Can Kim reign without terror?
The author is a professor of economics at the Seoul National University.
Ri Son-gwon’s words were light and he used some vulgar language. However, his words weigh heavily, as he may have revealed the inner feelings of the North Korean elite. It was not a working-level meeting, so he was with guests that he did not need to overwhelm. The guests were South Korean businessmen who could become important investors in the future, so what does it mean that he is confident enough to rebuke them? He is known for speaking recklessly and offensively, but his comments were beyond that level.
There is another noteworthy mention. A few months ago, a high-class North Korean official said that there was public support for denuclearization in North Korea. It can be interpreted that without the approval of the elites, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may not be able to decide on denuclearization. These words and actions can be seen as signs that the North Korean elites are independent enough to move against Kim’s will.
Now that Kim has emerged as an international statesman, there is something he can no longer do: reign by terror. If he goes back to his old ways, summits with other countries, including the United States, will be cancelled. If his image of cruelty and unpredictability returns, denuclearization talks will also face challenges. It is possible that a situation more difficult than the second half of last year’s could come to pass. So, returning to a reign of terror can have consequences as serious as a resumption of nuclear and missile tests.
The North Korean elites who instinctively detect subtle shifts in power cannot have missed the change. In fact, there hasn’t been an incident this year. Kim ‘s rule is still solid, but the core of his reign of terror is cruel executions, and no one knows who will be the next target. The belief that Kim will no longer engage in a reign of terror has made the North Korean elites’ minds and lips lighter. They have become confident and politically independent.
To those North Koreans, the best scenario is the end of the reign of terror and sanctions. Then, their lives will be guaranteed and they will have both power and money. Before the sanctions, the elites could share hundreds of millions of dollars a year by exporting minerals. Now, due to sanctions, much of that income is lost. The group most hurt by economic sanctions centered on a trade ban is not the residents, but the elites. Ri’s comment reveals the Pyongyang elites’ intense displeasure with sanctions.
It only gets harder for Kim to rule. One of his tactics, scaring the elites and caring for the people, is no longer working. Kim’s reign of terror has been his means of controlling his citizens, even the elites who pocketed tremendous amounts of money through trade and overseas businesses. Fear was the most powerful and effective way to control them. The sum of all other punishments cannot replace the effect of fear.
But the consequent opening and reform of the North would make it harder for the elites to enjoy a monopoly on trade and overseas business. Knowing this well, they presumably hope that sanctions will be lifted and that control of capital will remain in place. Behind the sluggish denuclearization talks may be their fear that denuclearization will lead to open borders.
Kim must be in a dilemma: it is hard to return to a reign of terror. Maintaining the status quo is difficult because of the sanctions. Even if he makes up his mind on denuclearization, he will be uncertain whether the elites will support him.
The dilemma may be the reason for the cancelled meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol last week.
It is fortunate that North Korea is not likely revert to a reign of terror, but the consequent subtle changes in the country’s power dynamics could make denuclearization even harder. The North Korean elite could appear as a new player in denuclearization talks with a surpringly strong influence.
South Koreans need a more advanced understanding of North Korea.
It is not necessary to pay attention to a rude comment from an individual. It is far more important to understand the internal changes behind the words and attitudes of the North Korean elites. Focusing on trivial issues and engaging in political strife rather than developing capacity will make denuclearization, reform and the opening of North Korean borders little more than vain hopes.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 14, Page 31