North Korea’s launch last week of a long range ballistic missile caught the United States and its allies by surprise, given that Pyongyang had announced a week earlier it was having technical difficulties and would postpone the event. For understandable reasons U.S., Japanese, and South Korean officials and policymakers focus their analysis of North Korean missile launches and nuclear weapons tests on how these events affect their own national security interests. All three countries fear a North Korea with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles will use them to change the balance of military power and destabilize even further an already unstable region. But the missile launch has as much to do with internal political dynamics in an increasingly unstable North Korea as it does with its external agenda of the nuclear blackmailing of its neighbors. The ongoing missile and nuclear programs send the message to the North Korea people, party elite, and the military itself that the Kim dynasty remains firmly in controland that Pyongyang remains strong and powerful. The only reason Japan, United States, and South Korea pay attention to North Korea at all is the missile and nuclear weapons programs; otherwise it would be treated as the mendicant it is. Like Soviet Russia during the Cold War, North Korea is no more than a failing, poor, third world country with the bomb. The missile launch allows North Korean leaders to redirect attention away from its people’s empty stomachs to an illusory external threat it has created to justify its continued exercise of power.
The North Korean leadership measures most of its decisions against one single overriding standard: the effect on regime survival. The elites fear if they lose control, the North Korean state will collapse and if that happens, “the South Koreans and Americans will hang us, and if they don’t our own people will,” Kim Jong Il reportedly told Communist Party leaders in a secret speech in late 1996 at the peak of the Great North Korean Famine (according to an interview I did with a senior defector in 1998). The risk of the current regime’s losing control is greater now than at any time since Kim Il Sung established the North Korean state in the late 1940s. The regime maintains control by terrorizing its own population into submission, but that terror is based on the absolute loyalty of the military and security apparatus, a loyalty which is now in question. A power struggle is underway in the North Korean leadership as Kim Jong Un—who took office as the new leader of North Korea his father, Kim Jong Il, died a year ago—attempts to take control of the party apparatus and military, with the advice and help of his uncle and regent, Jang Song Taek. The power transition from father to son was not smooth.
A month ago Kim Jong Un purged the vice marshall of the North Korean military, one of the most powerful figures in the army. He did not go quietly: In one report when soldiers were sent to remove him from office, a fire fight broke out with his personal security detail and 30 soldiers died. Last week Kim and his uncle purged the new defense minister, who had only held office for seven months. In July Kim reportedly increased his own personal security to protect himself from any potential assassination plots. Recent graffiti in some parts of the country are openly criticizing Kim’s leadership, an exceedingly rare act of dissent usually punishable, for those caught, by a slow death in the political prison camps.
Kim is 28 years old, erratic, untested, and some say immature. His uncle and regent, Jang Song Taek, has been pressing for modest economic reforms, but his authority derives from his wife, who is the blood aunt of Kim Jong Un. She is a severe alcoholic and drug addict whose health is deteriorating; if she dies in the near termwhich is likelyher husband’s hold on power may die with her. Jang Song Taek’s attempts at modest reform are faltering regardless of his source of power. Food security in North Korea, always precarious, deteriorated further this year because of a severe drought and then extensive flooding this summer, frightening the hesitant reformers in the ruling elite into postponing their modest reforms because they feared they could backfire at a time of heightened nutritional crisis. Any serious reforms, however, depend on transferring control over the economy from the military to the civilian technocrats, and that transfer is where the problem lies.
To ensure the loyalty of the massive North Korean military machine, Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather long gave the generals control over much of the economy. The Kim dynasty called this the “military first policy.” Elements of the officer corps control commodity trading and many senior generals are getting rich on the backs of their starving people. We have widespread reports that lower level soldiers and officers are hungry and are looting farmers’ food stocks in rural areas. The problem has grown so severe that leaders in Pyongyang have spoken out about the breakdown of military discipline. Kim Jong Un recently approved vouchers for lower ranking military officers to get access to more consumer goods to calm fears that they as a class face declining living standards as their power over the economy dissipates. Any economic reform will require the Communist Party civilians to seize control of the economyif they are to reverse the country’s continuing death spiralfrom the military command structure which resists any change that threatens its economic sinecures. The challenge will be for Kim Jong Un and his uncle to seize this control while still ensuring the loyalty of the officer corps, which now appears to be turning against the new leaders.
The Soviet Union built up its military machine as its economy, political system, and social structure were rotting beneath it. But even as the Soviet system decayed in the 1970s and 1980s, the common people were at least fed; there was no evidence of starvation deaths or rising acute malnutrition even as the old order collapsed in Russia. The North Korean public distribution system for food controlled by the central government collapsed long ago, and does not provide sufficient food to keep the mass of the people properly fed. Many people now rely on private farmers markets to survive. But people have access to the farmer’s markets only if they have sufficient income to buy food, and many don’t, which is why there are such high rates of severe acute malnutrition. Any government which cannot ensure, by whatever means, that its people eat, will be short lived, unless its police and military remain loyal and ruthlessly suppress popular unrest or uprisings. If food prices in North Korea spike rapidly enough in the first half of 2013 as the 2012 harvest runs out, public anger could lead to uprisings.
Dissent appears to be growing.
State media reported that at a national meeting of police chiefs on November 23, at a conference of judges and prosecutors on November 26, and at a meeting of other judicial officials on December 5, Kim Jong Un sent messages ordering the mobilization of the internal security apparatus for a national crackdown on what he called “impure elements” and the arrest of those guilty of “nonsocialist phenomenon and sternly punish those engaged in such acts.” The term “nonsocialist phenomenon” is North Korean doublespeak for any criticism of Kim Jong Un and his inner circle. The very existence of the crackdown suggests unrest may be growing; it is one way of purging dissenters before they reach enough mass to threaten the survival of the regime. With the loyalty of the officer corps in question and public dissent rising, the regime’s hold on power could quickly evaporate. This time no missile launch or nuclear bomb test will save the regime from implosion.