Without a loosened grip, reform will elude North Korea

By Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

The massive Communist Party rallies in North Korea this month provided the world’s first real glimpse of that mysterious country’s next leader. Kim Jong Eun, youngest son of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, seen in pictures for the first time, was almost certainly named the successor to his ailing father through his recent promotions to the rank of four-star army general and second-in-command of the party. He is under 30 years of age.

In a country of hyper-isolation and xenophobia, the “young general” reportedly has a cosmopolitan upbringing. Believed to have been educated in Switzerland, he speaks some German and some English. He has a penchant for at least some popular Western amusements, including NBA basketball and pop music. North Korean propaganda praises him as a “brilliant genius,” wise beyond his years with “high-tech 21st century knowledge.”

On occasion in world history, courageous leaders have brought about monumental change. Does the young Kim have what it takes to finally catapult the North Korean people out of the Dark Ages?

Probably not. His youth is not the issue. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was only 33 when he was chosen by Joseph Stalin to be North Korea’s first leader after World War II. The young general’s father, Kim Jong Il, began climbing the party ladder at age 30, and was anointed as the successor to his father at 38. For the Kim family dynasty, picking them young is the natural requisite for 40 to 50 years of continuous rule.

The real problem is the system itself. Even if the young Kim is enlightened, there are three obstacles to reform. First, despotic regimes such as North Korea’s cannot survive without an ideology to justify their iron grip. And the ideology that accompanies the son’s rise appears to look backward rather than forward.

I call it “neojuche revivalism.” It is a return to the conservative and hard-line “juche” (self-reliance) ideology of the 1950s and ’60s, harking back to a day when the North was doing well relative to South Korea. Neojuche revivalism is laced with “songun” (military-first) ideology, which features the North’s emergence as a nuclear weapons state (Kim Jong Il’s one accomplishment during his rule). This revivalist ideology leaves no room for an opening-up, because it blames the past decade of poor performance on “ideological pollution” stemming from experiments with reform.

Second, true reform in the post-Kim Jong Il era would require the courage to loosen the political instruments of control that allow the regime to keep its iron grip on the people. The dilemma the young Kim faces is that he needs to reform to survive, but the process of opening up will undeniably lead to the end of his political control. This was perhaps the most important lesson North Korea learned from the end of the Cold War.

Finally, even if Kim Jong Eun is an enlightened leader who has the courage to attempt such reform, he will be dealing with a generation of institutions and people who are the most isolated in North Korean history. The generals, party officials and bureaucrats of the Cold War era were far more worldly than those of the post-Cold War years. Kim Il Sung’s generation was able to travel freely to East Bloc countries. Kim used to vacation with Communist leaders such as East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu. By contrast, Kim Jong Il’s generation saw Ceausescu executed and the Chinese Communist Party almost lose power in Tiananmen Square. The generation of leadership the young son will inherit sees nothing comforting about the outside world.

The revolution in North Korea died long ago, but the young son will be forced to cling to the outdated core ideological principles that worked during the Cold War. It is no coincidence that in recent months Kim Jong Il has frequented factory towns that were the center of North Korea’s mass worker mobilization (Chollima) movements of the 1950s. It is no coincidence that NKEconWatch’s Web site, which has the best Google Earth imagery of the North, has reported the rebuilding of chemical and vinylon factories that were the heart of Cold War-era Pyongyang’s now decrepit economy.

Neojuche revivalism is untenable in the long term. Mass mobilization of workers without reform can succeed only with massive inputs of food, fuel and equipment, which the Chinese will be increasingly relied upon to provide. China seems content to backstop its communist brethren for the time being, but donor fatigue will eventually set in. Beijing officials confide that the regime would last only through the calendar year without the Chinese lifeline.

The North Korean leadership changes will not lead to changes in U.S. policy. The Obama administration’s focus is rightly on denuclearization, given the threats posed by proliferation to the United States and its allies in the region. The revelations last week about the restarting of North Korean activities at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facilities suggest that Pyongyang wants more, not fewer nukes. Moreover, the United States does not know enough about the leadership transition to shape it in any meaningful way. We do not know, for example, whether the leadership changes represent the beginning or the end of a power transition. U.S. policy must stay the course, focused on sanctions but holding open the avenue for negotiations should the young general seek to kick his father’s nuclear addiction.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on October 15, 2010 and can be found here.


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