East Asia's black
North Korea: The Politics of Regime Survival
by Young Whan Kihl and Hong Nack Kim (eds)
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Despite rampant speculation of imminent collapse, North
Korea has muddled through economic hardship and diplomatic
pressures for 11 years under Kim Jong-il. While there is
little doubt that North Korea's domestic politics and
are in a devastated condition, the longevity of Kim's regime
has proved many soothsayers wrong.
North Korea: The Politics of Regime Survival contains
commentaries by internationally renowned scholars who
specialize in the study of the anachronistic Hermit Kingdom,
which never fails to befuddle. Impartially making sense of a
black sheep in a rapidly progressing East Asia is no mean
task, but this book ably places North Korea's endurance game
in the regional framework.
Co-editor Young Whan Kihl's introductory essay characterizes
North Korea as a "failing state" that is politically
repressive and economically reliant on humanitarian
assistance to overcome chronic starvation. The limited "marketization"
measures introduced by Kim with hesitancy in 2002 create
more losers than winners and increase the possibility of
greater social unrest. Agricultural commodity price reform
will not improve efficiency because of North Korea's small
proportion of farm population. Inferior export
competitiveness places limits on large-scale trade
expansion. The new industrial policy is unbalanced, with
excessive spending on armaments and ammunition factories.
The special economic zones are plagued by mismanagement,
poor infrastructure, geographic isolation and onerous rules.
Kim's power is based on tight control of the Korean People's
Army (KPA) and songun-chongchi (military-first)
ideology. Having abolished the office of president, he
governs in the capacity of chairman of the National Defense
Commission. Improvising on his father's ideology of juche
(self-reliance), Kim organizes the citizens on a
"revolutionary course" under the guidance of the suryong
(leader), who is glorified as "brain of the body politic".
(p 9) His "mini-max" foreign-policy style is tough and
rarely deviates from pre-established strategic plans such as
forcing US troop withdrawal from South Korea. His strong
sense of national pride, self-righteousness and distrust
toward outsiders are reflected in nuclear brinkmanship and
the unalloyed desire to reunify Korea on the North's terms.
In Kihl's perception, "the evolving balance of power in the
region will ultimately shape the form of Korea's
reunification." (p 27)
Alexandre Mansourov's essay posits an ongoing structural
transformation of North Korea that is affecting the elite,
bureaucracy and the masses. Kim's succession in 1994 ushered
in "political neo-authoritarianism" that loosened the Korean
Workers Party's (KWP's) grip and replaced it with military
penetration of all civil affairs. The KPA is "the general
backbone of society" and the principal veto player, with the
conservative state security apparatus purged and relegated
to nominal status. Kim is modeling himself after General
Park Chung-hee's military reign in South Korea. The race for
his successor mantle "has already begun" among the third
generation within the Kim family clan along the lines of
"estate fights". (p 50) As regional rivalries heat up, the
suryong is maintaining an even balance at the center
between leaders hailing from the Hamgyong (northern)
provinces and those from the Pyongan (southern) provinces.
Economy-wise, North Korea is going through "neo-corporatism"
that rewards traders, landlords, apparatchiks and those with
access to foreign currency. The worst impacted are the
elderly, the disabled, women and children, budgetary
employees, hinterland dwellers, intellectuals and
scientists. The regime is also emphasizing "cultural
neo-traditionalism", authentic Korean values and revival of
religion in the countryside. Mansourov feels Kim will not
halt the process of change "even if his absolute power is
eroded", as long as his dynastic rule is assured of
continuation. (p 55)
Ilpyong Kim's essay interprets the suryong's
military-first politics formalized in the 1998
constitutional amendment that licensed the army to rule the
party. The collapse of communist parties worldwide in 1991
and the deteriorating North Korean economy led Kim to
advocate songun-chongchi. Another reason is Kim's
suspicions of senior KWP cadres of his father's generation,
who are less responsive to his command than younger KPA
officers. He knows from history that Kim Il-sung took one
decade of KWP factional struggles to reach the summit. The
unified and loyal military is seen by the suryong as
a quicker conduit to power and as a fixer of the moribund
Kenneth Quinones' essay argues that North Korea's nuclear
program is less about economic woes and more to do with
security concerns. Countering the US conventional and
nuclear threat to regime survival drives Pyongyang's atomic
ambitions. South Korea's admission in 2004 of secret nuclear
experiments intensifies Kim's anxiety that they are being
"conducted at the instruction of the United States". (p 79)
Folding of the Soviet nuclear umbrella in 1991 and the
awesome display of US weapons technology in the first Gulf
War stunned Pyongyang and laid the foundations for a
"self-reliant" deterrence capability. Kim does not believe
that the US would desist from invading if he unilaterally
dismantled his weapons of mass destruction. He is also not
confident that his generals will agree to total disarmament.
Quinones takes the long-term view that North Korea must end
songun-chongchi and provide a safer environment for
foreign investors to avoid demise.
Larry Niksch presents the evidence on North Korea's weapons
of mass destruction from sensory detection, Russian
intelligence documents and "confessions" of Pakistani
nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Kim directed North
Korea's nuclear program since at least the late 1980s,
accelerating it after his father's death. The project has
managed to produce metallic plutonium, but the amount is
uncertain. It has successfully tested triggering devices,
but a nebula pervades the crucial question of whether North
Korea has developed warhead-class bombs capable of being
mounted on ballistic missiles.
Kim's enriched-uranium adventure is afforded by "cash
payments that South Korea's Hyundai Group made" between 1999
and 2002. (p 105) North Korea's "real fear of US attack" is
receding as the US juggernaut gets bogged down in Iraq.
Niksch maintains that proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction to other governments or terrorists is a bigger
threat from cash-strapped North Korea than a land invasion
of the South.
Dick Nanto takes stock of North Korea's dismal economic
conditions. About 40% of the population still suffers from
malnutrition. Underweight children, physically stunted youth
and factories running at about 30% of their capacity are
morbid signs. Scarce consumer necessities are being used to
reward regime loyalists classified according to ideological
orientation. The military and bureaucratic elites who enjoy
privileges far above the reach of the average person "have a
strong vested interest in maintaining the current economic
system". (p 121) They are stifling the first round of
capitalistic enclaves. To pay for imports, North Korea
dabbles in illicit drugs, weapons-trading and currency
counterfeiting. Ethnic Koreans living in Japan are boosting
Pyongyang's money-laundering operations.
Robert Scalapino's essay on US-North Korea relations
expresses doubts whether the North Korean military is indeed
divided on foreign policy toward Washington. The broad
thrust within the KPA is of toughness, matching that of the
Pentagon. Kim's advisers regard a nuclear deterrent as a
necessary substitute to the country's obsolescent and
expensive conventional arsenal. Talks over the nuclear
program are stalemated over the sequence of reciprocity,
since Pyongyang deciphers from readjustment of US forces in
South Korea that a preemptive strike may be in the offing.
Scalapino's projection for US-North Korea ties is for
"partial moves, subject to retreats". (p 158)
Co-editor Hong Nack Kim's article on Japan-North Korea
relations goes into Tokyo's objective of competing
effectively with China and Russia in the Korean Peninsula.
Preventing a "hard landing" of North Korea is necessary for
Japan also to stanch influxes of refugees. Kim Jong-il needs
Japanese economic aid and goodwill that can be leveraged
with the US. Although prickly issues such as abduction of
Japanese nationals, reparations for colonial wrongdoings,
launch of missiles and spy ships keep pegging back the
Tokyo-Pyongyang saga, Kim's nuclear program is the ultimate
bone of contention.
Japan has joined the US-led Proliferation Security
Initiative to interdict shipments to and from North Korea,
stepped up customs and safety inspections of North Korean
cargoes, investigated finances of pro-Pyongyang
organizations and mulled economic sanctions on Kim's regime.
It has launched spy satellites to monitor North Korean
missile tests and plans to deploy a costly anti-missile
defense system by 2007. Despite Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi's reconciliatory intent, conservatives in Japan
disparage easy concessions to Pyongyang without securing
gains in nuclear dismantlement.
Samuel Kim's analysis of the "special relationship" between
China and North Korea lists Beijing's goals as staving off
collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime, halting refugee inflows
and preventing the rise of ethno-nationalism among
Chinese-Koreans. China is "more committed to maintaining
stability than to nuclear disarmament". (p 186) Aggressive
US military action on the peninsula worries China more than
North Korea's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Beijing rejects the US claim that Pyongyang has an
enriched-uranium project. Every year, in the face of US
sanctions, China provides more aid in a wider variety of
forms to North Korea, accounting for nearly 100% of the
latter's energy imports. However, there are limits to
China's embrace of Kim, as shown in 2001, when president
Jiang Zemin refused to acquiesce to an anti-US declaration
during a visit to Pyongyang.
Peggy Meyer's piece on Russia-North Korea relations
describes Moscow's overarching goal for acceptance as an
influential power on the Korean Peninsula. President
Vladimir Putin is also promoting economic ventures such as
electricity transmission, natural-gas pipelines, port
renovation, and railroads linking Russia with both Koreas.
North Korean labor working to develop Russia's Far East is
another concern, along with avoidance of nuclear radiation
or refugees pouring over the border.
Putin strongly condemns Kim's nuclear gimmicks and lends his
spooks to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for joint
monitoring efforts of Pyongyang's weapons of mass
destruction. He has tried to walk the middle ground by
disagreeing with the Bush administration's "language of
ultimatums and strict demands". (p 213) Time and again, he
stresses the importance of giving Kim "security guarantees"
and "step by step" disarmament options. Russia also refuses
to put North Korea's "civilian nuclear research" on the
table at the six-party talks. Since Beijing, Seoul and, to a
lesser extent, Tokyo also oppose Washington's hardball
negotiation tactics, Moscow has succeeded in limiting
spill-over damage to the US-Russia equation.
Seongji Woo's essay on North and South Korean relations
portrays weapons of mass destruction as "the safety valve
for the North Korean regime's survival". (p 225) President
Roh Moo-hyun's "peace and prosperity" policy with the North
is opening the door to a schism in alliance politics with
the US. With Washington and Pyongyang at loggerheads,
Seoul's wish for inter-Korean reconciliation and integration
is "once again on hold". (p 231) Kim, on his part, takes
advantage of the ideological divisions within the South by
playing one side against the other and attempts to widen the
gap between Washington and Seoul.
Seongji's view is that the future of inter-Korean economic
cooperation hinges on success or failure of the Gaesong
industrial park initiative. The flow of Southern investment
into the North is also contingent upon resolution of the
nuclear imbroglio. Seongji concurs with the rest of the
writers that "only by reforming its economy and opening to
the outside world can North Korea's regime security be
achieved". (p 238)
Kihl's second contribution is on the "bi-multilateral
approach" (2+4 formula) for defusing the nuclear crisis.
China is interestingly an intermediary or third party by
virtue of hosting the six-party talks. Beijing is allegedly
employing strong-arm tactics toward North Korea to improve
its own relations with the US. President George W Bush has
rejected calls for bilateral US-North Korea dealing "because
it would remove China, a powerful influence on its communist
neighbor". (p 256) Beijing has been unusually critical of
Kim's threats to withdraw from the six-party talks last
February, but the other side of the coin is its reported
undercutting of Washington's strategy of sanctions on North
Korea. Kihl recommends that the US "must go beyond treating
Korea policy as an appendage to larger causes in Asia such
as rising China or rearming Japan". (p 261) He also moots
conversion of the six-party talks into a regional security
forum for East Asia.
Nicholas Eberstadt's final essay brings the lens back on the
factors that abet state survival in North Korea. Kim Jong-il
averted economic collapse in the late 1990s through a huge
upsurge in merchandise imports financed by illicit trading,
South Korean, Japanese, US and European Union aid
injections. "Appeasement-motivated" Western aid has been the
lifeline for Kim. North Korea's dysfunctional and stagnant
trade regimen, far from being irrational, has "a deeply
embedded regime logic". (p 284) Economic exchanges with the
"capitalist world" are resisted by Kim because of his
paranoia against "ideological and cultural infiltration".
Terming aid-seeking a highly tenuous mode of state finance,
Eberstadt calls for a more secure path such as Chinese or
Vietnamese outward-oriented growth in North Korea.
Reallocation of resources from the hypertrophied military to
civilian sectors is necessary to harvest productivity in
Kim's tin-pot empire.
How the "Dear Leader" can juggle the antinomies brought out
in this book and yet remain in the saddle is the big
question. East Asia will rest easier when the answer is
North Korea: The Politics of Regime Survival by Young
Whan Kihl and Hong Nack Kim (eds). M E Sharpe, New York,
2006. ISBN: 0-7656-1638-6. Price US$78.95, 322 pages.
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