North Korea remains the last vestige of isolated communism on the planet. Technically still at a state of war, the rest of the world is watching closely for any sign of change under Kim Jong-un. The young leader has been in place for almost a month since the death of his father was announced. April 2012 promises to be an interesting month for North Korea and its observers, with at least four mega-events. The long announced celebrations to mark the 100th birthday of the country’s late founder Kim Il Sung will be held on the April 15. Two days before, the annual session of the Supreme People’s Assembly (the North Korean parliament) will convene. The fourth Conference of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) will take place on the 11th. Last, but not least, around the same time a rocket launch that has been criticized by the West as a missile test is set to take place.
Ruediger Frank writes in his blog 38 North which is an analysis of events in and around North Korea that April 15, 1912 was not only the day the Titanic sank. In a small village near Pyongyang, a boy with the name Kim Song Ju was born. Later, much like Lenin (Uljanow) and Stalin (Tschugaschwili), he adapted an alias. In October 1945, by then called Kim Il Sung, the 33 year old youngster was presented to the wondering population by the Soviets as the liberator of the country from the Japanese. Hardly anybody took the young man seriously back then, neither his Soviet protectors nor his much more numerous, senior, powerful and experienced domestic political competitors. They were wrong, as they later learned the hard way. By building and breaking alliances, first the Christians and then rival factions within the Korean Communist camp were eliminated or assimilated, until Kim Il Sung and his Kapsan guerilla faction had acquired a monopoly of power within the KWP.
Kim Il Sung smartly used the badly failed Korean War (1950-53) not only as a welcome occasion to eliminate some of his influential political foes. He also converted Korea into one of the hot spots of the Cold War and was thus able to force the Soviet Union and China to provide much more economic, military and political aid than either of them had originally intended. The costs for Mao Zedong included his eldest son Anying, still buried in North Korea. Even my home country East Germany, laying in ruins after World War II and the post-1945 demounting policy of the Soviets, and facing fierce competition from West Germany which prospered under the Marshall Plan, felt compelled to rebuild North Korea’s second largest city, Hamhung, at an enormous cost.
Skillfully playing Beijing against Moscow, Kim Il Sung gradually won political independence from his foreign supporters. However, in the early 1960s, when neither country was willing to play along anymore, Kim pronounced (and backdated) the juche ideology and thus gained ideological independence, as well. The price to pay was reduced economic aid; the reward included surviving the wave of political transformations that has swept the socialist camp since the late 1980s. These are by no means old stories. Looking at North Korea’s present, we find interesting and disturbing similarities. China is a big and dominant ally; Kim Jong Un is a young, inexperienced man whose dress, haircut and body mass resemble his grandfather. It would be nice if the similarities would end here. The events of April 2012 are likely to provide more information on whether this hope is reasonable or not.
The Party Conference, the second in just 18 months after almost 20 years of abstention, is expected to be a forum for testing the new leadership’s personnel policy. Will Kim Jong Un clamp down on his potential competitors, does he already have enough loyalists, will he elevate them to top positions? Will he assume the posts of KWP General Secretary and Chairman of the KWP Central Military Commission, which would elevate him to the official head of state? Or will he emphasize continuity, stability and modesty, and implement these measures gradually? His decision will help us to gain a better understanding not only of the new power relations in Pyongyang, but also of the personality of the new North Korean leader. One thing we know already: this is not the long-awaited 7th KWP Congress. If the latter is not announced during the Party Conference in April, then we have reason to believe that Kim Jong Un is going to take it slow.
The annual parliamentary session has traditionally also been a forum for personnel changes. Ministerial positions are usually swapped, high-ranking officials retire “due to health reasons,” basic outlines of economic policy are announced. Among the most important documents, in addition to the Prime Minister’s report on the overall policy, is the report by the Minister of Finance who comments on the past year’s budget and the related plans for the new fiscal year. Considering that the state owns the economy, the state budget comes close to resembling the North Korean GDP, minus the sectors that are treated separately including, as is widely suspected, a large part of the military economy.
However, no absolute numbers have been provided since the reform year of 2002. Planned revenue for 2002 was around 22 billion Won, but that was before the July reforms that devalued the local currency and led to massive inflation. The budget has ever since been announced in varying cryptic formulations such as “expenditures on the economy” and in percentage terms such as “6 percent more than in the previous year,” not to mention the even less expressive “huge amount” to be spent on this or that key sector. It remains to be seen whether or not the death of Kim Jong Il has, in any way, disrupted the this annual routine, and whether we will see more precise information this time around.
Back to Kim Jong Un. Similar to his grandfather, and unlike his father, his initial endowment with legitimacy is rather small. Consequently, he is tasked with having to actively acquire the amount necessary for stable leadership. Kim Il Sung, after initial economic and social reforms, in the end, decided to attempt unification by military means. Fast forward to 2012, the first measures announced by Kim Jong Un after his father’s death, were a number of laws to facilitate investment, and the “Leap Day” agreement with the United States, which pledged a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the resumption of food aid. These measures provided hope that Kim Jong Un would deviate from his father’s policies.
Then came the déjà-vu: like too many times before, a North Korean signal that could be interpreted as a concession was followed by actions that are difficult to understand. The announced launch of a rocket from a newly built launch pad in the northwest—close to China and thus hard to eliminate by a “surgical strike” without some kind of political fallout—might indeed serve the North Korean space program. And as Moon Chung-in has pointedly argued, it could have been worse: a nuclear test or another clash in the West Sea. But there is little doubt about the military usefulness of the launch data. No matter whether or not this launch violates UN Security Council Resolution 1874, we are left wondering why just a few days before and without a pressing need to do so, a missile launch moratorium was announced that can easily be misinterpreted as having included space launches.
Is the launch an angry reaction to the extraordinarily long-lasting South Korean military maneuvers in March and April, a long-planned highlight of the April 15th celebrations, a sign of an internal power struggle between diplomats and military men, the expression of a lack of coordination, or a hint on the political priorities of Kim Jong Un? In fact, we have reason to believe that both the rocket launch and the Leap Day agreement were in the making before Kim Jong Un assumed power. He could have scrapped them but instead, decided to go ahead with both. Or was he just unaware or unable to stop any of them? The upcoming April events are sure to bring us closer to answers to these daunting questions.
News from North Korea is tightly controlled by the state-run KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) and is basically Pyongyang’s official line. Western journalists rarely get a glimpse inside North Korea although reporters were invited in for the upcoming rocket launch and what the regime calls a satellite launch and the west calls a ballistic missile test. It is also the first time western journalists have been inside North Korea under the regime of Kim Jong-un. In the month since he has ascended to leadership the country’s tightly-controlled media machine has lavished him with praise, calling him a “genius” and a “brilliant” military strategist. Its political structure has also garlanded him with formal titles every bit as extravagant.
But amid all the titles and the propaganda, what can we learn about North Korea’s future direction under its new leader? In the weeks since Kim Jong-un has been in power, most telling is the way he remains overshadowed by his late father and grandfather. Despite a flood of propaganda aimed at boosting the image of the inexperienced young leader, it is still his father who dominates North Korea’s important New Year message. Kim Jong-il’s name appears dozens of times in the script – far more than his son’s. “We should staunchly defend the revolutionary heritage bequeathed by Kim Jong-il, whatever the storm and stress,” it said. “Our party… will make no slightest vacillation and concession in implementing the instructions and policies he laid out in his lifetime and… will allow no change in this process.”
It even goes so far as to spell out the core message explicitly: “Kim Jong-un is precisely the great Kim Jong-il.” Dr Gyeong-seob Oh of South Korea’s Sejong Institute said that this is a clear indication from the North Korean regime that the new leader is his father’s heir “in position, revolutionary ideas and policies”. In other words, expect no change. In fact, North Korea has already said as much. Shortly after Kim Jong-il’s death last month, it issued a scornful statement via state media, warning that “foolish politicians around the world, including in South Korea, should not expect any changes from us”.
But some of those watching North Korea over the past few weeks did pick up some small signs of possible shifts within the regime. Walking behind Kim Jong-un during his father’s funeral procession were equal numbers of military and civilian big-wigs. One of the most prominent, his uncle Jang Song-thaek, is believed by some to perhaps be the most open to reform and is now seen as playing a key role in supporting the young leader. Dr John Swenson-Wright, an Asian affairs specialist at Cambridge University, describes Jang Song-thaek as someone who “may be an influential voice in favour of economic liberalisation and greater openness”. He added that there are signs “that some in the Chinese leadership see Jang as a constructive voice for reforms that echo the modernisation that the Chinese economy went through in the 1970s and 1980s”.
Kim Jong-un’s youth – and his two years at school in Europe – have also fueled speculation over whether he will have a different perspective on government and whether those around him will share his views. Dr Swenson-Wright believes much will depend on the attitude of a younger generation of elite – people in their 20s and 30s – who will have “a much wider awareness of the outside world than the old elite”. “Anecdotal accounts from Western non-governmental groups suggest that the children of the DPRK ‘s [North Korea's] political elite increasingly see training in business and the possibility of access to Western education as the preferred route rather than a traditional career in institutional politics,” he said.
And the way in which the young Kim has been presented to his people has also fuelled speculation over whether the country is returning to an earlier style of government. North Korea’s official media has made much of Kim Jong-un’s physical resemblance to his grandfather, seen as the country’s most popular leader. But Dr Brian Myers, professor of International Studies at Dongseo University in Busan, believes the link to North Korea’s founding father is only skin-deep. “Many people believed that because he looked like Kim Il-sung, and because the official media were making so much of that resemblance, that he was going to return to Kim Il-sung’s style of running the country with equal emphasis on both economic and military affairs,” said Dr Myers. “But we really haven’t seen that.”
What we are seeing, he added, is “Kim Il-sung’s face on Kim Jong-il’s policies”. Kim Jong-il’s core policy was “songun” or “military first”. Military leaders publicly pledged their allegiance to Kim Jong-un at his father’s memorial service, before hundreds of thousands of their own people and the eyes of the world. A state TV documentary aired on Kim Jong-un’s birthday a week later showed the young successor in various military poses – driving a tank, inspecting the troops and pictured with military officials during a missile test several years ago. One of the first official visits he made as leader was to a highly-revered tank division of the North Korean army.
Dr Myers said that these are all images that are meant to show Kim Jong-un as a “military first” leader. “He’s not associating himself directly with economic affairs, which makes good sense politically speaking, because the regime doesn’t know whether they’ll be able to make much progress on that,” Dr Myers said. North Korea has faced severe economic problems since Kim Jong-il took power in 1994. “The whole benefit of the ‘military first’ policy for the regime was that it could disassociate itself from economic policy,” Dr Myers explained. The other benefit – at least for now – is that it allows a young and relatively unknown leader to slip swiftly and neatly into his father’s shoes.
Dr Gyeong-sob Oh says the politically inexperienced Kim Jong-un has “chosen to follow in the footsteps of his father’s policies because he is simply not prepared to propose new (ones)”. And neither, he believes, are the more established heads around him, adding that doing so could result in “elimination”. The lack of new ideas or policies in the country’s New Year’s message, he concludes, is the result of a “strategic compromise” by Kim Jong-un and the governing elite. The good news for South Korea and its allies though, according to Korean analyst Haksoon Paik, is that “since stabilisation is at the top of Kim Jong-un’s agenda, unless South Korea and the US pose a threat to or provoke North Korea, it is not likely that North Korea will provoke first”.
Government officials in South Korea openly agree. Soojin Park, deputy spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, said that the succession appears to be “very stable and well-prepared” so far. She said the government understands “that the North might need some time to settle things internally” and will not “respond to every remark or statement that the North releases”. “Just because the North has criticised the [South Korean] government, it doesn’t mean they won’t come out for dialogue,” Ms Park said. As in the past, words and symbols may tell one kind of story here on the Korean Peninsula, but it is actions that count.
North Korea remains the way it is because the West and China do not want a humanitarian crisis that a collapse of the North would create. China shudders at the thought of hundreds of thousands of starving North Korean refugees streaming across it’s borders and while South Korea wants reunification, it too is woefully unprepared for thousands of refugees coming south looking for food and in reality, food is the issue. As sad as it is, it is easier to feed the North Koreans through humanitarian aide, let them rattle their sabers from time to time and contain them inside their own reclusive mess.