It’s hard to judge history as you live it. Some things are easy. Personal computers, the Internet, maybe even Facebook and Twitter. I think the Romans who were alive when the eternal city was first sacked by Visigoths would recognize that as an historic event. When we look back from our perspective, we recognize all the little steps that led to that day. History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme, as the saying goes. I wonder if we could see what “small steps” are occurring around us. I know one. North Korea‘s revolution was precipitated by decades of oppression and starvation imposed on the population by an immoral hereditary dictatorship. The revolution hasn’t happened yet, but I’m fairly certain that it will. It will start as an internal power struggle among the upper echelons of the military. The Kims (il sung, jong il) have been increasing the power of the military. They’ve needed a strong military to act as a deterrent against aggression, both foreign and domestic. Having a strong military in a dictatorship is a difficult balancing act. Stalin gutted his military to the point that it wasn’t a threat to him, but it wasn’t a threat to the Germans either. A strong military can become an internal threat if it’s left unchecked. North Korea’s solution to the military problem has been to focus the country’s energies like a laser on their neighbors and first world countries. “Juche” doesn’t just stand for self reliance, it’s a slogan that embodies a manifest destiny and a national identity at the same time. Juche implies a siege mentality where North Korea will always be at odds with the rest of the world.
As the outside world inevitably intrudes into North Korea’s insular world, the military elite will want more of the first world comforts that Kim Jong Il and his inner circle enjoy. Outside comforts, by definition, come with outside ideas. Without a strong dictator to act as a benefactor, the military may start to see the dictatorship as something that only exists at their pleasure. Normally, this would just lead to a new dictator. North Korea is a slightly different situation, though. In addition to the strong dictator/military relationship, the Kims have gone to great lengths to create a cult of personality. It’s the emotional component of their internal control system. In some ways, North Koreans see Kim Il Sung as their father, not just the father of their country. The cult of personality has been a central part of the North Korean education system for more than three generations. Presuming that the average lifespan of a North Korean peasant is less than 70 years, there is a vanishing minority of people who even remember North Korea before the Kims.
I think the North Korean revolution will be very quiet, and it definitely won’t be televised. The military elite may already see the current power transition as an opportunity to take control of the state. They can’t perform a direct coup, but they can take control before Kim Jong Un consolidates his power. They would attempt to make Kim Jong Un a puppet. A North Korean puppet state would leave some tell tale signs that we could see. In order to take control, the military will have to exercise some power. It won’t be directly aimed at the dictatorship. It would most likely take the form of aggression towards South Korea, Japan, perhaps even China. Aggression towards China is unlikely, but still possible. It depends on where the military has the strength and will to do something that can be used as a bargaining chip in PyongYang. The struggle isn’t for the dictatorship itself, but for the power behind the dictator.
There are signs that this struggle has started in a small way. Assuming that Kim Jung Il has been in declining health for at least 5 years, we can evaluate North Korea’s aggressive actions in that time frame. Some of those actions may have been precipitated by the military to put pressure on Kim Jong Il. Kim has also gone to China several times in the last few years. As North Korea’s benefactor state, China is in a position to dictate the terms of a power transition. Kim may be bolstering his son’s position in hopes of gaining them as an ally in the upcoming hereditary transition. China’s main concern is to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula. Which power eventually gains control of North Korea may not concern them as much as a smooth transition. China may back either side. I think they’re more likely to back the Kims because a popular revolution will happen in North Korea, but not until the whole country is destabilized by a military coup gone wrong. They will only delay the inevitable, though, if Kim Jong Un consolidates power at the expense of the military. Even though they are rivals in this struggle, they need each other to maintain strict control of the population.
North Korea has always fascinated me. It’s an attempt to create a country like Orwell’s Oceania. To any rational person, that dark world is just a thought experiment on the depth of human cruelty. A country based on such an imbalance cannot endure any crack in the facade.