Alex Massie: North Korea is really no joke

Kim Jong-un with his uncle Jang Sung-taek earlier this year. Picture: GettyKim Jong-un with his uncle Jang Sung-taek earlier this year. Picture: Getty
Kim Jong-un with his uncle Jang Sung-taek earlier this year. Picture: Getty
Treating the totalitarian state as gruesome entertainment only serves to belie the precarious nature of a regime that may explode at any time, writes Alex Massie

North Korea: the greatest, oddest, show on earth. What larks. It is tempting to blame Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the South Park creators also responsible for Team America: World Police in which Kim Jong-il featured prominently – and absurdly – for the manner in which North Korea is treated as some kind of gruesome entertainment. The Norks are funny, not terrifying.

The press often endorses, indeed reinforces, this attitude. An advertising campaign in New York City promoting the Daily Mail’s website depicts mug shots of Kim Jong-un (the current North Korean leader) and Kim Kardashian (a staple of ‘reality’ TV) above the slogan “The Kims are on the same page”. Celebrity gossip and celebrity tyranny are all good for a laugh. This week, newspapers treated us to features on “the most entertaining rants” delivered by Kim Jong-un since the 30-year-old leader came to power two years ago.

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These lists were prompted by Kim’s latest purge of the party elite in which he ousted his uncle Jang Sung-taek. Jang’s execution was but the latest reminder that North Korea is a mafia state as well as a gulag state. Jang was arrested at a meeting of the North Korea politburo that was being broadcast live by Korean television. A reminder, if it were needed, that Kim Jong-un has no intention of relinquishing his grip on power.

Indeed, the latest Kim has steadily concentrated power in his own hands. The men tasked with grooming him for power – and with offering him counsel – have mostly been dismissed since Kim succeeded his father in December 2011. Power is absolute and, perhaps increasingly, absolutely concentrated in Kim’s hands.

The statement released confirming Jang’s execution was grotesque. According to the statement, broadcast by state media, Jang was “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog” who “perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him”. All very amusing, I’m sure. Yet also, as a mere moment’s contemplation is sufficient to remind you, horrifying.

Totalitarian rulers are not, of course, known for their senses of modesty or decorum. Nevertheless, the execution of such a close family member is the kind of message that leaves no room for misunderstanding. North Korea is, if anything, a more mysterious and dangerous place than it was when Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, ruled.

As the US secretary of state John Kerry noted, the younger Kim is “ruthless and reckless” but also “insecure” and “still worried about his place in the power structure and manoeuvring to eliminate any potential kind of an adversary of competitor”. Since at least some outside observers claimed Jang represented North Korea’s best hope of even modest reforms towards openness and engagement with the outside world, his purging appears to confirm that there is no reason for optimism on those grounds. Many analysts predict there will be more purges to come as Kim consolidates his grip on power.

Yet it remains possible that Kim’s apparently erratic behaviour is a sign of both strength and weakness. Strength because he seems determined to squash any potential criticism; weakness because he feels he must do so. There is a sense, then, in which the North Korean eldership currently resembles a pressure cooker. If it is handled carelessly, it may explode.

Not least since North Korea desperately needs economic reform. Though economic conditions in the capital are believed to have improved, North Korea’s people, who have suffered so much for so little purpose, still need food not nuclear weapons.

Jang was believed to be in favour of concentrating on developing the North Korean economy at the expense of fresh nuclear ambitions. His execution, however, may suggest a shift away from economic reform in favour of concentrating on developing North Korea’s nuclear programme still further.

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Other developments are only a little less troubling. Certainly North Korea’s talent for surprise continues to intrigue. This week, the regime rewrote history (again), deleting 35,000 articles from the country’s official news archive. For once the phrase “Orwellian development” could be used accurately. It is often Year Zero in North Korea. It is hard to know how important this is – it certainly points to a regime prepared to act erratically and unpredictably.

All this presents a dreadful predicament to the outside world. No-one wishes the Pyongyang regime to remain in situ for any longer than is necessary; no-one is ready for it to collapse either. Humanitarian concerns demand a change in regime in North Korea sooner rather than later; those same concerns are unavoidably exercised by the potential for catastrophe should the Kims’ regime fall. That catastrophe would most probably be immense in scale.

A report released by the Rand Corporation earlier this year warned that the North Korean regime could collapse at any moment. Such warnings, it is true, have been common for at least 25 years. Nevertheless, if Pyongyang falls the costs of any putative reunification of the Korean peninsula will dwarf the price of German reunification.

Moreover, a peaceful transition cannot be guaranteed. Loyalists to the regime will have no reason to avoid fighting. Worse still, it seems plausible that North Korea’s nuclear expertise – in the form of scientists as well as material – would suddenly be available on the international market. It seems likely there would be plenty of bidders with, unavoidably, terrible consequences for nuclear non-proliferation. A US army war game earlier this year found it could take 90,000 American troops two months to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities.

That presumes Kim’s regime buckles eventually. It may not. It may be that maintaining a status quo in which, as far as possible, North Korea is maintained in a state of suspended animation represents the best-available scenario. This guarantees still further suffering for the North Korean people but their enslavement – and brainwashing – is a kind of collateral damage that must be endured. The costs – and risks – of doing anything vis-a-vis North Korea are greater than the costs – and perhaps risks too – of doing very little.

This remains the case not least because managing North Korea is one area in which one can foresee an ugly conflict between Washington and Beijing. China is keen to avoid North Korea’s collapse not least because Pyongyang’s eclipse could leave US troops stationed within spitting distance of its border. Beijing craves greater international recognition which requires it to reign in North Korea whenever Pyongyang oversteps the mark. There is, plainly, some tension between these jostling positions.

Nor does Washington wish to become embroiled in a fresh crisis on the Korean peninsula. The United States is not, despite what some people think, turning towards isolationism. But nor is it interested in searching for fresh monsters itself. Maintaining the status quo in Korea suits American interests too. But here, as in so many other respects, the outside world has little ability to set the agenda. Instead it must react to what North Korea does. That’s a position of some weakness and some delicacy. And not, it might be added, really a laughing matter.

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