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North Korea in 2009

Commentary, 15 January 2009
Global Security Issues, Pacific
With a new ruler certain to take up power in 2009, North Korea’s state will undergo substantial changes in substance and in form. The international community must pay close attention to the ongoing palace drama in Pyongyang and ready themselves to deal with the strategic and humanitarian consequences of such changes.

With a new ruler certain to take up power in 2009, North Korea’s state will undergo substantial changes in substance and in form. The international community must pay close attention to the ongoing palace drama in Pyongyang and ready themselves to deal with the strategic and humanitarian consequences of such changes.

By John Hemmings, Research Associate, RUSI

North Korea, the hermit of international society, has had its epitaph written prematurely a number of times. Yet it appears to go on and on, unmindful of the international obligations and laws that bind the rest of us and seemingly heedless to the same vulnerabilities that would have another state on its knees.

Many political observers have indulged in this year’s hunt for Kim Jong-il who has been playing the wily recluse since August, when he was supposed to have suffered a dehabilitating stroke. His fate is far more important than it is currently thought by most news outlets. It would seem best to avoid the temptation of saying that if Kim Jong-il is incapacitated, unable to rule, or possibly even dead then the North Korean state is living on borrowed time. Certainly, however, the fate of the current regime is inextricably connected to his own.

Contextualising North Korea

The reasons for this lie primarily with Kim Jong-il himself and the nature of rule that he established in North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung (1912-1994). With the acceptance of the Korean People’s Army and the Korean Communist Party, Kim Jong-il moved away from the Socialist model in the mid-1990s after seeing the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc states, and gradually adopted a Stalinist cult of personality. He bolstered Juche, that particularly Korean concept of independence from the outside world, in order to justify this pulling away from the political trend of liberal democracy.

The subsequent Military First policy did two things: first, it bought off the army and effectively established a military ruling class similar to the apparatchiks of the old Soviet Union, accustomed to better living standards and with a vested interest in prolonging the existence of the regime. Furthermore, these apparatchiks did not have to worry about the army as the hardline communists in Moscow did in August 1991. These apparatchiks were the army.

Second, the Military First policy afforded more control over the population at home and, increasingly, over foreign policy. It is known that Kim micromanaged domestic and foreign policies, but he also played to the army’s sensibilities, as evidenced by the Taepdong missile tests and the other forms of sabre rattling that occurred in 1998 and 2006.

So, what can we expect in the next twelve months?

The recent Six Party talks have been all but declared dead by the Bush administration, which gradually realised that one cannot hold talks with a government that has no leader. Indeed, with Bush’s own lame duck position and the Japanese stance on abductees, trying to continue the talks while at least three of the states were simply not playing was wishful thinking by an outgoing President. The talks will continue to stall when Obama comes to power, not only because North Korean negotiation tactics have successfully driven a wedge between the US and Japan and the US and South Korea, but because there is no one in Pyongyang willing to decide on the verification protocol issue.

The Future of the Kim Dynasty

There will be a new ruler in Pyongyang. Establishing this is the easy part, but unfortunately the rest is conjecture. Questions that raise light on this issue include:

How incapacitated is the present Kim? South Korean intelligence services suggest that Kim suffered a second stroke in October, and that while he continues to rule in name, he is deteriorating swiftly. Is he already dead? Although speculation along these lines seems off beat, it is no secret that Kim Jong-il had a number of body doubles, any one of which could be used to prop up the regime. After all, anyone who has negotiated with North Korea will know that its use of delaying tactics to buy time is often in the absence of any better policy.

Will the Kim Dynasty continue to rule? A number of Japanese and South Korean newspapers continue to write feverishly on the power struggle currently taking place between Kim Ok (Kim Jong-Il’s last and favourite wife) and the first and third sons, either aligned with or in opposition to Chang Sang-taek, Kim’s old right-hand man. It is not necessary – nor is it useful – to try to predict who may or may not win these Byzantine struggles. It is merely useful to know that they are occurring.

Will North Korea become Myanmar? One wonders if the military will allow a Kim to take the throne at all, when neither the first son nor the third son have been prepared for the job, and, outside of the Kim name, have little influence and few contacts within the army. Sadly, there is nothing to stop North Korea from going on ceaselessly in the guise of this military junta.

Will North Korea’s neighbours intervene?

It is an open secret that Chinese forces have been building up on the North Korean border for over a month now. Ostensibly taking part in exercises, these troops are probably deployed for two different possibilities:

  1. Border control in case of refugee floods (in a complete collapse scenario)
  2. Intervention in case of partial collapse (in an open and armed power struggle)

A Chinese diplomat in London posited that Beijing would only interfere if (a) there was a UN mandate, (b) it was invited, and (c) if US troops crossed the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). While it is reassuring to hear Chinese diplomats condition Chinese action, condition (b) is still open to interpretation: who is allowed to do the inviting? For a state intent on protecting its national interests, someone can always be found.

However, this may not be giving China its due regard. Anyone who does send troops into a collapsing North Korea will find a situation to rival Iraq at its worst. In a country with the largest special forces in the world, trained in asymmetrical warfare and irregular guerrilla tactics, protection of reconstruction forces would be a nightmare.

The US and South Korea have been doing some quiet planning of their own, and while details of the October OPLAN (Operations Plan) 5029 are difficult to ascertain, it is clear that South Korea is intent on taking the initiative. Ideally, the South would take the helm in a multilateral approach to the rebuilding of North Korea. What is not known is how realistic these plans are. Any plan would have to take into account mass starvation, refugee movements, securing of nuclear weapons, and ideological miscreants, perhaps even insurgents.

South Korea’s unification ministry has said informally that it would maintain the DMZ and send economic advisers into the North to help build the North up in a decades-long process before allowing the barbed wire to come down. With an economic disparity between the North and South ten times greater than that between East and West Germany, one can see that South Korea is not in any hurry to open its borders.

The future is difficult to predict. What is certain is that North Korea’s state will be different in substance and in form from its past. What is also certain is that the six party talks are effectively over, until there is a new ruler. One can only watch the palace drama taking place in Pyongyang and hope that any resulting human misery will not catch the international community unawares. The population of North Korea has been brutally conditioned and has suffered great hardships in the past. One hopes that they can be re-introduced to their own countrymen and the international society with as little pain and suffering as is possible.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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