On an otherwise typical day, a missile landed out of the blue in the sea. Not too close to Japan, of course; it still did not threaten the peace of the archipelago itself, but certainly it went well into its waters. Shot from the mainland, any observer unaware of Asian geopolitics would surely say that a nation was preparing to go to war. If the observer were also to be informed that it was no mere ordinary country but a nuclear state that had fired the shot, it would not be too difficult to conclude that this was a superpower.
Ironic, then, that the reality should be so different. It was no superpower that had shot the missile, a country that possessed nuclear weapons but no wealth. North Korea has never been associated with an abundance of resources, nor with prosperous cities and towns. It mattered little that its southern neighbour, split off from its northern counterpart after a bloody war sponsored by the leaders of the first and second world, was one of the richest of the world. North Korea shared not in South Korea’s wealth, for the contrast was stark. One was on the cutting edge of technology, home to the world’s most successful businesses, and a bastion of democracy. The other could not even boast of having internet access.
Through no fault of its own, however, did it end up like this- or so North Korea claimed. Oppressed by its enemy, America, North Korea had to fight to protect its very freedoms and independence. South Korea was a wilting, pale shadow of the greatness of North Korea, announced its leaders; when swirling rumours and greater access to South Korean TV series, illegal they may be in the north, caused belief in this claim to be unsustainable, the leadership simply admitted that the South was indeed more prosperous. But what worth was this prosperity, if it came at the cost of being slaves to the Americans? Better to grind together in a bit of hardship than to submit to a Western imperialist.
Indeed, rather than be an American puppet state, the Korean people chose a different path. Juche, they called their state’s ideology: “self reliance”. Not for them the indignities of sadae, “serving the great”, the preferred state of affairs for the dynasties of old who rushed to pay tribute to the Chinese emperors. Instead, the Korean people were to follow a new take on what otherwise were Marxist-Leninist principles: “socialism of our style”. Yes, Marx and Lenin believed that the masses were the ones who would create the revolution and turn the wheels of history, yet Kim il-Sung, the Eternal President, added a major twist. The masses, virtuous as they were, could not succeed without help. Only with a flawless, benevolent, incorruptible leader could the great socialist revolution succeed. Only with a ‘Great Leader’ could the nation survive.
Who, then was the Great Leader? Decades has passed since the revolution erupted; for all that time, theKim family has been ruling North Korea. The current Supreme Commander, Kim Jong-un, was perfect, a tireless, courageous leader- or so the state media proclaimed. It mattered not that the real Kim Jong-un was hardly perfect. His obese appearance was not problematic; in fact, it was rumoured, the previously thin man had been instructed by his father, second in the line of the Dear Leaders, to gain weight so that he would look more like Kim il-Sung. What better a way to gain the public’s appreciation than to look like a reincarnation of the Eternal President? Everywhere he went the public would come out, tears in their eyes, waiting to welcome him. Basking in the public’s adoration, surely this third Dear Leader could feel secure with his power.
Yet Kim Jong-un is no fool; undoubtedly he knows better. Power in the North Korea state lies with the one who could most ruthlessly wield it. Not for him, then, the task of meeting the expectations of Westerners who believed a Swiss-educated man would begin the arduous task of reform and tone down any of the previous excesses of his regime. If anything, he doubled down. Not too long after ascending to power, Kim Jong-un had already murdered his uncle and dismantled his regency. Numbers in the concentration camps rose; executions ever more frequent. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, the maxim goes, and Kim Jong-un was in particular need of demonstrating his strength.
Rumours, increasingly sensational, began to swirl. Not content with ordinary executions, people whispered, Kim Jong-un had an official shot to bits using an anti-aircraft gun, in the view of a stadium filled with people. His uncle, some claimed, had not simply been shot, but instead been fed to a hundred starving dogs who promptly tore him apart. True or not, these rumours could only contribute to his image as a perverse despot. And the Dear Leader himself, spies from the south declared, was not at all well. He was suffering from chronic paranoia and constantly stress-eating. If anything, this third dynast in the House of Kim was the opposite of the confident, optimistic leader the media portrayed him.
But why the paranoia, and the clampdown? Hermit Kingdom as it is, no one outside the North Korean inner circle can know for sure. What is clear, however, is that Kim perceived threats to his hold on power. Kim Jong-il had been groomed for the succession over many years before he ever became leader. Kim Jong-un did not have such a luxury, with his announcement as heir to the throne coming not too long before Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack on his train. Perhaps pockets of resistance excited in his government, and he had needed to weed out disloyalty. We can never know for sure. But we do know now that Kim Jong-un is no enlightened autocrat who would bring to North Korea what he received from his Western education. Far from it.
And if his domestic policy has been increasingly repressive, Kim’s foreign policy has also been increasingly erratic. His father had perfected the art of brinksmanship; threatening to pursue dangerous military aims in return for concessions from the west. It was his father who had first adopted a policy known as songun: “military first”, with investment going not primarily into the impoverished economy but instead to developing North Korea’s own nuclear deterrent. The third Kim had duly continued his father’s policies – but with much more limited success. The west could no longer be fooled; instead of more aid, sanction after sanction was slapped. Appeals for attention went nowhere. Even clear proclamations of intentions to resume hostilities with the south were called out for what they were – a bluff.
It is curious, however, to see to what ends this third tyrant can point his energy if not outwards. As clear as it is by this point that he would not willingly give up power, how would he continue to wield it? It is said that Kim Jong-il dreamed of being dragged down the streets of Pyongyang and executed in a people’s revolution. How could Kim Jong-un avoid that fate? No amount of brainwashing can substitute for a full stomach and wealth. And with ever-increasing sanctions, the North Korean economy has no prospect of growth.
Signs has emerged of threats to Kim’s rule in a way that individual generals could never pose. First, the barrier with the outside world: tablets containing South Korean television shows continue to be shipped to the north, and the northern border with China increasingly porous. If one of the cornerstones of North Korean rule is the ignorance of its citizens, then that cornerstone is increasingly being eroded. Second is the decline of its very socialist ideology. One cannot eat an ideology for dinner, and with the failure of the central state in providing for its citizens, a black market has emerged and grown increasingly stronger; something truly beyond the control of the Kim dynasty.
And these signs have perhaps been alarming enough that even the regime, as allergic as it is to change, has begun contemplating the prospect of reform. After all, the Chinese has done it before; the Communist Party now rules over one of the most unabashedly capitalist societies on Earth. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has adopted a new policy since coming to power: byungjin: to foster new economic policies while also investing in the military. Decentralisation, and even the privatisation of state-owned enterprises; these were all steps that Kim took. Even more shockingly, he has even quietly encouraged the market economy to continue to grow.
Could these reforms succeed? History shows mixed signs. We have the development dictatorships, from Taiwan to China to Vietnam, authoritarian regimes that has managed to lift their people out of poverty. But we also have warning signs; after all, the corpse of the Soviet Union is a reminder to any dictator that his power could easily be toppled. Indeed, it is still more likely that the North Korean regime would collapse, in the process sparking a humanitarian disaster and even possibly nuclear terrorism, than for it to succeed in reforming itself without becoming a casualty to its own changes.
If anything, in order to avoid this, Kim must become ever-more repressive. The Great Leader has not hesitated in bringing living hell to anyone who dares cross him, and is unlikely to change in the future. There would be no repeat of East Germany, no repeat of a population learning about their neighbours’ unbelievable wealth and toppling their leaders: or at least Kim hopes. And Kim must continue to pursue the creation of his nuclear deterrent, to prove his military mettle to his adoring public.
Or are we simply reading too much? Kim remains one of the most enigmatic of the world leaders. After all, the only westerner to have talked to him at length in the past half a decade is Dennis Rodman. Beneath the swirling rumours and the image crafted by his propaganda machine, Kim’s mind is an empty vase whose interior we do not know. Is he a power-hungry lunatic? Perhaps. But for him to be able to sustain power for this long despite his inexperience, to cast him merely as out of his mind would be doubtful. To say he is a grand master playing chess while his opponents play checkers, however, also has lack of backing evidence.
And so North Korea remains, as it has been for decades, a nuclear despotate: repressive, isolated and impoverished. Only Kim himself can say if or when that will change.