
Beijing often throws its powerful economic weight behind the Kim regime in Pyongyang, since its advantage in North Korea is economic rather than military. China has traditionally regarded North Korea as a buffer in its broader strategy to counterbalance US threats in Northeast Asia. In truth, China still considers the US to be its most significant threat in the region.
On top of this, North Korea has succeeded in effectively thwarting South Korean and American efforts to freeze the nuclear program. While assisting the Kim regime in one way or another, China has been reluctant to make a decisive attempt to cut off the regime’s lifeline.
But while Pyongyang and Beijing still share common ground going back to the start of Kim Il-Sung’s rule in 1948, the differences in worldview of the new Chinese president Xi Jinping, 59, and Kim Jong-un will inevitably generate a chasm on many issues ranging from the economy to denuclearization of the peninsula. In highly sensitive discussions in February 2010, the then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told the Seoul-based US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that “younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regard North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula,” according to a secret cable to Washington.
That is an indication that Xi’s China can no longer turn a blind eye to the increasing risk of a nuclear confrontation, which runs counter to China’s interest in longer terms of ‘peaceful rise,’ as if Deng Xiaoping’s unflinching courage toward reform and openness were necessary to free China from the yoke of its past.
South Korea has invested considerable diplomatic capital in China, trying to cultivating a closer relationship with the new leadership. To this sense, Xi could call for Pyongyang to adopt change, as
Mikhail Gorbachev did of Erich Honecker, then East Germany’s president at the 40th anniversary of East Germany in 1989. Although no communist leader on the planet today wants to be compared with Gorbachev, the stolid Honecker, who ignored the warning, decisively widened the crack in the Berlin Wall over the long run.
Fourth, nuclear weapons are said to be without a doubt the last bastion of the North Korean regime. regime. That is flat-out wrong. “The moment that North Korea gives up the nuclear weapons, it becomes the Congo without the diamonds” is an overused cliché. On the contrary, the north’s nuclear weapons are nothing more than a reminder of death that the regime cannot avoid despite the fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is not an end in itself but rather one of the strategies they manipulate in order to maintain regime survival.
Furthermore, as North Korea has already successfully developed a small number of nuclear weapons, according to nuclear security experts, it would be difficult if not impossible for the US or even China to disable the nukes by force. In other words, North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced far enough for the country to have the relevant knowledge from peaceful and military purposes of nuclear materials and technologies. In reality, destroying this know-how, part of which is easily found on the Internet, is almost impossible. So the key for the denuclearization of North Korea is to put all that capability in a box with a sign and a picture of ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement’ on it.
It is generally accepted that China is imperceptibly moving toward the denuclearization of the peninsula. It is a leap of faith to assume that forsaking nuclear weapons would displace the broken regime. The now-defunct Soviet Union offered a good example. Seoul and Washington should encourage North Korea to learn from Kazakhstan which voluntarily gave up 116 nuclear bombs, not to mention the Old Soviet’s example. Kazakhstan’s experience makes it clear that nations can reap huge benefits from turning their backs on nuclear weapons. To wit, the US and South Korea need to help make the nuclear armed North Korea feel secure without them.
To be sure, the nuclear weapons program is the last nail in the Kim regime’s coffin, given that the security of nuclear materials and nuclear weapons is still high on the agenda of the Obama administration. Implementing engagement under a spectrum of sanctions, committing extended deterrence and holding multilateral negotiations has failed to strengthen the mutual trust between South Korea-America and North Korea. The challenge facing us is how to convince North Korea that the denuclearization of North Korea is not a zero-sum game, where if it’s achieved , North Korea’s regime would collapse.
For the past years, critics of the Six-Party Talks, which have been stalled since 2008, are fond of warning that the region was headed in the wrong direction as US diplomacy has been paralyzed by the rhetoric of “strategic patience.” Undeniably, such rhetoric has prevented the Obama administration’s policy makers from creating sound strategic thinking by suspending the engagement with North Korea on the one hand and on the other, by entering the preliminary meeting for the Six-Party Talks with maximalist positions.
At the same time, North Korea has acidified the inter-Korean relationship with a series of provocative behaviors such as the sinking of a South Korean corvette in March 2010 and the shelling of an island off South Korea in November the same year. These took place in an era of Kim Jong-il.
Several years ago, a well-known South Korean poet published a collection of poems titled To the Pigs, which mockingly likened the North Korean leaders to hogs. Many Koreans on the street had anticipated that the unification would be peacefully achieved in the event that these greedy and cunning pigs disappeared. Two of the three have died unexpectedly. The third is far younger than the grandfather and the father pigs, which means that Kim Jong-un has more days to live than the days he spent.
It thus is unlikely that the chubby young leader would die suddenly, even though there are some economic and political bombs hidden in the regime. Of course, a power struggle would be a catastrophe for a bleak regime in economic quicksand.
We can guess how the game ends. Assuming North Korea opts to make a dash for nuclear bombs, the right-leaning Park Geun-hye government of South Korea should quickly make a thorough and comprehensive analysis on how to deal with the youngest pig.
(Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)