Why a North Korean Spring Will Never Happen

Many observers have waited a long time for Pyongyang to fall. They probably will have to wait a lot longer. What should Washington do? 

It doesn’t pay to be number two in North Korea. In December, the young dictator Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-taek, supposedly Kim’s top advisor. Now Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who climbed atop Jang’s corpse, has been relieved of his important positions. At least Choe is still alive, apparently left about where he started, as a functionary running labor groups.

Choe’s fall is particularly important, because though he was an aide to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, he rose rapidly under the younger Kim. In contrast, Jang was installed by Kim pere as a mentor or guardian for the “Great Successor.” So was Jang’s wife and the older Kim’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, who remains alive but apparently has lost her authority. The third “mentor” appointed by the older Kim, Army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho, was removed in July 2012.

By defenestrating his father’s appointees Kim Jong-un eliminated constraints imposed on him. Dumping Choe reshapes the political environment of Kim’s making. Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so has taken over Choe’s army post, but he may be drinking from a poisoned chalice.

Choe’s ouster appears to answer the question: who is in charge? Jang’s fate was striking because it was so out of character for the regime—a public execution of a top official and family member which required admitting factionalism under the faultless leader. Thus, some observers theorized that killing Jang was a desperate step to rebuff a serious bid for power or a forced step to pacify influential political forces, such as the military.

However, there is no evidence of further internal strife since December. Now the next powerful figure, who seemingly gained the most from Jang’s removal, has fallen. Looking back, Jang’s execution may have been Kim’s way of demonstrating that even family ties offered no protection for insufficient loyalty to Number One. Choe’s removal may be a coda, that there will be no more Jangs with enough power to consider challenging Number One.

While Kim’s dominance in Pyongyang does not guarantee the regime’s survival, it dampens hope for any change outside of Kim. Today’s Korean Winter isn’t likely to give way to a Korean Spring. No one who values his life is likely to question the status quo.

Moreover, nothing suggests that the amazing resilience of the North’s communist monarchy is about to give way. Indeed, the elite, at least, is doing better than in years past. European consultant Glyn Ford argued that Pyongyang’s “citizens have never had it so good. The change is both quantitative and qualitative.”

People in the countryside still suffer, but they are not likely to start a revolution. Many observers have waited a long time for regime collapse in the North. They probably will have to wait a lot longer.

In fact, given the DPRK’s history and Kim’s age, he could rule for another 30 or 40 years. And so far, he doesn’t appear to be much interested in reform, either economic or political. There’s talk of economic change, but not much evidence of it in practice. He obviously has his father’s and grandfather’s antipathy to political pluralism.

If anything, he appears to be more committed to his government’s nuclear weapons program and confrontational foreign policy than were his predecessors. Whatever he gained from his education in Switzerland, it was not a belief in diplomatic nuance.

North Korea’s policy toward the South has oscillated wildly, but has headed mostly downward. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has kept up a steady drumbeat of vitriol directed at the ROK, recently calling President Park Geun-hye a “repulsive wench.”

Moreover, Pyongyang conducted a live fire drill near the disputed Yellow Sea border where it launched a deadly bombardment of a South Korean island back in 2010.

Of greater concern to the United States, the North appears to be preparing a fourth and “new form” of nuclear test. The DPRK also recently test-fired two medium-range missiles, predicting “next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine.”

President Barack Obama’s much-heralded Asia trip set North Korea as one of its priorities but did nothing to chasten the Kim regime’s behavior. To the contrary, Kim may view such high-level attention as a challenge requiring a response—such as new nuclear and missile tests.

Even more than China and Russia, the DPRK directly challenges Washington’s desire for a stable, peaceful, and democratic world. Pyongyang wants none of these, and the United States has found no strategy to persuade or coerce the North otherwise. Succeeding administrations have tried isolation, engagement, sanctions, rewards, and threats, but none has had any perceptible impact on North Korean policy.