Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.
The Dear Leader’s train pulled into his terminal station ahead of schedule. Though dictators have been dropping like home values this year, the Koreans won’t be celebrating. The peninsula and the region’s power brokers are entering a period of extraordinary uncertainty.
In the 1590s, Japanese Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi struck out to conquer Korea. The allied forces of China and Korea eventually repulsed the invasion after devastating years of war, but not before the Samurai made off with fortunes in loot. One of the most valuable items they pilfered wholesale was Pyongyang porcelain. They stole not only shiploads of pottery and kilns but also kidnapped tens of thousands of the artisans who made the pottery. Upon disembarking in chains, the potters faced a lifetime of forced labor, crafting their luxury for Japanese lords. In doing so, they fundamentally altered the Japanese aesthetic. Many of the most priceless Asian ceramics were spun by Korean artists of the period. This is an origin of our sense of the beauty of the Far East: art, and the life it imitates, is mysterious, ferocious and fragile. These same descriptions apply to the situation in Pyongyang.
Like the elegant whorls on a ceramic jar, North Korea is mysterious. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s metaphysical poem about Iraq, there are “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” We know that North Korea is the most isolated and opaque country on earth. The military runs the country and staffs all the most important positions at every level of government. The top generals form a sort of elderly House of Lords believed to be a political scorpion pit in which one misstep can spell ruin. We know that an untested twenty-something-year-old Kim Jong-un is about to be dipped into this pit as de facto head of the country. He hails from the dynasty established by Maoist-guerrilla-turned-Stalinist-dictator Kim Il-sung. Jong-un’s grandfather and father derived power from the most thorough cult of personality possibly since the pharaohs built the pyramids.
Aside from this basic information, there is little beyond questions. The regime, realizing Kim Jong-il’s days were numbered, was in the middle of a rushed transition. It is not known how much training Jong-un had, how much real political influence he has with the ruling elite, whether the elite will accept him and whether he is capable of taking the reins. Given Jong-un’s tender age, he may serve as a sort of dauphin while regents actually rule the country behind the scenes. Likely candidates for this role include his aunt and uncle. Both of them are recent rising stars in the late dictator’s ruling clique. They may be in the best position to instill stability. It is not known, though, whether they were chosen in a grand succession bargain or whether they would step in by default. Assuming that there is a plan for interim regency, there is no way to know whether Jong-un or the country’s ruling generals will go along with it once Jong-il is cold.
The North Korean people could also become a wild card if the transition gets messy. North Korea observers have always wondered whether the people are genuinely brainwashed or whether they role-play starry-eyed revolutionaries for fear of the consequences. Many North Korean defectors have suggested that it’s more the latter. But it’s possible that there is a bit of both. If so, regional and socioeconomic animosities could become important if the regime fails to consolidate authority. As in any country, and especially one as impoverished and hierarchical as North Korea, there are likely to be social divisions that could become inflamed during a turbulent transition. Candidates for this type of schism include: the farmers vs. the military, a secondary city vs. the capital, one branch of the military vs. another.
A test of Kim Jong-un’s ability to lead, or at least control, his people will come quickly. Early next year, the DPRK will launch a series of festivals to mark the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth and to celebrate North Korea’s status as a “strong and prosperous nation.” North Koreans are several inches shorter than their Southern cousins due to malnutrition. So, this celebration of ‘prosperity’ will stress how much the people will tolerate a new regime’s barrage of baloney and how much the regime in its infancy can cram obvious propaganda down their throats. The degree of the plebs’ cognitive dissonance may illuminate how closely a new big brother can watch them.
We, the American and South Korean people, don’t know how much our governments know. South Korean pundits are squawking that their government only learned about Jong-il’s death when North Korea announced it. They are imploring their intelligence services to gain a fuller view of the situation in the North. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that they truly did not know. The other is that they did know, but feigned ignorance to protect their spies. Furthermore, if Seoul had announced the dictator’s demise before Pyongyang did, that could have triggered a high-level purge at precisely the wrong moment.
We don’t know how much Uncle Sam knows. All the space age electronic intelligence in the world won’t crack open a country just this side of feudal. It is likely that the US only knows what South Korea decides to share with them. Any spies would have to be DPRK defectors contacted by ROK handlers. Infiltrating the hierarchy and gaining access to sensitive information could then take years. It seems unlikely that the South could turn anyone already very high level. Hollywood encourages us to believe that our government sees everything. Yet, consider the fact that Hezbollah, a politically organized militia in a relatively open society, recently unraveled a CIA spy ring. If such a second-rate rival can break up our intelligence, imagine the intensity of a cat and mouse game in a state founded upon paranoia. It is entirely possible that we are blind in North Korea. If so, there are probably key actors and dynamics at play that we are completely unaware of.
Like a ceramic dragon rearing to strike, North Korea is ferocious. There was a time when the North’s economy kept pace with and even threatened to surpass the South’s. But the tides of the Cold War, terrible policy stemming from fanatical devotion to Maoism, American sanctions and snowballing isolation have utterly and irreversibly crushed the DPRK’s economy. As a result, for the last twenty years, Jong-il has pursued a foreign policy of acting like a cornered snake, hissing and snapping. The North is so devoid of resources and productivity that it begs and blackmails to get the food and fuel it needs to sustain the military (not the people). When that doesn’t work, the world’s fifth largest (though significantly outdated) military lashes out, usually at the South, in the hopes that its neighbors and the US will pay it to be reasonable for a while. The most recent examples of this are the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in disputed waters.
These attacks seem to coincide with suspected domestic strife, when the regime is desperate for aid or is seeking the attention of Washington or Seoul. Provocations like these would lead to conflict in most places, but are treated like bad weather in the South. The danger is always present, though, that a tit-for-tat exchange could spiral catastrophically out of control. If the new regime faces difficulty consolidating its authority, we can expect more attacks. This is especially true if Jong-un senses the need to hold the generals at his side in the capital while sending their troops out into the field. Keeping the military busy would be tempting for a beleaguered young dictator seeking to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. Indeed, his first order as ruler was for all military personnel to return to their bases. Apart from demonstrating control, this is also likely an effort to flush out any officers who don’t click their heels quickly enough.
Though relations between the Koreas have never been great, they were less chilly in the 90s. The reason for this was the Sunshine Policy, in which the South kept aid flowing to the North. In return, the North was less bonkers. Relative calm mostly prevailed on the peninsula. South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, architect of the policy, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his brainchild. Roh Moo-hyun continued this policy in the following administration. Then came Lee Myung-bak. President Lee was nicknamed “the steamroller” for the trail of bodies he left in his wake as he relentlessly leapt from office to higher office in business and government. He is the South Korean equivalent of a neocon. He scrapped Sunshine in favor of building up the military and confronting and containing the North. The DPRK had grown to rely on ROK aid, so when Lee turned off the faucet and began confronting Pyongyang, this exacerbated the North’s poverty, which increased pressure on the regime, which caused it to lash out, which resulted in Lee confronting the North, and so on.
American leadership has played an important role in this story as well. During the 90s, the Clinton Administration acted in tandem with Sunshine, while playing the role of bad cop when necessary. In 2002, Bush fired a shot across Kim’s bow in his ‘Axis of Evil’ speech. Saddam’s fate was an object lesson to Jong-il (and Ayatollah Khameini) to seek weapons of mass destruction before Bush bombed him (further) into the Stone Age. In Bush’s first term, his administration refused to speak to North Korea, which didn’t go over well in Pyongyang. Bush officials justified this by crowing about not rewarding the North’s bad behavior. There is some truth to this, but only up to a point. The analogy to raising a child breaks down when you consider that children eventually grow up and become independent. North Korea isn’t going anywhere, and it’s always going to depend on outside food aid no matter how high you build the fence around them. It may be unpalatable but it is reality. Tons of free wheat is a small price to pay if it keeps them from blowing things up.
Early on, Obama seemed to have essentially ceded control of the agenda to Lee. The military buildup and the ‘no rewards’ ethos has continued unabated. Lately, though, he may be seeking to capitalize on the impending shift in the North and to demonstrate progress during his reelection campaign. His administration has been laying the groundwork for aid and a return to six-party talks. Jong-il’s abrupt death cast a media spotlight on a phone call regarding food aid that was probably supposed to be a secret.
The most unsettling element of these dynamics is North Korea’s nuclear program. If the transition fails for any reason, weapons of mass destruction could go missing. This is the nightmare scenario for strategic planners throughout the world. If the North began coming apart at the seams and the weapons were in jeopardy, the region’s power brokers, the US, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan, would have to make some extremely difficult decisions with precious little time to deliberate.
A refugee crisis is the other threat that the North poses to the region. China takes this potentiality very seriously. Many observers believe this possibility drives China’s policy of sustaining the North. If the DPRK were to collapse abruptly, upwards of ten million starving North Koreans would shamble into China and swim or boat around the DMZ into South Korea. This would cause an immediate food shortage in Northeast Asia, one of the most crowded places on earth. A rippling economic crisis would follow. The whole world would have to pitch in. For efforts to manage the situation to succeed, the US and China would have to be quarterbacking from the same playbook. Even then, they’d be throwing a Hail Mary pass with the clock running out if they hoped to contain, direct and provide for a flow of millions of refugees. Nonetheless, it’s not clear that there’s ever been any high-level huddle on this possibility.
Like priceless pottery, North Korea is fragile. Kim Jong-il shadowed his father as apprentice and sidekick for 15 to 20 years before taking the reins of power. Even so, a 3-year transitional period followed which is believed to have been rocky. After a severe stroke in 2008, Jong-il seems to have launched a sweeping purge of mid-level officials which included a spate of public executions. He may have been paranoid about efforts to undermine his authority while he was debilitated. Or he may have had valid reasons to be worried.
In contrast, no one had ever heard of Jong-un two years ago. He seems to have been elevated to the role of heir-apparent much more swiftly than he could have naturally filled those shoes. The images of him at his father’s funeral surrounded by officials twice and thrice his age are striking. He is in over his head and you can bet many of the people in that room are thinking, ‘that should be me.’ In this atmosphere, there are almost certain to be opportunists sitting on a personal power base, lurking in the shadows, waiting for any sign of weakness, preparing for a moment to strike.
As we saw in Iraq, an authoritarian government can maintain order and stability for a long time even in a society that has completely collapsed. A strong dictator’s regime forms a sort of lid on a squirming can of worms. But when you remove the dictator and the regime, you rip the lid off, and you open the can of worms. North Korea takes both socioeconomic collapse and authoritarian government to chilling extremes. If the regime were to collapse, all kinds of unimaginable social, economic, political and military problems would wriggle out into the region. Such a collapse would be the biggest since East Germans started whacking the Berlin Wall with sledge hammers. But unlike the collapse of the Soviet Union, in North Korea there are no top level reformers ready to face the music and there is no underground political culture of democracy and liberalization (that we know of). If young Jong-un were to fail to complete his ascent to the throne, if the regime were to wobble, North Korea’s problems would become the world’s problems.
If the world were to suddenly inherit North Korea’s unfathomable frozen crises, it would come at a generational nadir of global malaise. The United States is facing an ongoing economic crisis. If history is any indication, after a decade of war, the US will have no stomach for open-ended foreign engagement for the next 20 years. Japan’s trilogy of disasters this year topped almost a decade and a half of stagnation. Given their checkered history, any Japanese intervention would be viewed with extreme suspicion on the Korean peninsula. Russia is facing domestic strife, striving mightily to maintain momentum in European oil and gas markets and has not been a serious player in the Far East since the end of the Cold War. China is in the strongest position to influence the DPRK, and Beijing is the only capital that barely tolerates Pyonyang’s shenanigans. Some hard-line mandarins from the old guard have a sort of admiration for the DPRK’s single-minded devotion to Maoism. But they are becoming fossils even in Beijing. Any unilateral attempt by China to take charge of a precipitous situation in Korea would draw vehement American protest. South Korea would be the most logical country to assume the North’s problems. Fifty years ago, this was viewed as the South’s destiny. Today, though, the few people left who remember the times before the Korean War are in their twilight years. The population is steadily becoming anti-unification due to the costs. The reunification of Korea may cost South Korea five times what the reunification of Germany cost West Germany. South Korean intervention in the North would draw Beijing’s suspicions about Washington’s role in a unified Korea on its border.
The Korean people have taken the division of their peninsula in stride for nearly a lifetime. But this moment of uncertainty is particularly acute. Anyone who has scrambled up a Chungcheong ridge in the dark to watch the rising sun toast the mist off the valley rice paddies as it has for millennia understands why Korea is fondly referred to as the Land of the Morning Calm. Let’s hope it stays that way.