Explaining North Korea
What is Kim Jong Un up to?
While North Korea’s rhetoric is routinely over-the-top, the propagandists of the ruling Korean Workers Party have really outdone themselves this time. Declaring that the North is now in “a state of war” with the South, they have produced a video supposedly depicting their plan of attack complete with special effects and appallingly bad graphics – and are even threatening to attack the continental United States!
This last threat is nonsense, of course, since even their medium-range missiles routinely crash and burn: and a recent photograph showing Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un sitting at a pretty retro-looking computer console resembled something out of the 1950s. Indeed, the photo provoked a Twitter comment from the Wall Street Journal‘s Tom Gara: “North Korea appears to have crossed a dangerous threshold and developed a fully-functioning calculator.”
In Seoul, they are so used to North Korean bellicosity that the response was practically soporific. A South China Post story headlined “Seoul Shrugs Off War Rhetoric from North Korea” reported:
“In Seoul, the Unification Ministry insisted the war threat was ‘not really new.’ The Defense Ministry vowed to ‘retaliate thoroughly’ to any provocation. The United States said it took the announcement seriously, but noted it followed a familiar pattern.”
A familiar pattern indeed: endless bombast, followed by … nothing of much consequence.
The rhetorical hysteria coming out of North Korea is par for the course: this is, after all, the country’s chief (and only) export. Washington knows full well Pyongyang has neither the means nor the intention to attack the United States, in spite of the comic-opera threats – and yet we’re acting as if the threat is real. In response, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that we’re beefing up our missile defenses on the West Coast – “just in case.” Scheduled US-South Korean military exercises featured nuclear-capable jets “mock bombing” North Korea – a provocation that ignited a sulphurous response from Pyongyang.
The US has stood squarely in the way of all real peace efforts on the Korean peninsula: when it looked as if the South Koreans were taking the prospect of reunification with the North seriously, Washington put the kibosh on the process. Now that the daughter of a former South Korean dictator has been elevated to the South Korean presidency, prospects of a renewal of the initiative are remote. In this context, Washington’s routine provocations have a much bigger effect on the North, which sees itself in an impossible situation. The Hermit Kingdom is poorer, and more isolated than ever, and this has produced the internal dynamics that are driving the actions of the North Korean elite.
Little is known of internal political developments in the North, but the transition from one Supreme Leader to the next is surely problematic in any authoritarian system – and doubly so in a “communist” monarchy. There has long been tension between the ruling Korean Workers Party and the North Korean military, and apparently this ratcheted up to an unusual degree last year with reports of an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un, culminating in a gun battle in the streets of Pyongyang.
The atmosphere of crisis generated by the North Korean media, and the government’s wildly belligerent pronouncements, in all likelihood have to do with the internal political situation, and bears little if any relation to events outside the country. North Korea’s “military first” policy, which puts military procurement ahead of economic development, has been costly: there are reports of a looming famine this month. As economic conditions worsen, the stability of the regime may be put at risk, in which case Kim Jong Un will need the military to back him up. The recent fall – and sudden rehabilitation – of Gen. Kim Yong Chol, head of the increasingly important Reconnaissance General Bureau, may be a clue to the regime’s murky internal conflicts. Another clue is the position of Jang Sung Taek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, which has displaced the Workers Party as the top administrative and policymaking body of the North Korean state. Charged with mentoring Kim Jong Un by the elder Kim, Taek is married to the little dictator’s aunt and is considered the regime’s number two man. He is widely seen as an ally of China’s, whose economic policies he hopes to import back to his own country.
Behind the monolithic imagery of thousands of North Koreans marching in unison, and of a totalitarian society rivaled only by the one imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the reality is that North Korean society is riven with fault-lines through and through. Historically, there have been no less than four major factions inside the ruling Korean Workers Party (KWP), with internal battles between pro-Chinese, pro-Russian, and North and South Korean factions playing out over many years.
It now appears that the new factional fault-lines are those separating the Party from the military: the latter effectively became the highest policymaking body in 1998, when Kim Jong Il was establishing his legitimacy as the heir of the world’s first red monarch, his father Kim Il Sung. The North Korean “constitution” was changed to downplay the role of the Party and ensure the supremacy of the National Defense Commission (NDC), where the military held a majority of seats: the idea was to neutralize any opposition to the succession within the KWP by simply ditching the “leading role” of the Party in favor of a de facto military junta. Known as the songun system, this may now be giving way to a restoration of a party-centered government, based on the Chinese model. Jang Sung Taek is also associated with certain economic reforms, which were reined in at one point and may now be back in the works.
So how does this “reformist” scenario fit in with Pyongyang’s growing belligerence?
For more than half a century, the North Korean propaganda machine has been pointing to the danger posed by the Yankee imperialists and their running-dog lackeys – to borrow their rhetoric for the moment – as the cause of all the nation’s problems. The waves of famine, the lack of housing, the dearth of electricity, the endless crackdowns – Pyongyang’s long-suffering subjects were told all this was due to the machinations of Washington, and its South Korean “puppets,” who are constantly plotting to conquer the North. However, that story doesn’t play so well anymore: the reality of the outside world is getting through, in spite of the secret police’s best efforts. Worse, from the regime’s perspective, is that economic conditions threaten the government’s legitimacy at a crucial moment of transition.
Kim Jong Il’s bellicosity, in this context, can be seen as being for internal consumption primarily, and only secondarily as a response to Western pressure. On the one hand, numerous photo ops showing the young Kim in his role as military commander can be seen as a message to the people that he’s in control, that he’s a military “genius” just like his sainted father – and that the threat from the US has never been greater. On the other hand, the fierce rhetoric can be seen as an effort to appease the military, even as he and his uncle dismantle the songsun system and restore the KWP to power.
The antics of North Korea’s rulers are a perfect illustration of the principles of what I call “libertarian realism,” i.e. a theory of international relations that attributes the actions of states in the international arena entirely to the internal politics of the actors. Instead of responding to real events abroad, policymakers are chiefly concerned with responding to pressures from various lobbyists and domestic power brokers. This is because their one overriding goal is to maintain and expand their own power – a goal the rulers of North Korea share with our own. It doesn’t matter what kind of system we’re talking about: dictatorships, democracies, and everything in between – all foreign policy is determined by internal political conditions, and is only peripherally concerned with what goes on outside of that context. If you wondered how it was possible that US foreign policy has become so disconnected from reality – well, now you know.
This, at any rate, is as close as we can come to understanding the seemingly crazy pronouncements coming out of Pyongyang these days. Yes, it sounds like pure madness – but rest assured there is a method in this particular madness. Taking it at face value would be a mistake, albeit one our policymakers are quite ready to make.
With all the military moves and sophisticated armaments focused on the Korean peninsula lately, the irony is that the US and South Korea refuse to wield the one weapon that could bring down the North Korean regime: the prospect of peaceful reunification. Back in the good old days of the “Sunshine Policy,” when the South Koreans seemed about to make a breakthrough and actually bring about the nonviolent reunion of the country, Washington nixed the proposal – and it’s been downhill ever since.
Denied a “soft landing,” and backed into a corner, the North Korean commies aren’t likely to succumb to military pressure: negotiation is the only way forward. And the one big sticking point is the continued presence of some 30,000 US troops in South Korea. As long as the US maintains a military presence there, the long-delayed end of the Korean war will have to be indefinitely postponed.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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