The death of Kim Jong Il, while a joyous occasion on a metaphysical level, has generated little enthusiasm to curb (though I can’t fail to mention that Ban Ki Moon saw fit to lower the U.N. flag to half-staff for a mass murderer who flagrantly defied so many U.N. resolutions).
Recognizing that it’s still a bit early to say, all signs point to a dreary consistency, or worse, in North Korea’s policies toward Earth and its various political subdivisions. Whoever is really in charge in Pyongyang now still wants South Korea’s money, intends to keep building nukes and missiles, and still sees no reason why South Korean money should compel them to change any of their other policies or aggressive behaviors. A fresh report says that North Korean border guards shot and killed three more would-be refugees after the announcement of Kim Jong-Eun’s coronation.
You expect a high degree of consistency during a dynastic imperial transition of power in an absolute oligarchy, though admittedly, the post-Enlightenment world has sparse precedent for such things. Prof. Sung Yoon-Lee summarizes some of the better causes for pessimism here:
Today’s stakeholders in the Kim regime have a strong incentive to retain the same privileges tomorrow. Hence, they will likely support Kim Jong-il’s chosen one in the short run and advocate for what has worked well in the past–repression at home and extortion from abroad. This means reinforced control over the basic freedoms of the North Korean people and military provocations against South Korea and the United States in the coming year. [Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee, National Bureau of Asian Research]
But consistency is one thing. It’s quite another to use your first post-coronation statement of national policy to go out of your way to burn bridges:
On this occasion, we solemnly declare with confidence that foolish politicians around the world, including the puppet forces in South Korea, should not expect any changes from us,” a broadcaster on state television said on Friday. [….]
“We will never engage with the Lee Myung-bak administration,” said the announcer. “The sea of bloody tears from our military and people will follow the puppet regime until the end. The tears will turn into a sea of revengeful fire that burns everything.” [Reuters]
A new leadership that was open to evolving toward a less hostile, less isolated, more productive posture would not have seen the need to say this. And given the tendency of South Koreans and Americans to pay vast sums based on the most vaporous hopes of potential reform, one wonders why North Korea doesn’t do that small service for the Selig Harrisons of the world.
In fact, the evidence we have in front of us now suggests that the only recent dramatic change in North Korea’s posture occurred in 2010, with North Korea’s direct attacks against South Korea on a scale unprecedented since 1968, if not 1953. Both were foreshadowed by North Korea’s 2009 declination of the olive branch President Obama probably intended to extend, and with its missile and nuclear tests. One of several possibilities this suggests is that the people in charge of North Korea now may well have been in charge of North Korea by 2009, following the power vacuum created by Kim Jong Il’s stroke. Kim Jong Il’s several visits to China and his meeting with Bill Clinton suggest that he eventually recovered to a certain degree, but the turn of North Korea’s policy in a radically aggressive direction coincides with reports that Jang Song Thaek, Kim Kyong Hui, and their dauphin Kim Jong Eun postured themselves to take over North Korea in 2009. This suggests that Jang is at least a supporter (if not an architect) of North Korea’s more aggressive posture. And if anyone were looking for a figurehead to symbolize the potential for reform, he could have groomed first son Kim Jong Nam, not the third son who (so the rumor has it) likes bondage porn and torturing small animals, and whose commerce with the wider world made little academic impression on him.
Of course, the left may well win South Korea’s next election, and North Korea could decide to “engage” with the new South Korean regime. The signs suggest, however, that this engagement would be on the same extortionist terms that North Korea set in its engagement with the DJ and Roh administrations — no appreciable reform, limited and isolated investments generating cash for the regime’s own priorities, and a cessation of direct armed attacks only as long as the money continues to flow. Significantly for the U.S., it would not mean an end to North Korea’s proliferation. In the past, however, this primary U.S. security interest has always been subordinated to South Korean security interests.
I have advocated no dramatic policy changes toward North Korea for the present. This is more about optics than expectations, however. Perish the thought that some knave should argue, for purposes of the next South Korean election, that conservative policies in the U.S. and South Korea threw North Korea off a reformist track. The premise of this theory is possible, I suppose, but not really plausible. Judging by the state propaganda machine’s limited progress toward deifying Kim Jong Eun, Kim Jong Il probably died a year or two before Jang Song Thaek expected. Still, the general direction of North Korea’s succession has been fairly clear for two years. Of course, I have no idea what specific outrages North Korea will carry out or abstain from next, other than the everyday ones that we’ve mostly quit thinking about. All I offer are ways to influence North Korea’s pavlovian calculus over the long term. Prof. Lee expects to see more provocations sooner, and his argument for that expectation seems likely and is worth reading in full. But there would not have been equally good arguments for that outcome in 2009 and 2010, and those provocations so outperformed even the most pessimistic predictions that they were tantamount to a limited unilateral war. That’s really my point. Some people will want to see reasons for hope in North Korea’s transition. But for now, those hopes lack a basis in the available evidence. Thankfully, we’ve seen relatively few of them so far. I may even be arguing against a straw man. If that changes, I may find time to revisit the topic. But for the foreseeable future, I don’t expect to find much time to write here, and the light blogging will resume again.