Yes, Kim Jong Il's still in charge. But intrigue at the top is heating up, which may explain some of the bizarre behavior coming out of North Korea these days.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
View photos of Kim Jong Il surveying steel foundries, goat farms, and more.
On April 14, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s numero uno, bumped 100 generals up the career ladder. The North’s official news agency described the move as a noble gesture to mark the birthday of Kim’s deceased father, Kim Il Sung. It was the biggest group of senior officers he has promoted in 13 years.
So why would he do a thing like that?
North Korea has been changing a lot over the past few years. The North is no longer quite as cut off from the rest of the world as it is used to be; flourishing trade with China, and a corresponding inflow of goods and information, has seen to that. And, as some discerning experts have shown, over the decades North Korea’s reigning ideology has moved ever further away from communism toward the intensely ethnonationalist “military first” worldview of Kim Jong Il — which turns out to look a lot more like Japanese World War II emperor-worship than the thought of Karl Marx.
These aren’t just academic debates either. For all its weaknesses, North Korea remains a paranoid power with a million-man army and nuclear weaponry, capabilities that give it the ability to create enormous mischief in one of the world’s strategic flashpoints. (And if we needed any reminding of that, just consider the rising tension over the mysterious sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan.)
All of which leaves the intriguing issue of the real nature of power at the top. We all know who’s in charge in North Korea after all: the guy with the platform shoes, the bouffant hairdo, and the paunch. Indeed, it would be hard to think of another country where opposition has been extinguished as thoroughly as it has been north of the 38th parallel. If any place in the world qualifies as an absolute dictatorship, surely the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be it.
But is it really that simple? Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine I’ll call “Oscar.” For a variety of reasons, Oscar doesn’t want me to reveal his identity; he consented to be described merely as a “long-time Korea expert.” So I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me on this one.
First, just a bit of historical background. As Oscar reminded me, we know today that Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China — neither a slouch when it came to dictatorial control — actually experienced a great deal of factional push-and-pull at the uppermost levels of government. Stalin succeeded in tamping down the maneuverings of his confederates through the use of random terror, but rivalries within the top ranks of the Soviet Communist Party broke into the open immediately after his death (when several leaders managed to gang up on Stalin’s putative successor, secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, and had him shot). Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, in turn, precisely in order to undermine (and in some cases eliminate) his internal party opponents.
Oscar points out that Kim Jong Il had similar problems to deal with when he came to power upon the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, back in 1994. Unlike his dad, Kim Junior had never served in the military, and the generals were deeply skeptical that he could handle the top job. In some cases, says Oscar, that skepticism extended to outright rebellion, including an attempt on Kim’s life in July 1994 and an abortive mutiny by an army unit not long after that. The officer who tipped off Kim about the uprising was instantly rewarded with a hefty promotion — and ever since then the Dear Leader has made a priority of keeping the generals happy, showering them with favors, promotions, and perks. At about the same time, in what was surely no coincidence, Kim enshrined the still-reigning “military first” policy as North Korea’s dominant ideology — raising the armed forces to the dominant position in the state once held by the Communist Party. Oscar says that Kim also made a habit of blaming all the country’s problems — like food shortages and the dismal economy — on the ruling Korea Workers’ Party, thus deflecting blame from the generals.
But what about today, you object? Surely Kim the Younger must have things firmly under control by now? Oscar sees little evidence of any overt challenges to Kim’s power. “There’s no disagreement about changing the system. But there is disagreement about how to steer it. These are tactical, not strategic differences.”
That’s a polite way of putting it. North Korea as described by Oscar sounds less like a tightly controlled totalitarian state than a really rowdy high school. (Yes, there’s a difference. In North Korea, ending up in the wrong clique can get you a bullet in the head or a stint in a concentration camp.) The jocks are the military, the guys who tend to rule the roost and demand the most resources. The arrogant rich kids are the party elite, especially the ones with close ties to Kim’s immediate entourage. (At the top of the heap are the Dear Leader’s own relatives, like Chang Sung Taek, Kim’s brother-in-law, who has been widely regarded as a major player ever since 2006, when he returned to the top ranks after a mysterious period of disfavor.) The science club geeks are the civil servants, the professional bureaucrats who are supposed to keep the machinery of the state running despite the violent to-and-fro of state-ordered caprice. While they have some power over ordinary folk, they’re the ones who tend to get dumped on by the higher-ups. This category includes people like the hapless Pak Nam Gi, the functionary who’s said to have been singled out as the fall guy for the regime’s latest spell of idiotic economic policy. Pak appears to have been shot last month.
All these groups are rivals to a certain degree, and the issues that divide them — namely, money and power — won’t come as much surprise. A prime point of contention is the extent to which North Korea should emulate China’s economic reform program. On several occasions over the past decade Kim Jong Il has announced plans to set up Chinese-style free trade zones around the country. “There were supposed to be eight or nine of these zones originally,” says Oscar. “There was this big rollout fanfare — and nothing happened.” The only projects that ever worked out were the two based on direct investment from South Korea — the Kaesong Industrial Park and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, set up as part of the two sides’ fitful attempts at rapprochement around the turn of the century.
Kim, Oscar suspects, “encountered resistance.” And it’s fairly clear where the resistance came from. At the end of 2008 South Korean investors in the Kaesong venture received an unpleasant surprise. A North Korean general showed up to read them a riot act about their presumed exploitation of the Northern workforce — which was odd, because the military isn’t supposed to have anything to do with economics. Rodger Baker, a North Korea-watcher at the Austin, Texas-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor, says that the generals have never been happy about the idea of cooperating with the South, which they still view as a dangerous and devious enemy, plotting to use seemingly innocuous cooperation projects to weaken the communist system. And the fact that the two big North-South showcase projects are located right next to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the dividing line between the two sides, doesn’t make them any less suspicious. “The military has always been unhappy about gaps in the DMZ,” notes Baker — especially the rail line that crosses through the zone to Kumgang.
It’s worth noting that this view — that there are competing power centers in North Korea’s leadership — is somewhat controversial among the experts. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Peter Beck, a North Korea expert at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. “We don’t really have the evidence. My working assumption is that we still have a grand puppeteer and that the military only plays the role that he allows them to play.” But what about those odd flip-flops in policy — the ones that seem to have been coming more frequently ever since Kim Jong Il apparently suffered a stroke in the fall of 2008? “I interpret it as Kim Jong Il playing the good cop-bad cop game,” says Beck.
Fair enough. That has certainly been true in the past. Yet Oscar detects a different quality in the maneuvering these days. It used to be, he says, that the regime was rather sophisticated at alternating goodwill gestures with saber rattling (wooing, say, South Korea while ranting at the United States). But lately it’s all mixed up. The North is demanding increased investment from Seoul even while excoriating President Lee Myung-bak or threatening retaliation for all sorts of imagined slights. “When Kim Jong Il was healthier there was more coordination of this effort,” says Oscar. “In the spring, when South Korea was doing its military training, you’d expect that the propaganda would turn harsh and the military would be huffing and puffing. Now we’re getting it out of phase.” And that, he believes, suggests a degree of turmoil within the upper ranks of the North Korean regime. Part of the reason may be Kim’s weakened state after his stroke. But there might be another one.
And that has to do with the other question that looms over all else in the Hermit Kingdom these days: the succession. The evidence is mounting that Kim has chosen his third son, a virtually unknown 20-something by the name of Kim Jong Un, as his heir to the throne. Everyone at the top knows that the 69-year-old Dear Leader’s days are numbered — and that translates into a major uptick in what Oscar calls “bureaucratic infighting.”
The campaign to promote the “Young Captain,” as Kim Jong Un is being called, has been anything but smooth. An early campaign to promote the presumptive leader-to-be was called off a few months ago; now it seems to have started up again, this time in earnest. A while back it looked as though Chang Sung Taek, that powerful brother-in-law, was backing one of the other sons. But he’s now swung behind Kim Jong Un — perhaps because the third son is widely viewed as the military’s favorite candidate (presumably because his lack of experience would make him easier to control). Recently there has been a flood of official paeans hailing the martial virtues of the young prince (who, like his two older brothers, has never served as a soldier).
That could also explain why Kim has seen fit to lavish more goodies on his friends in the army. Sure, it could be that Kim is just a generous guy, a man with a big (albeit failing) heart. But there could be another explanation. Even if you’re the Dear Leader, you’ve still got to watch your back.