North Korean Missile Test

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North Korea conducted a missile test on Monday after the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death.  This test may have larger implications in the hereditary transition currently going on in North Korea.  There are two intertwined factors that affect the transition of power that will inevitably happen now that Kim Jong Il has died.  Songun and Juche are the national mottos of North Korea.  Songun, loosely translated, means “Military first”.  North Korea has long held the military as the primary benefactor and protector of the state.  In their national narrative, the military is the only thing that prevents aggressive foreign powers from conquering the country.  Juche is the other side of this narrative.  “Self Reliance” is more than a socialist slogan, it is a framework that supports the actions  of the state.  Juche creates a siege mentality that pits North Korea against the rest of the world.  Through strict control of the national media, North Koreans believe that they enjoy the highest standard of living in the world, and that other countries will try to take that wealth away from them if they are allowed to.  It’s immaterial that North Korea is fundamentally dependent on foreign aid to sustain itself.  Without an external threat, there is no basis for the government to claim that the authoritarian measures they use to control their population are needed.

Juche and Songun combine to place the military at the forefront of the nation.  The difficulty of this emphasis is that an overly strong military can become a threat to the stability of the political infrastructure.  In pre war Russia, Stalin saw the military as a threat to his power base, and purged most of the officer core.  This gutting made the state vulnerable to an invasion by Germany during Operation Barbarosa.  North Korea stands at a unique place in history right now.  The emphasis on military strength is necessary to maintain the national narrative, but puts the politicians in a precarious position by creating rivals for power.  Since Kim Jong Il waited too long to begin grooming his successor, his death has created a power vacuum within the country.  Kim Jong Il himself was groomed for more than a decade before the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994.  Kim Jong Un has only had a few short years to gather power and prepare for this transition.  As a relative newcomer to the national political stage, he may not be able consolidate power before other forces within the country seize it.  This power grab will not take the form of a direct coup, so it may not be very visible to outside observers.  Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are not simply political leaders in north Korea.  Nor are they secular saints as Stalin and Lenin were in the Soviet Union.  North Korea combines the traditional socialist deification with a cult of personality.  The Kims are not only the founders of the state, they are the foundation of the state.  North Korea as an entity cannot exist without the hereditary line started by Kim Il Sung.  The educational system in North Korea has propagated this mythos to the point that Kim Jong Un’s titular position is almost unassailable.  That does not mean that real power will rest with him when the dust settles.

Forces in the military and the central party may see Kim Jong Il’s death as an opportunity to seize power from Kim Jong Un.  In order to do this, they must exercise power in overt ways that do not threaten the state as a whole.  In places where the military senses that they have the authority and the will to conduct aggressive maneuvers, they may become aggressive towards their neighbors in an effort to influence the hereditary transition.  When the military independently exercises power, it is a direct provocation to the political establishment.  The missile test on the east coast of the country may have more to do with gaining influence in PyongYang than it does in keeping neighboring countries at bay.  Larger exercises in power, like the nuclear tests, come from the established political structure and are meant to act as threats against the external forces that support the Juche and Songun slogans.  Missile tests and isolated artillery barrages may be the means that the military uses to suppress opposition in the capital as government power settles into a new form.  In order to shape the outcome of the transition, the military may embark on a series of small international provocations, like this missile test.

It’s difficult to understand what the internal alliances are between the military and the central party.  They may be acting independently or in unison to create a new governing force in the country.  Regardless of which forces are collaborating to control North Korea, it is likely that a period of instability on the peninsula will be the inevitable result.  Since Kim Jong Un will be the new head of state, it is the power behind that office that will determine the direction that North Korea takes in the future.  As an inexperienced political figure, Kim Jong Un is most likely ill prepared to walk the fine line between the military and political forces in the country.  If he decides to blunt the power of the military, it will diminish the national narrative and the power of the central identity of the country.  If he decides to conduct a political purge, he will empower the military in a way that will eventually threaten his ability to maintain control as a dictator.  The task for Kim Jong Un is to use the political party and the military as opposing forces that allow him to keep power in his office.  The alternative is to become a puppet to a larger force, which will only be decided after a prolonged struggle between the two fundamental organizations that keep the country from collapsing.

For western governments, there is little that they can do to influence which way the balance of power shifts in the coming year.  China is in the best position to guide the power transition as the primary supporter and benefactor of North Korea.  It is in their interest to maintain stability between the Koreas since China is the initial destination for almost all defectors escaping the North.  A humanitarian disaster caused by a million refugees does not work within their own national narrative, and they will most likely go to great lengths to avoid it.  As a pragmatic course of action, they may back which ever force gains power within North Korea.  China faces the same difficult balancing act that Kim Jong Un does, though.  If one power gains too much influence over the course of the country, it may lead to more aggressive acts towards North Korea’s neighbors.  It’s not likely that China would be the target of an independent action by the military, but anything that causes instability in the country would inevitably spill over into China.  The stark nature of North Korean politics, which sees the entire world as potential enemies, does not have the flexibility to deal with the nuanced balance of power that would be required to maintain the state in its current form.  In most countries, this would lead to a military coup or a civil war.  In the insular  environment of North Korea, that conflict will be played out against its neighbors instead of internally.  As the living embodiment of the state, Kim Jong Un should be immune to overt challenges to his position.  That status will not protect him against other forces in the country that will seek to diminish his power to the point of becoming a puppet leader.

North Korean Hereditary Transition

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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.

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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.