The death of North Korea’s Dear Leader has put the region on high alert.
Kim Jong-il’s passing is not surprising given that his health has been in terminal decline since 2008. But it is the inherent uncertainties regarding the handing over of power to the Dear Leader’s son, Kim Jong-un, and the implications of political transition in the world’s most secretive and militarised state that are causing concern.
There is some possibility that the pressure on Kim Jong-un to prove his toughness could lead to instability while the handover of power plays out. But in the longer term, there is a small chance life could get just a little better for the majority of North Korea’s impoverished citizens.
The first thing to realise is the immoral farce and tragedy that is North Korea today. It is as close to a gulag as a country can get. Ruled by the Kim family since the partition of Korea into north and south in 1948, it is one of the few countries to remain a genuinely communist system. With a history of famines—including an ongoing one that lead to the deaths of 800,000 – 3.5 million people in the 1990s—the country spends almost a third of its GDP on defence each year. With a population of around 23 million people, Pyongyang maintains a standing army of 1.2 million troops. Despite only withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, the country now has five to 10 nuclear weapons, and has the missile technology to nuke Seoul and Tokyo. In other words, North Koreans might be one of the poorest people on Earth but Pyongyang is no ‘paper tiger’.
If things could hardly be worse for its people and the region why worry about the passing of Kim Jong-il and the transition of power to his son?
It comes down to inherently unknowable but potentially dangerous uncertainties.
There is the matter of Kim Jong-un’s assumed character. Not much is known about him. We are not even sure of his age (27-29 years old) or know for sure whether he actually spent time studying in Switzerland as has been rumoured. But the character sketch that Asian and American intelligence agencies have about him is not flattering. For example, he is known to be narcissistic, cruel, impatient, ill-tempered and unpredictable—much like his just-passed father. Whether Kim Jong-un will prove to be as wily a political manipulator as Kim Jong-il is unclear. The problem is that a fool in such a feudal-like system can do even more damage than a Machiavellian genius.
Another concern is what Kim Jong-un might do over the next few months in order to prove his mettle. In a system like North Korea’s, the ‘qualities’ of decisiveness, ruthlessness and brutality are more respected than those of caution, leniency and restraint. The surprise sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan in March 2010 was allegedly ordered by Kim Jong-un two months after he had been appointed the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission which is North Korea’s peak military body. Now a 20-something Four Star General with no military experience, the younger Kim might find it necessary to demonstrate that he has what it takes to lead the world’s most brutal country.
These concerns are all legitimate and the region has a nervous few months ahead of it. But if we can get through this interregnum period unscathed, then there could be better times ahead for North Koreans.
The key to any progress and reform in the reclusive country is the significant erosion of the feudal-like Kim Dynasty. Although any authoritarian state relies on the military to hold power, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il had far more authority and power than Kim Jong-un is likely to have. As the recent history of China and the former Soviet Union tells us, arbitrary rule by one man (or a small coterie of his family members) is the worst of all possible alternatives. The horrors of the Mao Zedong and Stalinist years were possible only because of the concentration of power in the hands of so few. In contrast, power is much more dispersed in the still authoritarian regimes in China and Russia today. Although far from ideal, the greater dispersion of political and other power means that more interests come into play.
This dispersion of power is the best hope for North Korea. Military rule is never palatable. But a country ruled by a number of generals representing different factions and interests throughout a 1.2 million-strong organisation—in uneasy alliance with Kim Jong-un and his family—will probably be better for the country and its people.
We may not see any meaningful economic or political reform in North Korea over the next few years. But paralysing disunity amongst the political vanguard is the best that North Koreans can hope to have for the time being.