[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-un needs to be branded
Without overhauling its antiquated economy, it cannot seek ‘co-evolution’ with the world.
Just as Kim Il Sung had Juche (self-reliance) and Kim Jong-il has Songun (military-first), North Korea’s twenty-something heir-in-waiting Kim Jong-un needs a catchphrase to epitomize his time of rule.
North Korea’s political slogans are different from ours. The leaders of our society sell rhetoric like, “The era of great common people” or “Citizens are the president,” but the catchphrase the North Korean leader uses becomes the country’s fundamental policy guideline. It sets the direction and goal of the regime.
The birth of the Songun mantra was not a blessed one from the start. North Korea’s biggest patron, the Soviet Union, crumbled and its brother country China began to befriend the wealthy South Korea. The country’s pillar Kim Il Sung died suddenly of a heart attack. And the South’s President Kim Young-sam government ridiculed North Korea as a nose-diving airplane due to have engine malfunction.
Mother Nature has been hard on the North, bombarding the poor country with flood after flood with severe droughts mixed in.
Kim Jong-il’s era arrived, but the new leader’s reign has been difficult. The reality was cruel to face. He hid behind his father’s grave, citing his duty to mourn his father for at least three years, according to ancient Asian tradition.
A few years later, Kim Jong-il finally appeared in public with his military-first rallying cry. He went in the opposite direction of opening to the world and to reforms that could have saved the country and his people. To him, sustaining his regime and family name was more urgent.
Fortifying military power isolated the country and cut it off from aid from the outside world more than the Juche ideology had done, at the cost of starving North Koreans. It was a sad choice for the people.
Today, the North Korean leader-in-waiting would come to power in a completely different environment.
The North’s communist friends are stronger than ever - Russia’s confidence is back and China’s ego is sky-high with its status as one of two superpowers. They no longer need to follow a subtle balanced diplomacy, now defending North Korea’s apparent attack on a South Korean naval ship and openly supporting the third-generation dynastic rule of the Kim family. The North’s economy is also somehow muddling along. South Korea, too, does not wish a sudden collapse of North Korea.
The younger Kim is luckier than his father had been when he succeeded to the throne. He is, therefore, in a comfortable position to pursue a policy direction that could benefit the country in the long run.
His father is still in power, so the appointed successor has sufficient time to contemplate a new policy outline and catchphrase. The transition team is probably working to come up with a catchy slogan.
I can recommend a good one: “co-evolution.” The biological concept that different species evolve together through mutual influence, even in predator-prey relationships, would best fit North Korea. North Korea needs to co-evolve with its blood ally China as well as same blood line South Korea. It must seek to co-evolve with the 21st century world.
The essence of co-evolutionary pursuit would be radical economic reform. Without overhauling its antiquated state-controlled economy, it cannot seek co-evolution with the world, South Korea or China. In fact, it won’t be able to last without taking the same path as the world, South Korea and China. China will be putting more pressure on it to join the path.
The Chinese leaders have been consistently advising North Korean counterparts to emulate its opening. Deng Xiaoping 20 years ago warned that only death awaits if the country does not develop the economy through reform and opening.
Vice President Xi Jinping four years ago urged the pursuit of economic reform as resolute as cutting off the arm poisoned with a snake’s bite. President Hu Jintao this year told North Korea to open and reform its economy. North Korea would have to reform on its own, or be forced to.
But co-evolution cannot take place by one party. The mutual evolutionary process occurs through interactions with the surroundings. It is how the co-evolutionary effect works. South Korea’s chief of the National Intelligence Service called for “efforts in a broader and bigger framework” on North Korean policy.
Whether he had co-evolution in mind or not, it could be a starting point. We need a vision for co-evolution to change North Korea, rather than an aid-for-disarmament quid pro quo.
*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.
By Cho Dong-ho