Is North Korea closer to the precipice than ever?

Being the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, this year is an opportune moment to reconsider what we thought we knew about North Korea.

In a quarter of a century, China has been changed beyond all expectations. It is now the world’s largest trading nation, has a consumer economy that has produced Alibaba – an online retailing giant with sales three times the value of Amazon’s in 2013 and which may generate the largest IPO in history, and has been largely welcomed as a team player by the international community.

North Korea, on the other hand, has only changed for the worse. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the country into famine. Rations were reduced from 700 grams a day for ordinary workers to 128 grams, with international aid supplementing the diets of the fortunate and between 800,000 and 1.5 million deaths resulting from the crisis. The regime survived and limped on, although its major ally, China, appears to be growing frustrated at being held ransom by an unreliable and unrewarding ally.

A new leader has instituted a crackdown

The sudden death in 2011 of Kim Jong-il and his replacement by a Western-educated son with a penchant for basketball and movies raised hopes for a change in direction.

A North Korean nuclear testa new martial law and the purging of the upper ranks of the regime have dashed these hopes, however, and suggest that the North Korean regime is more hard-line than ever.

With that backdrop, it is as well that two well-timed events in London this week have shone new light on the changes observed in North Korea since Kim Jong-un‘s accession to the supreme leadership. John Everard, a former UK ambassador to North Korea, and Paul French, a writer and analyst of the country, spoke at both of Asia House’s Asian Literary Festival and the Frontline Club’s hosting of defector Jang Jin-sung. Jang, a former poet laureate for the regime, fled for his life after a South Korean magazine he lent to a friend disappeared.

The basis of the regime’s legitimacy has changed

In 2012 it was revealed that portraits of Marx and Lenin had been removed from the main square of Pyongyang. According to Everard, this was the final stage in the gradual eradication of communism from the regime’s constitution. In its place has been substituted a form of Korean nationalism centred on the concept of Juche, first created by Kim Il-sung in the 1950s and refined by his successor. With North Korea’s three leaders are part of the same dynasty that was perceived as liberating the country from Japanese colonialism, and inside its borders, the war continues, according to French.

Confucian social structures and the experience of the Japanese colonial occupation have to some degree informed the political structures and attitudes prevailing in the country today. The division imposed on the Korean peninsula, the massive destruction caused by the Korean War and the impact of the Cold War have engendered an isolationist mindset and an aversion to outside powers that are used to justify internal repression.

UN Report on Human Rights in North Korea

The curious mixture of legitimacy North Korea’s leaders have derived from dynastic and party sources reinforce a personality cult around the Kims. Yet according to Jang, the latest is merely an “avatar” for power, which is located in the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD). Speaking at the Frontline Club, Jang said the OGD was responsible for appointments, adjudicating and implementing party policy, surveillance and purging and commanding the thousands-strong brigade of bodyguards who watch over the leader.

This “old boys’ network,” used by Kim Jong-Il to run North Korea after his father’s death, threatened to overrule Kim Jong-un. Until last year, the leader of the OGD was Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of Kim Jong-un who was reportedly thrown to the dogs but more likely executed by machine gun.

The regime is not reformist

French believes there are no known economic reformers in positions of power within North Korea. Despite having a nuclear programme, the regime makes no effort to connect this to the national grid, which alternates power between different sides of Pyongyang streets to preserve electricity. According to Everard, North Korea at one point constructed electricity pylons to make it appear as if that was the purpose of its nuclear programme, but satellite imagery proved that there were no cables between the pylons.

Even so, the beginnings of a rudimentary consumer culture may create an alternate source of legitimacy that will be difficult for the regime to sustain as access to information on South Korea increases (DVDs and USB sticks are sometimes used to smuggle information across the border). At that point the country could choose to scale back the resources diverted to the military or postpone its nuclear programme, which would please China but remove an important national deterrence and justification for the regime’s existence.

Change is disorientating

Prospects for real change do not seem all that bright. However, French thinks that Kim Jong-un’s efforts to create a hard-man image-making are not working. He says apparent leaks from China of plans for a post-Kim age, and renewed discussion of reunification (read: collapse) in South Korea suggests a lack of confidence in North Korea’s neighbours.

Furthermore, Kim Jong-un’s style of leadership has not been tested thoroughly. Everard says that the involvement of Dennis Rodman will have caused widespread confusion and anxiety among party cadres, who are supposed to imitate their leader.

It remains to be seen whether the inimitable Mr Kim can lead his country in other ways.

 

The Frontline Club discussion is well-worth watching:

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