What a difference the last six weeks have made. Since the December purge of Jang Song Thaek, the consensus about North Korea’s ruler has moved from “undecided” to “negative.” Maybe I should have said “strongly negative.” It’s rare that I make this observation, but for once, I believe that this can be said of the prevailing views in all five of the cities where it matters most — in Beijing, Washington, Seoul, Pyongyang, and Chongjin. In each case, this is true for slightly different reasons, but those reasons all spring from a single common cause.
People in Chongjin resent Kim Jong Un for stifling and brutalizing their region with border guards with shoot-to-kill orders, insufferable petty despots from the universities, and the usual brutal secret police thugs. The border is all but closed, and if it stays closed, people will start to go hungry, because cross-border trade — much of it in food — is what keeps them alive.
People in Pyongyang are terrified over purges, mass arrests, and rumors that even children of tainted parents are being killed. They must feel as if their backs are against the wall, and that they have nothing to lose. If you believe Yoshihiro Makino’s strikingly detailed reporting in the Asahi Shimbun, the purge resulted in a wave of suicides, the mood in Pyongyang is “dark and tense,” and people are quietly seething at how Kim Jong Un enriches himself as the people do without. Don Kirk quotes a new Congressional Research Service report that speculates, “The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases.” My guess, however, is that people will only dare to try that after exhausting less drastic options, and after taking the time to build enough critical mass to have some likelihood of success.
South Koreans lost their faith in Sunshine and reunification more gradually, after watching the North break deal after deal, test bomb after bomb, and start skirmish after skirmish despite their generous aid. History will probably record that the attacks of 2010 — the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong — were the turning points. South Koreans didn’t want to believe that North Korea was capable of sinking the Cheonan. Yeonpyeong convinced them that it was, and 80% of them wanted President Lee to hit back afterward. Compare the polling data from a decade ago to more recent results. Yes, it’s a tangerines-to-oranges comparison, but it’s enough to show you the trend line.
Two years ago, many in Washington had nearly convinced themselves that Kim Jong Un as a jolly reformer-in-waiting, oriented toward the libertine Occident by his rumspringa in Switzerland and a fashionable wife. This was vapid stuff, but for some people, it was enough that they desperately wanted it to be true. It was the purge of Jang Song Thaek, not the starvation of thousands, the deprivation of millions, or the reported liquidation of Camp 22, that changed this. That is the sort of irony that, left untreated, causes aneurisms. Before his purge, Jang oversaw (among other enterprises) the dreaded Kuk-ga Anjeon Bowi-Bu, the so-called Ministry of National Security, which administers most of North Korea’s concentration camps. Jang was thoroughly drenched in the blood of his comrades after years of purges. Jang probably wasn’t devoured by a pack of dogs, but he thoroughly deserved to be. Yet it is because Kim Jong Un killed Jang (of all people), and because Jang was Kim’s uncle, that most Korea-watchers in America now see now see Kim as cruel, impulsive, reckless, and ill-equipped to govern or rule. Ken Gause sums it up brilliantly when he says, “People who want to understand North Korea shouldn’t read think tank reports …. They should watch ‘I, Claudius.’” Myself, I’ve called it a cross between The Killing Fields and The Borgias.
Even the Chinese say that they’ve lost control of events in Pyongyang, and for once, I believe them just a little. China summoned Kim Jong Un immediately after the purge, but Kim didn’t come when called. Then, China launched a series of military exercises near North Korea’s borders and showed other signs that it disapproved of Jang’s purge. Chinese academics, who often reflect government policy, fretted about the purge openly. In December, even The Global Times said that “[t]he majority of the public here holds a negative attitude toward the recent events in Pyongyang,” and threatened:
“This may impose some restrictions on Sino-North Korean ties. Chinese aid to North Korea may face more questioning, and grass-roots interaction may lose some momentum,” it said. “China needs to help the new North Korean leadership to properly solidify the sense of security it needs most, which is key to their mutual strategic trust. But at the same time, China also needs to make it clear that North Korea should adapt more to China’s situation,” the newspaper said. “China cannot pander to North Korea’s sentiments in every possible aspect.”
China’s protestations are only credible to a certain point. In the end, without Chinese oil, Chinese banks, Chinese aid, and Chinese cooperation in sending North Korean refugees back to North Korean gulags, there won’t be a North Korea for long. North Korea needs China. No other potential sponsor has an interest in propping up North Korea as China does now. It’s just possible that Kim Jong Un hasn’t really thought through the implications of a break with China. After all, what kind of statesman has time for Dennis Rodman but none for Xi Jinping?
Certainly all five of these cities are not in alignment about what kind of government they’d prefer to see replace Kim Jong Un’s. None of them appears ready, for now, to take steps to challenge or undermine his rule. But for the first time I can recall, all five cities see the status quo emerging in Pyongyang as (at the very least) a threat to their interests, or (at most) a threat to their lives.