Since Kim Jong Un rose to power five years ago, he has focused on the task of consolidating power through the simultaneous application of fearpolitik and propaganda efforts aimed at winning the people’s affection. This strategy – inspiring unity and domestic solidarity – is a political response to the unprecedented pressure and sanctions enforced by the international community. However, in such circumstances, how are the North Korean people reacting? Today we take a closer look.
1. After rising to power, Kim Jong Un has used fearpolitik through the execution of high level officials such as Jang Song Thaek, his own uncle. Why do you think Kim has resorted to these tactics?
To put it simply, Kim needs to use such tactics to maintain the third generation of the dynastic dictatorship. He is quite young and lacks experience and accomplishments. Fearpolitik is an exercise of power that compensates for these shortages. Kim may be trying to use violence and the threat of violence to control older cadres who might otherwise attempt to grab power for themselves.
2. I am curious how effective this technique has been in the past in helping to achieve solidarity. Using fear politics to control the elite class and aiming to win the affection of the masses requires strong surveillance and control measures which might actually disrupt unity. How far will Kim go in striving to secure regime stability?
From the outside it appears effective, but it’s just a temporary solution. In the long run, it promotes instability and discontent. Everyone shrinks in fear as soon as Kim picks up the bat, but as soon as he puts it down, there is the possibility of defiance. Facing pressure and violence, the ‘yes men’ in the bureaucracy agree on the outside, but fearpolitik actually pushes them towards diminished loyalty on the inside.
3. Some analysts have predicted that the forces you describe might contribute to further instability in Pyongyang. From a long term perspective, what kind of outcomes will fear politics likely produce?
We know from studying history what sort of fate awaits dictators who engage in terror and fearpolitik against their own populations. Leaders such as Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi were brought down by domestic resistance that spelled the end of their reigns. In relation to this, Kim Il Sung once said, “Wherever the masses are being pressured and exploited, they will resist.” His grandson, Kim Jong Un, might end up becoming living proof of that aphorism.
4. Can we look at high level defections – such as former diplomat Thae Yong Ho – as an adverse effect of the fearpolitik campaign?
Yes. And I think it is certainly possible to say that these high ranking officials are not simply defecting, but are seeking political asylum. These individuals did not flee across the Tumen River like most North Korean defectors. They got a chance to see North Korea from an outside perspective. They were employed at various positions around the world. Cognisant of the hopeless situation in the North, they chose to defect to the South.
As a result of international sanctions, Kim is pouring extra pressure onto overseas diplomatic offices to earn foreign currency for the regime. Those unable to rake in the cash are recalled and punished severely. Thus, rather than face the music back in North Korea, many elite officials are persuaded to make an escape.
5. We’ve seen that Kim is simultaneously employing fearpolitik as well as propaganda efforts that attempt to stimulate the people’s love for him. Why do you think he employs both tactics at once?
Historically, dictators have pursued both sides of the coin. Political control is achieved by touting the people’s affection for the ruler while also clamping down on the elites. Problems in living conditions are blamed on the elites, who have no choice but to be scapegoats.
This is a frequent occurrence in North Korea. In order to calm the people after the 2009 currency redenomination created devastating problems in the economy, Kim blamed and executed Park Nam Gi, Director of the Planning and Finance Department. In addition, Kim blamed Jang Song Thaek for gambling with the people’s economy before executing him for committing anti-Party activities. By blaming the elites for any problems that emerge, Kim can forever deny responsibility when it comes to mismanagement.
6. What sorts of claims is Kim making about his contributions to the North Korean people? What is the truth behind these assertions?
The Party claims that all of Kim’s actions are attempts to improve the people’s lives. But we have room for healthy skepticism. Recently, Kim gave fish as a gift to the residents of Pyongyang. But the gift was not given to residents of other cities and provinces. So when we take a closer look at Kim’s actions, we can see that there are political motivations involved. This kind of move causes residents in the outer provinces to feel neglected.
Recently, residents from all over the country have been mobilized to construct stores, restaurants, and entertainment facilities all over Pyongyang. These buildings are off limits to the workers who came in from out of town to build them from the ground up. Similarly, shock troops were mobilized to help build up Ryomyong Street, which will be used exclusively by the upper class.
Because of actions like this, more and more North Koreans are feeling a sense of estrangement. Rural residents outwardly call Kim’s regime the “Republic of Pyongyang,” and are exasperated by the fact that “those already living well are doing even better.”
7. These days, residents have begun to consume foreign media and blaze a trail towards marketization. In this context, we might expect that their perception of Kim is in decline. What are your thoughts?
Kim Jong Un pledged that he would not “tighten the people’s belts” soon after coming into power. That was just talk. Many residents laughed when they heard it. However, there were also residents who thought that since Kim was young and had done some studying abroad in Switzerland, he might be a bit different from his predecessors. Despite these hopes, Kim Jong Un spent the next few years focused on enhancing and securing the power foundations of his dictatorship.
There are a number of residents who look at Kim Jong Un on slightly more friendly terms because he did not crack down against and control the markets as strictly as his father did. The June 28th Measures – a new economic management and improvement plan – de-emphasize rations and give new importance to free business management. Because of this, the people are starting to turn away from the deified version of “The Marshal” and towards a more human depiction.
8. There are instances that seem to reveal that even Kim understands that the people’s affection he brags about in propaganda is fiction. For example, Kim didn’t show his face a single time after the floods in North Hamgyong Province wrought enormous damage, displaced thousands, and killed countless people. What kind of effect did this have on his power base?
The floods brought devastation on a massive scale. Even the North Korean authorities referred to it as a “cataclysm that only comes once every fifty years.” But they were slow to respond. The authorities even conducted a nuclear test in the immediate aftermath of the flood, which shows where their priorities are. Restoration efforts began a full 10 days after the flood struck, a response time that would be considered unacceptable anywhere else in the world.
Kim Jong Un likely declined to visit the flood relief area out of concerns for his personal safety. But what are the residents supposed to think of a leader like that? By neglecting the urgent needs of the rural residents, Kim revealed just how hypocritical he can be when he makes statements about caring for all North Koreans.
Residents stopped expecting any generosity or assistance from the authorities because of this episode. Calls to defectors in China and South Korea flowed constantly, as the residents reached out for help. This shows just how far away the regime has drifted from the affection of the North Korean people.
9. If Kim Jong Un wants to earn the legitimate affection of North Koreans, what should he do?
The most important thing he should do is protect the fundamental human rights of the people. In 2012, the North Korean constitution was amended to include a clause related to the respect and protection of human rights.
In reality, even the most basic rights are neglected in North Korea, despite the guarantees detailed in the constitution. Analysts believe the clause is meant to be an attempt to deflect the international community’s criticisms, which have been more intense of late due to the human rights violations being perpetrated by the North. If Kim wants to earn the genuine affection of the people, he will need to protect the rights accorded to North Koreans by the constitution, enabling all people to live free lives under democratic institutions.
Right now, various agencies and NGOs in South Korea and the international community are recording and filing the various human rights violations that are being committed in North Korea. Kim Jong Un should bear this in mind.
10. The outside world has an interest in changing North Korea for the better in an attempt to prepare for unification and improve human rights. In doing so, communicating and providing information to North Koreans is more important than ever. What kinds of measures should we take to achieve good results?
It is of course important to show that we are charging the authorities with human rights crimes, but I think it is also very important to stimulate enlightenment by introducing information about the outside world into North Korea. We need to strengthen and add methods – such as USBs, SD cards, drones, etc. – so that we can maximize the impact and distribution.
We also need to study and devise ways to communicate with North Korean residents. We need to get them to understand that they are not alone in their pain, that we understand what they are going through, and that we are working hard to try to help them. We need to work hard so we can break through with these kinds of messages.