Features | Politics | East Asia

Is North Korea Next?

Kim Jong-il’s regime has been censoring reports of unrest in the Arab world. It’s a sign of how worried his regime is about its survival.

By Lee Byong-Chul for

A report this week that the North Korean regime is on high alert is a reminder that the ongoing unrest in the Arab world kicked off by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution has implications that stretch far beyond the Middle East.

The timing of recent events couldn’t have been much worse for the leadership in North Korea. The country is said since last year to be in the midst of another agricultural crisis, and has reportedly taken the unusual step of asking its embassies to plead for food aid. 

Against this kind of backdrop, the dramatic collapse of the corrupt regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must have stunned the North Korean elite, particularly Kim Jong-il, who has ruled his starving population with an iron fist. But Kim isn’t the only one who has cause for concern—his entire regime, bound by patronage and family connections, is in the same boat.

Yet while Mubarak and his family were able to beat a hasty retreat out of the Egyptian capital with the assistance of some loyal followers, Kim will undoubtedly feel even more isolated as the country becomes increasingly less safe for him.

This isn’t, of course, the first time that Kim’s grip on power has seemed tenuous—conspiracy theories have been swirling around Pyongyang for years. Indeed, back in April 2004, the Ryongchon train disaster was seen by many as an assassination attempt on Kim, who only hours earlier had passed through the station on his return from a secretive meeting in China. In the end, the Red Cross reported that 160 people were killed, and hundreds more injured.

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Mubarak’s ignominious fall at the hands of the Egyptian people, and his replacement with a military government, will undoubtedly have planted seeds of doubt in Kim’s mind about how loyal his own military really is. With such concerns in mind, expect Kim to now quickly move to repair the country’s military, resurrect the long-neglected ideology campaign, and emphasize juche, or self-reliance, to counter the influence of the ‘imperialistic’ United States. Talk of North Korea preparing for a possible third nuclear test sometime this year is also only likely to increase as Kim moves to strengthen his position, with nationalism set to be invoked to bolster unity among North Koreans. 

It won’t be easy for Kim to project an image as commander-in-chief of a powerful and prosperous state, but fear of his regime collapsing has repeatedly prompted him to take the most opportunistic option available to ensure his survival.

Last June, for example, Ri Je-gang, a senior Korean Workers’ Party official, was killed in a mysterious car crash, making him just the latest in a line of politicians—probably opponents—to die under such circumstances. 

The uncertainty surrounding Kim’s future comes as he’s seen as trying to pave the way for his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him. The problem for the elder Kim is that this situation is uncomfortably similar to the one Mubarak found himself in.

Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s youngest son, was widely tipped to succeed his father. But just as inequality and political unrest scuppered the younger Mubarak’s chances of becoming leader, Kim Jong-un may find his own chances for a successful succession more complicated than planned.

On the surface, Kim Jong-un is set to possesses all the same distinctions of rank and family necessary to assume the leadership as his father and also grandfather—North Korea’s founder and Eternal President of the Republic Kim Il-Sung. His position was further boosted last autumn with his first official public appearance at a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party. Following this, he was given the rank of four-star general and received two significant political posts: membership on the party’s Central Committee and the vice chairmanship of its 15-member Central Military Committee (although the latter appointment has yet to be confirmed by the South Korean government). 

But it’s far from clear whether the North Korean military, still the country’s most important institution, would stay loyal to such an inexperienced young leader. There are plenty of ways that the country’s military elites could affect and even undermine the leadership’s diplomacy, especially with its increasing role in development of weapons of mass destruction and missile programmes. The fact is that the military are typically, above all else, dyed-in-the-wool loyalists of the juche ideology, and are rumoured to resent their ‘Dear Leader’s’ taste for luxury.

If the elder Kim does pass from the scene anytime soon, and if his 28-year-old son wants to have any chance of surviving in power, he will quickly need to demonstrate an ability to steer North Korea’s poverty-stricken economic autarky toward a more developmental system through next year. Why does 2012 matter? Because Kim Jong-il’s regime has already declared that 2012 marks the beginning of the opening up of a powerful and prosperous state with a revolutionary spirit and virtues, and with the fighting style of the Korean People’s Army. 

Of course, actually achieving this is far easier said than done. No one, likely not even anyone in North Korea, believes the 2012 goal will be met. The fact that the regime’s failure to deliver on its promises is so obvious makes its chances of survival all that more uncertain.

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In an effort to ensure dissatisfaction doesn’t inspire a repeat of what occurred in Egypt, the government has been heavily censoring news of the uprisings in the Arab world, underscoring the concern with which events there are being viewed. But just as bleak economic prospects and an external stimulus quickly transformed the situation in Egypt and pulled the rug from under the regime, North Korea’s elites will be aware of the potential unrest resulting from the country’s unfolding economic disaster.

Dictators, it’s often said, rarely die in bed. But should Kim perish quickly—whether naturally or as the result of discontent—it’s virtually impossible to predict how events will play out. In the meantime, therefore, other nations would do well to continue trying to gather intelligence on what is going in this notoriously hard to decipher regime. 

And, if unrest does bubble up, let’s hope it looks more like Tahrir Square than Tiananmen.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul