The Buzz

No Deal: Why North Korea Won't Be the Next Iran

Finally, there is the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s age is a factor in driving this new iteration of inter-elite competition; the neo-Confucian society of Korea traditionally elevates age above youth and is heavily reliant on social networks to enable influence and power. Elevated well above his peer group, Kim Jong-un may have found it difficult to compete with the clannish military leaders, with their decades of friendship and loyalty to the military. Carrying out initial purges may have allowed him both to signal the continued strength of the Kim family and to undertake some practical internal reordering. Purges open up seats and give Kim the power to fill them, allowing him to displace the old with the new. In essence, purges strengthen Kim’s coercive power, his interpersonal power and his patronage power all at once. His promotion of a trusted family member, sister Kim Yo-jong, to vice-director of the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department also suggests that Kim Jung-un will continue to burnish the family’s cult of personality. While Songun and Juche are shared out among the military and party respectively, the sacred place of the Kim family in Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism makes it uniquely unassailable with respect to the other two factions. As with the concepts of divine monarch and heavenly mandate, the cult of leadership built around Kim Jong-un will liken treason to heresy.

In terms of deciding future U.S. policy, it is clear that North Korea is not ready to come back to the table. Internally, it is undergoing too much upheaval. Nor is it clear that coming to the table would be much use, given its policy of maintaining its nuclear-power-state status. The United States and its allies face a choice: they can sit back and allow the Kim regime to consolidate power between the military and the party, hoping to be rewarded for their forbearance, or they can make minute shifts in policy that have ever-larger effect. Realistically a policy of forbearance is unlikely to be recognized much less rewarded by Pyongyang. One can see this from how the regime simply pocketed previous diplomatic gains—such as under the Sunshine policy. Rather than waiting to buy the same horse again, the United States should seek to modify the policy of strategic patience with a growing information campaign inside the regime. This should be enough to keep the regime off balance, rather than seek to bring it down, though the long-term effects of this should be anticipated. The watchword should be subtlety; revealing the truth is likely to be far more successful than propaganda loudspeakers on the border. It is surprising how lenient the United States and its allies have been in this regard, given the success of such campaigns vis-a-vis the Eastern Bloc during the late stages of the Cold War. This should be replicated. Information control is the Achilles heel of all totalitarian regimes: revealing the true state of the outside world and the perks of the regime’s ruling class would suffice, through the use of DVDs, USB drives, and increased radio traffic. Not to do so, is to allow a nuclear-proliferator regime to continue its existence through the lifespan of another Kim, allowing the regime to blackmail China and others for aid and sustenance for another sixty years or so. Worse still, it is to support the current plight of the long-suffering North Korean population.

John Hemmings is an Adjunct Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS and a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he is working on US alliance strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Follow him on Twitter:@johnhemmings2.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

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