Kill the dissenters, make no reforms, control the markets
Illogical. Irrational. Unpredictable. These are the kinds of words the outside world associates with North Korea and its dictatorial government. The infamous Kim family dynasty has been described as the world’s only remaining communist monarchy. They rule over a malnourished population and command an enormous military funded by a broken economy. There are few countries on earth that garner as much international curiosity as North Korea, simply because so little is understood about it.
So how have three generations of Kim men maintained control for so long? Are they as irrational and unpredictable as they seem? What is actually happening in North Korea, and what does its present reality portend for its future?
“They are the best bunch of Machiavellians in existence,” Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University, said of North Korean leaders. “They know exactly what they are doing, and they have survived.” Survival, according to Lankov, appears to be the main objective of the current North Korean regime. While 20 to 30 years ago grand aspirations of a unified Korean Peninsula under the control of Pyongyang may have existed, now it would seem that North Korea’s elite are simply trying to ensure that they are able to die comfortably in their beds at an old age. Those in power (an estimated 1 million to 2 million of the country’s approximately 25 million citizens) have become accustomed to rule and they have no desire to live out their days in exile — or worse. One of the more remarkable things about North Korea is the fact that it still exists.
Lankov remembers how people in the Soviet Union, as early as the 1980s, were speculating on how quickly the North Korean regime would collapse. The country was economically backwards even then; survival after the death of Kim Il-sung seemed extremely unlikely. It was thought that perhaps Hungary or the former Czechoslovakia would be among the few possible communist dictatorships able to stand the test of time, but while leaders like Tito and Husák (Hungary and Czechoslovakia, respectively) have long since been deposed and vilified in the passages of history, the Kim family marches on. Though by relative global standards the North Korean elite cannot be considered fabulously rich, living perhaps as luxuriously as a high-level “chaebol” (conglomerate) businessman, they are certainly comfortable. And they have gotten used to their power.
With the death of his father, Kim Jong-un now has the precarious job of maintaining his family legacy. While some speculate that his Western education in Switzerland may encourage him to reinvent North Korea following the Chinese example, there would be major obstacles in his way. According to Professor Lankov, there are four foundational principles which the Kim family have used to hold dominion since the 1970s, and it would be exceptionally difficult to break from them. An inexperienced and untested leader, Kim Jong-un is heavily influenced by his advisors, many of whom are left over from his grandfather’s administration. “There is no one in the government who could be considered Kim Jong-un’s drinking buddy. They are relics of the ‘60s and ‘70s and he has to follow them,” said Lankov.
There is no way to know if Kim likes or hates this situation, but it’s clear that the same policies will continue for the foreseeable future.
There has been speculation that North Korea has been on the cusp of reform since the 1980s, yet very little has happened. While logic might suggest that the surest way to reinvigorate the dismal North Korean economy would be to institute gradual reforms, as China did after the death of Mao, there is one major obstacle standing in the way: South Korea.
In China’s case, there was no South China to contend with. South Korean citizens are estimated to make between 15 and 40 times more income than their Northern neighbors. Even if the more conservative estimate is true, this is still the largest disparity in wealth of any two countries in the world that share a land border. Any reforms initiated by Kim Jong-un would necessarily open North Korea to the outside world, exposing North Koreans to “mind-blowing pictures of South Korean success,” Lankov asserted. “Though South Koreans will admit that there are problems in their (own) society, from a North Korean’s view, it is a very attractive life.”
From a dictator’s perspective, this poses some serious problems. Unlike in China, where the Chinese population was aware of the successes of the outside world, North Koreans have been largely insulated from international awareness. The Chinese were aware that countries like the United States enjoyed very different circumstances than they did, and they did not blame their government for not matching American prosperity. North and South Korea, however, were the same country until Japan ceded control over the former colony after World War II, and they were dealing with the same economic circumstances until the 1960s. Opening North Korea’s borders after roughly 50 years of isolation would lead to a veritable tidal wave of information into the isolated country. Images of South Korean prosperity would reflect poorly on the North Korean regime and place the blame for their dismal situation squarely on their shoulders. North Korean citizens will certainly demand to know why they are malnourished and poor while their neighbors to the South are well-fed and rich beyond imagination.
“Even if (North Koreans) prove to be the best geniuses in the history of economics, it will not be enough. The North Korean people will be impatient, and they will want (improved living standards) now,” Lankov said. There will be a general sentiment that if they unite with South Korea they will immediately be given the same quality of life that the South enjoys. The likely result is an aggressive push to reunify as quickly as possible and the swift deposition of the current North Korean regime. From the perspective of Kim Jong-un and his advisors, this must be a terrifying prospect.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was typically the former elites who gained the most. They were experienced, wealthy, politically savvy, and they had connections. They prospered more after the dissolution of the Soviet empire than they ever could have under the communist party apparatus. This would not be the case for the elites of the North, who fear a vengeful South. According to Lankov, the North Koreans know how they would have treated the South Koreans had they won the war, and they have no reason to expect anything different from a victorious South. The elites love their families like everyone else, which is why they won’t change. They are well aware of the demise of the Gadaffi family in Libya, and they do not want to suffer the same fate. From their perspective, reforms equal suicide.
“Find me an elite in the world who is happy about surrendering power,” said Lankov. “It is nice for us to talk about reforms while we are enjoying a latte, but for these people it is a matter of life and death. Even if their chances of survival are 50 percent, they are not likely to take the gamble, simply because they love their families. But I put their chances well below 50 percent.”
Let them eat nukes
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have been a staple issue of the international press for years, with the most recent ballistic missile test dominating CNN around the clock for weeks. This coverage is, in fact, exactly what the North Korean regime wants.
Nuclear weapons mean security, and when it comes to security, the Kim family and their advisors are decidedly more paranoid than most. They have seen what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq; they are well aware that a conventional army, no matter how large, cannot stand against the overwhelming financial and technological superiority of the United States and its allies. And unlike in those Middle Eastern nations where the locals fight fiercely to repulse the foreign invaders, after decades of totalitarian rule the Kim family has no reason to believe that North Korea’s citizens will engage in a sustained guerilla war on their behalf. Having watched fellow dictators around the world being steadily deposed, the North Korean regime knows that nuclear weapons alone will save them. Gaddafi’s Libya would not have fallen so easily — if at all — had it been in control of a similar nuclear arsenal. The insurgency in Libya greatly depended on NATO forces, intelligence and air support, and it seems unlikely that this assistance would have been so eagerly provided had there been a threat of nuclear retaliation. Had the Libyan government possessed such weapons, “Gaddafi would probably now be enjoying a nice supper after spending a few hours in the torture chambers talking with former pro-democracy (rebels),” Lankov said.
While the sentiment of “let them eat nukes” has been echoed somewhat ironically by political and military analysts when talking about North Korea, this is essentially what they have been doing for the last two decades.
Stalinist economies typically enjoyed an initial period of success lasting for 10 or 20 years; but once dead, it cannot be resurrected. This is the position North Korea finds itself in: unable to revive its economy, and perpetually on the brink of starvation.
Estimates say that between 5 and 5.5 million tons of grain are needed to keep the North Korean population alive, yet they are capable of producing only 4.2 to 4.8 million tons on their own. This difference has to be made up somewhere.
Enter nuclear-driven blackmail.
According to the World Food Organization, around 700,000 tons of grain are being supplied to North Korea annually, the bulk of which comes from the U.S., Japan and South Korea — three countries which North Korea is technically at war with. Kim Il-sung started a policy of agreeing to suspend nuclear program development as long as payments continued. North Korea’s enemies continue to keep the isolated nation alive. North Koreans are, essentially, eating nuclear weapons.
Kill the dissenters
Contrary to media portrayals in recent years, North Korea has actually become a less repressive place to live, according to Lankov. There are things done today that were unthinkable under the rule of Kim Il-sung. If a North Korean is caught trying to enter China, they are rigorously investigated to see if they have had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries — those most often responsible for assisting defectors in reaching a safe country — but they are not automatically executed, as had been common in the past.
If interrogators cannot conclusively prove that defection was intended, the punishment is “between two months and one year in prison — more or less arbitrary, depending on how much they dislike you. (Under Kim Il-sung) this would have meant five years at least, and lifelong discrimination,” said Lankov. Before 1997, all family members of a suspected defector would have been sent to a prison camp and not released until the accused was acquitted — which was usually never. Now, in most cases, the families are not jailed, though they are harshly discriminated against and quickly removed from Pyongyang — a city reserved for the most loyal, elite North Koreans. Despite these changes, the country is one of the world’s most unforgiving when it comes to punishment. Various estimates put the number of prisoners in North Korea at 150,000, some 0.6 percent of the population. To put this figure into perspective, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev never had more than 1,000 political prisoners at any one time, even though the population was 10 times that of North Korea. Only Stalin’s Soviet Union comes close to matching North Korea’s incredible incarceration rate, a period in history synonymous with fear and cruelty.
“So, they do not tolerate dissent. And they should not,” said Lankov. “With South Korea so close and an incurable economic crisis, any attempt to tolerate dissent could lead to instability and collapse. They allow nothing that is not approved by the government, and if they want to live to be old men, they should not.”
Control the markets
Though North Korea has not reformed, this is not to say that it has not changed. The country that Kim Jong-un presides over is drastically different than the one his grandfather left— the most notable difference being the market economy.
Under Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s economy was totally controlled by government distribution. Nothing was bought or sold for decades. The government decided how much food a person could eat, how often their diet included meat, and even how many pairs of shoes were issued. Modern North Korea, however, has a greatly reduced industrial output, and the government no longer has the resources to dominate the marketplace as it once did.
Some estimates suggest that up to 70 percent of a North Korean household’s total income is now derived from outside the state economy in the black market. “It is like African capitalism,” Lankov said. “It is illegal, but many people are smuggling, (engaging in) household manufacturing, or (running) small workshops.”
Private businesses are disguised as state operations, and state officials are themselves black market traders. Officially all businesses must belong to the government, but bribery and corruption allow a private economy to exist and expand. Obviously not desirable from a despotic regime’s point of view, this sort of grassroots economy is dangerous in the long run as people learn that they can make a living independent of government participation.
Illegal markets are becoming increasingly common, and are hotbeds for the spread of rumors about the outside world, criticisms of the state and even South Korean pop culture.
The government is, for these reasons, constantly trying to regulate and close these markets, only for them to reappear and expand.
It is an economic whack-a-mole; the government crushes capitalism, and then the market counters. To hold on to power, the North Korean regime must find a way to control these markets, but not excessively so.
After the disastrous 2009 currency reform, when government intervention caused the value of the North Korean won to increase 10,000 percent overnight, leading to mass inflation and economic collapse, they have realized that too much control could be their undoing.
This is an extremely fine and precarious line that Kim Jong-un and his advisors must now walk, made even more difficult by a population that is becoming relatively defiant.
For the first time in North Korea’s history, people are ignoring government decrees regarding the market, and laws are becoming difficult to enforce. Technically, men are prohibited from being merchants, and women over the age of 50 are forbidden from trading, but these regulations are all but ignored.
Though the persecution of political dissenters is still vigorously enforced, the state officials who are supposed to enforce the laws regarding economic control are sabotaging them.
These low-level officials are in fact making most of their income from the market traders they are tasked with repressing.
According to Lankov, “If (the official) succeeds in his duty, he is limited to 540 grams of wheat per day. But if he takes money from the traders, he can eat meat every day. Does he want to do his job?
“Of course not, he is human.”
The dawning of awareness
Contrary to common assumptions, modern North Koreans are not completely cut off from the outside world, as the previous generations were. While tunable radios are banned (all radios must, by law, have their tuners fixed to government stations), cheap, Chinese-made DVD players are not a rarity. At approximately $30, a DVD player costs almost as much as an average North Korean earns in a month. Though not cheap, it’s not overly expensive either — an investment comparable to buying a used car in South Korea, for example. It’s certainly not something found in every home north of the 38th parallel, but a realistic purchase for a substantial cross-section of society.
Ostensibly permitted so citizens can enjoy biopics of their Dear Leaders, DVD players have given North Koreans the chance to glimpse the outside world through the lens of martial arts films from Hong Kong and dramas from South Korea. The cultural impact of the humble DVD is great. Half a century ago, Korean was spoken on the Korean Peninsula, but now there are essentially two languages: South Korean and North Korean. However, Lankov’s colleagues in North Korea have reported that South Korean parts of speech and forms of address are starting to permeate the North Korean dialect.
The political ramifications of such international awareness are obviously undesirable from the regime’s point of view, which has spent decades indoctrinating its people in the evil ways of its Southern neighbor. North Korean propaganda about the South has been so pervasive that many citizens are unable to believe all of what they see in the imported dramas. For them, the notion that nearly every South Korean household can afford a car is contrary to what they have been told. Just as the North Korean government greatly exaggerates the opulence of its nation, they expect the South Korean government to do the same. But, as Lankov points out, “they do understand there are some things that cannot be faked — the cityscape of Seoul, for example. It is beginning to dawn on them that South Korea is doing well.”
This dawning awareness of South Korea’s modern success can be seen in the evolving propaganda methods employed by the Kim administration. While they once asserted that the South was so poor that students had to sell their blood to pay for textbooks, they are reluctantly admitting that South Koreans are not, in fact, impoverished.
Traditional propaganda campaigns followed the communist model of portraying North Korea as an industrial powerhouse, glorifying steel mills and smoke stacks while showing South Korea as a place of thatch houses, unpaved roads and sinister-looking American soldiers. Now, however, the trend seems to have reversed, with the South depicted as a hellish inferno of pollution and suffocating toxic clouds. Conversely, North Korea is shown to be a pristine natural paradise through posters of political leaders interacting with common citizens in verdant fields and crystal clear mountain streams. One particular campaign featured a cartoon turtle that was dying in the chemical wastelands of South Korea, and so was forced to flee to the pure waters of the North where he happily splashed for ever after.
Claiming to know the future of North Korea for certain is hubris, but based on the current trends, and testimonials from recent defectors, it is possible to speculate with some hope of accuracy. What is clear is that North Korea is changing, and in a typical communist dictatorship, change marks the beginning of the end. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, the end will be harsh and very likely violent, Lankov predicts.
“I talk with the North Koreans a lot, roughly four or five times per week,” said Lankov, “and what is clear is that people who are now in their 20s and early 30s have very different ideas from their parents.
They know North Korea is a poor place and they are (relatively) less afraid of the government. They no longer feel the Kim Jong-il method is the only method. While these people are still young, they will soon become the majority.”
Ironically, the North Korean regime’s enemies are preventing its collapse; outside powers do not want the status quo to change.
China fears the millions of Korean refugees that would flood over the border into historically disputed territory. The U.S., meanwhile, would likely be forced to abandon a strategically important military position on the Korean Peninsula. Japan might be the only country with something to gain from an all-out North Korean collapse.
South Korea, the nation that would seemingly be most eager to end the war, is perhaps the most wary of reuniting.
Though lip service is usually paid in favor of reunification, a significant number of youth in the South will admit that while they support the idea in theory, they do not want to deal with the realities — namely the huge cost to South Korean taxpayers. “I definitely support reunification,” said Hwang In-gi, a graduate student in Seoul, “as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”
This may sound like a heartless attitude, but South Koreans have worked exceptionally hard over the last five decades to transform their country into an economic success.
For the average taxpayer, the cost of reunification would be substantial. If the United States annexed all of Central America, for example, and then asked American citizens to pay for the cost of modernizing and improving the quality of life in the new territories, there would be predictable outrage.
Asking South Koreans to pay for reunification is much the same except that in this case, North Korea has been threatening to kill them — and in hundreds of cases succeeding — for the last 70 years.
Though South Koreans might not want to rush into reunification, North Korea will inevitably collapse. Exactly how is a matter of debate, but Lankov suggested several possibilities: An overly zealous police officer could go too far with a physical punishment and spark a violent riot which would spread across the country, forcing Kim Jong-un and his elites into exile.
Perhaps elements of the military that have less of a stake in the regime will decide it is time for a change in the power structure and stage a coup. It is even possible that Kim Jong-un secretly desires to implement massive reforms and pursue political and economic models that he studied while living in Switzerland.
Maybe he has a bleeding heart and just wants his people to be happy. It is impossible to know.
But no matter what happens, sooner or later something will; the system is too broken and unstable to last forever.
“I would not be surprised if we learned tomorrow that there are riots (in North Korea),” said Lankov. “But I would be equally unsurprised if in 2027 we are discussing the 25th successful long-range nuclear missile test. Being outsiders, we know only that their system is rotten, but not how seriously. We just can’t know.”
About the interviewee: Andrei Lankov is a professor of Korean studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, he was able to complete some of his undergraduate studies in Pyongyang as part of an educational exchange. This has given him a unique perspective on North Korea, the country that is arguably the most talked about in the news, while also being the least understood. Andrei is also a columnist for the Korea Times. Luc heard him speak about the world’s last isolated nation during the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights conference in Seoul.