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     Feb 18, 2006
East Asia's black sheep
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 foreign relations
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 economy.

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 found.

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.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

A glimpse into North Korean thinking
(Oct 29, '05)

The Kims' North Korea (Jun 4, '05)

Pondering the Pyongyang puzzle
(Jun 26, '04)

Man of contradictions
(Jan 16, '04)


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