Kim Jong-Il's Death - The Korean's Thoughts

If you remember where you were when you heard a piece of news, that's a big news. The Korean was reading a newspaper in his living room back in Korea, when he learned from the front page that Kim Il-Sung died. He was on a conference call at work in New York when someone on the call broke the news that Michael Jackson died. And this time, the Korean was walking up the stairs at a hotel near San Luis Obispo, California, when the Korean Wife read her text messages and said, "Hey, Kim Jong-Il died."

The Korean has not been near a computer for quite some time, but he did voraciously read all the news, from within Korea and without. (4G phone = awesome.) Given the significance of the news, the Korean will devote the next several posts over the next several days on North Korea. Specifically, the posts will discuss the Korean's own thoughts, Mr. Joo Seong-Ha's thoughts, things about North Korea that most commentators are missing right now, and any other North Korean question that the Korean has received in the last few days.

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When the Arab Spring happened, many North Korean observers were eager to extend the analogy to North Korea. In most cases, the analogies failed. North Korea is more isolated, more benighted and more tightly controlled than any of the Arab countries. Even the most repressive Arab dictatorship that fell -- that is, Libya under Qaddafi -- may well be a liberal democracy compared to North Korea.

However, there is one crucial lesson from the Arab Spring that does apply to North Korea. The lesson is this: an apparently stable dictatorship may fall suddenly, unpredictably and uncontrollably. Previous to the Arab Spring, there appeared to be no hope for democracy in Arab nations. For decades, despite constant oppression that appeared intolerable for outside observers, Arab nations persisted in dictatorship. Very smart people -- for example, influential Harvard professor Samuel Huntington -- believed that Islamic cultural traditions prevented Arab nations from having a democracy. And they looked like geniuses, until they did not.

The same applies to North Korea. Freedom's lack of progress in North Korea has frustrated many observers into falsely believing that North Koreans are too brainwashed and the Kim Dynasty too strong. Not so. Looking back, there were many signs that the Arab Spring was imminent -- we just did not know what to look for. Similarly, there are many signs that the fall of North Korea is not far away. You just have to know what to look for. And with Kim Jong-Il's death, there are even more signs that North Korea is not for much longer.

What are those signs? Here are five examples:
  1. North Korea is trying out a collective rule for the first time in history.  Throughout its existence, North Korea has always been led by a single ruler. Now, for the first time in its history, North Korea is being ruled by a committee. A rule by committee always contains within it a seed for an internal struggle. The seed is especially likely to germinate if a crucial actor within it -- that is, Kim Jong-Un -- is too inexperienced to maneuver adroitly.

  2. Deification of Kim Jong-Un is not working.  Ever since Kim Jong-Un surfaced into public awareness, the reports from North Korea have been unanimous:  North Korean people do not respect him. Kim Jong-Un was born out of wedlock, by Kim Jong-Il's mistress who was a Korean-Japanese dancer. Kim Jong-Un is only 28 years old. North Koreans quietly deride the attempts at Kim Jong-Un's deification. In fact, failure of charismatic leadership in North Korea began with Kim Jong-Il, who made up for his lack of charisma with political oppression far more brutal than Kim Il-Sung's. At the third generation, the charismatic capital of the Kim family dynasty is now completely empty. Even at the elite level, the relationship between Kim Jong-Un and the elites is transactional rather than personal or ideological.

  3. Vast majority of North Koreans does not depend on the regime for their livelihood.  Since the 1990s, North Korea has ceased to be a communist economy with collective production and distribution. Instead, as far as economy is concerned, North Korea is deeply capitalistic. People's livelihood depends on the market, not on the rations handed by the Labor Party. Kim Jong-Il regime correctly saw this, and attempted to reverse this trend by closing the markets and engaging in a currency reform. The currency reform was an unmitigated disaster, and the markets reopened in just three months. At this point, North Korea can never return to being a communist economy. And greater the market forces are, the weaker the forces of the regime.

  4. North Korea is more porous than ever.  It is, of course, true that North Korea is severely isolated. But the isolation must not be overstated. Because of the factor (3) above, North Korea now has a group of people at the top of the economic ladder who actually enjoy a semi-decent living standards. There are more than 800,000 cell phones operating in North Korea now, and that is before we begin counting the Chinese phones in North Korea that can be used to call South Korea directly. Young people in Pyongyang openly flaunt their iPads. South Korean pop culture, which has captured the imagination of the world, has also hit North Korea. The pirated DVD sets of the latest Korean dramas are widely available in North Korea. Further, there are more North Korean defectors than ever living in South Korea -- 20,000 of them, representing practically every major city in North Korea. Because border patrols can be easily bribed, these defectors regularly communicate with the families back in North Korea via telephone or letters. All this means that ordinary North Koreans have absolutely no illusions about the failure of their own country to provide for them.

  5. North Korean economy is weaker than ever.  The price of rice in North Korea nearly doubled in the last two years, although there is no indication that the living standards in North Korea improved twofold as well. Although rice is harvested in autumn, the price has not fallen in the recent months. Last time this happened in the 1990s, North Korea went through a mass starvation in which a million people starved to death. North Koreans remember this, and likely will not wait to starve this time.
All of these examples point to the fundamental existential dilemma for North Korea -- if the regime lets the status quo continue, the rot of capitalistic corruptibility will reach all the way to the top of the regime and mass starvation may happen again. The regime already saw that it could not revert to the command-and-control economy. But opening up North Korea would lead to the collapse and destruction of the regime. Kim Jong-Un has no way out of this trap. North Korea will collapse; it is just a matter of when and how.

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