North Korea's Despot Kim Jong Un Is a Survivor, Not a Madman

Kim Jong Un Is a Survivor, Not a Madman

North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is not only wrong, but also dangerous; any successful policy should be based on understanding the logic of the opposite side, not on discarding it as “irrational”. Seeing the Kim family as lunatics with nukes makes them more threatening, and raises the risk of war, but it can also promote unrealistic expectations of compromise — if only the North “comes to its senses.”

Everyone loves thinking of North Korea as crazy. It threatens to consume the United States in nuclear fire on a semi-weekly basis, its leader brutally executes his own generals and had his brother murdered, and it wastes huge amount of money on nuclear weapons while sticking to a failed economic model. Tales of North Korean lunacy are never far from the front pages.

The problem is it’s not just the media that delights in depicting Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un, as irrational — U.S. policymakers indulge in the same behavior. In April, U.S. Congressman Bradley Burne (R-Ala.) said “I don’t believe the leadership in North Korea is rational. How do you deal with someone that is irrational?” He echoed prior remarks by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley who said, “We are not dealing with a rational person,” since, she claimed, Kim is a person “who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly.”

As a guide for understanding North Korea, this analysis is just plain wrong. As a guide for crafting policy toward Pyongyang, it may be catastrophic. North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is not only wrong, but also dangerous; any successful policy should be based on understanding the logic of the opposite side, not on discarding it as “irrational” Seeing the Kim family as lunatics with nukes makes them more threatening, and raises the risk of war, but it can also promote unrealistic expectations of compromise — if only the North “comes to its senses.”

Back in the 1980s the Kim family was laughed at even inside the Eastern Bloc as an embodiment of Stalinist irrationality. They were mocked for clinging to their outdated personality cult and failed economics and it was suggested that they should follow the dynamic leaders of Eastern Europe, like the reformist communist leader Karoly Grosz of Hungary. Today, these leaders are in the waste bin of history — overthrown, disgraced, and forgotten — while the Kim family still enjoys not only power, but the luxury that goes with it and remains in full control of their country.

To be sure, the last 25 years haven’t been easy. The Kim regime has had to survive massive famine that afflicted the public, the loss of every international ally bar an increasingly reluctant China, and confrontation with the world’s only superpower. But the fact that the Kims have managed this feat should be treated as a sign of their rational and ruthless commitment.

Today, Kim Jong Un is in control, and he has the same long-term task as his father and grandfather: to ensure the survival of the regime under the control of himself and his eventual familial successor. There are three major threats to that — obstacles which, judging by Kim’s policies, he has not only identified but is methodically working to neutralize.

The first threat is foreign attack, something that clearly keeps Kim, like his father, up at night. This might seem paranoid. But it’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you. Look at the fate of Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan, once frequently bracketed together with Pyongyang by U.S. officials. But it’s the sorry fate of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi that taught the Kim family its firmest lesson. In 2003, the Libyan strongman agreed to surrender his nuclear weapons development program in exchange for generous economic benefits promised by the West — the first time such a deal had been publicly struck by a state formerly hostile to the United States.

But when revolution broke out in Libya in 2011, it was the NATO no-fly zone that doomed Qaddafi’s regime. That story ended with Qaddafi’s violated body strung across a car bonnet. A decade ago U.S. diplomats and journalists, then full of enthusiasm about Libyan nuclear disarmament deal, used to say that North Korean leaders “should learn the lessons of Libya.” And there’s no doubt that they have, even if they’ve drawn very different conclusions.

Kim Jong Un sees the nuclear program as purely defensive. Conquering the South would be nice in theory, but this task is completely beyond his reach, both due to the U.S. commitment to protecting South Korea and Seoul’s own huge advantage in economic and technological power. He knows that any unprovoked North Korean attack against South Korea or the United States will end badly, perhaps in his death, and he is certainly not suicidal. However, he also presumes that no great power would risk attacking a nuclear state or sticking a hand into its internal strife — especially if it has delivery systems and a second-strike capability.

And so North Korean leaders are determined to stick to their nuclear development, and see nuclear weapons as the major guarantee of their security. There is no form of pressure that can convince them to budge on this, no promise that will seduce them into compliance; they believe that without nuclear weapons they are as good as dead. That’s a disaster for the region, but a perfectly logical choice by the Kim family.

While North Korea’s nuclear program is defensive, it still makes sense to remind the world about its existence and use what President Richard Nixon once described as “madman strategy,” that is, to appear to one’s opponents to be irrational, volatile, and willing to disregard costs. That’s why North Korean propaganda uses such fiercely colorful language.  When North Korean TV promises to “make Seoul into a sea of fire,” or threatens to nuke Canberra, or shows Kim Jong Un in front of a map of the United States with cities marked as targets of nuclear strikes, they are delivering the same message: “we are here, we are volatile, and will stop at nothing if our opponents do something threatening.”

Without their own nuclear weapons, the Kims would fear a direct U.S. attack — but they also fear American, or Chinese, interference into an internal Korean uprising. They saw what happened in Libya when foreign powers introduced a no-fly zone and ensured the insurgents’ victory. They remember that back in 1956 China, together with Russia, supported a failed conspiracy aimed at removing Kim Il Sung, the current supreme leader’s grandfather, from power.

Kim’s other ostensibly irrational policies should also be seen as defensive in nature. Nuclear weapons, after all, are not sufficient to protect the regime. They may prevent international aggression, for example, but they don’t remove the considerable danger of a domestic military coup. Kim Jong Un is young, and has good reasons to suspect that his generals harbor ill feelings about him, given his embarrassingly young age and inexperience. (He was made successor a mere year before his father’s sudden death, being a complete unknown at the time.) Kim is also no doubt aware that coups in non-democratic regimes are fairly common, and fairly successful; according to a recent study, 227 of the 457 coups worldwide between 1950-2010 succeeded. Two of those successful coups took place in the country Pyongyang watches most: South Korea.

Kim seems to believe that the most reliable coup-prevention technique is terror. His rule has been marked by the unprecedented purges in the military and police. Prominent generals have been disappearing one after another, and some top commanders, including a chief of the general staff, as well as a minister of defense, have been executed.

The recent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il’s half-brother, also fits the pattern of this selective terror. Kim Jong Un is determined to destroy anybody who could become a focus of elite discontent. Kim Jong Nam, outspoken and living behind Kim Jong Un’s control, constituted a threat. As a Kim, Kim Jong Nam was likely to become a figurehead of some conspiracy, since he embodied some of the family’s perceived legitimacy and magical aura in the eyes of many North Koreans. It did not help that he was protected by China — a country Kim Jong Un does not trust and sees as a potential sponsor of the elite discontent.

The point is that Kim isn’t overseeing an irrational reign of terror. There are no signs the average North Korean now faces increasing chances of being arrested for a political crime. The number of political prisoners remains exceptionally high, but it has not changed much under Kim Jong Un — and it is significantly lower than it once was in the days of his grandfather. Remarkably, the purges target only military and security commanders — “people with guns” — while the top managers of the economy so far have remained safe.

In other words, Kim Jong Un has unleashed terror targeting the group which might have both reasons and means to replace him. It might be excessive, and it is definitely brutal, but there is nothing irrational about this — especially given that in the case of a successful coup Kim Jong Un himself would be first up against the wall.

But it might not be the generals that bring Kim down. The third threat is a popular uprising. North Korea’s biggest single problem is its stagnant economy. In the 1940s North Korea was the most advanced industrial area in East Asia outside Japan, but decades of mismanagement have made it into a basket case. The per capita income gap between North and South Koreas is larger than between any two other countries which share a land border; the ratio is somewhere between 1:14 and 1:40. The gap between East and West Germany, in contrast, was between 1:2 and 1:3.

This huge gap creates a great political obstacle for any attempt at sweeping Chinese-style economic reforms. China’s regime has been lucky, since it does not face a large and prosperous capitalist twin in the region that is also democratic; Taiwan is too small to pose any threat of subversion. In North Korea, the attempt at emulating China’s “reforms and openness” policy is likely to make the populace, currently isolated at least somewhat from the outside world, acutely aware of South Korea’s unbelievable affluence, and less fearful of the authorities. Common people are likely to blame the Kim family for decades of gross economic mismanagement and start dreaming about a speedy unification with South Korea led by Seoul as a way to solve all their problems overnight. As a result, in North Korea any attempted transition to capitalism is likely not to bring a Chinese-style economic boom, but rather provoke an East German-style political collapse, followed by the absorption of the state by the victorious South (and the complete marginalization of the current elite at best, if they even survive).

The late Kim Jong Il, the present ruler’s father, was well aware of this threat and studiously avoided reforms even though the old Stalinist system was collapsing, yet the country’s market economy began to grow nonetheless. By the end of his rule the private businesses — technically illegal but usually tolerated — were estimated to produce between 25 percent and 40 percent of the country’s GDP. Kim Jong Un, perhaps fearing that in the long run a spontaneous “capitalism from below” will undermine his rule, has taken a different tack. From 2012 to 2014, he began to introduce incremental policies that look remarkably like what China did in the early 1980s.

Agriculture has been largely switched to the family-based system, with farmers being allowed to keep most of the harvest after in-kind tax (no more than 35 percent) has been paid. Industrial managers have been given greater entrepreneurial freedom, including the right to buy and sell at market prices, and to hire and fire personnel. Private entrepreneurs and black market operators, some of whom have amassed fortunes counted in hundreds of thousands and even millions of the U.S. dollars, are no longer harassed, but encouraged to invest, often in cooperation with state agencies.

This policy has led to the economic revival: While there are some disagreements, most experts believe that North Korea’s annual GDP growth in recent years has been around 3 percent or even higher. The era of famine is over, and living standards are growing fast across the entire country — not just in Pyongyang, as some claim. The private money is fueling a construction boom, while shops and restaurants are crowded with the new rich — and traffic, once barely visible in the capital, is now sometimes a real problem.

But these market-oriented reforms have not been accompanied by political liberalization. In culture and ideology, the “nationalized Stalinism” reigns supreme, and the country has by far the world’s highest rate of incarceration for political crimes — some 80,000 political prisoners among a population of just 25 million. Kim Jong Un assumes that some combination of economic growth with harsh surveillance will keep his population docile. This might be an ultimately false assumption, but it’s a reasonable one; after all, nearly all founders of East Asia’s “developmental dictatorships” — from Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan to Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore — died in their beds, admired by many of their compatriots.

Will Kim Jong Un’s policy, rational if sometimes brutal, eventually succeed in keeping the regime stable in the long run? Most of his policies are inherently risky; the nuclear arms race can provoke U.S. preemptive strikes, the harsh treatment of generals might make them more, not less, inclined to start a conspiracy, and the economic reforms can unleash social forces beyond Kim’s control. But risky is not irrational. So far these policies have worked and, given the situation North Korean leaders find themselves in, any alternative would be even riskier. These polices might even work, which would mean the world will have to live with the Kim family regime for a long time to come. The clan has always known how to survive, and they might keep doing so.

What does it mean for the rest of us? Firstly, it is time to realize that there’s no quick solution at hand. North Korea’s denuclearization is impossible, but it is possible to manage the nuclear program and put some cap on its further development, provided the Kim family still feels it has the deterrent value it needs. (Of course, North Koreans will expect generous concessions for any freeze, and might not stick to it even then).

The outside world can and should encourage the positive changes, such as economic growth, which are happening now in North Korea. Above all, they should seek to expand the sources of information available to the North Korean public. The most hopeful future for North Korea is one of change pushed from below, by a people aware of life outside their country’s borders, regardless of whether that comes because the regime feels the need to make popular concessions to survive, or through outright overthrow of the Kim regime. The Kim family might be rational, but so are the North Koreans themselves.

Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS

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