Flaming Ice Cream on a Rainy Night

Over eight months have now passed since Kim Jong Il died. Not a long period of time by any stretch, but long enough at least to review some of events that have occurred. Let us join the dots between some of the events of the last eight months, so as to take a look at what the future may hold for the Korean Peninsula.

As expected, the transfer of power to Kim Jong Eun took place in April, during celebrations for the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. Kim has fired a missile, albeit one that ended in failure, and has been busy fine-tuning his military administration, most notably by purging his chief-of-staff, Lee Young Ho. The image of Kim Jong Eun being sold to the North Korean people is that of a young, but modernized, version of Kim Il Sung.

Though it is still early to judge, Kim Jong Eun has shown himself to be a smarter man than many gave him credit for. The propaganda authorities have handled the difficult task of assisting the new Kim with aplomb, broadcasting footage of Rocky on state television and inviting Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il’s former chef, for a visit.

All that is left, one might say, is to find a breakthrough in the food situation, to which Kim’s first move was to send Jang Sung Taek on a mission to China.

North Korea has now recommitted to stimulating the stalled SEZs at Hwanggeumpyong, Wihwa Island and Rasun, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao used the Jang visit as an opportunity to restate the importance of government guidance, a focus on business, market principles and mutual benefit. In addition, he ‘coached’ Jang on areas that will help attract business investment, such as legal reform and developing a working system of land tax. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Or something like that.

It is not clear how much food aid was wheedled out of China by Jang and his travelling party this time. Either way, it has laid the groundwork for a future visit by Kim Jong Eun to China, during which Kim can suggest to China’s then new President Xi Jinping that the two countries build upon already friendly relations, something that would likely be met with the aid needed to send Kim home with a grin on his face. In that light, it would not be all that surprising if Jang Sung Taek went home without a sack of rice this time around.

If, down the track, Kim Jong Eun can engineer that successful visit to China, it will demonstrate both internally and abroad that his system is stable. If and when Kim succeeds in obtaining a summit-level meeting with Xi, then he can begin to sound out the new leader’s views on relations with the United States and Japan, and start efforts to tip the ledger of power in Northeast Asia more towards North Korea, beginning by house-training the new South Korean government in a way which would be more conducive to North Korea’s interests. For that reason alone, a visit by Kim to China, and the results of it, would be a source of great interest.

With that being said, can we be sure that the Kim Jong Eun regime going to keep rolling on stably until then, and even beyond?

Looking back on what we have observed in North Korea since Kim Jong Il died in December last year, the new administration appears to be slowly but surely taking on its own form. The internal happenings are, as they always seem to be, anybody’s guess.

The Kim Jong Eun regime is wading in the waters of change now, and nobody knows for sure whether Kim will continue to go deeper, or whether at some point he will lose his nerve and come back to the safety of the shore. It is impossible for Kim to know whether following a path of change, even incremental as it would be, may eventually lead to a situation where a return to the past is no longer possible to engineer should he want it. Even the small changes we have seen up until now may be impossible to reverse.

First of all, the death of Kim Jong Il itself was an important change in the North Korean system of complete devotion to the Suryeong, or supreme leader. With the passing of Kim Jong Il, the individual style of leadership the first two Kims were so adept at became no longer valid. Power and those who hold it in North Korea began to change naturally after this event. The Kim Jong Il style of complete autocratic control all but collapsed, and the Kim Jong Eun system was more or less born as an oligarchy run by a group comprising of himself, Jang Sung Taek, Kim Kyung Hee and Choi Ryong Hae.

Jang Sung Taek is nominally the second-in-command, however there are aspects in which he is believed to wield complete authority. Jang’s recent visit to China was ostensibly as a representative of Kim Jong Eun, and although it is true that Jang was also a second-in-command under Kim Jong Il, there is a marked difference in the kind of working visits Jang made to China under Kim Jong Il’s orders, and what we have just seen transpire under Kim Jong Eun. If Jang was a mere second-in-command, would Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have given him the level treatment usually reserved for a head of state?

It is unclear whether Jang’s current authority will extend only until such time as Kim Jong Eun can play the role of Suryeong on his own, or whether his current support will turn into something else. If at some unknown point in the future Kim Jong Eun does manage to establish sole power, the status of Jang and Kim Kyung Hee would no doubt suffer.

Casting Jang aside when it is convenient for Kim will be no easy task though. Following the death of Kim Jong Il, Jang has been making strategic appointments within the army and Party, and setting elements of the administration up to favor himself means that the leadership of Kim Jong Eun, Jang, Kim Kyung Hee and Choi may best be described for the near future as ‘instability within instability’. As time goes by, the shared-power arrangement may congeal into something more secure. Alternatively, internal ructions may spread and turn into something else. In other words, the North Korean leadership is now, and for at the least the short and medium-term, in a very fluid state.

Secondly, the current power arrangements have forced a process of adjustment to the Party-State system of old, one which ultimately means the North Korean system will end up revolving around certain key figures.

By way of example; while in South Korea people vote between a number of candidates selected by their parties as suitable presidential material, and this process is enshrined in the constitution, in North Korea there is a high chance that this small group of leaders – Kim Jong Eun, Jang Sung Taek, Kim Kyung Hee and Choi Ryong Hae – will simply alter the system as and when they see fit in ways which best secure their own survival.

Therefore, it is as difficult as ever to take a systematic approach to North Korea analysis, with the smallest variables capable of having a ‘butterfly effect’ on the system as a whole. It is impossible to say how particular behind-the-scenes ‘accidents’ may change the landscape of the Party, the cabinet and the army into the future. From this vantage at least, it is easy to see the greatest characteristic of the Kim Jong Il system of control: durability.

Thirdly, economic change has already begun in North Korea. On June 28 a new policy on economic management was handed down through the Party ranks.
The core of this change is to reduce cooperative farm units to 4-6 people, with harvests being split 70%-30% between government and farmers, while increasing the autonomy of factories and businesses. The contents of the June 28th Policy remain unpublished in full though, and as such it is still as clear as mud in which direction the changes will go.

However, it will be difficult for the current leadership to implement radical new reforms or groundbreaking changes in comparison with the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il years. Even trying to do so would jeopardize the raison d’etre for the current oligarchy.

Even if the leadership tried to go down a new path, a stumble would not only be dangerous for the fact that there would be no one to step in and help, but because from that point onwards they would be clear enemies of the people. Would a sly old character like Jang Sung Taek be oblivious to such a reality?

So the only apparent ‘out’ for the leadership is a path of change that marries Kimilsungism with consideration of present realities. In other words, a framework centred around business, made to coexist with Kim Il Sung-style socialist theory, that takes into account the internal and external changes North Korea has to deal with.

So while Chinese economic reforms and Vietnamese Doi Moi style change make nice reference points for the North Koreans to aspire to, I believe that they plan to use promises of change as currency to extract aid from China, South Korea and the United States.

Ultimately they will have to return to the ‘mosquito net’ model of special economic zones, but what will this mean for the June 28th Policy? Trying to guess the answer to that question without being able to actually read it in its entirety is a futile exercise for now, but the core issue remains how to weld together the two poles of Kimilsungism and market economics, both in practice and theory.

Currently in North Korea there are markets, but not a market economy. The market principles espoused by Wen Jiabao to Jang Sung Taek do not currently exist in the country, and all that there is at present is basic commerce. It will take more than some personal coaching from Wen to create a market economy in North Korea, including social infrastructure aimed at stimulating the local economy and allowing it to operate within the international community. That is why it has been impossible to get Kimilsungism and a market economy to work together, and is something that will surely be a dilemma to Kim Jong Eun.

To end with a well-worn South Korean joke demonstrating such incongruities, the idea of Kim Jong Eun managing to find a practical way to bring Kimilsungism and market economics together is like ‘eating a flaming ice cream on a rainy night, while having a group discussion on one’s own about military service spent in the Vietnamese ski corps.’