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The North Korean Purge

15 December 2013

The North Korean Purge

By Gwynne Dyer

Purges in Communist states have rarely stopped with the execution of one senior Party member, especially when he has been tortured into “confessing” at his show trial that he was planning to stage a coup using “high-ranking military officers” and other close allies.

“I didn’t fix the definite time for the coup,” Chang Song-thaek, the former number two in the hierarchy of the world’s last totalitarian state, said at his trial. “But it was my intention to concentrate (my allies in) my department and in all the economic organs in the cabinet and become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse.”

It’s most unlikely that Chang was really planning a coup, but all of his suspected allies and associates in his own department and other parts of the government, plus any senior military officers suspected of less than total loyalty to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, are in grave danger. Only two of Chang’s aides have been killed so far, but hundreds or thousands of other people thought to be linked to him may suffer the same fate.

This is unquestionably the biggest internal crisis in North Korea since the early years of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the regime and grandfather of the current dictator. Challengers to the Kim family’s monopoly of power have often been killed, but this is the first public show trial in North Korea since 1958.

It’s also the first time that the regime has publicly admitted that there are rival factions in the senior ranks of the Workers’ (Communist) Party. It’s hard to believe that this will not be followed by a wider bloodbath among the leading cadres along the lines of Stalin’s purges in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s in China. It’s harder to understand what is driving the current upheaval, but some plausible guesses are possible.

When Kim Jong-il, the father of the current ruler, was dying, he chose Chang as the man who would ensure a smooth transfer of power to his son. (Chang was married to the elder Kim’s sister, and was therefore presumably loyal to the family.) Chang acted as chief adviser to Kim Jong-un, who was only 28 and quite inexperienced when he inherited the leadership in 2011, and his manner sometimes seemed quite overbearing.

At the same time, Chang was the principal advocate within the regime for an economic opening on the Chinese model to rescue North Korea from its crushing poverty. To achieve that goal, he first had to wrest control of the country’s leading industries from the military, whose enterprises account for a third of the entire economy. This naturally made him an enemy in the eyes of the military establishment.

So we can speculate that Kim Jong-un, as he gained confidence in his own abilities, grew increasingly hostile to the dominating influence of Chang, who was more than twice his age. He would need allies before he moved against Chang, and many military officers were glad to oblige.

On this reading of events Kim wants to get rid not only of Chang but of the entire generation of older military and civilian leaders who secretly regard him as an upstart. His objective would be to replace them wholesale with younger men who owe their positions directly to him. Or maybe something else is at the root of all this turmoil: we simply don’t know.

What we do know is that there is great turmoil in North Korea, a nuclear-armed country with the fifth-biggest army in the world. Most people assume that at some point in the future the regime will collapse, and some well-informed people worry that the collapse could come quite suddenly and quite soon. Interestingly, almost nobody wants that to happen.

Most North Koreans don’t want it to happen despite the dreadful conditions they live in, because a lifetime of propaganda has convinced them that South Koreans (and everybody else) lives in even worse conditions than the citizens of the Workers’ Paradise.

Most South Koreans don’t want it to happen because they would then have the duty of rescuing 24 million North Koreans from dire poverty. In theory they want unification, but there are only 50 million South Koreans to bear the burden, and it would take a generation of sacrifice to accomplish that task.

Neither North Korea’s Chinese neighbours nor South Korea’s American allies want it to happen, because the collapse of the Pyongyang regime could bring them into direct conflict. As a recent study by the Rand Corporation pointed out, it would cause a race between Chinese troops and South Korean and American troops to take control of North Korea’s territory.

The Chinese would be determined to keep American troops away from their own border with North Korea. The South Koreans and their American allies would feel compelled to go to the aid of a North Korean population that was probably facing starvation by then. And both sides would be racing to gain control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons before something terrible happened.

In such circumstances, a collision between Chinese and South Korean/American forces is all too easy to imagine. Kim Jong-un is a very nasty piece of work, but a lot of people are praying for his survival.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“At the same…establishment”; and “Most North…task”)

 

A War in Korea

1 April 2013

A War in Korea?

By Gwynne Dyer

The US-South Korean military exercises will continue until the end of this month, and the North Korean threats to do something terrible if they do not stop grow more hysterical by the day. Last week the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, was shown signing a decree that ordered North Korea’s long-range missile forces to be ready to launch against the United States, while senior military officers looked on approvingly.

On the wall behind Kim was a map, helpfully labelled “US Mainland Strike Plan”, that showed the missile trajectories from North Korea to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Austin, Texas. (Why Austin? Doesn’t he like indie rock?) It was a scene straight out of the villain’s lair in an early James Bond movie, except that they’d forgotten to set it in a cave.

These threats are so palpably empty that the instinct of both the Pentagon and the US State Department is just to ignore them. North Korea has no operational missile that can reach even western Alaska, no miniaturised nuclear warhead to put on such a missile, and no long-range targeting capability. But the politics of the situation demands that the US government respond seriously to every threat, however foolish.

So next year the US government will spend another billion dollars or so to place fourteen more anti-ballistic missile sites in Alaska, presumably to protect the Alaskan west coast and the Aleutian Islands from a North Korean nuclear strike. And last Friday it sent two B-2 bombers all the way from Missouri non-stop to drop bombs on some uninhabited islands near North Korea, just to remind Pyongyang that it can.

It’s all still just a charade, a spring display of military capacities by two rival armed forces that could as well be rutting deer. The United States would not even play this game if the logic of both international and domestic politics did not oblige it to respond to the increasingly rabid North Korean threats. But it is playing nevertheless, and the risk of miscalculation is quite serious.

Anybody who tells you he KNOWS what is going on inside the North Korean regime is a liar, but there are a few safe assumptions. Real decision-making power on war and peace almost certainly lies with the senior ranks of the North Korean army, not with young Mr Kim or the Communist Party. It’s also clear that Kim, new to power and insecure, feels the need to look tough, just as his father did when he inherited the leadership from Kim’s grandfather.

 

And nobody in the North Korean regime knows how things work in the rest of the world. They may even be genuinely afraid that the US-South Korean military exercises, although they have been held annually for decades, are this time only a cover for a plan to attack North Korea. After all, the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung, concentrated his forces under cover of military exercises in just that way when he invaded South Korea in 1950.

 

The North Korean military doubtless understand that they must not get into a nuclear war with the United States, but they may believe that their dozen or so nuclear weapons make it safe for them to use conventional force without facing American nuclear retaliation. And they do have rather a lot of conventional military force at their disposal.

Kim Jong-un’s threats are being exposed as bluffs almost daily – the US-South Korean military exercises go on as though he had said nothing – and he may ultimately feel obliged to DO something to restore his credibility. It would probably be just a limited local attack somewhere, but in the current atmosphere, with both Seoul and Washington determined not to submit to psychological blackmail, that could escalate rapidly to full-scale conventional war.

It would be a major war, for although North Korea’s weapons are mostly last-generation, that is not such a big handicap in ground warfare as it is in the air or at sea. North Korean troops are well-trained, and there are over a million of them. Moreover, South Korea is compelled to defend well forward because holding on to Seoul, only 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, is a political imperative. That makes it quite vulnerable to breakthroughs.

The North Koreans would attack south in a three-pronged thrust, accompanied by Special Forces operations deep in South Korean territory, just as they did in 1950. The geography gives them few alternatives.

US-South Korean strategy would also echo 1950-51: contain the North Korean attack as close to the border as possible, and then counter-attack up the west coast on an axis heading north through Kaesong to Pyongyang. That would once again be accompanied by a big amphibious landing well behind the North Korean front, this time probably at Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast.

Even if the North Korean air force were effectively destroyed in the first couple of days, as it probably would be, this would be a highly mobile, hard-fought land war in densely populated territory involving high casualties and massive destruction. The world has not seen such a war for more than fifty years now.

We really don’t need to see it again.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Anybody…1950”)

 

 

Kim the Reformer

21 January 2013

Kim the Reformer?

By Gwynne Dyer

If North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, wanted to end the brutal and destructive tyranny that his father and grandfather imposed on the country, he would need support from abroad. The military and Communist Party elites who control and benefit from that system would have to be brought round or bought off, and that would require lots of foreign aid and a global amnesty for their crimes. So how would he get the foreigners to help?

Well, he’d have to show them that he was willing to reform – but he couldn’t be too obvious about it at first, or those elites would just get rid of him. He’d drop a hint here, make a gesture there, and hope that the foreigners would trust him and help him to change the country. Rather like the rest of the world responded when the Burmese generals started hinting that they were ready to dismantle their half-century-old dictatorship two years ago.

Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un would drop the same hints and make the same gestures if his only wish was to sucker the outside world into propping up the bankrupt system in North Korea with more big shipments of free food and fuel. There’s no way to read his mind, so how should the foreigners respond?

This is not a theoretical question, for he is sending out those signals. Never mind the cosmetic stuff like being seen in public with a new wife who dresses in fashionable Western clothes. In his televised New Year’s message to the Korean people, he spoke of the need to “remove confrontation between the North and the South,” and called for dramatic improvements in the national economy.

It’s the first time the regime has ever celebrated the Western New Year (including fireworks in Pyongyang). It’s nineteen years since the country’s leader last spoke to the people directly. He may be trying to tell them and the rest of the world that he is starting down the road of reform, or he may be bluffing. What to do?

Unfortunately, since he’s not making any political or economic reforms at home at the moment – that’s what he MIGHT do if he had foreign help – we can’t conclude anything about his intentions from his domestic policies. And his foreign policy is hardly encouraging either.

North Korea doesn’t have much by way of a foreign policy. The only consistent thread is its obsession with military power (it has one of the world’s biggest armies, though it has about the population of Australia), and latterly with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Both of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons tests, in 2006 and 2012, were conducted when Kim Jong-il was still alive and in power, but Kim Jong-un has not repudiated them. Moreover, he has continued to test ballistic missiles, including the launch last month of a rocket that his regime says could hit the United States. (It was ostensibly used to launch a satellite, which it did, but the technology for satellite launchers and ICBMs is almost identical.)

On the other hand, here is a man whose only claim to power is heredity, in a country that does not have a formally recognised monarchy. To consolidate his power, he must persuade the military and Party elites that he is a reliable successor who will perpetuate the system that keeps them fat and happy, so his current aggressive posture in foreign policy is really no guide to his real intentions either.

In fact, at this point there is really no way of telling what he means to do. The rest of the world, and in particular the United States and North Korea’s neighbours, South Korea, China and Japan, are going to have to make their decisions blind. What can they do that would help Kim Jong-un to bring the country out of its cave and start loosening the domestic tyranny, without actually making matters worse if he is not a secret reformer?

The safest course would be to encourage dialogue between North and South Korea (which has just elected a new president, Park Geun-hye, who has declared her presidency ready to initiate unconditional talks with the North). It would also be sensible to ease back on the embargoes and other restrictions on North Korean imports for a while, since they are obviously achieving nothing in terms of stopping its weapons projects anyway.

And what if Kim-Jong-un dares not or simply does not want to respond to these gestures with more promising moves himself? Then you just give up and go back to the policy of containment that has had so little success over the years. North Korea is really a very small threat (except for its own people, of course), and it’s safe to take a little risk in the hope that the new ruler will respond.

It’s the country’s only hope. There is not going to be a North Korean spring in the Arab style.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“It’s…do”; and “Both…identical”)

 

 

Varieties of Nepotism: Korea

18 July 2012

Varieties of Nepotism: Korea

By Gwynne Dyer

What has been happening in North Korea recently is straight out of the “Hereditary Dictatorship for Dummies” handbook. Kim Jong-un, the pudgy young heir to the leadership of one of the world’s last Communist states, is removing powerful people who were loyal to his father and replacing them with men (it’s always men) who owe their advancement only to him.

Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the chief of the North Korean army until late last week, was not disloyal to the new boss. On the contrary, Ri’s support was vital in ensuring a smooth transition after the death of Kim Jong-Il, the old boss, and he gave it unstintingly. But in the end the vice-marshal didn’t owe everything to Kim Jong-un, so he had to go.

In his place, Kim Jong-un has promoted a man nobody had ever heard of before. His name is Hyon Yong-chol, but you don’t have to remember it unless you really want to. The point is that Hyon will have annoyed a lot of other generals in the army because he has been promoted over their heads, and so he is absolutely dependent on the good will of the young master.

Meanwhile, the propaganda that is intended to promote Kim Jong-un to the rank of god-king pours forth. When he visited an air force training unit, the North Korean news agency reported, he “guided the flight training of pilots.” At a concert, he “gave precious teachings for the performing activities of the Korean People’s Army Military Band.” It turns out that he is an expert in pretty well everything.

And just to be sure, Kim Jong-un had himself promoted to Marshal this week, so now he outranks everybody else in the armed forces. At least he hasn’t had all his brothers and half-brothers killed in order to rule out any challenges from within the family, like the Ottoman sultans used to do after they ascended the throne. So there IS progress, you see.

Things are done very differently in South Korea. There the presidents are chosen by the free vote of all the people (or at least all the ones who bother to vote). But the candidate most likely to win the presidential elections this December is the daughter of the dictator who ruled the country with an iron hand for two decades, until he was finally assassinated in 1979.

There are, to be sure, some striking differences between Ms Park Geun-hye, who will probably be South Korea’s first female president, and the callow youth who is scrambling to put his stamp on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea up north.

Park has earned her candidacy by a lifetime of public service, including a decade at the head of Yeungnam University and fourteen years in politics, during which she earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for her skill in delivering the vote to her party even in the most adverse circumstances. At 60, she is more than twice Kim Jong-un’s age, and she has seen and done a lot.

On the other hand, it is very unlikely that she would have had this stellar career if she had grown up as the daughter of an army sergeant on a succession of bleak army posts. Growing up in the presidential palace, and serving as South Korea’s first lady for five years while still in her early 20s, after her mother was assassinated in 1974, was bound to produce a different outcome. It also helps with the name recognition that every politician needs.

If elected, Park Geun-hye may be a very successful president. She may have the determination and the clout to take on the big industries that dominate South Korean society and deliver more security and social justice to those at the bottom. She may even manage to create an opening with North Korea if she finds a willing partner in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-un is a completely closed book. Nobody beyond his own family has the slightest idea what he thinks and intends, and maybe even they don’t. Maybe he doesn’t even know himself yet. But unlike his father and grandfather, he has seen something of the world (he was educated partly in Switzerland), and it may have given him ideas.

The point is not that either of these people is necessarily a bad choice as president. It’s that both countries (but especially the North) are fishing in a very shallow pool. There are probably thousands of people in each country who would make better leaders, but they lack the connections and they will never be considered for the job. In fact, the same thing is true everywhere.

Would Hillary Clinton be the US Secretary of State if her husband had not been the president? Would George W Bush ever have been considered as a possible president if his dad had not been a moderately successful one? For that matter, would Aung San Suu Kyi, runner-up to Nelson Mandela in the Global Sainthood Stakes, ever have become the voice of Burmese democracy if her father had not been the (autocratic) hero of the independence movement?

Can anything be done about this? Probably not, but it is a pity.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Meanwhile…everything”; and “If elected…Pyongyang”)