Monday, December 19, 2011

Dear Dead Leader

Holy crap! It's a Christmakkuh miracle! I turn on my phone after a six-hour flight to California, and my inbox is flooded with news reports and private emails informing me that Kim Jong-il is dead, and why haven't I written anything about it.

I'll write more on this when I get settled, but I'm guessing in the next days or weeks we will find out if Kim Jong-ŭn really is (or is not) The Kim Who Wasn't There™.

(from here and here)

Wow. Where to begin. I guess if you want the latest news, you can go to the Los Angeles Times or perhaps The Marmot's Hole. Everyone is asking what will happen next. The answer is, beyond Kim Jong-il receiving some sort of unending torture in an inner circle of Hell, no one really knows.

Right now, everyone is looking at Kim Jong-ŭn. And Kim Jong-ŭn is crapping his pants. He's not even thirty and he's supposedly been tapped to lead the country. Right.

If you don't already know how I feel, read this and follow the links that tell you all about The Kim Who Wasn't There. Although The Marmot's Hole is reporting that Kim Jong-ŭn was "named... as his father’s successor," I'll believe it when I see it.

Before I go any further, let me tell you of two posts I was working on but was waiting until vacation (which began today) to write. Bear in mind, they are going to make me sound very, very nutty. The first was going to be a follow-up to my original "The Kim Who Wasn't There" post, basically a similar analysis of how much the KCNA (North Korea's central news agency) actually mentions Kim Jong-ŭn, which is not much. I was timing the analysis for the week around the first anniversary of him being named co-chair of whatever committee it is that he's pretending to run.

The second was a bit more out of left field. I was actually sitting down to analyze how much Kim Jong-il travels to give guidance and how much that keeps him away from Pyongyang. I was doing this in order to suggest that — get ready for this — Kim Jong-il might be a mere figurehead himself. Wow, wouldn't that ever be a trip (literally and figuratively)?

Some, of course, might think that really it was one of the KJI doppelgänger doing all the guidance, but I was starting to wonder if KJI really had all the power we have supposed he did. After all, the guy apparently nearly died from a stroke two or three years ago, and then went through a long recovery. Just who the hell was his Edith Wilson, if he had one at all? Maybe, just maybe, the ruling generals or nappŭn nomenklatura (see how I did that?) sorta got together and formed a junta or an oligarchy or something.

And where would that leave supposed designated heir Kim Jong-ŭn? Maybe they really do need a figurehead. Maybe they need a uniting force and a source of legitimacy. Maybe they have decided that Kim Jong-il's only son who is not crazy or possibly gay but is a team player must be the figurehead.

And if that's true, then my speculation that Kim Jong-ŭn would end up wielding no real power is still true. Not that he (or his supporting faction) wouldn't try. But just what can a figurehead do? I have wondered aloud if Kim Jong-un could possibly be North Korea's Gorbachev. Maybe the English-speaking, Swiss-educated KJU might just have some ideas of his own about opening up the country, and even his nominal power might be just enough to nudge the regime in that direction.

It all comes down to China.
But ultimately, whether or not Kim Jong-un will be in power as a figurehead, a leader with real power, or none at all, will depend on China. In the past, I and others have spoken about the ominous prospect of China working to turn North Korea into Inner Cháoxiān Autonomous Prefecture. China has a great deal of control over the DPRK and it does not want to relinquish it. It certainly does not want the Koreans to unify and have a US military presence at its backdoor.

And so China has been doing whatever it can to prop up the North Korean government. They started doing this during the Korean War and they've been doing it since. But lately they themselves have found the Pyongyang regime belligerent and unwieldy, even an embarrassment to Beijing. And don't think for a minute that China wouldn't give their blessing to even a transfer of power to a figurehead unless they had assurances that the post-KJI North Korea would be better behaved.

And here is where I'm actually kinda sorta glad that China is holding the reins (at least for the time being), because China has been prodding North Korea to follow a path similar to Deng-era China, and to integrate North Korea (economically at least) with China's northeastern provinces (i.e., a process I call the Manchurianization of North Korea).

North Korea has been opening in ways thought unimaginable just a few years ago. North Korea has brought in cell phone service, eventually becoming the world's fastest growing mobile market (more posts here and here). News reports said recently that they topped 1 million (in a country of about 22 million).

There are also things like Western-style coffee shops, television commercials for beer, and other trappings of the West as seen through Chinese eyes. In other words, China has lately been trying very hard to re-make North Korea in its own image.

And just what does all that mean? China does not allow a whole lot of dissent. Two decades after Tianamen Square, China is still authoritarian. And if North Korea follows a Dengesque path, you should expect North Korea to also be authoritarian as long as China is. Unless...

What if North Korea goes off China's game plan?
The only thing that could change the trajectory of North Korea being pulled toward Deng-era reforms that would bring it closer and closer to China would be unification. The question now is whether that can happen or not. The generals and the politicos in North Korea have no interest in giving up their own power and possibly risking arrest, imprisonment, and even execution which might result if North Korea allowed itself to be absorbed by a democratic South Korea. (I think there's a way to convince them while keeping that in mind, but that's another post for another time.)

But what if there is an uprising? What if Kim Jong-un just isn't cutting it as a figurehead or a real leader? What if the people have caught a whiff of the jasmine revolution and think now is as good a time as any to make a real change? Don't forget that in 2009 the regime dealt a body blow to almost everyone in the country — including many who had once felt quite loyal — with the Great Currency Obliteration. That has been, I believe, a real game changer in people's attitudes toward the regime, a moment where they suddenly realized, "These people aren't on my side."

Kim Jong-il died at a time when there are already food shortages, and the bitter winter will only make it worse. This is a precarious time to be changing leadership. Beijing itself may not be able to control what results. The biggest thing they have going their way, however, is that much of the population lives in rural pockets that are kept from communicating with each other. If there is a North Korean Spring, à la the Arab world, it will only be because of some very diligent people risking their lives to bring the message to the masses wherever they are.

So, in conclusion, with 3.5 hours of sleep and having just come off six hours of flying, these are my thoughts. I still think Kim Jong-un's faction does not have his power solidified, and I think there's a good chance he will either be squeezed out or allowed to be merely a figurehead. China will continue to push for reforms that make North Korea more like Deng-era China, but a popular uprising could easily thwart their plans to integrate the DPRK more with the Northeastern Provinces.

What would a North Korean spring look like? How would China react? Could we get China to back off a bit by (a) agreeing to keep their port facilities at Rajin and (b) promising that the US military will not be stationed in any territory that had been the Democratic People's Republic of Korea?

So much to think about. And I'll probably rewrite a lot of this in the morning.

Before I start, I'd like to add a few links to other blogs, who are as interested in this story as I. Make no mistake: this is the biggest story of the year and, depending on how things go, possibly the decade. So here are links from the biggies that cover North Korea regularly: One Free Korea, and Daily NK (which is like a news service, so just go there and see all the KJI-related articles).

I will forgive Asiapundit brazenly linking to themselves, just because that's something I would do, too, so go to this link and read the Marmot's Hole-worthy post they put up (frankly, others doing that meant I didn't have to, and I could thus concentrate on my theses about what might happen in the future — hint: the answer is likely to involve continued Manchurianization). Roboseyo has some thoughts. If you know of any others I've missed, please feel free to provide them in the comments.

And soon we'll start hearing from the experts on North Korea, as well as the pundits who liken themselves as experts on North Korea. And then we'll have a new round of blog posts on people talking about how North Korea expert Selig Harrison is nucking futs (and possibly on the take?).

Now for a couple things I forgot to mention in my bleary-eyed post from last night.

First, a huge dollop of honesty: I may not know what the fudge I'm talking about. Nobody does. And five, ten years from now, a lot of us will consider ourselves lucky if no one was keeping score.

Some honest punditry.
But here's where I get a little more honest: I was completely wrong about what would happen with North Korea back when the elder Kim died, and if only I'd been blogging in the mid-1990s, you'd know that.

See, I've been a news junkie ever since late elementary school, when I delivered newspapers. And that plus our own connection to Korea meant my young self would follow news on North Korea long before Kim Il-sung kicked the bucket in 1994.

And I was confident back then that Kim Il-sung — who at that point had ruled the country for four decades — was the only thing in the way of unification. So my late teen self actually bet someone fifty dollars (where was my late teen self getting that kinda money? ) that within five years of the Great Leader's Death, the two Koreas would be unified.

How's that prediction working out for you, late teen kushibo? (Good thing the person I bet kinda forgot; for a teen, that was Romney betting money.)

And so this is just me being honest. I was optimistic and perhaps naïve, but the thing is we all were. But there were so many things we didn't account for, such as Kim Jong-il's own ruthlessness (seriously, the guy looked like some sort of fat Korean Bill Gates, and who could imagine Bill Gates being evil?), and China's own willingness to support evil in order to maintain a satellite state (we thought they got that out of their system in 1950).

So now maybe we're overcompensating. We think North Korea's "leadership" doesn't have the capacity to move beyond dynastic dictatorship, and we worry that North Korea's people can't do anything but cower in fear. And we now understand that China will do whatever it can to ensure that North Korea doesn't become part of the string of pearls the United States intends to use as a choker.

But are we overcompensating too much? (By definition, any overcompensation is too much.) Is North Korea something that even Beijing cannot tame enough to use for their purposes?

A bulimic state cannot stand?
And that leads me to the other thing I forgot to mention last night: the purges. Right now on Capitol Hill in the US, we've got the leaders of Freddie and Fannie up there talking about charges that they'd misled the public. Now imagine that they were in fear that they would be taken out back and shot, and their families rounded up. That's what happened with the guy who was the scapegoat for the botched currency reform.

And that's just one example. You move way up the ladder, having been noticed for your competence but patiently and obsequiously playing the sycophant, and then you risk losing it all on a whim to a bullet through the skull when you piss off the wrong person.

"I can't work under these conditions!" is what you want to scream, but that's a guaranteed trip to the salt mines. So maybe you just wait, bide your time, until the old man's son is dead, and then we'll retake the asylum and set things right. Right? Right?

Notice a resemblance?
I mean, we don't want to have to wait until the son of the old man's son is also dead, do we? Junior the First, if he really was in charge, was only interested in selling off the country and buying coke. Sure, he kept all of us in Pyongyang living large, but we were always living in fear of the boom coming down. Maybe if we get rid of his son, we can actually move toward being a normal country where we are still the elite. Right?

They've just got to be thinking that way up there. I mean, Junior Junior has no real knowledge of how to run a country. He's weak, and possibly as whimsical as his dad, and that's a recipe for disaster, right? Best to off the kid — or put him in a figurehead role — and move on. But will the powerful Kim Jongsuk (his aunt) allow for that? Maybe we need to wait for her to croak.

So what I'm getting at is that the generals and the top bureaucrats have a deeply personal incentive to not stick with the status quo. And that could upend whatever plans China has (or maybe bolster them, depending on China's plans and how they feel about Round 3 of a Kim Dynasty).

Okay, I'm starting to blab again. So many thoughts in my brain right now, and I need some breakfast.

(And say what you will, but the flood of tears for the Dear Leader that will be seen on video clip after video clip, some of them from deep human emotion and some of them crocodile, were exactly what happened when the Great Leader seventeen years ago. Do not be alarmed, do not be shocked, do not adjust your set.)



  1. It's funny how long it took for the Chosun Central News Agency to make the official announcement of the death of Dear Leader KIM Jong-il. They said he passed away on Saturday morning but waited till noon on Monday for the announcement...

  2. Surely you agree that the coming months will shape the future of North Korea for our lifetimes? Then there will never be a better time for the south to act...

  3. It certainly does not want the Koreans to unify and have a US military presence at its backdoor.

    Of course, but they'd probably love to see Korea unified in a way that results in US military withdrawal from the whole peninsula. An economically and politically 'normalised' NK would make that a realistic or half-realistic possibility. China's rulers would surely love to be able to dangle the carrot of unification on China's terms in front of the ROK. Even if the final goal isn't attainable, they could hope to get lots of mileage from that Ostpolitik.

    As a complete outsider to Korea and the region, the rough scenario you've described as "the Manchurianisation of North Korea" seems the obvious way forward for everyone with real power over NK: not only is it very desirable for China, but it uniquely offers the DPRK political elite the chance to become gloriously rich and generally escape the prison of their own making while maintaining power over NK. In fact it seems so obviously the way forward that the question isn't whether it might happen - it's why on earth hasn't it happened already? (Of course Rasŏn and so on are happening right now, but naturally those are baby steps compared to a full Deng-style reform of the DPRK.) And there seem to be roughly two possible overall answers to that question. One is that the "Manchurianisation thesis" is fundamentally wrong in some way (maybe China really does want to have a juche state in north Korea?). Another is that it's fundamentally right but that the process has been stalled by some temporary obstacles. Of course it seems that one such obstacle has just now fallen away, so perhaps things are about to get moving. For one thing, it's easy to imagine that Beijing has been biding its time until KJI's departure, keeping its powder dry until the post-KJI transition period when it can use its influence to maximum effect.

    Then again, it's hard to know how China's looming economic and political problems of its own are going to affect NK, or indeed the rest of us.

  4. Full update, including video of North Korean Central News Agency's announcement of Kim's death and pictures from Pyongyang available over at the blog -

  5. When I first heard this news, I didn't know whether to jump for joy and click my heels or to be afraid. I guess you can do both in that order. But all this positive speculation on the internet blogs about what may happen next in the north is too optimistic. I'm hoping over the next few years, there will be positive change there....but I've also learned not to expect too much in my lifetime when it comes to North Korea.

    It's really too bad that KJI missed his chance in the world. He actually was in a position where he could have been the one to make a positive change for Koreans (both North and South) and have the world genuinely miss him when he died instead of being the butt of jokes after his death. Just think...that has to be the worse thing in life: to die and have people be so relieved and happy...just like a rodent or bug.

    I know that I will be glued to the monitor for the next several months and years to see what happens. But I feel there will be no news coming out of Pyongyang for a long time until the dust is settled. We may never even hear news of a possible squashed coup or inner party squabbles (if any!).

  6. Here's the conclusions I made over at my blog:

    One year later…

    In all the uncertainty, I’ve been trying to picture North Korea on December 19th, 2012. First of all, there still will be a North Korea one year from today and the current power structures will be more or less intact. There will have been no large scale conflict and in fact both the outgoing GNP administration and the assume incoming leftist government have been pushing for more open relations and trade with the North, perhaps even a meeting with the Brilliant Comrade is being planned by some. So Kim Jong-un will be the leader of North Korea, but much more in name only as the actual power and decisions will be made up of his Aunt and Uncle as well as other key military and party leaders. By “actual power” I mean these people are where the puppet strings coming from China will be tied and from here will come greater emphasis on Chinese-style economic reforms. As discussed before these reforms have already started, but the speed and scope may widen considerably over the next year. Unmentioned so far are the 22 million people of North Korea, just where will they be? Unfortunately likely little will change for their lives. There will be no mass defections across the border, no uprising, no dancing in the street or toppling of statues. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a little more food in the pot and a bit more heat on during the cold December night. The greatest thing these people might have next year is a tiny bit of hope that things might be improving ever so slightly.

    The funniest thing about all of this for me is simply the timing. We are less than two weeks shy of the new year, 2012, the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the countries founder. For years Kim Jong Il has been propagating that this would be the year that North Korea would become a great nation, but now he himself couldn’t reach that day. No, North Korea won’t be a great nation in the coming year, but perhaps it will be a better one.

  7. It is ironic that the West's fear of destabilization in NK and therefore the region appears to be resulting in their tacit encouragement of power passing smoothly to the heir apparent...

  8. I know my father will no longer be able to look at things but he trained me well and I hope that everyone on the internet follows me as I look at things around our country.

  9. I thought you would be too worried about watching your back to spare any attention on your country...

  10. I couldn't help noticing this bit of news:

    In Beijing Chinese President Hu Jintao, along with members of the PRC’s political leadership made a condolence call to the DPRK Embassy. Kyodo News Agency reports that President Hu will attend the 28 December state funeral for KJI, citing the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights & Democracy. In a brief story, the center cited “a well-informed” source that said Hu would travel to Pyongyang.

    Doesn't really square with "No foreign mourning delegations will be received.", does it? My guess is that a) President Hu is the one person above all that the funeral organisers were specifically aiming not to receive in Pyongyang for just the next while and b) he decided to invite himself along regardless. A straw in the wind, I think.

  11. Great to have you here, KJU. I hope you'll read with an open heart and open mind all the unsolicited advice I shall give you in the future.


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