Peas in a Rotting Pod
How Kim Jong Un is like Bashar al-Assad, and why being in way over his head could lead to war.
There is a real risk that the Korean Peninsula will follow Syria’s descent into war, with open conflict breaking out between North Korea and South Korea. This is because Pyongyang shares with the Damascus regime a key ingredient that can produce open conflict — an inexperienced ruler with shaky legitimacy.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who ruled from 1970 to 2000, was ruthless — but canny and flexible. He knew how to wield power and how to keep it; he balanced Syria among the Soviet Union, the United States, Egypt, and Israel, and he exercised a persistent influence in the Middle East. His regime was personal but also had a strong party — the Baath Party — and the military behind it.
But the regime became naked patrimonial rule when — instead of picking the best qualified person, or a military or party favorite — Hafez al-Assad chose his son Bashar as his successor. The younger Assad had never intended to rule — he trained in London as an ophthalmologist. At 29, when his older brother died, he was suddenly thrust into the role of dictator in waiting.
When Bashar al-Assad took power after his father’s death in 2000, he lacked the skills to manage a complex regime. He proved ruthless, to be sure — but also inflexible, overreactive, and lacking deep support among the population. He has led Syria into a horribly bloody civil war, largely due to the poor caliber of his leadership. His response to the uprising has made him a pariah to many of his own people and dependent on his ties to Hezbollah and Iran, which wish to keep his country as a transit lane between Tehran and Beirut.
The parallel with North Korea is striking. The dynasty’s founder, Kim Il Sung, was a strong leader, liberation hero, and communist strongman — much like his patron, Stalin. But he moved toward personalized rule by appointing his son Kim Jong Il as successor. Unlike with Bashar al-Assad, this was no unexpected rise: The younger Kim was groomed through 30 years of political life and was a member of the Korean Workers’ Party and Central Military Commission for 14 years before taking power. The transition was not only expected, but involved a successor with strong positions in the party and military taking power. Under Kim, North Korea remained a party state, and Kim’s legitimacy was derived as much from his experience as his lineage.
The same cannot be said of Kim’s son Kim Jong Un. The youngest Kim is — like Bashar al-Assad was — a virtual unknown. Even he expected his older brother Kim Jong Nam to take power. But his brother fell out of favor, and Kim Jong Un had a painfully short grooming period before he ascended to the top of the power structure in Pyongyang. He became a general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2010 despite having no prior political or military experience. A major propaganda campaign was carried out to persuade North Koreans to support their new "brilliant leader." Barely a year later, Kim Jong Il died and Kim Jong Un became leader of the nuclear-armed state.
Given Kim Jong Un’s dangerously weak position in the party and military, it’s unsurprising that he has rattled his sabers on the Korean Peninsula. He is attempting to shore up his position with the military and convince North Koreans that they need him as a shield against mortal dangers. He has to be a warmonger for domestic consumption. But how much can he maintain this role without stumbling into a real shooting war with South Korea? He has already overstepped several times, including testing a nuclear device and launching ballistic missiles. We do not know whether he is being guided by military and party officials or is just pushing forward in a way that highlights his deep inexperience.
Patrimonial or personalized regimes are profoundly vulnerable in times of stress. They depend on patronage and personal loyalty, both of which can vanish if people perceive the ruler as weak. Such regimes therefore often overreact to provocations, suffer defections, and fall to revolution or rebellion, as they lack the strength of party-based and military-based regimes.
Even before the current troubles, the position of Kim’s government in North Korea was weakening. Cell phones have brought in news of the outside world and of the prosperity of the neighbors to the south. China has grown impatient with supporting an economically failing regime, prone to recurrent famines due to its insanely rigid non-market economy. China has been urging Pyongyang to adopt economic reforms while keeping a firm grasp on political affairs, but North Korea has resisted — its leaders know that if they try to win people’s support by promising economic growth, South Korea wins that game hands down.
The one card that Kim can play to keep himself and his party in power is fear. We should not be surprised that he aims to keep his country on the edge of war, raises fears of international alliances against his country, and indulges in ever more military tests. But if these domestically motivated maneuvers create threats that the rest of the region cannot tolerate, a real shooting war could arise.
Kim’s position is weak. If he starts a war, North Korea is certain to lose, and it is likely that his government will be overthrown. But his inexperience is such that he may, like Bashar al-Assad, blunder into a war without intending to — destroying his own country in the process.