By Victor Cha
It’s been two years since Kim Jong-un succeeded his late father at the helm of the Hermit Kingdom. Yet, contrary to hopes for positive change, North Korea remains as much of a problem for its neighbors and the international community as it ever did.
Kim Jong-un’s move to power seemed promising at first. Whichever birth date you subscribe to, official or surmised, Kim Jong-un is young – around 30. He almost certainly spent a chunk of his youth abroad, most likely in Switzerland. He’s said to enjoy many of the accoutrements of a Western lifestyle. Kim Jong-un’s passion for basketball is unbounded, as self-appointed diplomat and best buddy Dennis Rodman would be the first to confirm. In contrast to his introverted father, Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has made himself widely visible, even appearing in public with his wife. He may not be South Korea’s Psy, but he presents a hip image that held the promise of a new era.
Nothing of real substance, however, has changed. We have not seen a single sign of serious economic change – the kind of reform that could lift North Korea out of penury and reverse decades of unimaginable privation for its more than 23 million long-suffering people (all except the privileged elite, that is).
To the exasperation of the United States and even China, North Korea’s increasingly ambivalent ally and primary benefactor, Kim Jong-un has been notably belligerent in his posture towards Seoul. He continues to thumb his nose at international opinion by trying to have his isolated nation accepted as a nuclear power – one with the boasted ballistic potential to hit targets in the United States.
Of course, one could interpret this as essentially harmless saber-rattling on the part of a new leader eager to polish his military résumé, burnish his image as a strong leader, and consolidate his authority. But it’s hard to be philosophical about a defiantly nuclear North Korea that has truculently repudiated its 1953 armistice with South Korea and proved its ballistics delivery capabilities by successfully putting a faulty satellite into orbit last December.
Worse still, Kim Jong-un’s youth makes him something of a wild card. Is he a risk-taker who might turn rhetoric into potentially catastrophic action? Or will he opt for business as usual – the kind of unsatisfactory status quo that makes the prospect of a peacefully unified Korean Peninsula at best a distant dream?
The latter is arguably more likely, because even an inexperienced leader like Kim Jong-un must know that in the context of a dictatorship, radical shifts of policy, whether external or internal, can have dangerously unintended consequences. Even if he were serious about economic and social reform, Kim Jong-un would have to reckon with opposition from those who saw it as a threat to their own carefully protected privileges.
As is often pointed out, if China were willing to cut North Korea loose, it would put real teeth in the continuing series of UN resolutions designed to bring Kim Jong-un to heal. But as much as the people in Beijing and Pyongyang resent each other, the collapse of North Korea would be unsettling for China, as it would hold the prospect of a flood of refugees and a U.S.-backed South Korea on its border. Nor would China willingly give up its privileged access to North Korea’s considerable mineral resources, which it currently extracts in predatory fashion.
For the Chinese, then, it’s a delicate balancing act. They have an interest in keeping North Korea afloat, but they don’t want Pyongyang to think it has a blank check.
Any thought right now that change might bubble up from within would be fanciful. The hyper-paranoid Kim dynasty has always been afraid of its own people and quashes any hint of dissent with Stalinist brutality. In any case, after years of systematic brainwashing and isolation, the North Korean people accept the Kim leadership with quasi-religious obeisance. They’ve been taught to blame their ills on the outside world. There’s not going to be a North Korean Spring any time soon.
That said, tiny cracks are opening. Cellphone use, though severely restricted, has been growing rapidly in North Korea. Foreign business interests want access to modern communications technology, including the Internet, and the result is increasing information penetration from the outside. Once it’s started, it’s hard to shut down. And the more people in North Korea who start to grasp what’s really going on, the greater the prospect for change. We can only hope it will be accomplished peacefully – but where the current regime is concerned, all bets are off.
Victor Cha is the former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House’s National Security Council, and was U.S. President George W. Bush’s senior adviser on North Korean affairs. Cha holds the D.S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and is Director of the Asian Studies program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. His latest book is The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (Ecco, 2013).
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