‘The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim’
``The King is dead. Long live the King.” This is what they used to shout in Europe in the Middle Ages when proclaiming the passing of the old monarch and the elevation of a new one.
It could also be the briefest yet most accurate description of what has recently happened in North Korea. Kim Jong-il is dead. Long live Kim Jong-un.
This was the primary message coming out of North Korea as we watched the nine-day mourning period that concluded with the official funeral. Basically, it projects ― both domestically and overseas ― an expectation of continuity in both policies and governance. North Korea will continue the same way it has been going, with just a different face at the helm.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone because the macro factors driving North Korean government’s decision making have not changed. It wouldn’t matter if the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung came back from the dead. He would be confined to the same set of options because he would be caught in the same overriding paradox that Kim III is facing today.
The North Korean leadership’s main interest is to keep the regime intact because it’s the system that guarantees their status and prosperity. Simply put, it’s in the North Korean leadership’s self-interest to keep the current system going. Put it in another way, asking the North Korean leadership to change is akin to asking a leopard to change its spots. It just can’t be done.
At the same time, even the North Korean leadership can’t deny that the current regime is facing huge challenges to its survival because of international isolation, economic failure, chronic food shortages and an outdated military. And the only card they have to play is the nuclear one.
Some may argue that the nuclear card is the very reason that they are facing all these problems in the first place. But they would be wrong because they are not looking at the problem from the North Korean point of view. More accurately, from the North Korean leadership’s point of view.
Which is, North Korea faces an existential threat to its very survival because of the constant and overwhelming military threat by the United States and its lackey, South Korea. After all, the Korean War is still not over yet, more than 60 years after it began.
You can dismiss their argument all you want as self-serving paranoia. But even paranoids have enemies. North Korea can easily point to Iraq and Libya as most recent examples of forced regime change spearheaded by the United States because ― to them ― those countries lacked nuclear weapons to defend themselves.
To North Korean leadership, nuclear weapons capability is the only thing that’s safeguarding them from being the next Libya. Or more accurately, safeguarding the North Korean leadership from being the next Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi. It’s a matter of national security, as well as personal survival, which is one and the same to the North Korean leadership.
So, the question is (and has always been): what can you offer the North Korean leadership that would be attractive enough to convince them to part with the only thing that’s keeping them safe, secure, and (personally) prosperous?
Surprisingly, the answer is not a mystery. People have known the answer for a long time. The answer is guaranteed security and prosperity to the current North Korean leadership.
But what the North Korean leadership wants is security guarantees and massive development aid in a way that they can shape to strengthen their internal controls over the lives of the North Korean people and buttress their current system. After all, while they don’t want to be the next Libya, they also don’t want to be the next Soviet Union.
So, when we offer massive humanitarian and economic aid to North Korea in return for access to the needy, transparency in distribution and dismantlement of their nuclear program, we believe that these are small prices to pay for us helping North Korea rebuild its society and join the international community.
However, we fail to appreciate that what we offer is absolutely terrifying to the North Korean leadership because it would surely erode their power base from within. Even worse, we are asking them to give up the only thing that they believe is keeping them alive and kicking: their nuclear program.
So, this is the grand paradox that Kim III faces. He needs international help to perpetuate the current system, but the same help can easily bring the system down. Ultimately, he will end up playing the same cat and mouse game that his father played ― giving up little pieces of his nuclear program in return for international aid while building up his nuclear capability surreptitiously in the background. After all, he can’t afford to run out of the only thing he has to bargain with.
In the meanwhile, the North Korean people will continue to starve. Yup, nothing has changed.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jasonlim2000.