About Luc Forsyth
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This is the second part of my three part analysis of North Korea and its leadership. This section finishes examining the precarious nature of the Kim family’s reign, and the policies they follow as they struggle to keep hold of the world’s most politically isolated nation. Read part one of Understanding North Korea here. The third and final section of the article, not yet finished, will focus on the future of North Korea and possible endgame scenarios.
Thanks to Professor Andrei Lankov, whose great knowledge made this article possible.
***Note: Some people have questioned me about how I know that NK has become less repressive than in the past. This is mostly based on first hand information given to me by North Koreans who have defected to the South within the last decade. Saying it is less repressive is an extremely relative statement, but compared to past figures, the reports given to me by these people indicate a distinct change. These interviews will be published soon, and are an interesting comparison to this broader political analysis.
Let Them Eat Nukes
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have been a staple of the international press for years, with the most recent ballistic missile test dominating CNN around the clock for weeks. This coverage is, in fact, exactly what the North Korean regime wants.
Nuclear weapons mean security, and when it comes to security, the Kim family and their advisors are decidedly more paranoid than most. They have seen what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq; they are well aware that a conventional army, no matter how large, cannot stand against the United States and its allies overwhelming financial and technological superiority. And unlike in those Middle Eastern nations where the locals fight fiercely to repulse the foreign invaders, after decades of totalitarian rule the Kim family has no reason to believe that North Korea’s citizens will engage in a sustained guerilla war on their behalf.
Having watched fellow dictators around the world being steadily deposed, the North Korean regime knows that nuclear weapons alone will save them. Gaddafi’s Libya, the most recent member of the so-called “axis of evil” to be toppled, would not have fallen so easily had it been in control of a similar nuclear arsenal. The insurgency in Libya greatly depended on NATO Special Forces, intelligence, and air support, and it seems unlikely that this assistance would have been so eagerly provided had there been a threat of nuclear retaliation. Had the Libyan government possessed such weapons, “Gaddafi would probably now be enjoying a nice supper after spending a few hours in the torture chambers talking with former pro-democracy [rebels],” predicts Lankov.
The sentiment of “let them eat nukes” has been echoed somewhat ironically by political and military analysts when talking about North Korea, yet this is just what they have been doing for the last two decades. While Stalinist economies typically enjoy an initial period of success, this fades after 10 or 20 years, and once dead cannot be restarted. This is the position North Korea now finds itself in, unable to revive their economy, and on the brink of starvation.
Estimates say that between 5 and 5.5 million tonnes of grain are needed in order to keep the North Korean population alive, yet they are capable of producing only 4.2 to 4.8 million tonnes on their own. This difference has to be made up somewhere.
Enter nuclear driven blackmail. According to the World Food Organization, around 700 000 tones of grain are being supplied to North Korea annually, the bulk of which comes from the US, Japan, and South Korea – three countries which North Korea is technically at war with. Started by Kim Il Sung, a policy of agreeing to hold development of their nuclear program as long as payments continue ensures that North Korea’s enemies continue to keep it alive. North Koreans are, essentially, eating nuclear weapons.
Kill the Dissenters
Contrary to media portrayals in recent years, North Korea has actually become a less repressive place to live, according to Lankov. There are things done today that were unthinkable under the rule of Kim Il Sung. If a North Korean is caught trying to move across the border into China, they are rigorously investigated to see if they have had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries – those most often responsible for assisting defectors in reaching a safe country – but they are not automatically executed, as was common in the past.
If interrogators cannot conclusively prove that defection was intended, the punishment is “between two months and one year in prison – more or less arbitrary, depending on how much they dislike you. [Under Kim Il Sung] this would have meant five years at least and lifelong discrimination,” says Lankov. Before 1997, all family members of a suspected defector would have been sent to a prison camp and not released until, if ever, the accused was acquitted. Now, in most cases the families are not jailed, though they are harshly discriminated against and quickly removed from Pyongyang – a city reserved for the elite.
Despite these changes, North Korea is the world’s most brutal country when it comes to punishment. Various estimates put the number of prisoners at around 150 000. To put this figure into perspective, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev never had more than 1000 political prisoners at any one time, even though the population was ten times that of North Korea. Only Stalin’s Soviet Union comes close to matching North Korea’s incredible incarceration rate, a period in history synonymous with fear and cruelty.
“So, they do not tolerate dissent. And they should not,” says Lankov. “With South Korea so close and an incurable economic crisis, any attempt to tolerate dissent could lead to instability and collapse. They allow nothing that is not approved by the government, and if they want to live to be old men, they should not.”
Control the Markets
Though North Korea has not reformed, this is not to say that it has not changed. The country that Kim Jong Eun presides over is drastically different than the one his grandfather left him – the most notable difference being the market economy.
Under Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s economy was totally controlled by government distribution. Basically nothing was bought or sold for decades, which the government deciding how much food a person could eat, how often their diet included meat, and even how many pairs of shoes were issued. Modern North Korea, however, has a greatly reduced industrial output, and the government no longer has the resources to dominate the marketplace as before.
Some estimates suggest that up to 70% of North Korean household income is now derived outside the state economy and instead comes from black market sources. “It is like African capitalism,” says Lankov. “It is illegal, but many people are smuggling, [engage in] household manufacturing, or run small workshops.” Private businesses are disguised as state operations, and state officials are themselves black market traders. Officially all businesses must belong to the government, but bribery and corruption allows a private economy to exist and expand.
Obviously not desirable from a despotic regime’s point of view, this sort of grass-roots economy is dangerous in the long run as people learn that they can now make a living outside the government. Illegal markets are becoming increasingly common, and are hotbeds for the spread of rumors about the outside world and criticisms of the state. The government is, for these reasons, constantly trying to regulate and close these markets, only to have them reappear and expand. It is an economic fencing match of sorts; the government will advance slightly, and the market will counter.
To hold onto power, the North Korean regime must find a way control these markets, but not excessively so. After the disastrous 2009 currency reform, when government intervention caused the value of the North Korean won to increase 10 000% overnight, leading to mass inflation and economic collapse, they have realized that too much control could be their undoing.
This is an extremely fine and precarious line that Kim Jung Eun and his advisors must now walk, made even more difficult by a population that is becoming relatively defiant. For the first time in North Korea’s history people are ignoring government decrees regarding the market, and laws are becoming difficult to enforce. Technically men are prohibited from being merchants, and women over the age of 50 are forbidden from trading, but these regulations are widely ignored.
Though the persecution of political dissenters is still vigorously enforced, the state officials who are supposed to enforce the laws regarding economic control are sabotaging them. These low level officials are in fact making most of their income from the market traders they are tasked with repressing. According to Lankov, “If [the official] succeeds in his duty, he is limited to 540g of wheat per day. But if he takes money from the traders he can eat meat every day. Does he want to do his job? Of course not, he is human.”
Professor Andrei Lankov is the head of Korean studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, he was able to complete part of his undergraduate studies in Pyongyang as part of an educational exchange. This has given him a unique perspective on North Korea, the country that is arguably the most talked about on the news, while also being the least understood. Also a columnist for the Korea Times, I was lucky enough to hear him speak about the world’s last closed nation while photographing the third week of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights conference in Seoul.
I decided to split this article into three parts to make it a more comfortable read. Read the second part here…
Illogical. Irrational. Unpredictable. These are the kinds of words that are likely to be associated with North Korea and its dictatorial government. The infamous Kim family dynasty has been described as the world’s only remaining communist monarchy and they rule over a malnourished population, commanding an enormous military funded by a broken economy. There are few countries on earth that garner as much international curiosity as North Korea, possibly because so little is understood about it. So how have three generations of Kim males maintained control for so long? Are they as irrational and unpredictable as they may seem? What is the actually happening in North Korea and what does its present reality mean for its future?
“They are the best bunch of Machiavellians in existence,” Andrei Lankov, Professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University, says of North Korean leaders, “They know exactly what they are doing, and they have survived”. Survival, according to Lankov, appears to be the main objective of the current North Korean regime. While 20-30 years ago grand aspirations of a unified Korean peninsula under the control of Pyongyang may have existed, now it would seem that North Korea’s elite are simply trying to ensure that they are able to die comfortably in their beds at an old age. Those in power (an estimated 1-2 million of the countries approximately 25 million citizens) have become accustomed to rule and they have no desire to live out their days in exile – or worse.
One of the more remarkable things about North Korea is the fact that it still exists. Lankov remembers how people in the Soviet Union, as early as the 1980’s, were speculating on how quickly the regime would collapse. The country was economically backwards even then; survival after the death of Kim Il Sung seemed extremely unlikely. It was thought that perhaps Hungary or the former Czechoslovakia would be among the few possible Communist dictatorships able to stand the test of time, but while leaders like Tito and Husák have long since been deposed and vilified in the passages of history, the Kim family marches on. Though by relative global standards the North Korean elite cannot be considered fabulously rich, living perhaps as luxuriously as a successful Manhattan lawyer, they are certainly comfortable. And they have gotten used to their power.
With the death of his father, Kim Jong Eun now has the precarious job of maintaining his family legacy. While some speculate that his Western education in Switzerland may encourage him to reinvent North Korea following the Chinese example, there are some major obstacles he faces. According to Professor Lankov, there are four foundational principles which the Kim family has used to hold dominion since the 1970’s – No Reforms, Keep the Nukes, Kill the Dissenters (All of Them), and Control the Market.
An inexperienced and untested leader, Kim Jong Eun is heavily influenced by his advisors, many of whom are left over from his grandfather’s administration. “There is no one in the government who could be considered Kim Jong Eun’s drinking buddies. They are relics of the 60’s and 70’s and he has to follow them,” says Lankov. There is no way to know if he likes or hates this situation, but it seems clear that the same policies will continue for the foreseeable future.
There has been speculation that North Korea has been on the cusp of reform since the 1980’s, yet very little has happened. While logic might suggest that the surest way to reinvigorate the dismal North Korean economy would be to institute gradual reforms as China did after the death of Mao, there is one major obstacle standing in the way – South Korea.
In China’s case, there was no “South China” to contend with. The income gap between North Korean and South Korean citizens is estimated to be between 1:15 and 1:40. Even if the most conservative estimate is true, this is still the largest disparity in wealth of any two countries in the world which share a land border. Any reforms initiated by Kim Jong Eun would necessarily open North Korea to the outside world, exposing North Koreans to “mind-blowing pictures of South Korean success. Though South Koreans will admit that there are problems in their [own] society, from a North Korean’s view, it is a very attractive life,” asserts Lankov.
From a dictators perspective, this poses some serious problems. Unlike in China where the population was aware of the successes of the outside world, North Koreans are largely without international awareness. Most Chinese knew that countries like the United States enjoyed very different circumstances than they did, yet they did not blame their government for failing to match American prosperity. North and South Korea, however, were the same country dealing with the same circumstances until the 1960’s. Opening North Korea’s borders after roughly 50 years of isolation would lead to a veritable tidal wave of information flooding the country. Images of South Korean prosperity would reflect poorly on the North Korean regime and place the blame for their dismal situation squarely on their shoulders. North Korean citizens will certainly demand to know why they are malnourished and poor while their neighbours to the South are “rich beyond imagination”.
“Even if [North Koreans] prove to be the best geniuses in the history of economics, it will not be enough. The North Korean people will be impatient, and they will want [improved living standards] now,” says Lankov. There will be a general sentiment that if they unite with South Korea they will immediately be given the same quality of life that the South enjoys. The likely result is an aggressive push to reunify as quickly as possible and the swift deposition of the current North Korean regime. From the perspective of Kim Jong Eun and his advisors, this must be a terrifying prospect.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, it was typically the former elites who gained the most. They were experienced, wealthy, politically savvy, and they had connections. They prospered more after the dissolution of the Soviet empire than they ever could have under the communist party apparatus. This will not be the case for the elites of North Korea, who fear a vengeful South Korea.
According to Lankov, the North Koreans know how they would have treated the South Koreans had they won the war, and they have no reason to expect anything different in return. Tyrannical as they may appear to be, the elites love their families like everyone else, which is why they won’t change. They are well aware of the fate of the Gadaffi family in Libya, and they do not want to suffer the same. From their perspective, reforms essentially equal suicide.
“Find me an elite in the world who is happy about surrendering power,” says Lankov. “It is nice for us to talk about reforms while we are enjoying a latte, but for these people it is a life and death matter. Even if their chances of survival are 50%, they are not likely to take the gamble, simply because they love their families. But I put their chances well below 50%.”