For the Kims, the Weakest Link is Family

26 10 2010

In his recent op-ed entitled ‘For the Kims, the Weakest Link is Family’, published in Asia Times On-line (22 Oct. 2010) sociologist Aidan Foster-Carter discusses the dynastic succession in North Korea. He writes: “I dare to hope for a happy ending. Kim Il-sung’s sociological nous has kept the state he created alive longer than many (me included) had expected. But can it go on for ever?

That I doubt. A full answer would loose more hares than there’s room for here. In the 21st century, refusing market reforms is a recipe for self-destruction. Abroad, North Korea’s old game of militant mendicancy, despite some success from the Sino-Soviet dispute right up to the six-party talks, is past its sell-by date; other powers are fed up and won’t play any more.

But just to stick to the processes already mentioned, these too are far from foolproof. The weakest link is familism. Past history, in Korea or anywhere – think of the Borgias in Italy – suggests that monarchies or other forms of family rule can be riddled by strife. Some crown princes just aren’t up to the job. People plot, and before you know it the knives are out.

Specifically, promoting a third son over his elder siblings is asking for trouble. What does number one son think? On October 12 he told us. Interviewed in Beijing by Japan’s Asahi TV, Kim Jong-nam broke ranks, saying: ”Personally, I am against third-generation dynastic succession”. Adding that he didn’t care, and would help little brother ”while I stay abroad”, doesn’t make this any less of a bombshell. Kim Jong-nam has gone off-message, big time.”

The “Late Night Live” program of ABC Radio National invited Leonid Petrov to discuss this topic with Dr Foster-Carter.

Listen to the MP3 file of the discussion

The allocated 15 minutes did not permit the participants to use all the arguments they had prepared. The  following the is the summary of Leonid Petrov’s response:

“I’m supportive of Aidan’s analysis in general, but would like to defend my own hypothesis that Kim Jong-un is the  best candidate for continuing this ‘communist monarchy’ without  inflicting any change in politics or the economy of North Korea.

My argument is based on two assumptions. First, as long as the Cold War structures continue to dominate regional politics in Northeast Asia, North Korea will be safe by playing China, Russia and the US against each other. The former Cold War enemies badly need North Korea either as a buffer state or as a regional balancer. So, nobody (including politicians in Seoul and Pyongyang) would welcome the sudden and uncontrolled unification of Korea.

Second, the dynastic regime in North Korea with its power and legitimacy built on endless lies about the situation abroad and especially in South Korea simply cannot sustain any openness or even minor liberalisation. Instead, endless mobilisation campaigns and anti-imperialist propaganda are the well tested tools for the regime to keep the citizens under total control. There is no room for economic liberalisation or political reform in the ideology of self-reliance (Juch’e) and priority of security (Seon’gun) politics.

Since the last thing which the Kim family (who treats the DPRK like its own hereditary property) wishes to encounter is any kind of change or reform, they do everything possible to restrict access to the power for outsiders. Anticipating the imminent end of Kim Jong-il’s era, the clan has nominated the youngest person in the family because they wish the new Great Leader: 1) to be totally dependent on the older members of  the family, who would continue running the country business; 2) to have very little or no support base outside of the family, even among such groups as Army or the Party; and 3) to remain alive and maintain the system intact as long as possible, perhaps for another 30 or 40 years.

Kim Jong-un, by all means, is the candidate who best meets these criteria. Surprisingly, even the groups who could potentially rival and oppose his appointment, demonstrate solidarity and support. Why? See the above two assumptions on which the very system of Korea’s division is based: the continuation of the Cold War in the region and the reluctance of elite groups to lose their privileged status.

Aidan Foster-Carter asks how long can this system survive. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and then later witnessed the collapse of the Iron Curtain, I would say that totalitarian societies of this type are extremely resilient and will not falter until liberalisation is imposed from above (as was done first by Khruschev  and then again by Gorbachev). Thus, the Kim clan is on the right track by avoiding reforms (of the Soviet or Chinese form) and by grooming a young and inexperienced leader from inside the family.

Unless the external situation changed dramatically (i.e. if China stopped fearing the US, or Russia and Japan sign a peace treaty, or conservatives in Seoul lose the next election), we shouldn’t hold our breath. There is no reason to expect any change! Kim Jong-un is not yet ready for the job but, looking at the rigidity of fossilised Cold War structures and the return of Palaeo-conservatism in regional politics in South Korea and Japan, he has plenty of time to develop his leadership skills and charisma. In this way, Kim Jong-un can easily outshine his father, and become as successful as his grandfather in playing one great power off against another.”

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