Worldly affairs are not simple. There is nothing that does not change. People want stability and permanence, they want to maintain the “status quo”, but reality isn’t like that. If one does not take action and plan for change, they will be forced to change anyway. And if one is forced to change, both the environment and conditions for life and livelihood will be adversely affected; even time will run against them. This is politics. This is economics. The very same principles apply to the country, company, and individual, too.
South Korea’s politics are not actively changing, which is why there is trouble in both the public and private sectors. After widespread democratization in 1987, Korean companies, on the one hand, went from the center of power to democracy, and on the other hand, went from order to disorder. First and foremost, the development of democracy crystallizes procedural democracy in both law and order. Thus, both the citizens and the government put all their efforts into their civic duties and rights, enhancing liberal democracy and enabling the flower of this democracy to bloom. A society in which enhanced liberal democracy thrives is a society in which the citizens themselves feel that their own prospects for freedom and creative expression have broadened. At the same time, they feel a deeper love and sense of responsibility towards their country.
Korean society has not even started the process of becoming an enhanced liberal democracy, and is instead going down the road of a divided community. Both political conflict and conflict between the rich and poor are getting worse. The government’s administrative power has been declining since the days of central authority. At the same time, grassroots democracy is underdeveloped. A hope-filled perspective views this situation as a transition period to liberal democracy. However, it can also be seen as South Korea’s road to ruin. As such, it’s difficult to tell what the future of South Korea will be.
On top of that, unusual behavior regarding the problems of North Korea runs rampant. The members of the National Assembly assert that stopping the North Korean Human Rights Act from passing is a prideful accomplishment. Even the former prime minister distorted the true meaning of the North Korean Human Rights Act, preventing it from being passed. In 20 years, when future generations surf the web and discover this incident, they will think, “How were such terrible politicians able to become assembly members not even 20 years ago?” Indeed, in today’s world, it is very difficult to find a politician with their head on straight.
So, in order for Korean politics to have even a small chance of returning to the orbit of normalcy, two things must be determined: firstly, whether the Unified Progressive Party will be sentenced to dissolution, and, secondly, whether the 19th National Assembly will legislate a new North Korean Human Rights Act. If and when these two matters are resolved, the next thing that must happen is large-scale political reform. This must happen to secure some kind of future for Korean society.
What about Kim Jong Eun’s North Korea, then?
Kim Jong Eun came to power three years ago. During those three years North Korea has changed. But what and how much?
First of all, Kim Jong Eun has succeeded in established his dictatorship by executing Jang Sung Taek and doing other such things to proliferate a reign of terror.
Second, North Korea is continuing on with the nuclear and economic policies that were adopted during the Kim Jong Il era as a strategy to keep the regime afloat.
Third, North Korea has failed to improve relations with China, the United States, and South Korea. During the Kim Jong Il era, economic and diplomatic support from China and South Korea almost completely ceased, and only a limited trade relationship remained (North Korea is trying to repair relations with Japan and Russia but relationships with those countries definitely have their limits).
Fourth, a domestic market run by the residents is quickly starting to flourish. Rather than taking charge of this change, the authorities are taking action to suppress it (which is different from when The Chinese Communist Party strictly controlled economic reform and the Chinese people followed the government’s regulations).
Fifth, North Korea is earning money for its government fund by inciting foreign funding for its 19 Economic Development Zones (except for the Rasun area) and by outsourcing slave labor. The possibility for success for the Masikryong Ski Resort and the rest of North Korea’s tourism industry is low.
Sixth, the North Korea humanitarian crisis has become a prominent topic of international conversation and in March 2014 the UN’s Committee of Information (COI) revealed the true state of human rights in North Korea. As such, the North Korean leadership has been objectified as a criminal organization in the global sphere. Therefore, it has become difficult for North Korea to take normal diplomatic action. Other countries are reluctant to engage in political, economic, military, cultural, scientific, touristic, etc. exchange and cooperation with a criminal regime. The intangible damage, unseen to the eyes of the Kim Jong Eun regime, has been substantial. In other words, international society has begun to chastise the Kim Jong Eun regime.
Seventh, the North Korean citizens have begun to access information from the outside world, and defectors from North Korea are playing an increasingly important role in this sphere.
A country usually falls when there is internal divide. North Korea will meet its end in this way as well. North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship. Therefore, it is obvious that North Korea’s turning point will begin with ruptures in the dictatorial system itself. Kim Jong Eun has succeeded in establishing a regime based on more fear than the Kim Jong Il era by executing Jang Sung Taek. One can assert that by executing Jang Sung Taek within three years of taking power, Kim Jong Eun has stabilized his power in the regime. This statement is frequently made by people who do not understand North Korea’s authoritarian system or cannot see the hidden side of North Korea’s totalitarian dictatorship.
North Korea’s system of governance is a dictatorship, therefore the dictator’s power and competence is important. However, the support system surrounding the dictator is even more important. The party, the military, and the high-ranking officials of the country have to be in perfect order and support the dictator as one. The ideological base, national resources including food, energy, and materials such as international currency that make up the economic base, the party, military, and country’s systematic administrative base, and the international diplomatic base that acknowledges the Kim Jong Eun regime all have to be in order and must be maintained in order for the dictatorship to continue. And, the dictator himself must have the authoritative capacity to vet, inspect, and manage all aspects of this as well. In other words, the dictator’s range of power and the system itself must be in perfect union.
From this perspective, one can easily understand the difference between the durability of the regimes of the Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il era, and the Kim Jong Eun era. In the Kim Il Sung era, the Juche Ideology, stabilized diplomacy, and planned economics together with Kim Il Sung’s charisma, established a good environment for a dictatorial system to smoothly operate. After Kim Il Sung’s death, the economic base collapsed under Kim Jong Il’s leadership. Despite this dangerous situation, everything else remained the same and continued on because of the help North Korea received from China and South Korea. By the mid-2000s, the United States, Japan, and much of the Western world were providing aid as well. Right now, however, under Kim Jong Eun’s regime, there is not one area– be it ideological, administrative, material economic, or diplomatic– that is not falling apart. In the economic sphere, the widespread system of markets in North Korea has been progressing for near 20 years and has improved, but it is difficult to trust that the Kim Jong Eun regime will help continue that progress.
Theoretically, the base of the North Korean dictatorial system is composed of (from the bottom up): the General Public → the Working Class → the Party → the Central Ruling Body → the Suryeong. Because the Juche ideology and distribution system has collapsed, both the General Public and the Worker Class have left the dictatorial system. The General Public and the Worker Class already know that the Juche ideology has failed, and as such, “the pursuit of money” and “each man for himself” have become firmly rooted ideas. These people are under no illusion that the Suryeong and the Party will feed and provide for them.
The Workers’ Party has been divided into the Central Party [the Central Committee] and the so-called Rural Party, intensifying both conflict and enmity. The Rural Party cannot stomach the Central Committee’s regulations. Because of the extremely discriminatory method in which natural resources are distributed, there is a high chance that the Rural Party will revolt against the Central Committee soon. (If there is forced pressure to invest in the 19 economic development zones and if Kim Jong Eun’s nuclear issue remains unsolved, there can be even more unpredictable divisions in the future.)
Last is the relationship between the party and military’s core ruling body and the Suryeong [Kim Jong Eun]. Traditionally, this relationship is most advantageously seen as a “comrade relationship”, but it is not possible for 30-year-old Kim Jong Eun to have a comrade-like relationship with the 60 to 70-year-old people around him. Choe Ryong Hae, Jo Yeon Jun, Hwang Pyong Seo, Hyun Young Chul, Ri Young Gil, Byun In Sun, Kim Yong Chol, etc. could forcefully forge a “comrade relationship” with Kim Jong Il, but that tie is impossible to forge with the young Kim Jong Eun. These people do not consider Kim Jong Eun a comrade and that kind of ideological and empirical relationship does not exist between them. The relationship between Kim Jong Eun and those around them is more like a master-servant relationship. In other words, it is like a relationship between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s descendant and old farmhands. One can also see it is the relationship of an heir and his steward, especially in the case of old and powerful North Korean families like Choe Ryong Hae’s and others like him.
Both Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung have maintained their relationships with the families of veterans who fought on their side by treating them with respect. In order to build their political power, they had, from the early 70s, held two secret parties every week. In this way they built their strange “comrade relationships”. Also, the main members of these secret parties soon rose to powerful positions. In Kim Jong Eun’s case, however, there are no people around his age to create a new circle of comrades that would become the center of political power. Unlike Kim Jong Il, there are no children of old communist veterans or comrades from his school days. It is not feasible, after all, for Kim Jong Eun to bring over his friends from his Swiss middle school and use them as “political mercenaries”.
Also, the matter of Kim Jong Eun’s birth is complicated. Kim Jong Eun may resemble his grandfather, but there is a high chance that Kim Il Sung did not even know of Kim Jong Eun’s existence even to the time of his death in 1994. To Kim Il Sung, his grandson was Kim Jong Nam and his granddaughter was Kim Seol Song.
Kim Jong Il deliberately used a ridiculous excuse to ask Song Hye Rang to name the first son that he had with Go Young Hee. Therefore, one can infer that Kim Jong Il did this to hide the birth of his son from Kim Il Sung and Song Hye Rim and act as though the child was Go Young Hee’s from a previous marriage. Therefore, the theory that there was a “high probability that Kim Il Sung did not know of Kim Jong Eun’s existence even until his death” (proposed by Hyun Sung Il, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy) holds some weight.
In the end, Kim Jong Eun and North Korea-style dictatorship are substantially contradictory elements in the system. They cannot coalesce. Forcefully pushing Kim Jong Eun into the system is like forcing someone to wear ill-fitting clothes.
It is in this environment that Kim Jong Eun removed Jang Song Thaek, stuck to and then removed himself from the old veteran class, and made officers over the year of 70 go through a fitness test, thereby reinforcing his reign of terror. And in August and October of this year he had 20 associates of Jang Song Thaek from the leadership and propaganda departments shot and executed together. And so, in just three years, Kim Jong Eun was able to establish his own unique kind of dictatorship.
But then what else is left for him to do? The General Public and Worker Class left the dictatorial system long ago, the Workers Party has been divided into the Central Committee and the Rural Party, and there is no comrade-like relationship between Kim Jong Eun and his core ruling body. So what is left? Only his close family. The only people he can truly trust is his wife (Ri Sol Ju), his younger sister (Kim Yo Jong), and his older half-sister (Kim Seol Song). When Kim Jong Eun came to power, North Korea’s dictatorial system had already gone as far as it could go. The fact that the only close people Kim Jong Eun has left is his younger sister, etc. marks the inevitable collapse of the dictatorial system. Therefore, the only thing left is for the ruptures and collapse of the system to be revealed to the outside world.
This may be a foregone conclusion, but Kim Jong Eun peaked into his power as a dictator too early. Kim Jong Il used his father’s glory to gather strength and spent 20 years building his power base (1964-1985), and he spent ten years before Kim Il Sung’s death as his father’s proxy in exercising absolute power (1985-1994). Because of this, even after his father’s death, he was able to maintain a dictatorial system for 17 years (1994-2011).
On the other hand, Kim Jong Eun was able to establish his own dictatorial rule within three years of Kim Jong Il’s death. Does this mean that Kim Jong Eun has perfectly established a dictatorial system? No, that is not the case. Kim Jong Eun’s power has been slipping since the Kim Jong Il era, and his power base is collapsing as a result of the execution of Jang Sung Taek and other extreme actions he has taken during his reign of terror. When he came to power, his position was already incredibly weak. And then he killed Jang Sung Taek and weakened relations with China. Kim Jong Eun incurred great losses for little gain and has fallen into his own trap. Right now, Kim Jong Eun’s power is akin to a house of cards.
Going forward, will Kim Jong Eun be able to continue his reign of terror in order to “stabilize and maintain permanent power”? It will not be possible. What can he do to maintain his dictatorial authority? Earn money and demand loyalty from those around him. In other words, he needs to save the economy. However, as was mentioned above, the circumstances surrounding Kim Jong Eun are not good. 2015 will mark the beginning of the end for Kim Jong Eun. He will fall as quickly as he rose.
The countries that hold onto the lifeline of Kim Jong Eun’s power are South Korea, China, and the United States. South Korea must become a key player in this game. The South Korean government must not foolishly try to revive this collapsing regime.