One of the drawbacks of being a foreign policy blogger is that it becomes very awkward to avoid discussing international relations events that make the front page for consecutive days. I am therefore duty-bound to comment on Kim Jong Il's death, Kim Jong Un's ascension to leadership, and what it means for North Korea.
Except I have no friggin' clue what will happen.
I am in good company on this total lack of knowledge. I'm bemused by all the U.S. officials anonymously commenting on what Kim Jong Un is like, given that our intelligence on this country is so awesome that Washington didn't know his father was dead until 50 hours after he died, and then only because the North Koreans announced it on television. To be fair, however, it's not like the South Koreans knew either, and some reports I've seen suggest the Chinese were in the dark as well.
Despite the near total lack of information outside of North Korea about North Korea, the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits require I provide at least two predictions per post. So, here's my first prediction, courtesy of Mr. T:
What we do know about the triumvirate of Kim-Jong-Il selected leaders guiding Kim Jong Un into power does not bode well for the North Korean economy. The only bright spot for the DPRK's economy in recent years was a modest step towards private economic activity. The fact that one of them "published articles about the need for the government to curtail market-oriented activity" does not bode well for the per capita income of your average North Korean.
My second prediction is that Kim Jong Un will hold power for longer than any Western analyst expects him to hold power. Most of the pundit chatter has been about the Kim the Youngest's lack of gravitas and the asbsence of sufficient time to groom him as the successor to Kim Jong Il. As I'm hearing this, I keep thinking of Hua Guofeng, Mao's successor. It's an imperfect analogy, but Hua was a relative unknown plucked from obscurity by Mao only a few years before his death. In the end he was outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and his allies, but even Hua managed to stay in power for a few years before that happened, putting down an attempted coup by Mao's wife Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four.
To use more game-theoretic language, I'm not sure there is a first-mover advantage to any ambitious North Korean challenging Kim the Youngest. Because of that, and because the entire DPRK elite likely fears internal division when concerned about natiional survival, the tyranny of the status quo will likely persist for longer than anyone realizes. Which, unfortunately, in this case, happens to be actual tyranny.
Am I missing anything?
Two articles worth reading this AM:
1. Ali Ansari's history of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in The National Interest. Ansari explains exactly how the IRGC has become intermeshed with the Iranian economy, and what that means going forward. His key point: it's not about the ideology anymore:
Though the IRGC started its life as a defender of the revolution, over time the organization has become increasingly involved in commercial interests. Divisions within the Revolutionary Guard, particularly between its veterans and their heirs, have deepened. Now in bed with an increasingly radicalized elite in Iran, the IRGC seems to be less about protecting the people of the country and more about protecting its own material interests. Iran is rapidly becoming a security state.
2. Blaine Harden's Washington Post story on the fallout from North Korean protests of the government's controversial currency reform last month. Yes, you read that correctly, North Korean protests. The good parts:
Grass-roots anger and a reported riot in an eastern coastal city pressured the government to amend its confiscatory policy. Exchange limits have been eased, allowing individuals to possess more cash.
The currency episode reveals new constraints on Kim's power and may signal a fundamental change in the operation of what is often called the world's most repressive state. The change is driven by private markets that now feed and employ half the country's 23.5 million people, and appear to have grown too big and too important to be crushed, even by a leader who loathes them....
The currency episode seems far from over, and there have been indications that Kim still has the stomach for using deadly force.
There have been public executions and reinforcements have been dispatched to the Chinese border to stop possible mass defections, according to reports in Seoul-based newspapers and aid groups with informants in the North.
Still, analysts say there has also been evidence of unexpected shifts in the limits of Kim's authority.
"The private markets have created a new power elite," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "They pay bribes to bureaucrats in Kim's government, and they are a threat that is not going away."
Why did something like this take 40 years? This is an overdetermined answer, but I have to think that the DPRK leadership has become so materially impoverished that North Koreans with ambition have decided that they are better off going outside the syatem rather than trying to achieve a bureaucratic sinecure.
The common thread in both stories? Ideological zeal only takes you so far, even in a totalitarian society. Market forces will worm their way into even the most theocratic or communist societies. What will be interesting is how those getting rich will respond to political instability, even as they have profted from the existing rules of the game.
my boss U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth arrives in Pyongyang, I think it's worth noting that the North Korean government has not been endearing itself to its citizenry. Hmmm... let me rephrase that -- the DPRK government has been acting with even more disregard fo its citizens than usual.
The nub of the problem has been a currency revaluation/reform in which North Korean citizens will be forced to trade in their old notes for new ones -- and each citizen is limited in the amount they can exchange. This move was designed to do two things: lopping off a few zeroes of the North Korean won, and flushing out private traders along the Chinese border who are sitting on currency notes that will soon be worthless.
It appears, according to AFP, that the DPRK regime has finally come up with a move that actually roils their population:
Amid reports that some frustrated residents have been torching old bills, South Korean aid group Good Friends said authorities have threatened severe punishment for such an action.
Many residents would burn worthless old bills rather than surrender them to authorities, in order to avoid arousing suspicions about how they made the money, Good Friends said.
The banknotes carry portraits of founding president Kim Il-Sung and his successor and son Kim Jong-Il. Defacing their images is treated as a felony.
With nascent private markets for food collapsing because of the currency reform, citizens are finding it difficult to obtain basic staples. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization is already projecting another grain shortage for the country.
Over at the U.S. Institute for Peace, John S. Park does a nice job of explaining the political economy effects of this currency move:
As North Korean people in key market-active regions benefited from growing commercial interactions, low- to high-level DPRK officials figured out ways to get a cut of the money made. These officials used most of these bribes (viewed by traders as a "cost of doing business") to line their own pockets, but also used a portion of these for their respective organization's operating budget. With less to skim from the markets due to this revaluation, these officials will have funding gaps to fill. Given that these officials also enjoyed a higher standard of living, the discontent of the North Korean people will be aligned with these "skimming" officials. New groups of losers from this revaluation may be more advanced and better organized than protesters during previous periods of government-initiated economic and currency reforms....
If the DPRK government had improved and restored the inconsistent Public Distribution System and other public services on a national basis (a massive undertaking), a revaluation may have triggered greater state control by minimizing the benefits from the non-formal market system and making the North Korean people dependent on the state again. It does not appear that the DPRK government has improved these national systems. In an apparent effort to restore discipline through this revaluation, the DPRK government may have initiated a period of economic, social, and political destabilization by undermining a widely used coping mechanism for the people, as well as a growing number of officials.
[So a buckling DPRK regime is a good thing, right?--ed.] From a nonproliferation perspective, not so much, no.
Any domestic instability in North Korea is bad for Bosworth, the Six-Party Talks, and nonproliferation efforts in general. The June uprisings in Iran have led the Iranian regime to adopt a more hardline position on the nuclear issue, both to bolster the conservative base and engage in "rally round the flag" efforts. I see no reason why this logic would not apply to North Korea as well -- indeed, domestic instability is the likely explanation for Pyongyang's bellicose behavior earlier this year.
Developing.... in a very disturbing way.
UPDATE: My FP colleague Tom Ricks has more.
The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon, Evan Ramsted, and Peter Spiegel provide a nicely detailed rundown on what U.S. officials think is happening in North Korea. Essentially, U.S. policymakers in the know believe that the arrangements for a power succession from Kim Jong Il to his relatives are causing Pyongyang to act even weirder than usual.
The story contains that classic combination of Kremlinology and bizarre personal detail that make the DPRK regime so entertaining for anyone not living within the range of the Taepodong-2 missile. For example:
U.S. officials said they increasingly view [Kim Jong Il's third son] Kim Jong Un as an important player in North Korea's power equation. The 26-year-old has emerged as a stronger contender than either of his brothers. Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il's eldest son, was widely discredited in 2001 when he was detained in Japan for traveling on a forged Dominican Republic passport in a bid to visit Tokyo Disneyland. The middle son, Kim Young Chol, has been described as frail and unlikely to possess the stature to lead.
Kim Jong Il seems to view Kim Jong Un as the most like him in views and values, said the senior U.S. defense official. The younger son's mother, Ko Yong Hee, who died in a 2004 car crash, is also believed to be Kim Jong Il's favorite of his three wives.
Kim Jong Un fascinates North Korea analysts as he studied at an international school in Bern, Switzerland and is reported to be a fan of Western pop stars. (emphasis added)
I see the makings of a deal here -- instead of security guarantees and light-water nuclear reactors, what if the U.S. instead offered to build a Pyongyang Disneyworld complex? With special VIP-only lines for relatives of Kim? [Who could afford the regular lines?--ed. Oh, they'd still want the velvet ropes.]
Furthermore, in this blog's ongoing efforts to find social utility from washed-up pop stars, shouldn't the U.S. also offer a lifetime contract for Miss Britney Spears to host the resort? Now, I know what you're thinking --
Drezner is behind on his Entertainment Weekly reading hasn't pop culture moved past Britney? Well, I figure that it takes a few years for these trends to trickle into the DPRK. See, it's win-win!!
Somewhat more seriously, I have to wonder about the utility of this kind of Kremlinological analysis. I've been... unimpressed with the kind of research that tries to predict future policy prefereces based on past biography. These kind of analyses often do a good job of explaining things after the fact -- but I don't remember anyone using this kind of work to correctly predict a Gorbachev or a Deng. For the DPRK, the family dynamics make it even harder to discern, of course.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.