[Seri column]A danger unto itselfInternational speculation about North Korea swelled when reports began to surface, prior to his reported appearance at a football game last week, that Kim Jong-il was seriously ill. However, the idea that the prolonged incapacity of Kim will destabilize the North fails to recognize a number of internal factors and external circumstances that threaten the stability of the regime if left unchecked.
First, North Korea lacks the foundations for an orderly power succession. Kim was groomed for a long period to succeed his father, starting with the 6th National Convention of the North Korean Workers’ Party in 1980. When Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader,” died in 1994, a transfer of authority to the “Dear Leader” was achievable and largely successful, if you consider that the younger Kim has defied initial predictions that the North Korean regime would collapse quickly under his leadership.
But the situation today is completely different. There is no established power-transfer mechanism. Unlike his father, Kim Jong-il has not publicly groomed any of his three sons to succeed him. Thus, if the process of power transfer only starts now, multiple power struggles will be inevitable.
Second, both planned and market economies exist in the reclusive North. Free markets were implicitly permitted many years ago but were regarded by officials as a temporary means to overcome shortages and to complement the state-controlled economy. But since the early 1990s, the role of the market economy has outstripped the planned economy. Enough people have accumulated wealth to even prompt guesses about the richest person in the regime. And economic empowerment is suggesting vested rights. With the government clinging to a communist economic model, it is possible that a conflict will emerge between the purveyors of a market economy and those with vested rights
Third, relations between North Korea and the United States are shifting again toward diplomatic brinkmanship. Although progress on ending the North’s nuclear program was made through the six-party talks, the process has broken down over the issue of the removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the inspection of the North’s nuclear facilities. Subsequently, the North has threatened to renew activity at its Yongbyon nuclear installation, which is said to process plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Obviously, relations between Washington and Pyongyang are an important gauge of the state of the Korean Peninsula. Strained relations will likely destabilize external conditions of the North.
Fourth, relations between North Korea and China have changed. They forged a “blood alliance” in the Korean War but China seems to be loosening that tie. It is worth noticing that rumors of Kim’s health began to surface after a Chinese medical team was reportedly dispatched to North Korea to treat him. Although Chinese officials have opened their doors to the world, their grip on information is as tight as ever. The leak about the Chinese doctors’ mission cannot be seen as accidental. It suggests a Chinese government distancing itself from its unpredictable neighbor.
Finally, the conservatives’ return to power in South Korea casts doubt over the decade-long Sunshine Policy of two liberal administrations. Although the Lee administration appears to have softened its hard-line policy on engaging the North, most experts still expect deadlocked relations for the foreseeable future. For the North, accustomed to steady material assistance from the South over the past 10 years, the deadlock is likely to be disruptive.
None of the above-mentioned factors are directly destabilizing the North today. But collectively, they can roil the North if fully unleashed. The danger to the North is to itself. What makes the regime unstable is the fact that the North is not even aware of these problems. The North is like a huge dam eroding little by little, and current negative conditions are like fissures, making it more and more susceptible to debilitating internal and external pressures.
To avoid sudden collapse, the Pyongyang regime will have to depart from digging in and reinforcing its confrontational posture toward the world. It will need to seek better relations with the United States by completely giving up its nuclear ambitions and it should seek a helping hand from the South Korean government.
Time is now an enemy for North Korea, which has mastered the art of stalling for time to keep international demands at bay. It is too late for North Korea to simply stick to its own way. It has to wake up and change.
*The writer is a fellow in Global Research, Samsung Economic Research Institute.
by Dong Yong-sueng