Last week, South Korea’s Unification Ministry included Kim Kyong-hu, sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, in its diagram of the country’s power structure. Given ‘Dear Leader’ Kim’s health, which has reportedly been deteriorating, this announcement has fuelled speculation about the timing and nature of a leadership succession. Such speculation has followed much discussion centred around Kim’s sons and his brother-in-law.
In fact, no one outside of North Korea knows what will happen when Kim becomes incapacitated. However, one reasonable conclusion is that there’s no heir apparent in Pyongyang who has the same mix of skill and ruthlessness as Kim. This doesn’t foretell a collapse of the regime when a transition occurs, but it does point toward an opportunity to apply pressure on it as it begins experiencing additional internal tension.
In recent months, there have been two limited but real signs that regime decay is accelerating. The first came in the wake of an exchange and devaluation of North Korea’s currency on November 30. The plan required an exchange of old won bank notes for new ones worth only 1 percent of the old value, and capped exchanges at the equivalent of $40 per person. Foreign currency transactions were also banned. Given the collapse years ago of the state-run food and retail goods distribution networks in North Korea, a growing, informal private economy had emerged, one that at times appeared to be tolerated by the government. Some North Koreans thus acquired a modicum of economic independence and private wealth, which the regime set out to destroy with the devaluation.
The notable decay factor implicit in this act was not as much the economic pressure that caused it, but the reaction. For what appears to be the first time during Kim’s reign, North Koreans protested and were not met with total repression. Even more significantly, the regime backed down somewhat, relenting on its ban on foreign currency possession and with a Kim apology to boot. Both were unprecedented.
News of these developments seeped out of North Korea via clandestine information networks that mostly did not exist until recently. These have been developed in recent years by a diverse collection of North Korean refugees and South Korean human rights activists in Seoul–often persisting through the grudging acceptance or outright disapproval of the Pacific’s democratic governments.
At the heart of this effort are half a dozen shoestring news organizations that broadcast information and commentary into North Korea and gather information inside the world’s most opaque state. They transmit radio signals from a variety of locations around the western Pacific–except for South Korea. There, despite the abandonment of Seoul’s appeasement-oriented ‘Sunshine Policy’ after the election of Lee Mung-bak in 2008, institutional hesitancy to do more than pay lip-service to Korean unification persists. Determined efforts to bring a non-violent end to the North Korean regime remain largely taboo.