History has a strange habit of pivoting on the tempers and moods of ordinary people whom it swallows and forgets, and one of those people is the first angry man in a crowd of thousands in Bucharest, on December 20, 1989. For some reason, he acted on his urge to shout blasphemous words at Europe’s most dreaded tryant. There were others in that crowd whose anger overcame their fear, and those others also shouted out their discontent. The tyrant failed to mask the fear in his eyes. His own cameras caught that instant on video. In that instant, the crowd in the square was tranformed from bused-in, cheering loyalists with pre-printed banners to jeering rebels. The Genius of the Danube was ushered toward the doorway from the balcony to the helipad.
We know that Kim Jong Il has watched that video many times. That might explain why he’s scarce on reviewing stands and balconies lately. I’ve been predicting Kim Jong Il’s Ceausescu Moment since 1997, when as a young Army captain, I volunteered to serve in Korea, which had the advantages of sounding dangerous, exotic, and far from Fort Irwin. A stopped clock is right twice a day, and if I’ve read the available facts at all accurately, I will eventually be right once.
I have two favorite scenarios for this. In one, a bemedalled general appears on state television to announce that the Dear Leader is ill and resting comfortably in a sanitorium, and that an emergency committee has temporarily assumed the burdens of state. The other starts in a city somewhere in the hungry Northeast, with a disturbance at a food warehouse, a refused order to fire on the croweds, and a mutiny by the local garrisons. Loyal army units crush that uprising, but survivors carry their weapons to the countryside and continue to sap the regime’s scarce resources with insurgency and banditry. This time, images of the massacre filter out, there is a moment of outrage, more countries impose sanctions, and eventually, some bemedalled generals take us back to Scenario One out of weary self-interest.
These scenarios are about as empirically grounded as a horoscope; they’re just applications of past history to a new template. Yet despite all of the opacity this persistent regime can create, more facts are escaping North Korea, along with more of its people. Now, I don’t conceal my desire to see Kim Jong Il’s Ceausescu moment, so I’m vary of selectively believing what I want to believe, but this time, I think things really are changing faster than they have before. Our collection of known facts permits us to identify some trends, and those trends look worse for Kim Jong Il now than at any time since the dark famine years of the mid-1990’s.
Andrei Lankov’s “The Natural Death of North Korean Stalinism,” still has stirred much thought about these things. The amount and quality of his information is remarkable. The picture he paints is of systemic decay, of an apparatus of control so saturated with “subversive” information that it simply lacks the time and prison space to suppress all of it. The official gods are dead in the hearts of the people. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, of course, but I don’t know of any two people who agree on what to do about North Korea.
I also think that for much of North Korea, the death of the official ideology is not a new development. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, North Korea experienced a wave of dissent that sometimes broke into open rebellion. Each rebellion failed because each of them was localized. They were localized for three reasons: the mutual isolation caused by North Korea’s awful infrastructure, strict controls on the movements of people between regions, and the absence of unofficial information about events in other regions. The government’s ruthless response to each of these incidents was enough to hold the system together.
Unpopularity alone is not enough to overthrow a tyrant. Kim Jong Il survives though the strength of the state’s echanism of control remained strong, and if that doesn’t change, we’ll be dealing with him for several more decades. He never faced a rebellion he could not quell, and his “military first” policy and system of privilege kept the state’s system of control behind him. Yet I’m starting to believe that the fundamentals are closing in on Kim Jong Il. Let me explain.
* Money. As I’ve documented here in great detail, we’re well into the process of disconnected Kim Jong Il’s access to foreign exchange. For this, you can thank the Bush Administration for having a belated attack of decisiveness. But above all, you can thank Kim Jong Il for launching some missiles and resolving the factionionalism that had thus far forestalled it. In a single day, Kim Jong Il managed to weaken the arguments of virtually everyone who was keeping him alive. He killed the Sunshine policy, alienated China, and weakened the State Department doves. Japan and Australia imposed sanctions, and there’s a new rumor that France (!) will be the next to act.
* Food. The prognosis for the food situation is bleak. North Korea hasn’t been able to feed more than two-thirds of its population for a decade. Food reserves began running out in the spring, floods washed away much of this year’s harvest, and donors are tired of North Korea’s theft of food aid from the people who really need it. In the past, the regime was able to feed party members, the military, and people in and around Pyonyang (recent evidence suggests that soldiers are hungry, too). This time, a lot of things seem to be going wrong at the same time, and the Inner Party may share in the misery, too.
* The Kim Dynasty. One possible wild card is Kim Jong Il’s own health. One recent report, sourced to an opposition lawmaker with good connections to South Korean intelligence, holds that Kim has severe liver and kidney problems that sound like renal failure. Presuming this isn’t disinformation, there is no real successor in sight. Kim’s older son is considered unsuitably “effeminate,” reportedly because of a hormone disorder, and his younger son is arguably too young. His promotion would also clash with traditional Korean notions of primogenature.
Can North Korea manage a “natural” evolution to a less repressive system? Unlike North Korea, the Soviet Union in the 1950’s and China in the 1980’s had functioning economies, legal products to sell, access to the international banking system, and exclusive claims on their national traditions. Those advantages allowed them to relax their grip slowly. North Korea lacks those advantages, partly because it is so totalitarian. Totalitarian regimes create, and must contain, enormous social and political pressures. When the state ceases to containing the pressures from such profound social grievances, repressed people will not wait four decades for planned economic development. They want the food in that warehouse, and they want revenge against that official who hoarded it while their own kids starved to death. That brings us to two much likelier models: a sudden and violent collapse, as in Romania, Albania, or the Soviet Union, or a sudden and violent near-collapse followed by a ruthless restoration of tyranny, as in Burma in 1988.
Tyrannies hold power when their police and soldiers are sufficiently paid, fed, and indoctrinated to obey orders, including orders to repress their own people. Terror can keep a tyrant on his throng long after the idealism is embalmed in its mausoleum, but the tyranny will continue to decay.