Kim Jong-Il's Death - Under-Appreciated Points to Watch

Having watched the news analysis and commentaries for the last week and a half following Kim Jong-Il's death, here are a few points that, in the Korean's estimation, a lot of people under-appreciate or simply get wrong.

1.  Change is coming.

Many observers said, essentially, that nothing will change; North Korea has survived this far, and there is no reason to believe that anything will change. This is a casual observation that is completely ignorant of the historical context. North Korea after the March of Struggles -- the massive starvation in the 1990s -- is a place fundamentally altered from pre-1990s North Korea under Kim Il-Sung. And it will be those post-1990s changes that will finally do the North Korean regime in.

2.  The tears of North Koreans are not real.

South Korean experts on North Korea rarely bothered with the question, "are those tears real?" But somehow, that question apparently fascinated non-Korean experts of North Korea, who attempted to offer various theories about why North Koreans were crying at the death of Kim Jong-Il.

For the Korean, this question served as a nice litmus test for figuring out which North Korean expert knows what she is talking about, and which North Korean expert is a hack. Here is the simple answer for the question -- the tears are not real, and North Koreans are crying because, for the most part, they are coerced. The reports from the inside of North Korea unanimously say that practically no one was saddened by Kim Jong-Il's death. Every defector who has watched the proceedings said that the fakeness of the mourning was transparently visible.

Recall back to the fact that North Korea is more porous than ever. North Koreans no longer hold any illusion about their leadership. Yet the idea that North Koreans are brainwashed is so fashionable that real stories of periodic uprisings in North Korea are completely buried. Anyone who claims that North Koreans are brainwashed enough to shed tears for a tyrant who killed millions through state-created mass famine and gulags simply has no idea what he is talking about.

(More after the jump)

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3.  China is not as important as you think.

The importance of China in North Korean affairs is overrated. It is, of course, correct that China is critically important for North Korean survival. But it is nonetheless incorrect to say that China holds the key to North Korean survival. That is just like saying that oxygen holds the key for human survival. Is oxygen critically important for human survival? Of course it is -- without oxygen, all humans will die in a matter of minutes. But is there any reason to expect that something dramatic will happen to the world's oxygen supply? Of course not.

The same with China. It would be nice if we could do something to deprive North Korea of China's support since, like a human without oxygen, North Korea could collapse in a matter of days without the Chinese support. But there is no reason to expect that China would cease their current level of support of North Korea. We are better off treating China's support of North Korea as a constant.

(Aside:  The caveat of "current level" of support is an important one. There may come a point where China would decline to support North Korea because the cost of supporting North Korea became prohibitively expensive.)

Like humans can die of causes other than oxygen deprivation, North Korea can die of causes other than China deprivation. And China cannot prevent North Korea's internal turmoil any more than oxygen can prevent a person from getting shot. Because the tie between China and North Korea has been so emphasized, the degree to which North Korea is suspicious of China has been vastly under-appreciated. Such under-appreciation is a species of a common mistake made with respect to North Korea -- failure to see North Korea from its own, internal perspective.

Because of the terrible memories from the Imperial Japanese rule from early 20th century to the end of World War II, both North Korea and South Korea are deeply nationalistic. They are almost automatically suspicious of an undue foreign influence. However, North Korea went several huge steps beyond South Korea when it comes to utilizing that nationalism for legitimizing its regime. North Korean regime tied the nationalism with the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung, and justified Kim Il-Sung's rule by constantly emphasizing his role of delivering North Korean people out of the terrible colonization by Imperial Japan, and protecting North Korean people from the potential colonization by Imperial America. The governing philosophy of North Korea -- juche, or "self-reliance" -- is an outgrowth of this nationalistic ideology.

Does this sound like a country that would submit itself to China's meddling of its internal affairs? Because China is in a position to actually interfere with North Korea's internal affairs, North Korean regime is more suspicious of China than any other country in the world -- more than South Korea, more than America. Kim Jong-Il was reportedly fond of saying that a single Russian or Chinese spy in the regime was more dangerous than ten American spies. North Korea relies on China out of necessity, not out of fondness. North Korea will follow China's directives only as much as it has to, and not an inch more. And most importantly, if North Korea's fall is led by ordinary North Koreans, those ordinary North Koreans would overwhelmingly prefer South Korea to take over rather than China.

4.  South Korea is the most important country when it comes to North Korea.

The point above leads to this natural conclusion. Strangely absent from the English-language discussion about North Korea was:  what is South Korea planning to do? This is, again, a mistake. South Korea is the most important country in handling North Korea because it scores the highest in the equation of "influence over North Korea," multiplied by "willingness to leverage that influence." For better or worse, South Korea is the only country among the interested parties -- including U.S., China, Japan and Russia -- that significantly changed the course of its North Korea policy in the last 50 years, which signifies a degree of flexibility that other countries do not possess. South Korea is the only country that can focus on the whole of North Korea, rather than piecemeal aspects of it. (For the most part, U.S. is only concerned about North Korea's nuclear capabilities; China, possibility of North Korea's collapse and a swarm of North Korean refugees; Japan, North Korea's missiles and abductions.) South Korea is the only country that can focus its attention to North Korea at a national level, rather than at the level of a single governmental agency or less. If North Korea can change through external efforts at all (which is itself not a sure proposition,) such external efforts will come from South Korea.

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