Belmont Club

What happens next in North Korea?

Bruce Cumings, the University of Chicago academic who is the “left’s leading scholar of Korean history,” believes that “North Korea is a misunderstood land.” He thinks the terrible state of the northern half of the peninsula is at least partly America’s fault and no one can escape the “significant responsibility that all Americans share for the garrison state that emerged on the ashes of our truly terrible destruction of the North half a century ago.”

The problem with that assertion is summarized in a graph of per capita GDP in the Washington Post which shows that the divergence of the two Koreas actually occurred in the early 1970s. Prior to that time “the two countries were roughly comparable — in fact, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt argues that, at the time of Mao Zedong’s death, North Korea’s workers were more productive and better educated than China.”


So you can forget the effects of the Korean War. The disaster in the North was entirely self inflicted; it was a catastrophe written and directed in Pyongyang by the Kim family.

Somehow they managed to take things from bad to worse. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post notes the second inflection point, in 1994, took place after Kim Jong Il succeeded from his brutal father. The Dear Leader managed to fix nothing and add more wreckage of his own. The North Korean economy, already in a flat dive, nosed over like a dive bomber without speed brakes and has been descending at full tilt ever since. The Spearhead argues that North Korea’s dynastic mode of Communism may be partly to blame as the Kims found some way to combine the worst aspects of Communism with all the shortcomings of  hereditary decadence into a form of governance from hell. To bolster the point, it presents a series of portraits which appear to show a process of reverse evolution, like ape emerging from man.

The following pictures demonstrate a clear progression from manly alpha conqueror to effete omega descendant. One can see something of the family resemblance down the line, but Kim Jong-un, the latest scion of the Kim dynasty, is a sorry specimen compared to grandfather Kim Il-sung.

Given this unfortunate regression, the suggestion is that the North Koreans might see yet another inflection point with the accession of Kim Jung Un, the latest in the royal line.

The Ruthless Original

Onry the Ronery

Junior Kim

MSNBC’s chart of the Kim dynasty shows a Shakespearean palace intrigue: the banishment of the more enterprising and competent members of the Kim family into its outer reaches. They drown in the bath, die abroad, or make themselves scarce, when their fingers fail to clutch the iron ladder at the top of the heap. It’s not exactly the Partridge Family. A rundown of palace intrigue and politics is provided by the Daily Telegraph, which depicts an inner circle at daggers drawn:

Kim Kyong Hui: The late leader’s younger sister. She kept a low profile for decades until 2009, when she began appearing with her brother during “on-the-spot guidance” trips nationwide. Now considered a top political official who has shot up in the ranks in two years, she is expected to play a caretaker role with her nephew. Kim is said to have a fiery temperament but suffers from ill health.

Jang Song Thaek: Kim Kyong Hui’s husband and a Soviet-trained technocrat who was a rising star until he was demoted in early 2004, seen as a warning from his brother-in-law against cultivating too much influence. Jang was brought back into the fold in 2006, and he has been gaining influence since then. He heads the party’s administrative department, and oversees the intelligence agency.

Kim Yong Nam: President of the Presidium of North Korea’s parliament, often represents the country and is considered a nominal head of state. He is a member of the party’s Central Committee.

Ri Yong Ho: Vice marshal and chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, promoted to vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission last year and a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. Ri was close to Kim Jong Il and is said to have strong ties with Jang.

Choe Yong Rim: Promoted to premier last year. His family is said to have long-standing ties with the Kim family. His daughter, Choe Son Hui, is a department director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The relative prominence of the North Korean inner circle has been inferred from the now-famous “escalator photo” showing the late Kim Jong Il descending in splendid preeminence as the rest of the clan bring up the rear.

At a department store

Given the situation, the basic scenario for North Korea is that if it goes on as before much longer the country must disintegrate. Sooner or later it will simply shake itself to pieces, leaving loose nuclear componentry everywhere.

Hence, many diplomats are pinning their hopes on being able to convince whomever is in charge that now is the time to come to Jesus, in a manner of speaking. Victor Cha, writing in the New York Times, emphasizes that Pyongyang is in the Last Chance Saloon.

North Korea as we know it is over. Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together after the untimely death of its leader, Kim Jong-il. How America responds — and, perhaps even more important, how America responds to how China responds — will determine whether the region moves toward greater stability or falls into conflict. …

While some observers hope that Kim Jong-il’s death will unleash democratic regime change, China will work strongly against that possibility, especially if such efforts receive support from South Korea or the United States. Given that Beijing has the only eyes inside the North, Washington and Seoul could do little in response.

Yet even China’s best-laid plans may come apart. The assistance may be too little, too late, especially given the problems the new leadership will face. A clear channel of dialogue involving the United States, China and South Korea is needed now more than ever.

People are now taking bets on whether North Korea manages to pull itself together or whether it will down that last drink and stumble off into the wilderness of destruction. Which it is going to be, argues Eli Lake, will soon be indicated by whether North Korea goes ahead with its scheduled nuclear test:

A key test of this proposition will be whether Kim, believed to be 27 or 28, will move forward with a third nuclear test that was widely expected for 2012. The regime of the recently departed Kim Jong-il promised that 2012 would be the year North Korea would become a “full nuclear weapons state,” language that most analysts interpreted to mean Kim intended to authorize the country’s third nuclear test….

Whether North Korea will move forward on this will depend on the younger Kim’s relationship with the country’s military, which the U.S. has tried to make inroads with in recent years despite worsening overall relations between the two countries. Experts expect significant jockeying for power inside the military even if it embraces the cult of the Kim family and its latest, youthful successor.

The leading indicator will be whether or not there will be a big boom — the nuclear kind — in North Korea and who sets it off. Not exactly a hopeful start for a new year, but for those who are interested, click here for a virtual tour of North Korea. It’s not as bad as advertised. It is possibly worse.

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