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North Korea’s recent nuclear brinkmanship is a sign not of strength but of weakness. No matter how hard this Communist dynasty tries to conceal this fact from the outside world, problems at home — especially strains within the regime itself — are an important factor behind its aggressive external behavior.
The regime’s current woes are largely the handiwork of Kim Jong-il, who died almost a year and a half ago. He was not just a bad ruler, but a disastrous one. He was the mastermind behind the epic failure of North Korea’s economy, which, on his watch, recorded the worst performance of any industrialized state. And he was the architect of the only peacetime famine ever to befall an urban, literate society. Most of that disaster’s victims were officially designated members of “hostile classes,” or enemies of the state, so the regime hardly mourned their deaths. But Kim Jong-il’s tenure was ruinous for the entire regime, including his presumptive legatees.
“Kim Jong-il …was the mastermind behind the epic failure of North Korea’s economy, which, on his watch, recorded the worst performance of any industrialized state. And he was the architect of the only peacetime famine ever to befall an urban, literate society.”-Nicholas Eberstadt
More so even than Stalin or Mao, in his self-aggrandizing quest for absolute power, Kim Jong-il gutted the machinery of the state. At the height of his powers, his government was more or less deinstitutionalized: Its operations followed neither the Constitution nor the charter of the Workers’ Party of Korea; it relied instead on the Indispensable One, his inner circle and the secret police.
No less egregious for a dynastic ruler, Kim Jong-il botched his own succession. He, himself, was groomed for command for nearly one-quarter century before the death of his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. Yet the “Dear Leader” did not even bother naming an heir until he was incapacitated by a stroke in late 2008. His choice, the current twenty-something ruler Kim Jong-un, was hastily put onto the public stage in 2010, the year before Kim Jong-il’s death.
Small wonder, then, that Kim Jong-il seems to be universally (if secretly) loathed by North Korea’s elites, who blame him for bequeathing a mess to the nation. Kim Jong-un almost acknowledged as much last July, when in a speech to the party’s Central Committee he said that North Korean officials still had “a poor understanding” of his late father’s “patriotism.”
Kim Jong-un’s striking physical resemblance to Kim Il-sung may help him distance himself from his father’s direct legacy, but he won’t be able to solve the problems he has inherited just by mimicking his grandfather’s stirring style of public speaking. Among those challenges, the most immediate is securing the throne and the state.
The throne is not exactly uncontested. Kim Jong-un has two older brothers, and the eldest, Kim Jong-nam, has publicly denounced the last transfer of power. No less problematic is the de facto regency led by Kim Jong-un’s uncle (Jang Song-thaek) and aunt (Kim Kyong-hui), under which the young monarch is being groomed. The two have a son — who is also, it follows, a grandson of Kim Il-sung and therefore a potential contender for the throne in the event of Kim Jong-un’s demise. The boy king’s announcement last year that he is married, and the fact that his wife is apparently pregnant, can be regarded partly as a life insurance policy.
Then there is the matter of securing the state itself. Not only must Kim Jong-il’s arbitrary, personality-driven style of rule be abandoned, but the institutional machinery to support an unfamiliar and untested new Sun God must be systematically rebuilt. Thus the re-emergence of the Workers’ Party from the shadows, and the government’s halting moves back toward a more “scientific” or pragmatic version of Communist economic planning.
Securing the state has entailed some recent personnel changes at the very highest levels. Three of the seven men accompanying Kim Jong-un alongside Kim Jong-il’s hearse during the funeral procession (Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho; Kim Yong-chun, the defense minister; and U Tong-chuk, the director of the secret police) have since suffered severe cases of political ill-health: demotion, eclipse and, in the case of Ri, disappearance and possibly death. They were all military men, which has led some foreign observers to ascribe their downfall to the perennial contest between hard-liners and moderates supposedly taking place within North Korea. More likely, these developments are proof that the party is reasserting its choke chain on the military and the state’s security organs. The last thing a totalitarian dynasty needs, after all, is a semi-independent military with ideas of its own.
North Korea has international objectives in its crisis-mongering. But Pyongyang’s nuclear saber-rattling is also stage-managed to enhance the young ruler’s authority and legitimacy at home. North Korea’s state-run media go out of their way to refer to Kim Jong-un as the “Dear Respected Leader.” Given the Orwellian logic of Pyongyang’s propaganda, this should be taken as a strong hint that the boy king is neither dear nor respected in his own land. The current nuclear drama is a ploy to change all that.
This is precisely the reason why Western governments should curb their impulse to reduce tensions with Pyongyang through high-level negotiations. Any such diplomatic pageantry would inevitably be trumpeted in North Korea as the self-abnegation of its foreign foes, a triumph that would ratify Dear Respected Leader Kim Jong-un’s glorious leadership. He should not be given that gift. In fact, nothing should be done to confer on him the international status he so desperately seeks.
Western leaders should also forget about trying to devise face-saving solutions for the regime. For decades the knowledge that it could act provocatively at any time and at little cost has whetted the North Korean leadership’s appetite for foreign adventurism. Letting Pyongyang know that its provocations may now result in losses, and potentially destabilizing ones, could help change the regime’s calculations. It could discourage North Korea from resorting to international military extortion, today and in the future.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, and is the author of “The North Korean Economy Between Crisis and Catastrophe.”
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