SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 58 of 86 « Previous | Next »

North Korea 2012, Grandson Greets Grandfather: Celebration by Satellite Salute

April 15, 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, founder and “eternal president” of North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). The authorities in Pyongyang have made this occasion an extraordinary event in the state and people’s lives, beginning intensive preparations for the celebration years ago, and setting the ambitious goal of entering a fundamentally new stage of development―that of a “strong and prosperous nation” (kangsong daeguk)―by April 15. The (failed) April 13 launch of a long range rocket carrying a satellite was a part of this celebration. As the date approached, however, the goal was adjusted to be a bit more realistic: Pyongyang announced that on April 15, 2012 the gate into this new epoch would be opened, marking the starting point of the movement rather than its culmination.

By a twist of fate, the honor of opening this gate would not be given to the person who guided North Korea for almost 20 years in attempting to approach “kangsong daeguk” status and who deserved the right to do it―Kim Il-sung’s successor Kim Jong-il, who died on December 17, 2011. Kim Jong-il’s governing results were contradictory at best. Comparisons of North Korea under Kim Jong-il to other nations during the same period are overwhelmingly unfavorable to Kim. But the picture is not so clear when comparing the North Korea of 2011 with that of 1994-1995. Since that time, hesitant and partial reforms―most likely driven more by necessity than by careful planning―seem to hold out the promise of a slightly better life for ordinary North Koreans.

In 1994-1995, Kim Jong-il assumed power amid devastating famine but, despite continued hunger and malnutrition, mass starvation did not reappear during his reign. As the state food distribution system withered, farmers’ markets have become more and more important in society, and some citizens have been able to accumulate small currency holdings. This trend may have become irreversible in late 2009 and early 2010. Finally, as part of its observance of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday, North Korea seems to have begun to open itself more to foreign investment, which may result in greater circulation of people and ideas in certain tightly controlled border areas. Indeed, Chinese sources report that legal border crossings are rising dramatically. These changes, however unimpressive they may seem to the outside world, were unthinkable in North Korea 20 years ago.

Considering Kim Jong-il’s life, one is perhaps reminded of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that Stalin took charge in Russia with a wooden plow but left it with atomic weapons. When Kim Jong-il took charge of North Korea in 1994, many politicians and experts around the world predicted that the DPRK would collapse in the foreseeable future. However, under Kim Jong-il the DPRK not only survived, but achieved a modest nuclear deterrent that today is the pride of the nation.

Succession to Kim Jong-un

But Kim Jong-il died just four months before the centenary, leaving it to his son Kim Jong-un to assume leadership of North Korea and usher in the era of achieving “kangsong daeguk” status. While outsiders may be correct that North Korea is far from approaching a strong and prosperous era, the common assessment of the Kim Jong-un regime as weak, unstable, and short-lived, as is often expressed by western media and occasionally by policy experts, is erroneous.

The process of handing over power to 28 year-old Kim Jong-un was realized quickly and resolutely. Kim Jong-il’s death was announced on December 19, 2011 but by December 25 Kim Jong-un, his third son, had been appointed to the position of “Supreme Commander…as wished by the people.” At the conclusion of the funeral for Kim Jong-il, on December 28, the young successor symbolically occupied an even higher position than his late father: the Korea Central News Agency referred to him as “supreme leader of the WPK [Worker’s Party of Korea], state and army.” (Kim Jong-il was never formally head of state, as his father Kim Il-sung was named “Eternal President of the Republic.”) On April 11, Kim Jong-un was named first chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest post in North Korea, and “first secretary” of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK); his father Kim Jong-il was posthumously named “eternal general secretary” of the WPK. North Korean mythology also bolsters the transition to Kim Jong-un. The legitimacy of his authority is based not only on the fact that he is Kim Jong-il’s son, but also on his strong physical resemblance to Kim Il-sung.

The question of whether young Kim Jong-un will continue to rule the country successfully, as his grandfather and father did, is the subject of hot debate inside the international expert community, prompting intense discussions about possible scenarios for the transition. Mass media and conservative observers especially seem convinced (or hopeful) that Kim Jong-un will not last long because of weakness and inexperience, and that he and the North Korean state will collapse and allow the North Korean people to welcome democracy. Coincidentally, on April 11, the same day Kim Jong-un was elevated to the DPRK’s highest post, South Korea’s conservative New Frontier Party somewhat surprisingly held its majority in a closely contested parliamentary election.

The questions raised about the abilities and mental health of Kim Jong-un closely resemble those expressed about Kim Jong-il at the time of his ascension to power in 1994, which proved inaccurate. The myth of Kim Jong-il’s complete inferiority to his father was inflated by the Western media but began to turn during the June 2000 inter-Korean summit, when foreign journalists flocking to Pyongyang to accompany South Korean President Kim Dae-jung discovered that the North Korean leader was a healthy, energetic, and highly competent individual. These days, the Western media are composing a somewhat contradictory image of Kim Jong-un: he is at the same time a sickly and overmatched pawn of the older generation, and also a more cosmopolitan North Korean leader who was educated in Switzerland and used to play basketball. The contradictory assumptions behind these caricatures do not seem to be noticed.

The mass expressions of grief in North Korea following the death of Kim Jong-il may seem shocking to foreigners but certainly cannot be written off as insincere. It is true that collectivism is pervasive in the heavily organized society, and that this affects the way emotions are displayed, but it would be unfair to deny that―in line with the Confucian tradition―the perception of the leader as the father of the nation is widespread among the population and that people are indeed mourning Kim Jong-il. The tendency within the North Korean political culture to ascribe extraordinary sympathy and ability to the national leader has a legitimizing impact on Kim Jong-un’s claim to power. It is true that Kim Jong-un is very young, has a minimal record of involvement in state affairs, and, in fact, held official successor status for just slightly over a year. Still, he learned a lot over this period of time acting as his father’s apprentice, and appears to have made no blunders in the process which would disqualify him from ruling North Korea. Importantly, the nation actually sees him as the successor. For example, this author gathered from conversations with ordinary North Koreans that they feel deeply impressed by the fact that Kim Jong-un bears a strong physical resemblance to his grandfather, founder of North Korea Kim Il-sung. This credential may not assure legitimacy in most nations, but in North Korea’s unique political culture it is important.

Finally, despite the failed missile launch, which the North Korean government surprisingly made known to its own people, the celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birth fulfilled its primary mission―which was to bolster the legitimacy of the system and the inviolable unity between the people and the leader. Kim Jong-un had significantly more contact with the North Korean people than his father did on similar occasions. This event was far more open to foreigners than usual, and Kim Jong-un also interacted with them to a greater degree than his father did.

The North Korean system

Obviously, both Kim Jong-un and the whole DPRK are at the moment facing tough challenges. From now on a lot will depend on Kim Jong-un’s aptitude and willpower. His elder peers―the stalwarts from his father’s inner entourage―will certainly do their best to help him at the initial phase, but the type of interaction should not be interpreted as evidence that Kim Jong-un will have a purely nominal status. For North Korea, combining the leader’s singular status with collectivism in top-level decision-making is a long-standing tradition, though the balance between the two elements fluctuates. It is worth mentioning in this context that even Kim Il-sung was not invariably the number one figure in North Korea’s party and administration (in the early years, at least) and that, even at the peaks of their careers, neither he nor Kim Jong-il sidelined such collective governance bodies as the central committee of the Worker’s Party or the National Defense Commission.

Predictions that the DPRK will shortly plunge into chaos and that a tide of infighting will sweep over its leadership are completely groundless. Any serious watcher is fully aware of the country’s robust political stability, with no hint of an organized opposition or public protests of significant proportion.

It is natural that divisions over individual issues do exist in the administration of the DPRK, as in that of any other country. Limited controversy erupted over the forms and pace of the economic reform which was launched in North Korea in 2002. An attempt was made in November 2009 to implement a national currency devaluation, which could translate into a de facto savings confiscation; this was interpreted by experts as an effort to undermine the small emerging entrepreneur class and take the country back to pre-reform conditions. In a matter of months, however, the North Korean government realized that the step was counterproductive and abandoned the whole plan, removing the restrictions fleetingly imposed on market activity. It is evident that in the end Kim Jong-il supported the “reformers” over the more conservative policymakers (though of course the pace and scope of reforms in North Korea are not dramatic).

At the same time, the divisions in the DPRK do not seem to escalate into irreconcilable discord. The perception of a constant external threat facing the country helps cements its administration. Pyongyang is mindful of its opponents’ strategy focused on inducing regime change in the DPRK, and monitors the emergency military planning of the U.S.-ROK alliance which certainly had special designs to set in motion in the event of a sudden death of the North Korean leader. The developments in Libya and the NATO-enabled removal from power and subsequent killing of Moammar Gaddafi made North Koreans realize what kind of punishment the West administers for defiance. The conclusions drawn in Pyongyang took the shape of a special official statement to the effect that Gaddafi’s key mistake had been to naïvely trust the West’s promises and to scrap Libya’s nuclear program in return for international security guarantees. The statement said that Gaddafi’s regime came under strike as soon as it showed it would not acquire a nuclear deterrent and that North Korea would never make the same mistake but would upgrade its defense potential including the nuclear capabilities.

The North Korean political elite and the politically active part of the country’s society have no illusions as to their survival chances in the case of a regime change. To some extent such expectations concern the North Korean population. Also, many of them believe that in case the country is absorbed into the Republic of Korea they would become second-class citizens in a unified Korea. More than any ideological directives, such practical concerns help maintain full cohesion among the North Korean elite, cause them to stay loyal to the country’s leader, and enable them to ruthlessly suppress any tendencies toward internal discord.

Policy implications

At least in the mid-term, we will see complete continuity in the DPRK’s foreign and domestic policies, with its young leader likely emphasizing allegiance to his father’s legacy. The North Korean approach to the key foreign-policy issues, including its relations with Russia and involvement in the Six-Party Talks, will therefore remain unchanged. Symbolically, the last foreign visit paid by late Kim Jong-il was a tour of Russia in August 2011 during which he met with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in Ulan-Ude. It is a safe bet that the cooperation between Russia and the DPRK will continue and that key bilateral economic projects will be implemented as planned. It is known that Kim Jong-un has already expressed interest in speeding up the realization of a gas pipeline project.

It should be noted that developments in North Korea in late 2011 and early 2012 opened up new and positive opportunities to its opponents, and time will show whether and how they are going to seize them. The succession is an opportune situation to turn the page on past conflicts and to start cultivating contacts with the young North Korean leader.

Overall, the situation remains stable, with Moscow and Beijing firmly espousing the peace, stability and the status quo on the Korean peninsula. Washington and Seoul are facing a dilemma of either boosting pressure on Pyongyang with the aim of irreversibly breaking its resistance (a strategy loaded with unlikely results and extreme risks, it should be noted) or giving their North Korea policies a serious facelift – which would be costly and painful but which could lead to .more effective engagement with the North.

Even before the death of Kim Jong-il, Washington decided to change its passive “strategic patience” approach and made considerable efforts to restore the bridge in relations with Pyongyang. In result, on February 29 a breakthrough was achieved―the so called Leap Day agreement which stipulated a moratorium on nuclear testing, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment. The United States offered to provide 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance. All parties involved including Moscow warmly greeted the success of the U.S.-DPRK dialogue, and the results gave feasibility to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent forecast that the Six-Party Talks were likely to resume this year.

However, two weeks later Pyongyang announced its decision to launch a satellite into space to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. The news, and the actual launch on April 13, poured cold water over the optimism following the Leap Day agreement, and prompted another round of speculation and debate about the reasons for and objectives of such a provocative North Korean decision.

It is most likely that domestic factors are the main driving force behind the missile launch. First, the decision testified to the great importance that the DPRK places on its founder’s centennial. The extraordinary anniversary―which is more important even than the death of Kim Jong-il―should be marked by an extraordinary achievement. The rapid legitimization of Kim Jong-un’s leadership also highlights this fact. Today nobody in Pyongyang seems to recall the precedent of the three years of mourning undertaken by Kim Jong-il when his own father died in 1994. It is more important to have a leader formally in place for the celebration of the centennial.

Second, the new North Korean leadership continues to regard the preservation of national unity and domestic cohesion as much more important than the negative reactions of the international community. In fact, to provide the population with a festival atmosphere on the “great day” is more important to the regime than to receive American nutritional assistance. (Indeed, North Korea likely calculated that the financial cost of the satellite preparations and launch far exceeded the value of the promised assistance, especially with the cancellation of that assistance―yet they went ahead with it anyway.)

Of course the attempted satellite launch inevitably caused international condemnation. So far the United Nations Security Council has declined to levy new sanctions, though it has threatened to do so in the event of future missile launches or a nuclear test by North Korea.

The missile launch has apparently scuttled the Leap Day deal, but it would be undesirable if it were to block U.S.-North Korea dialogue on the whole. Of course the launch gives strong new arguments to conservative forces in many countries who traditionally argue that it’s impossible to trust Pyongyang and therefore unwise to reach agreements with it.

Nevertheless, it seems wise for the international community to try to carefully calculate a proportionate and adequate response to the rocket launch. It would also be useful to consider the conclusions of some missile technology experts that the North Korea’s missile technologies are quite primitive―conclusions which seem validated by the failed launch. The nuclear program is much more advanced and more dangerous, from a nonproliferation point of view, than the missile program. According to such a view, while improving missile capabilities are a worry, it would be more important for the international community to check North Korea’s nuclear activity. This line of thought leads to the conclusion that it would be better not to break the existing Leap Day agreement and not to give Pyongyang a pretext for responding to “extremely tough” punishment by conducting a third nuclear test (as it did in 2009 and has threatened again this year). Surely the preservation of a calculated and flexible line in relations with North Korea would provide Washington and others a chance to work with the new North Korean leadership in order to facilitate a trend toward gradual changes in the country over the next three to five years. The United States seems to have followed this line so far, but whether North Korea will respond with similar far-sightedness remains to be seen.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 58