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.”

Kim Jong-il snubs Jimmy Carter in lead up to succession

2 09 2010

by Aidan Foster Carter, East Asia Forum, 2 September 2010.

Kim Jong-il headed to China at the end of last month less than four months after his last visit. This timing was the more surprising since it meant he missed Jimmy Carter. The former US president arrived in Pyongyang to secure the release of a US prisoner, Aijalon Mahli Gomes. […] Last August it was Bill Clinton who did the honours, in a trip clearly para-diplomatic in intent and outcome: he met Kim Jong-il, and it looked briefly as if US-DPRK relations might thaw. Carter had no such luck. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s snub – couldn’t he have waited for a day? – sends its own message.

From Washington, the Nelson Report offered different versions in successive issues. John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was keen to go get Gomes, who is also his constituent; but the State Department vetoed this lest it look too official and governmental. Alternatively, it was Kim Jong-il who on July 30 nixed both Kerry and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico – who has been on mercy missions to Pyongyang before. Kim wanted Jim. But in that case, why did he stand him up? Possibly because the Obama administration, concerned at Carter’s well-known penchant for freelance diplomacy, kept its distance from this trip – in contrast to the close liaison last year over Bill Clinton’s visit, though that too was nominally private.

But America is hardly the main thing on the dear leader’s mind just now. His sudden return to China is almost certainly related to the imminent, and rare, delegates’ meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Announced on June 26 as due in early September, sources in Seoul suggest it will be held on September 6-8. Anticipation is strong that Kim’s third son and putative heir Kim Jong-eun will at last be revealed in public and perhaps take on some official post. His full designation as successor is not expected until 2012: Juche 100 in the DPRK calendar as the centenary of its founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.

What has this to do with China? One possible precedent occurred a decade ago. In May 2000 Kim Jong-il made a secret visit to Beijing, just a fortnight before he hosted Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang for the first ever inter-Korean summit. While so fiercely independent a regime would bridle at any suggestion of needing to seek anyone’s permission for anything, nonetheless it was prudent to ensure that so radical a foreign policy initiative was acceptable to the DPRK’s main protector and aid donor.

The same applies now, only more so. A delicate succession process, a clapped-out economy and a slow-burn nuclear crisis add up to a major headache for all concerned. In better times Kim can ignore China. But this is a tense juncture. The dear leader needs Hu Jintao, whom he probably met on this trip in Changchun, to bless Kim Jong-eun’s succession – and not dally with potential rivals like number one son Kim Jong-nam, living in quasi-exile in Macau, whose unprepossessing appearance belies an openness to much-needed reform. Kim may also be desperate for more Chinese aid, reportedly withheld on his last visit, so that Kim Jong-eun’s anointment can be marked in best Roman emperor style with panem et circenses: bread and circuses.

The question is what Hu will have demanded in return. Above all Beijing fears instability in its wayward neighbour. Its purported scepticism over March’s sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan reaffirmed a refusal to paint the DPRK into a corner. Yet China is fed up with Kim Jong-il, and will hardly miss a chance to bring him into line at a moment of weakness. This time the price of yet more political and financial aid may have been twofold: real economic reform, and showing more willing as regards the long-stalled nuclear issue.

A sign of hope regarding economic reform, Pak Pong-ju is back after three years in the wilderness. As chemicals minister in 2002 Pak led an economic delegation to South Korea. In 2003 Pak was promoted to prime minister; on his watch the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) got up and running. In 2007 he was sacked in a backlash against reform. He resurfaced in August as a WPK deputy director, said to be in light industry: long the bailiwick of Kim Kyong-hui, the dear leader’s sister and Mrs Jang.

As for the nuclear issue, China’s negotiator Wu Dawei has been shuttling from Pyongyang to Seoul peddling a new three-stage plan to kick-start the stalled, if not dead, Six Party Talks (6PT). Wu got no joy in Seoul, whose foreign minister was away. Neither the ROK nor US will budge unless Pyongyang has something serious and substantial to say, both on the nuclear issue and the Cheonan. Such a hardline stance risks keeping them both out of the loop, at a time of ferment in Pyongyang. Yet Obama in particular has little choice at this juncture. Already assailed as he is by outrageous slings and arrows in an ever more toxic domestic political milieu, in the run-up to mid-term Congressional elections the last thing he can afford is the extra charge of being soft on Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-il’s Chinese jaunt –nominally secret, though the special train and convoys are hard to hide –took an unusual route from Manpo to Jian around 1 a.m. on August 26, reaching Jilin by 9 am. There Kim visited Yuwen middle school, which his father attended during 1927-30. If Kim Jong-eun came too, this doubtless served to cement the idea of revolutionary heredity.

On August 27 the Jilin-Changchun expressway was closed so Kim’s convoy could make the journey in safety and solitude. There he met Hu Jintao, and probably introduced his son. Leaving Changchun on August 28, Kim was thought to be headed home; but by nightfall his train had not crossed the border. Instead, he made one more stop-off in Harbin before heading home.. Perhaps it suits the dear leader and son to be out of town and miss the frantic last-minute preparations and machinations for the Big Day in early September. Yet such an absence does seem surprising. Are they ultra-confident, or running scared?

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs.

See the full text of the article here…

Too many Kim Yong-ils

6 03 2010

by Aidan Foster-Carter (Policy Forum Online 10-015A: March 4th, 2009)

Korean names can set traps for the unwary. Amid a multitude of Kims, almost all unrelated, North Korea adds an extra twist. German speakers, and some others, tend to mispronounce the J in Kim Jong-il as a Y. Not only is this incorrect, but currently it can confuse; for North Korea’s Premier – head of the civilian Cabinet, as distinct from the Dear Leader who chairs the more powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) – is named Kim Yong-il.

To add to the confusion, another Kim Yong-il was until recently vice foreign minister (one of several), but in January became director of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s international department: a post apparently vacant since 2007. As such, this Kim Yong-il met his Chinese counterpart Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s international liaison department, when Wang visited Pyongyang in early February. Since his promotion, Kim Yong-il 2 (as it may be best to call him) has been reported as frequently at Kim Jong-il’s side. This suggests he may see far more of the Dear Leader than does anyone else involved in DPRK foreign policy, including the man hitherto thought to be the eminence grise on that front: first vice foreign minister Kang Sok-ju, who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with the US. It was Kang whom the current US special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, demanded to meet when he visited Pyongyang in December, rather than the North’s main nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan: a more junior deputy foreign minister.

Or is Washington behind the curve? That Kim Yong-il 2 is the DPRK’s new foreign affairs head honcho seemed confirmed on February 23, when he turned up in Beijing and went right to the top: going straight into talks with President Hu Jintao and separately with Wang Jiarui. This flurry of activity suggests two possibilities. Either Kim Jong-il will soon visit China, as he is overdue to do; or North Korea may return to the nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT), which have not met in over a year. Or perhaps both, if we are especially fortunate.

If both Kim Yong-ils are now leading players, perhaps one of them could change his name? That is not a frivolous suggestion. Some DPRK officials do this, for no clear reason. Often the change is small, so this is not a case of deception. Thus Paek Nam-sun, DPRK foreign minister – meaning chief meeter and greeter rather than top negotiator – from 1998 until his death in 2007, was originally Paek Nam-jun. Ri Jong-hyok, who as vice-chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC) now handles relations with the South, was Ri Dong-hyok in the 1980s when this writer knew him as head of North Korea’s mission in Paris.

(For completeness, yet another Kim Yong-il was Kim Jong-il’s late half-brother. He died of liver cirrhosis in 2000 aged only 45 in Berlin, where he had a diplomatic posting tantamount to exile – as his elder brother Kim Pyong-il, the DPRK ambassador to Poland, still does.)

Jong and Yong both say sorry

The past month saw both Chairman and Premier Kim doing something almost unheard of in Pyongyang. Apparently they both said sorry, although some reports got the two muddled up.

On February 1 Rodong Sinmun, daily paper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), reported Kim Jong-il as lamenting his failure to fulfil his late father Kim Il-sung’s pledge, to which he had also alluded shortly before on January 9, that all North Koreans would eat rice and meat soup (everyday fare for even the poorest South Korean, be it noted). This time Kim said: “What I should do now is feed the world’s greatest people with rice and let them eat their fill of bread and noodles. Let us all honour the oath we made before the Leader and help our people feed themselves without having to know broken rice [an inferior version]”.

Given Kim Jong-il’s own notoriety as gourmet and gourmand, his professed “compassion” for his less fortunate subjects’ deprivation may induce queasiness. Yet even this not-quite-apology glosses over the truth. Broken rice? They should be so lucky. As readers of Barbara Demick’s excellent and heartbreaking new book Nothing to Envy will know, rice of any kind – whole or broken – is a rare luxury for most North Koreans. In the late 1990s a million or so starved to death; even today most remain malnourished. One refugee who fled to China saw her first rice in years in the first house she came to – in a dog’s bowl. That is the true reality.

Worse, all this was and is avoidable: the result of stupid and vicious policies, not the natural disasters that the regime blames. The real cause was the government’s failure to adapt in the 1990s after Moscow abruptly pulled the plug on aid. This hurt other ex-Soviet client states too. Cuba went for tourism; Vietnam tried cautious reform; Mongolia sold minerals. North Korea, bizarrely, did nothing – except watch its old system break down and growth plunge.

In a speech at Kim Il-sung University in December 1996, when famine was seriously biting, Kim Jong-il lashed out at the WPK and uttered this petulant but very revealing whinge: “In this complex situation, I cannot solve all the problems while I have the duty of being in charge of practical economic projects as well as the overall economy, since I have to control important sectors such as the military and the party as well. If I concentrated only on the economy there would be irrecoverable damage to the revolution. The great leader told me when he was alive never to be involved in economic projects, just concentrate on the military and the party and leave economics to party functionaries. If I do delve into economics then I cannot run the party and the military effectively.”

Evidently Bill Clinton’s famously apt watchword, which helped him win the presidency in 1992, had not breached North Korea’s thick walls and heads. It’s the economy, stupid! The paternal advice was dead wrong. (The full speech can be read on the much-missed Kimsoft website. Unsurprisingly it is not part of the DPRK’s official canon of the dear leader’s works, but the scholarly consensus is that it is genuine. A slightly different version appears here.)