In describing the Soviet Union when President Mikhail Gorbachev was pursuing perestroika, Margaret Thatcher once said, “Ice becomes in its most dangerous state when melting.” The death of Kim Jong-il somewhat reminded me of Thatcher’s words. The Achilles heel of a totalitarian state is power succession, and North Korea is now entering that most fragile period of dictatorship.
What sorts of impacts will Kim Jong-il’s death bring to Japan and the world? There are three points to consider.
First, what was left as the legacy of Kim Jong-il’s regime? And what does it mean that his third son and successor, Kim Jong-un, inherited his legacy?
Second, what are the issues for the Kim Jong-un regime, and how long will it last?
Third, how is Kim Jong-il’s death positioned geopolitically in the context of its coming at a time when the world is facing decline in Western countries, China’s expansion, the fate of the Arab Spring, and crises are taking place simultaneously in different countries with the growing use of social networking?
Examining answers to these three questions will certainly give us a chance to foresee the world we will face in 2012.
Concerning the first point, what did Kim Jong-il leave behind as his legacy? A simple answer is that Kim Jong-il put the country on the road to collapse. His worst blunder was the famine North Korea experienced in the 1990s, which resulted in the deaths of more than one million people from starvation. On this very point, Kim Jong-il failed to be a state leader, and the legitimacy of succeeding power from his father Kim Il-sung was largely questioned.
In the summer of 1994, after the death of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il became the successor. The Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was signed in October of that same year. In that agreement, North Korea was committed to freezing nuclear development. And then the country went into a period of mourning, turned its back to the world and disappeared from the international stage. It turned out that during this period the country was engaged in developing enriched uranium, while leaving its people to die from starvation.
Nuclear development is another significant part of Kim Jong-il’s legacy. Many countries other than North Korea regard this as negative, but after Kim Jong-il’s death, media reports in North Korea extolled that the country’s ownership of nuclear weapons enabled its possession of a continually victorious military, and that this was a great achievement in the efforts to develop military-first politics. Meanwhile, as the country began to fetishize its nuclear weapons, it was left isolated and deteriorating as globalization progressed.
There is another part to Kim Jong-il’s legacy – the fact that his regime firmly implemented a structure of a China-dependent North Korea. Predecessor Kim Il-sung maintained the nation’s presence and diplomatic power by making China and the Soviet Union, which both hoped for influence over North Korea, compete with each other. Kim Jong-il also forged a similar power game, but witnessing the explosive economic growth in China in this period, his regime was increasingly tilting toward China. This, however, made North Korea so dependent on China that it could not even fully develop its rare earth metals, a valuable resource that could generate foreign currency without China’s cooperation. As a result, economically, North Korea has become a semi-colony of China.
Another negative part of the legacy was China lobbying to ensure the succession of power to Kim Jong-un by heredity, to which Kim Jong-il was dedicated in his final period after undergoing a stroke in 2008 and sensing his death was near.
The most apparent efforts in this connection were Kim Jong-il’s repeated visits to China. He visited eight times while in power. Of these visits, four took place feverishly after May 2010, which means that, to dogmatically and forcibly make his third son a successor, Kim Jong-il himself had to stay continually engaged in kowtowing diplomacy.
Moving to the second point, what are the issues facing the successor Kim Jong-un, and how long will his regime last?
In November 2009, North Korea denominated its currency for the first time in 50 years. The group supporting Kim Jong-un reportedly carried this out as it recklessly rushed for credit, and this venture was ultimately a blunder. Moreover, there is speculation that, to make up for this mistake, the group instigated the Cheonan incident and the artillery attack on the Yeonpyeong island in 2010. This speculation is highly plausible.
If this supposition is correct, it shows that there are a number of adventurists working for Kim Jong-un and desperate to earn his favor. It is also not difficult to imagine that, behind the scenes of the events described above, are fierce power struggles that began for securing the successor position. It is necessary to keep in mind the fact that, under the traditional political culture of a one-person tyranny, the power of guardians or collective leadership is insecure.
Ultimately, Kim Jong-un secured the successor position after inheriting the “three sacred treasures” – legitimacy backed by blood relation, nuclear weapons and the approval of China. Yet these treasures are also highly unreliable and can restrict Kim Jong-un’s actions.
One example is the issue of nuclear weapons. Until recently, the denuclearization of North Korea has been thought to be almost impossible. With the power succession to Kim Jong-un, I believe that it is now totally impossible.
The reason for this is that Kim Jong-il independently developed nuclear weapons starting from zero, and he could choose to trade nuclear weapons as his bargaining card if necessary. On the contrary, for Kim Jong-un, the nuclear weapons are the legacy he respectfully inherited from his father. Therefore, rejecting the nuclear weapons directly implies rejection of his personal legitimacy.
With respect to the nuclear issue, I would like to point out that Kim Jong-un might start tests of uranium-enriched nuclear weapons in the future. If he can realize this dream that even his father could not reach, he would gain support from the public, and he would be able to freely use the threat of these weapons that he independently developed as a bargaining chip.
While the approval of China secures the authority of the Kim family, certain quarters of proud North Korean nationals probably consider obvious kowtowing diplomacy an insult to the nation. A type of nationalistic backlash could take place in the future. North Korea’s nationalism has since the end of the Korean War been driven by anti-American policies. Instead, the nationalism could be pushed by anti-China policies in the future. Maintaining relations with China therefore may require North Korea to adopt tightrope diplomacy.
For these reasons, I have to say that many difficulties await Kim Jong-un in the future. Against these odds, he will be able to earn support from the public and manage his regime steadily if he can achieve something that even his father could not achieve.
A photo of the last visit of Kim Jong-il to local facilities that was released after his death clearly shows what Kim Jong-un will aim to achieve. This photo shows Kim Jong-il with heavy winter clothing paying a visit to a supermarket and inspecting its shelves that were filled with a variety of goods. At first glance, I thought it was a strange photo and I smiled. Because despite it being taken indoors, everybody was wearing heavy winter gear. This may not be so strange because no heating is available for the start of the season in the country in order to save energy, but what is important is the type of messages North Korea’s ruling circles intended to send through the photo. Kim Jong-il did not leave a will (if he had, that would have been published), and his wishes depicted in the photo were probably prepared by his brother-in-law Chang Song-taek, who is the presumed guardian of Kim Jong-un and the Supreme Leader of North Korea.
Taking these factors into account, the photo in question starts to project the message that he had a deep interest in the people’s lives. This is also a pledge by Kim Jong-un that he will fill up the shelves of supermarkets with goods. This resembles the case when Bill Clinton used the slogan of “It’s the economy, stupid” during his presidential campaign against George H. W. Bush.
Because Chang, who is presumed to be Kim Jong-un’s close aide, has been engaged in foreign trading, it is believed that he takes a similar stance to the group that supports open policies in North Korea. Reform and opening up are North Korea’s earnest desires. Opening up its economy is in fact not so difficult. It can be achieved as long as U.S. dollars and other curtained benefits are provided to those with vested interests. In fact, at the beginning, Kim Jong-il apparently tried in his own way to adopt an open economy in Rason, Sinuiju-si and other regions, though this venture fell through in the face of mounting pressure from the international community following the detection of the nuclear weapons development in North Korea in 2002.
What is really difficult for North Korea to achieve, however, is not opening up, but reform.
The self-reliance philosophy itself that symbolizes the nation does not easily fit in with approaches for gaining something or learning lessons from other countries. It still sends missions to China, not to Japan or South Korea, and the participants pretend to learn something there, but when they come back home they do not take any action or for political reasons they are unable to do anything. This is because if they do anything they learned abroad, they are certain to be criticized as a tool working for a foreign country.
Moreover, North Korea is a garrison state in which one in 20 people is a soldier, which means that there are strong resisting forces in the country who find no benefit in policies for reform or opening up. Reform means changing the structure of society by reorganizing these resisting forces, and this was a task even Kim Jong-il could not accomplish. It is questionable whether Kim Jong-un, the new 29-year-old leader, can achieve such a thing now that even his father was not capable of.
Like in 1994, the new regime will remain in mourning for the next few years, while focusing on establishing a stable domestic foundation. Therefore, it is unlikely that the regime will collapse suddenly anytime in the near future. As for a military coup, I believe that any elements potentially capable of instigating such action have already been eradicated.
The third point is the fact that this episode of hereditary transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, which, as mentioned, carries a number of unstable factors, took place in the midst of a period in which global politics are drastically changing.
Right until before his death, Kim Jong-il was reportedly concerned about the Arab Spring and developments in Libya. He must have also shown great interest in the ends of dictators seen in the fate of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the death of Osama bin Laden, who was shot and killed by U.S. forces.
The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 stormed through Egypt, Libya and Syria. This trend has since been accelerating, and is now unstoppable. The growing use of the Internet, cell phones and other global media will make it increasingly difficult for politics and businesses based on isolationism.
In this environment, states like North Korea and China will strengthen their control over the people. Under the traditional banner of removing external threats, these two nations may raise their sense of vigilance against external forces.
Another factor that will affect the situation in North Korea is the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and Iran’s nuclear development. As Western countries are preoccupied by these issues, it will be difficult for them to take military action in the Korean Peninsula. The United States declared that its forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq last year. Since the United States has a number of economic and domestic political issues to be addressed, it cannot afford to pay much attention to North Korea.
Taking advantage of this global situation, Kim Jong-un can opt to adopt an adventurist stance and create external threats through provocative military action. In this way, he can strengthen domestic control and solidify his regime’s authority.
Meanwhile, unlike when Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the United States has not raised its alert level against North Korea because the U.S. administration considers that the act of doing so may encourage North Korea to pursue adventurism. Seen from a different perspective, the U.S. administration thinks that the power foundation of the new regime is more fragile than that in 1994, and chose to leave the regime alone without providing unnecessary provocation.
The United States is facing the severe problem of Iran’s nuclear development. The tension between the two countries over this concern is likely to escalate in 2012. The U.S. public’s Iran phobia is a widely rooted fact. As a result, I think that in the future, public opinion, if any, of dealing with Iran first and North Korea later is more likely to be formed.
Looking at the matter from a broader vantage point, a series of such developments indicates that politics and economies based on Western models have significantly lost ground. Meanwhile, led by China which is steadily becoming a super power, India, Brazil and other emerging economies have begun to express their views that the world based on existing Western models has ended, and that these economies will develop new order in the future. This trend is steadily growing. I believe we cannot deny the possibility that new leadership that will start in China this year will move toward new authoritarianism.
In light of developments mentioned above, looking at the situation in Far East Asia, the presence of South Korea will be very important.
The term of office of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak ends in 2013. The next administration is likely to be a more leftist one due to a pendulum-like effect. In such a scenario, China, North Korea and South Korea may develop common ground of new authoritarianism, turning their back on Western models, which will potentially create a gap between these three countries and Japan and the United States.
So what should Japan do now?
Needless to say, the answer is to strengthen the alliance with the United States. Since the end of World War II, threats from North Korea have continually obliged Japan to reinforce its ties with the United States. However, under the Democratic Party of Japan administration, the Japan-U.S. alliance has been weakened both internally and externally due to issues including the Futenma Air Station relocation. This development can prove fatal for Japan in dealing with North Korea issues in the future.
On the other hand, since South Korea will play a key role in the region, as mentioned earlier, Japan is urged to strengthen its relations with South Korea. This is not to say, however, that the two nations should openly boost development of defense cooperation, but they should steadily and calmly improve their cooperation in the fields of intelligence and strategic talks.
Over the longer term, as the scenario of North Korea falling into a truly unstable situation is now becoming plausible, Japan should share common visions with the United States and South Korea over unification of the Korean Peninsula, even by taking into account the possibility of the collapse of North Korea, and Japan needs to prepare and hold policy discussions to strengthen policy cooperation with the two countries.
What will happen to the abduction issue? I think that the new regime under Kim Jong-un will take a flexible stance on this matter. However, he will not handle the issue mindlessly, because it is one of a limited number of effective diplomatic cards he can use.
When former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro visited North Korea, a person called Mr. X played a key role behind the scenes. I expect that a Mr. X II could possibly emerge at some stage.
We cannot anticipate what kind of signals North Korea will send in the future, but it is important for Japan to handle the issue calmly and carefully.
In 2007, I published a book called The Peninsular Question: A Chronicle of the Second Korean Nuclear Crisis (Brookings Institution Press), in which I described the background of the second nuclear crisis, Koizumi’s visit to North Korea and the six party talks. While I was examining geopolitics in the Korean Peninsula and Japan’s involvement in the peninsula during such a time of crisis, I felt déjà vu a number of times.
Looking back on the critical geopolitical moments in its history, Japan always decided to take action that was triggered by the peninsula question, particularly through its modern and contemporary history. Saigo Takamori, a political leader during the Meiji Restoration, spoke about the Military Proposal for Korea. Yamagata Aritomo, the prime minister in the late-nineteenth century, said that the Korean Peninsula was Japan’s profit line. Japan then annexed Korea. Hayashi Senjuro, an army commander and a politician, was called a general who crossed the border in the 1931 Manchurian Incident. The Korean War then broke out when Japan was amid the occupation, and events continued. In this way, the Korean Peninsula has always affected Japan in shaping its form as a nation.
At the present, the Korean Peninsula is once again about to determine the course of Japan in the twenty-first century. I used the term déjà vu to imply this development, too.
This time, we finally want Japan to present the right answer. Japan is now called into question on whether or not it can create stability and peace in Northeast Asia by using prudent diplomatic power.
The peninsula question complicatedly involves the unification issue, the nuclear issue, the abduction issue, the alliance issue, and the geopolitics of Northeast Asia. This is an undying question that will determine the course of Japan in the twenty-first century. In accordance with the vision for the long-term future of the nation, Japan may sometimes need to make harsh decisions. Amid an age of geopolitical struggles, what is important is a mature approach that enables nations to achieve peace by using a rational mindset and adjusting common interests shared with other nations, without having destructive emotions get in the way.
Translated from “Kim Jong-un taisei to 2012 sekain no gekihen (Kim Jong-un Regime and Drastic Global Changes in 2012),” Bungeishunju, February 2012, pp. 148-153. (Courtesy of Bungeishunju, Ltd.)