in Pyongyang, politics will out By Aidan Foster-Carter
Say what you
will about North Korea, they put on a great show.
Kim Jong-il's funeral was a fine performance,
combining iron discipline with well-choreographed
emotion. Cry now!
But a show it was, like
everything in Pyongyang. There, politics is
enacted as theater. What we see is smooth and
flawless. The messy stuff is kept firmly
off-stage, behind the scenes.
It is a rare
regime that can bring this off: in midwinter, at short
notice and despite dire
straits. Yet we must not let appearances deceive,
as they are intended to. What is really going on?
The performance is real, but it is far
from the whole picture. This show has directors
and producers. They shun the limelight, but we
need to look backstage to find the real story.
That is not easy. North Korea has rightly
been called the West's longest-running
intelligence failure. We know all too little of
the needed nitty-gritty: names, facts, factions,
Yet what we cannot see, we
can deduce. Pyongyang is not some other planet.
Social science still applies here. No polity is
free of politics. They may hide it, but they
cannot abolish it.
Behind the mask of
unity, we can be sure a priori - buttressed
by some empirical evidence - that at least five
challenges lurk. All societies have them, and
North Korea is no exception.
rivalries. Successions are tyranny's Achilles'
heel. All that was solid is suddenly not; no one
really knows if the old script still holds.
Someone might strike out, or make their move.
Running North Korea may seem the most
poisoned of chalices. Yet in a Borgia-esque world,
you do not want your enemy in charge. Kim Jong-eun
was his father's third son. The passed-over
eldest, Kim Jong-nam, is using quasi-exile in
China (whose protection he must have) to snipe at
hereditary succession, including in a book
recently published in Japan. That hurts.
If Pyongyang's royal family is at
loggerheads, so are its courtiers. Jang
Song-thaek, Kim Jong-eun's uncle-in-law, is not
unchallenged in his role as regent. One rival, Ri
Je-gang, was eliminated in June 2010 in a
mysterious car crash, which some reckon was no
accident. Already purges are underway, as in 1994
when Kim Jong-il succeeded his own father Kim
Second, bureaucracies. Inside
the Red Box, a recent book by US intelligence
analyst Patrick McEachern, claims that three
institutions - party, army and cabinet - each has
separate interests, which may clash. The military
flourished under Kim Jong-il, but his son's rise
saw a resurrection of the Workers' Party top
echelons: it now has a politburo again, after
years of atrophy. There may also be frictions
within the army and the party, as well as between
And the cabinet? They fret about
policies: a third challenge. Fighting for power is
one thing - but what to do with it? North Korea
faces hard choices. The old guard stick to their
guns: no market reforms, and certainly no nuclear
surrender. The latter may well be a consensus, as
in Iran. But cabinet technocrats know reform is
urgently needed; or else the regime's boasts of
becoming a "great and prosperous nation" - this
year! - must be a risky hostage to fortune.
Enter the people: a fourth challenge.
North Koreans suffer abominably. A million died of
famine in the 1990s; hunger remains endemic. They
know South Koreans and even Chinese live better.
Two years ago, a currency "reform" - in truth,
state theft of household savings - sparked a
backlash. As Bob Marley sang, a hungry man is an
angry man. Though suppressed and seemingly
quiescent thus far, if goaded beyond endurance the
worm might finally turn.
powers are the fifth and final challenge. North
Korea's boasts of self-reliance were and are a
lie. It always played off one sponsor against
another, starting with the Sino-Soviet dispute.
Right now only China is in play, since Seoul
unwisely took its bat home.
A year from
now, South Korea's next president will re-enter
the fray. Russia too is keen on a gas pipeline
across both Koreas. Each of these powers has
discreet partisans in Pyongyang. So if - or rather
when - North Korea opens, the crucial question is:
These five challenges are a
heavy burden for an untried twenty-something, and
whoever pulls his strings. The scenes so far - Kim
Jong-eun catapulted into symbolic full leaderhood,
amid shrill insistence that nothing will ever
change - are the new team's first word, not its
Kim Jong-il's legacy was a great
leap backwards: North Korea is poorer now than in
1989. If Kim Jong-eun keeps on marching down the
road to nowhere, something will crack.
five challenges are urgent, so maintaining a
smooth facade of unity can only get harder. The
Kim show has had an amazing run, but is well past
its sell-by date.
choreographers will have their work cut out to
keep the cast going through the motions and
mouthing the old lines with conviction. Elite
unity may not hold, or the masses will finally
have their day and their say. Someone, somewhere,
will break ranks and step out of line. Politics
Aidan Foster-Carter is
honorary senior research fellow in sociology and
modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance
consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean
affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he
has followed North Korea for over 40 years.
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