Regime change in the worst country on earth should be planned for, not just hoped
From the Economist
TO HIS many victims, and to anyone with a sense of justice, it is deeply wrong that Kim Jong Il died at liberty and of natural causes. The despot ran his country as a gulag. He spread more misery and poverty than any dictator in modern times, killing more of his countrymen in the camps or through needless malnutrition and famine than anyone since Pol Pot. North Koreans are on average three inches shorter than their well-fed cousins in the South. One in 20 has passed through the gulags. Once somebody is deemed a political enemy, his whole family can be condemned to forced labour too. Now, Kim Jong Il will never be held to account.
Kim was pathologically indifferent to the misery of his people. By his own lights, life was sweet. He enjoyed cognac, fine cheeses and sushi. He relished wielding power over his people and his ability, through nuclear provocation, to milk and manipulate the outside world. He bombed an airliner. He indulged his passion for cinema by kidnapping a South Korean director. The whole country was his movie set, where he could play God and have the people revere him. He was often portrayed as a platform-heeled, bouffanted buffoon—a cartoon villain. Yet he was coolly rational and, in the final reckoning, successful. Not only did he himself die at liberty, but he protected an entire generation of the narrow elite who rose with him. And above all, Kim, the family man, ensured that he passed his movie set to a chosen heir, his pudgy third son, Kim Jong Un.
That is the second reason why there cannot be unalloyed joy at Kim Jong Il’s going. The younger Kim represents the third generation of a dynastic Stalinist dictatorship that has ruled North Korea since 1948. Vicious factional fighting or family squabbles may rage behind the scenes, but the staging of his father’s funeral on December 28th was designed to show that, in public, the regime has fallen into line behind the son, with his uncle and aunt as regents. Continuity is the imperative. Since more of the same means more misery at home and more nuclear blackmail abroad, that is no reason to be cheerful.
The Chosun Un
In 1994, at the death of Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung, The Economist hoped, as it does now, for the regime’s swift collapse and the North’s reunification with the South. At the time, Kim Jong Il lacked his father’s authority. The irresistible logic, we claimed, was for economic reform and for the regime to crumble. Today, Kim Jong Un inherits two valuable prizes: nuclear weapons (and the leverage they offer) plus unambiguous support from China. These are not the only reasons to hesitate before predicting the dynasty’s imminent destruction.
Among the North Koreans who have greatest reason to resent the regime are rural dwellers too remote and impoverished to challenge it. And if they did, a countrywide system of repression allows no room for dissent. The elites around the Kim family—almost all revolutionary princelings—know that their own survival is linked to the regime’s. Meanwhile, the capital, Pyongyang, made up only of loyalists, is doing relatively well. Hardest for an outsider to grasp is that the Kim personality cult flows from powerful myths about race and history. Above all is North Koreans’ sense of racial purity. They have been taught to think of the Kims as warm, doting parents, fiercely guarding a vulnerable nation from American and Japanese and even Chinese abuse. Some of the weeping that followed Kim Jong Il’s death may thus have been genuine.
Yet even North Korea cannot avoid change altogether. The famine of the late 1990s engendered unprecedented cynicism towards the regime, as well as survival mechanisms that have proved more durable than the state’s capacity to stamp them out. Black markets have sprung up, along with a thriving petty trade across the border with China. North Koreans watching South Korean soap operas on smuggled DVD players now know that their leaders have lied about the supposedly poor and oppressed people in the South. All this is altering the country in irreversible ways—and one of these days will threaten the regime’s survival
This presents China with a conundrum. The strategists in Beijing have propped up the regime both because they fear instability on their border and even more because they worry about a unified Korea, perhaps with American troops hard up against the Chinese frontier for the first time in over 60 years. Their dilemma is that whatever they do, North Korea will eventually collapse. On the one hand, the lack of reform is leading North Korea down a dead end. On the other, a more open country would surely spell the end of the Kim dynasty. It is why Kim Jong Il never blessed change, no matter how many times the Chinese showed him their economic miracle.
For fear of something worse
Now surely it is time for China to accept that change is better brought forward—and managed. Even if North Korea collapses chaotically, the potential long-term benefits not just for North Koreans but also for their neighbours, including China, of a peninsula at peace with itself greatly outweigh the potential instability. Some in Beijing claim to see a reformist in the uncle-regent, Jang Song Taek. If so, they should encourage him.
China is much likelier to do this if South Korea and the United States work harder to minimise the dangerous consequences of collapse. The Americans and the South could do much to reassure China (and vice versa)—for instance, by co-operating to prevent the North’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from falling into the wrong hands. And they could make it far clearer to the Chinese that once the peninsula is at peace there will be no need for American troops to stay.
The regrettable truth is that not just China but also America (fearful of another global crisis), South Korea (fearful of the costs of adopting a country that seems alien to many young Koreans) and Japan (fearful of a united Korea) have propped up a murderous regime. But the Kims cannot survive for ever. The sooner a dialogue begins about how to replace them, the better—not just for the stability of the region, but also for North Korea’s forgotten and downtrodden people.