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Update No: 065 - (29/09/08)

North Korea: Intimations of mortality
September 2008 will go down in history as a month when the world was rocked by sudden fears of instability. If for most the anxiety focused on financial capitalism, the turbulence on Wall Street did not immediately touch Pyongyang; although sharply increased aversion to risk will hardly propel fresh investors into the arms of Kim Jong-il. (Isolated though it is, the DPRK is not quite immune to the wider global economy; thus rising grain prices in China have affected North Korean markets. In an odd but interesting article, the American scholar John Feffer even claims that North Korea’s economic catastrophe over the past 20 years is a harbinger of what the rest of the world may face; see his “Mother Earth's Triple Whammy. North Korea as a Global Crisis Canary, Japan Focus 22 June 2008; japanfocus.org). 

Nonetheless, even amidst the turbulence of capitalism, the last outpost of Stalinism managed to elbow its way onto the front page: not once, but twice. First up, before the main financial earthquakes mid-month, North Korea briefly hit the headlines with rumours that its supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, was unwell; perhaps seriously so. As of the end of the month he had still not been seen, so speculation continued. By then, there was also concern that the DPRK’s backsliding on the nuclear issue was becoming serious; raising the risk that the slow process of denuclearisation under the Six Party Talks of the past five years might unravel entirely.

Kim Jong ill?
Even the basic facts about what the Economist and others predictably punned as the “Kim Jong Ill?” story remain unclear. North Korea likes it that way: mystery is one of the regime’s weapons. Needless to say there has been no official comment; while tourists bold enough to raise the issue of the dear leader’s health with their guides in Pyongyang got a blast of denunciation of the Western “reptile press” for spreading base lies, and so forth.

What is not in doubt is that, first, Kim Jong-il missed the big parade for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK on September 9. Elusive though he is as regards appearing in public, absence on this occasion was most unusual; he had been there for the 50th and 55th anniversaries, in 1998 and 2003. Second, this military march-past was scaled down at the last minute from regular to reserve forces. All this suggests that something is indeed up.

But what, exactly? Even now, there are diverse reports on how ill Kim was, or maybe still is. We can discount bizarre Japanese fantasies that he has been dead for 4 years; a body double a la Monty is one thing, but could a substitute really fool China’s president Hu Jintao? What is almost certain, however, is that the dear leader had heart surgery in May last year; a team of German doctors was definitely in Pyongyang, ostensibly to receive honorary degrees.

Kim Jong-il is 66, or possibly 67. Rumours have swirled about his health for years. He has semi-admitted to a past unhealthy lifestyle, having told South Korean visitors (in happier times) that his doctors made him quit smoking. A Hennessy brandy habit is also rumoured. At the June 2000 inter-Korean summit, the dear leader was seen to down red wine at a rate his guest from the South, then-president Kim Dae-jung, could not begin to keep up with. (Then again, red wine – in moderation – is supposed to be good for you.)

Some reports claim that Kim has been ill for much of 2008. At all events, the consensus of intelligence agencies and others is that he had a stroke in late August. It may or may not have been serious, and he may or may not be recovering quickly or fully.

All this, as Dr Johnson famously said about the prospect of being hanged, concentrates the mind. Whatever the facts, this health scare has been doubly salutary. It reminded the world, first, that there is much more to worry about regarding North Korea than the nuclear issue alone, serious though that is; and second, that when Kim Jong-il does die, no one has a clue what will happen in and to the DPRK. At that point, all bets are off.

Thus for a brief instant the global press pondered issues familiar to NewNations readers. The dear leader’s lack of any known succession plan is curious, and perilous. His own succession to his father, North Korea’s founding ‘great leader’ Kim Il-sung, was meticulously planned for over 20 years: at first in secret, but for the final 14 years (1980-94) in public, giving the younger Kim both exposure and experience. Even so, Pyongyang’s virtual lockdown during 1994-98 – ostensibly for the traditional Korean three years of mourning – suggests that when it came to it, for him actually to secure power and control was not altogether straightforward.

Is there a plan?
In stark contrast, Kim Jong-il – now 66, or perhaps 67 – seems to have no plans whatever for what or who will come after him. His problem is that there is no clear-cut successor, since he has three sons by two women: neither formally his wife, and both now deceased. (There is also a very able economist daughter, Kim Sul-song (34), with his estranged wife Kim Young-suk, but she seems not to count; so much for revolution.) The eldest son, Kim Jong-nam (37), was the front-runner until his embarrassing arrest in Japan in 2001, travelling on a fake Dominican passport; since then he has lived mainly in Macau in quasi-exile. Jong-nam has two half-brothers, who in their mid-20s are surely too young to be catapulted to the top: Kim Jong-chul (26), whom his father allegedly deems effeminate; and Kim Jong-un, said to be the favourite but at 24 almost wholly unknown (there is not even a picture of him, even though like his brothers he was partly schooled – under a pseudonym – in Switzerland).

Nor does the field end there. Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, purged in 2003-06 but now back on the scene, is said to be pushing for his adopted son Kim Jang-hyun – in reality a son of Kim Il-sung by one of his nurses. A newer power in Pyongyang is the dear leader’s latest consort, his former secretary Kim Ok: currently said to be the sole channel to Kim Jong-il on his sickbed. Then there is the powerful Korean People’s Army (KPA), whose generals may not be of one mind. None of this augurs for a smooth succession.

Some beg to differ. An article in the (Seoul) Korea Times on September 17 was headlined: “Chinese Scholars Snub Western View on Post-Kim N. Korea”. This claimed a consensus among the Beijing’s DPRK-watchers that Westerners have got it all wrong. On this view, forecasts of collapse are mere wishful thinking. The Pyongyang elite are well aware that they all sink or swim together, so they will remain united come what may. Ergo North Korea will outlast Kim Jong-il, just as it did his father.

Wishful thinking
Well, maybe. But there is more than one kind of wishful thinking on North Korea, and this sounds dangerously complacent. In Beijing, as indeed in Seoul, many prefer the devil they know and are terrified at the very idea of regime collapse in North Korea; they refuse to think the unthinkable. But this is surely an ostrich mentality. Successions are the Achilles’ heel of all dictatorships; one wonders if these Chinese experts have forgotten the upheavals that followed the death of Mao. A power struggle in Pyongyang looks all but certain, not least given the country’s dire economic straits and the stark policy choices hitherto fudged by Kim Jong-il: whether or not to truly give up nukes, and to embrace real market reforms.

True, North Korea has surprised many by surviving so long after communisms elsewhere either crumbled or morphed into dynamic hybrids a la China or Vietnam. But the fact that earlier predictions of its collapse were premature does not render the DPRK immortal. A dinosaur in a world of mammals, North Korea has been in urgent need of adaptation for at least 20 years. Its resolute refusal to do so, on three key fronts, constitutes the main reason to be pessimistic as to the DPRK’s ability to survive in the longer term.

Three key refusals
On how to transform a communist economy, first, China and Vietnam offer a clear roadmap. Yet North Korea refuses this, preferring to starve its people and become poorer than it was 20 years ago. As for weapons of mass destruction, second, Libya shows how a pariah state can ditch WMD and rejoin the global mainstream. The DPRK, by contrast, endlessly strings out nuclear talks and may now sink them completely; while building a new missile test centre – only revealed last month – and proliferation to Syria if that's what it was, hardly suggest a sincere intent to plump for peace. Thirdly, long-term political stability and sustainability require that Kim Jong-il’s hyper-personalized rule – a fact, as well as a cult – should be institutionalized in a clear and secure way: whether with a designated successor, or a collective leadership. 

Kim’s failure on all three fronts – his nuclear dance is at best a short-run tactical success – suggests he does not know (or care?) what to do; apres lui, le deluge. A soft landing would be far preferable, but the dear leader’s policy paralysis – and now illness – make this ever less likely. Hence it is neither alarmism nor wishful thinking to reckon that North Korea’s endgame is drawing nearer – and that this will be a bumpy ride.

This time, of course, it may all be a false alarm. Perhaps Kim Jong-il will show his face at North Korea’s next big day: the founding anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), on October 10. Even if he does, one hopes that the contingency planning apparently eschewed in Pyongyang is being done elsewhere – in Beijing, Seoul, and Washington – and, crucially, that this trio will coordinate their responses to whatever transpires in North Korea. 
Otherwise the prospect of great power conflict over the peninsula, as in the 1890s and 1945, on top of power struggles in Pyongyang (and with loose nukes too) makes a fearsome brew. 

For South Korea’s newish president Lee Myung-bak, already grappling with economic crisis and a political backlash, the possibility of having Korean reunification happen German-style on his watch could be the last straw. As the old Chinese curse says, interesting times indeed.

Nuclear backtracking
By mid-month Wall Street’s troubles had knocked North Korea off the front pages. It clawed its way back, however, by playing the nuclear card. Following its announcement on August 26 that disablement work had stopped at the Yongbyon site, closed under the 6PT since July 2007, the DPRK threatened in September to reverse this and move towards reopening the facility. On September 24 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that, at Pyongyang’s insistence, it had removed seals and camera surveillance equipment from the reprocessing plant: one of three key parts of Yongbyon. North Korea accused the US of reneging on its own commitment to take the DPRK off the State Department’s list of nations regarded as sponsoring terrorism, while saying it no longer expected delisting or even cared.

As ever, the key imponderable is whether they mean it or are just playing hardball. Either way, raising the stakes this high risks undoing the 6PT. South Korea’s foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, warned on September 26 that “we are faced with a difficult situation where this (negotiation) is not moving forward and may go back to square one.”

Despite threats by Pyongyang to resume reprocessing within a week, and reports that it could do so in two months, other experts insist that disablement at Yongbyon is so far gone that to get it operational again would take as long as a year. Moreover, unlike in the earlier 2002-03 crisis, no move has yet been made to expel either IAEA or US experts from Yongbyon. So Kim Jong-il – or whoever is in charge – may be bluffing; but what exactly do they want? 

To find that out, Christopher Hill, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and lead nuclear negotiator with North Korea, was unofficially reported on September 28 to be about to visit Pyongyang. So watch this space, next month. For now, though hope springs eternal, one must doubt what incentive the DPRK can have to cut a deal with George W Bush; since in less than four months it will face a new president in the White House, who may shift the goalposts just as Bush did after Clinton in 2001. Not for the first time, then, the dominant note regarding North Korea is uncertainty tinged with anxiety – on several fronts.

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