An odd tragedyThe shocking death of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half brother, brings to mind the palace intrigue of the Joseon Dynasty. Power struggles between princes often led to bloodshed. The murder of Kim Jong-nam must have been orchestrated by his younger half brother, as the poisoning could only be carried out when the leader has made up his mind.
North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But it has not been a republic for a very long time. Human rights violations are rampant, and people are considered objects of oppressive rule. Communism refuses hereditary rule. Even in the Soviet Union, power was not handed down in the family, and that’s what Kim Jong-nam thought. “Hereditary rule makes North Korea a laughing stock,” he is said to have thought. “Succession of power for the third generation does not suit socialism as it is unprecedented except for a feudal dynasty.”
North Korea is a dynasty that mimics the dark side of Joseon. A dynasty manages its system by punishing traitors. Guilt by association, mutual surveillance and informing are rampant. The authorities severely retaliate against challenges to power and treason. Once you are involved in a treason plot, your parents, siblings and children are also punished. Guilt by association wipes out the family. Since Kim Jong-un seized power, this method has become more vicious. The execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek signaled the beginning of a reign of terror. Since Jang’s death, countless people have been purged.
Pyongyang is a city of worship. Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere. The sight stands in contrast to Cuba, where Fidel Castro was in power for 49 years. But in Havana, not a single statue of Castro can be found. When he passed away in November, his will was not for people to worship him. North Korea and Cuba are blood brothers in socialism. But they have very different ways of displaying leadership.
North Korea is unpredictable. Its surprises and ambushes are the secret to its survival. Deviating from expectations gives it a negotiating edge. The Korean War began with a surprise attack. The suddenness of nuclear tests and missile launches maximize their impact. North Korea has been developing this skill.
The murder of Kim Jong-nam was an unexpected move to eliminate a threat to the system. There has been speculation about Kim Jong-nam establishing a government-in-exile and refusing to follow orders to return to North Korea.
Kim Jong-un’s system is complicated and crazy. But it could be a deception tactic. Some call it a “madman theory,” a “strategy … in which leaders cultivate an image of belligerence and unpredictability to force adversaries to tread more carefully,” according to a New York Times article from Sept. 10, 2016. The Kim Jong-un regime may act crazy, but it is “all too rational.” North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities have grown considerably with the madman strategy.
The young leader has feeble political assets. His grandfather is the founder of the North Korean regime and has an independence movement in his resume. But the grandfather’s influence is limited.
Kim Jong-un is riding on a tiger. When it stops, he will fall. And when he falls, he will be eaten. The development of nuclear weapons is a way to show off the system, and when it stops, the regime will fall. Purging is a way to operate his power. Public executions and purging will continue. The purge of his state security minister, Kim Won-hong, last month was like killing a dog after hunting was over.
This method leads to a strange irony. Kim Jong-un’s crisis will begin from within the system’s power. He will be met with resistance and counterattacks. There could be a North Korean version of the Park Chung Hee assassination in 1979. In the shadow of Park’s assassination was his effort to develop nuclear weapons, which sparked discord with the United States.
Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions are uncontrollable. U.S. President Donald Trump has a firm stance on North Korean nuclear weapons. As Kim Jong-nam was a pro-China figure, the assassination has irritated Chinese President Xi Jinping. A successful assassination will bring ironic results.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula is turbulent. The latest missile launch led to a symbolic scene. President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held an emergency news conference at 10:40 p.m. on Saturday in Florida. The news conference was an urgent one.
The North Korean nuclear and missile threat directly affects South Korea, but Korean society seems laid back. Presidential candidates remain observers. The nuclear issue has lower priority. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system is an urgent issue. Leading presidential candidate Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic Party has an ambiguous stance. The presidential candidates need to reconstruct the national agenda.
The uncertainty of the Kim Jong-un regime is ominous. We need ownership of security. Without it, South Korea may be sidelined by America and China. Even when there is a critical moment on the Korean Peninsula, Seoul might be out of Trump and Xi’s sight. The fate of the peninsula may be decided in a deal between great powers.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 16, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.