Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Kim Jong-Il's Death - Under-Appreciated Points to Watch

Having watched the news analysis and commentaries for the last week and a half following Kim Jong-Il's death, here are a few points that, in the Korean's estimation, a lot of people under-appreciate or simply get wrong.

1.  Change is coming.

Many observers said, essentially, that nothing will change; North Korea has survived this far, and there is no reason to believe that anything will change. This is a casual observation that is completely ignorant of the historical context. North Korea after the March of Struggles -- the massive starvation in the 1990s -- is a place fundamentally altered from pre-1990s North Korea under Kim Il-Sung. And it will be those post-1990s changes that will finally do the North Korean regime in.

2.  The tears of North Koreans are not real.

South Korean experts on North Korea rarely bothered with the question, "are those tears real?" But somehow, that question apparently fascinated non-Korean experts of North Korea, who attempted to offer various theories about why North Koreans were crying at the death of Kim Jong-Il.

For the Korean, this question served as a nice litmus test for figuring out which North Korean expert knows what she is talking about, and which North Korean expert is a hack. Here is the simple answer for the question -- the tears are not real, and North Koreans are crying because, for the most part, they are coerced. The reports from the inside of North Korea unanimously say that practically no one was saddened by Kim Jong-Il's death. Every defector who has watched the proceedings said that the fakeness of the mourning was transparently visible.

Recall back to the fact that North Korea is more porous than ever. North Koreans no longer hold any illusion about their leadership. Yet the idea that North Koreans are brainwashed is so fashionable that real stories of periodic uprisings in North Korea are completely buried. Anyone who claims that North Koreans are brainwashed enough to shed tears for a tyrant who killed millions through state-created mass famine and gulags simply has no idea what he is talking about.

(More after the jump)

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3.  China is not as important as you think.

The importance of China in North Korean affairs is overrated. It is, of course, correct that China is critically important for North Korean survival. But it is nonetheless incorrect to say that China holds the key to North Korean survival. That is just like saying that oxygen holds the key for human survival. Is oxygen critically important for human survival? Of course it is -- without oxygen, all humans will die in a matter of minutes. But is there any reason to expect that something dramatic will happen to the world's oxygen supply? Of course not.

The same with China. It would be nice if we could do something to deprive North Korea of China's support since, like a human without oxygen, North Korea could collapse in a matter of days without the Chinese support. But there is no reason to expect that China would cease their current level of support of North Korea. We are better off treating China's support of North Korea as a constant.

(Aside:  The caveat of "current level" of support is an important one. There may come a point where China would decline to support North Korea because the cost of supporting North Korea became prohibitively expensive.)

Like humans can die of causes other than oxygen deprivation, North Korea can die of causes other than China deprivation. And China cannot prevent North Korea's internal turmoil any more than oxygen can prevent a person from getting shot. Because the tie between China and North Korea has been so emphasized, the degree to which North Korea is suspicious of China has been vastly under-appreciated. Such under-appreciation is a species of a common mistake made with respect to North Korea -- failure to see North Korea from its own, internal perspective.

Because of the terrible memories from the Imperial Japanese rule from early 20th century to the end of World War II, both North Korea and South Korea are deeply nationalistic. They are almost automatically suspicious of an undue foreign influence. However, North Korea went several huge steps beyond South Korea when it comes to utilizing that nationalism for legitimizing its regime. North Korean regime tied the nationalism with the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung, and justified Kim Il-Sung's rule by constantly emphasizing his role of delivering North Korean people out of the terrible colonization by Imperial Japan, and protecting North Korean people from the potential colonization by Imperial America. The governing philosophy of North Korea -- juche, or "self-reliance" -- is an outgrowth of this nationalistic ideology.

Does this sound like a country that would submit itself to China's meddling of its internal affairs? Because China is in a position to actually interfere with North Korea's internal affairs, North Korean regime is more suspicious of China than any other country in the world -- more than South Korea, more than America. Kim Jong-Il was reportedly fond of saying that a single Russian or Chinese spy in the regime was more dangerous than ten American spies. North Korea relies on China out of necessity, not out of fondness. North Korea will follow China's directives only as much as it has to, and not an inch more. And most importantly, if North Korea's fall is led by ordinary North Koreans, those ordinary North Koreans would overwhelmingly prefer South Korea to take over rather than China.

4.  South Korea is the most important country when it comes to North Korea.

The point above leads to this natural conclusion. Strangely absent from the English-language discussion about North Korea was:  what is South Korea planning to do? This is, again, a mistake. South Korea is the most important country in handling North Korea because it scores the highest in the equation of "influence over North Korea," multiplied by "willingness to leverage that influence." For better or worse, South Korea is the only country among the interested parties -- including U.S., China, Japan and Russia -- that significantly changed the course of its North Korea policy in the last 50 years, which signifies a degree of flexibility that other countries do not possess. South Korea is the only country that can focus on the whole of North Korea, rather than piecemeal aspects of it. (For the most part, U.S. is only concerned about North Korea's nuclear capabilities; China, possibility of North Korea's collapse and a swarm of North Korean refugees; Japan, North Korea's missiles and abductions.) South Korea is the only country that can focus its attention to North Korea at a national level, rather than at the level of a single governmental agency or less. If North Korea can change through external efforts at all (which is itself not a sure proposition,) such external efforts will come from South Korea.

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  1. Now I'm wondering what Russia wants.

    South Korea's influence equation was counter-intuitive at first, but it's obviously true.

  2. > Kim Jong-Il was reportedly fond of saying that a single Russian or Chinese spy in the regime was more dangerous than ten American spies.

    Wow; don't think I've ever seen that quote before. Any chance of a translation?

  3. Mr. Korean, this is a really great, worthwhile blog.

  4. TK,

    I think you're a brilliant blogger on multitude levels, with the exception of one thing that was noted on your blog: CHANGE IS COMING!

    I, for one, doesnt believe change is coming. For one, stability within the penninsula is far more pressing issue than unification of Koreas. For example, it is no secret that average South Koreans does not want unification for economic reasons. Furthermore, KJU is very young. As a result, he is naive and led a for more oppressive regime than his predecessor, his father.

    I hope I am wrong on this, because it would be a dream of mine to see a one Korea. But I just dont think this is imminent given the political climate of the region.

  5. don't think I've ever seen that quote before. Any chance of a translation?

    Not sure what you mean -- the quote is already translated. It came from this passage of the linked article: "중국의 대북 영향력이 아무리 커진다 해도 김정은의 새 지도부에게 이래라저래라 할 수 있을까? 이에 대해 김정일이 직접 한 말이 있다. "미제(美帝) 간첩 열 마리보다 내부에 스며든 소련 개(스파이), 중국 개 한 마리가 더 위험하다".(참, 김정일스러운 표현이다.)"

  6. A nK defector I talked to last year said he thinks the U.S. is making a huge mistake by focusing on the nK nuclear program almost to the exclusion of the human rights abuses that occur there. I think he's right and if we focused more on that, we would probably be greeted with a lot less suspicion and more cooperation from the average north Korean when reunification happens.

  7. Miguk chonhnum,

    As an average Korean, I respectfully disagree with your claim that average Koreans don't want unification. While it is largely true that South Koreans are concerned about economic consequences of the unification, and most of us are quite upset with NK for the stupid random attacks that kill and injure South Koreans and all the negative publicity of Korea it gives to the global audience, and so on and on and on (and legitimately so)... I'd dare say that most South Koreans wishes that the South and North were one nation. Yes, unification may not rank number 1 on our New Year wish list, but most of us would prefer unification to any other possibility--especially not something outrageous like NK becoming part of China.

  8. "미제(美帝) 간첩 열 마리보다..."

    I like how he considers spies as animals! ^^

  9. > Not sure what you mean -- the quote is already translated.

    I meant what did the rest of the article say? Is this a quote from a NK paper? One NK defector? Two defectors? A SK intelligence agency? A SK reporter? And so on.

  10. I would caveat that while almost no Korean would dare even question the idea of Korean unification, there is a large and significant group that doesn't want unification in the near future. Immediate unification would pose a grave threat to South Korea's economic and social well being. The hope is that North Korea would eventually reform and gradually catch up with South Korea for a less painful reunification decades down the road. This is not to say that if North Korea were to collapse tomorrow, South Korea wouldn't try to take charge of the entire peninsula, but there is little interest in large quarters of the ROK to trigger a sudden collapse of the North Korean state.

    I would also quibble a bit about China's influence. I agree that there is little interest in North Korea or China for a direct takeover of the North. However, I do believe that China has a third option: that China could support "friendly" factions within the nation to overthrow the existing government for one more friendly to Chinese interests. It's not so far fetched: there will naturally be plenty of individuals and factions who aren't going to like the new boss, and they may get indirect support from China to displace the current leadership faction. They don't even need to eliminate KJU, simply remove his supporters and leave him as a puppet. It won't be easy, and KJU's supporters will work hard to purge anyone who may be tempted by such an offer, but I think you may be overplaying the strength of nationalism in this sort of situation.

  11. I meant what did the rest of the article say?

    Ah ok. The article is by Sohn Gwang-Ju, head of the Center for Daily NK Reunification Strategies. It was summarized in this post, actually.


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