Friday, December 23, 2011

Kim Jong-Il's Death - The Korean's Thoughts

If you remember where you were when you heard a piece of news, that's a big news. The Korean was reading a newspaper in his living room back in Korea, when he learned from the front page that Kim Il-Sung died. He was on a conference call at work in New York when someone on the call broke the news that Michael Jackson died. And this time, the Korean was walking up the stairs at a hotel near San Luis Obispo, California, when the Korean Wife read her text messages and said, "Hey, Kim Jong-Il died."

The Korean has not been near a computer for quite some time, but he did voraciously read all the news, from within Korea and without. (4G phone = awesome.) Given the significance of the news, the Korean will devote the next several posts over the next several days on North Korea. Specifically, the posts will discuss the Korean's own thoughts, Mr. Joo Seong-Ha's thoughts, things about North Korea that most commentators are missing right now, and any other North Korean question that the Korean has received in the last few days.

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When the Arab Spring happened, many North Korean observers were eager to extend the analogy to North Korea. In most cases, the analogies failed. North Korea is more isolated, more benighted and more tightly controlled than any of the Arab countries. Even the most repressive Arab dictatorship that fell -- that is, Libya under Qaddafi -- may well be a liberal democracy compared to North Korea.

However, there is one crucial lesson from the Arab Spring that does apply to North Korea. The lesson is this: an apparently stable dictatorship may fall suddenly, unpredictably and uncontrollably. Previous to the Arab Spring, there appeared to be no hope for democracy in Arab nations. For decades, despite constant oppression that appeared intolerable for outside observers, Arab nations persisted in dictatorship. Very smart people -- for example, influential Harvard professor Samuel Huntington -- believed that Islamic cultural traditions prevented Arab nations from having a democracy. And they looked like geniuses, until they did not.

The same applies to North Korea. Freedom's lack of progress in North Korea has frustrated many observers into falsely believing that North Koreans are too brainwashed and the Kim Dynasty too strong. Not so. Looking back, there were many signs that the Arab Spring was imminent -- we just did not know what to look for. Similarly, there are many signs that the fall of North Korea is not far away. You just have to know what to look for. And with Kim Jong-Il's death, there are even more signs that North Korea is not for much longer.

What are those signs? Here are five examples:
  1. North Korea is trying out a collective rule for the first time in history.  Throughout its existence, North Korea has always been led by a single ruler. Now, for the first time in its history, North Korea is being ruled by a committee. A rule by committee always contains within it a seed for an internal struggle. The seed is especially likely to germinate if a crucial actor within it -- that is, Kim Jong-Un -- is too inexperienced to maneuver adroitly.

  2. Deification of Kim Jong-Un is not working.  Ever since Kim Jong-Un surfaced into public awareness, the reports from North Korea have been unanimous:  North Korean people do not respect him. Kim Jong-Un was born out of wedlock, by Kim Jong-Il's mistress who was a Korean-Japanese dancer. Kim Jong-Un is only 28 years old. North Koreans quietly deride the attempts at Kim Jong-Un's deification. In fact, failure of charismatic leadership in North Korea began with Kim Jong-Il, who made up for his lack of charisma with political oppression far more brutal than Kim Il-Sung's. At the third generation, the charismatic capital of the Kim family dynasty is now completely empty. Even at the elite level, the relationship between Kim Jong-Un and the elites is transactional rather than personal or ideological.

  3. Vast majority of North Koreans does not depend on the regime for their livelihood.  Since the 1990s, North Korea has ceased to be a communist economy with collective production and distribution. Instead, as far as economy is concerned, North Korea is deeply capitalistic. People's livelihood depends on the market, not on the rations handed by the Labor Party. Kim Jong-Il regime correctly saw this, and attempted to reverse this trend by closing the markets and engaging in a currency reform. The currency reform was an unmitigated disaster, and the markets reopened in just three months. At this point, North Korea can never return to being a communist economy. And greater the market forces are, the weaker the forces of the regime.

  4. North Korea is more porous than ever.  It is, of course, true that North Korea is severely isolated. But the isolation must not be overstated. Because of the factor (3) above, North Korea now has a group of people at the top of the economic ladder who actually enjoy a semi-decent living standards. There are more than 800,000 cell phones operating in North Korea now, and that is before we begin counting the Chinese phones in North Korea that can be used to call South Korea directly. Young people in Pyongyang openly flaunt their iPads. South Korean pop culture, which has captured the imagination of the world, has also hit North Korea. The pirated DVD sets of the latest Korean dramas are widely available in North Korea. Further, there are more North Korean defectors than ever living in South Korea -- 20,000 of them, representing practically every major city in North Korea. Because border patrols can be easily bribed, these defectors regularly communicate with the families back in North Korea via telephone or letters. All this means that ordinary North Koreans have absolutely no illusions about the failure of their own country to provide for them.

  5. North Korean economy is weaker than ever.  The price of rice in North Korea nearly doubled in the last two years, although there is no indication that the living standards in North Korea improved twofold as well. Although rice is harvested in autumn, the price has not fallen in the recent months. Last time this happened in the 1990s, North Korea went through a mass starvation in which a million people starved to death. North Koreans remember this, and likely will not wait to starve this time.
All of these examples point to the fundamental existential dilemma for North Korea -- if the regime lets the status quo continue, the rot of capitalistic corruptibility will reach all the way to the top of the regime and mass starvation may happen again. The regime already saw that it could not revert to the command-and-control economy. But opening up North Korea would lead to the collapse and destruction of the regime. Kim Jong-Un has no way out of this trap. North Korea will collapse; it is just a matter of when and how.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

16 comments:

  1. What a great read. I've been reading anything I can get, too, and you really did address things that others didn't. Thanks for the informed insight, once again.

    As others, I'm very interested to see what happens.

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  2. Theeee Ask a Korean was in SLO?? (San Luis Obispo)? Ironic that I've been reading your blog for months (and yes I've read most of you archived posts) and I never commented until Kim Jong-Il died, while I was in my hometown of Slo and so were you...sorry, a bit of celebrity excitement.

    Aside from that, thank you for your thoughts on the death. I tell people that North Koreans aren't as clueless to the outside world as would be assumed, but everyone says, nooo they are brainwashed. North Korea fascinates me, and I feel this upcoming year will be very interesting for North Korea.

    Happy Holidays! And I hope you enjoyed the great Central Coast wines!

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  3. Very interesting read, I agree.

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  4. One of the best and certainly the most succinct rationalization for why North Korea will fall that I've read recently. The only reason I'm not completely convinced of the fall at this point, however, is China and its desire to keep the status quo. How strong is this desire and how much are they willing to spend in order to keep it? I've been reading that there is growing opposition by members of the Chinese government to this policy of propping up North Korea, but we'll have to see.

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  5. Hmmm... as to your first point, I'm sure this predates Kim Jong-Un, particularly given his deceased father's poor health (and in fact the surgery which must certainly have put him out of action). I'd see it more as part of an ongoing trend?

    But it's a small thing.

    But aren't you afraid that if NK does collapse it will do so towards (perhaps the wrong preposition^^) China and not any kind of reunified Korea?

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  6. Would North Koreans accept becoming the 4th province of Manchuria or is reunification more likely?

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  7. Given how the North Korean state has managed to exist for far longer than any expert could have predicted, I'm not so sure that it'll collapse so easily. I'm more inclined to believe that its collapse will be a soft landing, instead.

    Much as the Chinese Communist Party managed to reinvent itself in a way that people seem to have forgotten that it killed tens of millions of people in the Great Leap Forward, the Korean Worker Party could go under the same transformation.

    To pick just one example, the Internet wouldn't necessarily bring about the ruin of the Kim dynasty or the North Korean dictatorship in general. Much like China, or AOL before it, it could be a walled garden that allows access to designated websites, with a number of banned topics and terms.

    That people know others are living better won't necessarily matter if their lives are getting better, and if a Chinese-style security state makes dissent comparatively rare and insignificant.

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  8. "Opening up North Korea would lead to the collapse and destruction of the regime. Kim Jong-Un has no way out of this trap."

    I would like to repeat what I said under a previous post here: I think Kim Jong-un's way out of this could be as the manager of the transition to "state-controlled capitalism", following the examples of China and Vietnam, where the communist parties stayed in power. If Kim Jong-un heads this reform he could even earn authority and the people's gratitude, and become North Korea's Deng Xiaoping.

    I think there's quite a good chance for this, precisely because of what The Korean said above: they already know the currency reform didn't work, and the black market is running the economy. It's probably also the best scenario for China. So I'm optimistic.

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  9. Its fascinating and sad to see that this regime is still around? Its even more surprising to see that there are only 20,000 defectors out of 20 million people? You figure its a lot more higher! But maybe they are genuinely brainwashed!

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  10. @Marcus

    You have to remember how severe the punishment for defecting is, if one is caught. In many ways the cons outweigh the pros, and if a North Korean is living a relatively comfortably life, above the poverty line and getting an adequate amount of food to eat, then he has no immediate reason to defect, given the consequences.

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  11. @Marcus75: Keep in mind - that figure of 20K only represents the number of defectors who've made it to South Korea. There are tens of thousands of defectors who are in China. Getting out of North Korea and into China is relatively easy. Getting from China to South Korea is the hard part.

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  12. Finally some information that is very different from what everybody say. So a massive protest in the North IS possible. A thought in my head came few days ago. North Korea is a mess, but neither South Korea or, USA or China, or any other country can succeed in cleaning this up as much as the North Koreans can. At least, in Europe, through history, almost all, if not all, of the democracies have been fought by the people, not some government army. They MIGHT have had some interference, but the ones who started were always the oppressed.

    However.... We must not forget that in the capitalist world people do not live in heaven as they want us to believe. Of course, having a strict dicatorship is always much worse, but changing from the comunist to the capitalist regime is just falling from one mess to another mess and from one kind of illussions and brainashig, to another kind.

    Whatever, I admit, I wish North Koreans could make it up themselves. And put an end to these famous bad tensions between the two Koreas. Even if they don't unite, there's no need for enmity.

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  13. The Korean's point about the mistaken views of Western commentators on the Arab world is very well-taken, and I am unaware of any who have made a summary of all the salient facts the way TK did in this post.

    I have no idea what will happen in North Korea but I hope it happens peacefully and I hope the West stays well out of it, if possible. I really hope Kim Jong Eun doesn't try to boost his authority and perceived legitimacy by a limited attack on the South.

    It also seems very unlikely that there will be change through peaceful protest in the near future. For that to work, people have to first of all be aware that they are not alone in having critical opinions, and second of all have at least some hope that they won't be killed for expressing them. Still, who knows what's going on behind the scenes in NK?

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  14. laopan,

    "I would like to repeat what I said under a previous post here: I think Kim Jong-un's way out of this could be as the manager of the transition to "state-controlled capitalism", following the examples of China and Vietnam, where the communist parties stayed in power. If Kim Jong-un heads this reform he could even earn authority and the people's gratitude, and become North Korea's Deng Xiaoping."

    I believe if this were possible, then it'd make a lot of sense for South Korea as well. Letting North Korea open up and reform would allow its economy to rise, making any (peaceful and mutually agreed upon) unification vastly less expensive. Also, I believe that a North Korea with a wealthy economy and more links to international finance and such would be peaceful.

    With a peaceful North Korea, things such as cross-border transit and cross-cultural exchanges would be a lot easier to do. With an FTA agreement and an agreement on free movement between the two Koreas, it may be possible to get a lot of the benefits of a unification (family reunification for example) while delaying formal unification indenfinitely (to give years or even decades of time to work out and agree on the complicated processes that would be involved).

    Of course, there are other elements at work here as well - human rights defenders will rightly continue to complain about the prison camps for defectors in North Korea and others will voice concerns about South Koreans in the North Korean court system, for example.

    Still, even if some of these extra benefits can not be obtained, an opened-up and peaceful North Korea would save South Korea a lot of headache and worry.

    "I think there's quite a good chance for this, precisely because of what The Korean said above: they already know the currency reform didn't work, and the black market is running the economy. It's probably also the best scenario for China. So I'm optimistic."

    If North Korea somehow successfully reformed and opened up but remained on a belligerent course, not a lot would change. In fact, this version of North Korea might be more likely to hurt stability and drag China into a war. Even a negotiated reunification under Seoul's control (but removing US troops in return and honoring investments made to North Korea) would be better for China in that case.

    I do not see a combined China-North Korean military invasion of South Korea as a winning scenario for China. Even if the US and other allies stayed out of it, South Korea's military forces are well equiped to resist a conventional army like Chinas, and while China does have some high tech units, these are significantly smaller in number. Even if China were able to win, it'd probably have to pull out a number of troops from areas like Tibet or Xinjiang. Also, South Korea has the ability to develop nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks, so it would have to fall quickly (which is unlikely) or else there would be nuclear weapons on both sides.

    I think that a reformed North Korea would be peaceful though, making this a moot point. Assuming that's right, then legalizing the market, as Deng Xiaoping did, would go a long way towards a win-win situation for everyone. Obviously, in that case North Korea would not take part in a joint China-North Korean invasion of South Korea.

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  15. laopan,

    However, there are a couple of gotchas involved in opening up. First, let's look at migration.

    For China, there was Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwan's constitution explicitly allows border control against non-Taiwan Chinese nationals, and it has laws that implement this. Hong Kong implemented border control against mainland China back when it was a British colony, and the Basic Law (Hong Kong's mini-constitution) continues to permit border control to this day. (There's also Macau, which duplicates Hong Kongs example.)

    Opening up China did not immediately result in a brain drain because of this. South Korea's constitution seems to read that such border control against North Koreans would be unconstitutional, and changing the constitution to explicitly allow it would be a huge political issue that would take some time to get done (if such a change is made at all).

    North Koreans then might be able to get a tourist visa, visit China, go to the South Korean consulate there, register, obtain a South Korean passport, and then fly there. Even if China especially restricted North Korean access to South Korean embassies, I could easily imagine a 3rd country (such as the Republic of Mongolia) granting tourists or transit visas to North Koreans, who could then travel to South Korea after doing the above actions in the 3rd country.

    North Korea is at an immediate risk of a drain of people if it opens up. Also, a lot of people in North Korea who right now would not dare take the risk would feel more comfortable after this was made legal. Additionally, many people who live too far from the seas or the border with China and were unable to defect can now freely leave.

    As a counterpoint, a reformed North Korea - once proven with time - would be able to give incentives for North Koreans to stay, or at least return back later. Also, South Korea might very well try to stem a tide of migrants from North Korea through the back doors. Even so, an initial rush of people leaving looks quite plausible to me - which would hurt the odds of North Korea's reform becoming a successful one.

    Of course, North Korea could continue to restrict freedom of movement as it does now (letting only Party members and such travel to study overseas or start overseas businesses), but that'd hurt North Korea's economy in the long run as it would receive far less in remittances.

    I suppose North Korea could try to handle this in stages, blocking migration early on until the level of confidence in the reforms was high enough and then opening up on freedom of movement to allow the economy to grow even higher. This will be tricky to do.

    Also, China had the greater China area when it opened up (Hong Kong et al) as well as large overseas Chinese communities. North Korea only has the Chosenjok (in China) and the pro-NK supporters in Japan such as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (who, unlike the Chosenjok, are mostly originally from the southern part of Joseon), a group that is in steady decline. It doesn't have China's advantages.

    Finally, even if North Korea was able to clear every single one of these hurdles, it still has a smaller population than South Korea. This means that North Korea does not have a realistic chance of surpassing South Korea in terms of GDP. If North Korea can reach South Korean levels in GDP per capita quickly enough, this may not matter, but otherwise North Korea might have a legitimacy issue with its own citizens asking why they don't have as much as their relatives in the South. (Vietnam has no one else to compete with for legitimacy, and Chinas GDP is much larger than Taiwans so proving legitimacy in economic terms was a lot easier for China.)

    Even more finally, if North Korea was able to clear that last hurdle, this would still be highly unlikely to lead to a joint China-North Korean invasion of South Korea.

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  16. FarFromKorea,

    Thank you for your long answer. However, you seem to have misunderstood my comment about China: by "the best scenario for China" I didn't mean a chance to invade SK with a strong NK as an ally, but a stable (more stable than now anyway) and pro-China NK south of Manchuria.

    I'm not familiar with the constitution of South Korea, but if it can handle the migration from 1 million+ ethnic Koreans in China then shouldn't it be also able to control the flow from an opened-up North Korea?

    "I suppose North Korea could try to handle this in stages, blocking migration early on until the level of confidence in the reforms was high enough and then opening up on freedom of movement to allow the economy to grow even higher. This will be tricky to do."

    I guess this would be the wisest; opening up to foreign investments first and allow free migration only later on.

    "Also, China had the greater China area when it opened up (Hong Kong et al) as well as large overseas Chinese communities. North Korea only has the Chosenjok (in China) and the pro-NK supporters in Japan"

    I'm sure South Korea would be supportive, out of a sense of nationalism (including not just South Korea but all Koreans), and also out of self-interest, investing in NK to create jobs for the locals to make them stay.

    But as the ban on foreign currency seems to indiacte, my optimism was probably not justified and reforms are not about to come.

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