North Korea’s not-so-great dictator: Kim Jong-un’s impulsive ineptitude

South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se, believes that Pyongyang is increasingly isolated. He believes that this is causing it “more distress this year than any other time,” and that Kim Jong-un will redouble his efforts to break that isolation this year.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Yun’s statement. First, South Korea, having nominally signed on to a policy of pressuring Pyongyang to disarm without actually complying with that policy itself, must want to world to think that it’s sufficient for everyone else to isolate Pyongyang (which won’t work when everyone else is also an exceptionalist). Second, Pyongyang has never needed full access to the global economy to sustain itself. Its survival model only requires engagement with a few compliant or gullible partners who can supply it with just enough hard currency to keep its elite afloat without opening North Korea to significant foreign intrusion. 

On the other hand, there are signs that for various reasons, all self-inflicted, Pyongyang’s appeal to this limited pool of compliant and gullible partners is becoming increasingly selective.

First, Pyongyang has mismanaged relations with its most important foreign investor. The ongoing Koryolink fiasco has generated a stream of bad press and complicated its efforts to recruit foreign investors. I had not realized the full extent of Orascom’s exposure here:

Orascom’s auditor, however, cited the “futility of negotiation” with North Korea over Koryolink’s assets, which the company said were worth $832 million at the end of June, including cash in North Korean won worth $653 million at the official exchange rate. Koryolink, which now accounts for 85% of Orascom’s revenue and profit, says it hasn’t been able to send any funds out of North Korea in 2015 due to local currency controls and international sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Sawiris didn’t respond to requests for comment and Orascom declined to make him available for interview. A spokesman for Orascom reiterated the company’s public statements and didn’t respond to further questions. North Korea hasn’t referred to the dispute in its state media and relevant officials couldn’t be reached for comment. [WSJ, Alastair Gale]

Pyongyang is also under rising diplomatic pressure over its horrific human rights abuses, which have resulted in a stream of humiliating U.N. General Assembly votes and (admittedly non-binding) Security Council meetings. These will also make North Korea toxic to more potential investors until it undertakes real reforms.

Pyongyang knows this, but doesn’t seem to know how to confront it. It recently described “the current U.S. administration’s policy” as “the most hostile and ferocious in the history” of the two countries’ relations. It pushed back hard, if ineffectively, at the U.N., and recently sent envoys to Europe “to lobby against international pressure … over its human rights record.”

The Dec. 9-11 visit to London was part of a European trip that also took Kim Son-gyong, director-general for European affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, to Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland.

While in London, Kim held meetings with Fiona Bruce, a member of parliament who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as well as officials at the foreign ministry, according to an official at the South Korean Embassy. [….]

During the visit to London, Kim contended that the country is making efforts to improve its human rights record while reaffirming Pyongyang’s existing position that last year’s landmark U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the North’s human rights situation contained unilateral claims from North Korean defectors. [Yonhap]

Pyongyang has also injured its most important international relationship through the Moranbang Band debacle. Aidan Foster-Carter, in an insightful analysis of this episode, says this was to have been the first foreign performance of Kim Jong-un’s house band and “a big deal.” Foster-Carter runs down a list of theories for the performance’s cancellation, and concludes that the most plausible is that Beijing downgraded the seniority of its official representation in response to Pyongyang’s ill-timed claim that it has a hydrogen bomb:

Whatever. This was a dumb thing to say, and a stupid time to say it. Did it not occur to Kim that China would take umbrage? Or worse, was he deliberately testing Beijing? Anyway, as a rap on the knuckles China reacted by downgrading its concert party from ministerial to vice-minister level. That was the last straw for Kim, who ordered his artistes back to Pyongyang.

What a mess, and what testament to Kim Jong Un’s lack of diplomatic nous. Four years into his reign, we know he can run the show at home – if a bit fiercely. But that’s the easy part: national solipsism, where he controls all the levers and everyone plays their assigned part.

Diplomacy is different. Like poker, you’re up against others – so you better play good. North Korea used to be skilled at that. Kim Jong Il parlayed what in truth was a pretty weak hand (nukes, and what else?) into a surprising degree of influence in the world. Status, of a kind.

His son has not inherited that gene. Not only does Kim Jong Un have no discernible overall strategy, but he messes up like an amateur. Daddy would never have done that. (Or indeed, if Choe Ryong Hae hadn’t been sent to the farm, or wherever – another move that put China’s nose out of joint – his skills would surely have ensured that nothing like this happened.) [Aidan Foster-Carter, NK News]

The views of Don Kirk and Steph Haggard are also worth reading, and introduce other plausible theories. Another is that the performance was to have been accompanied by a video of a missile launch, and that the Chinese objected to this.

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Whatever cascade of events led to this outcome, only Kim Jong-un could have made the decision to cancel this performance. It looks impulsive and inept. It’s also consistent with how His Porcine Majesty has exercised his royal prerogatives for most of his life.

Fine, you may say, but this was still a materially inconsequential event, involving a band that’s “no better than hundreds of Filipino showbands who pay their dues in hotels all over Asia every night.” Indeed, I agree that most “cultural diplomacy” is overrated, especially in the relations between unaccountable dictatorships. I also agree with Andrei Lankov that Machiavellian interests will prevail in Beijing, which isn’t going to cut Pyongyang off over this. But this incident must have the Chinese wondering whether Kim Jong-un is a steady and reliable ruler and partner. It will likely shift Beijing’s calculus of what costs are acceptable to attain the benefits of stabilizing Kim’s rule.

There are also the more interesting reports that five days later, North Korea ordered “a considerable number of trade-affiliated employees sojourning in China to report to Pyongyang.” If that’s true, it’s a very big deal.

Our source expressed concern over the drastic measure, wondering if the issue of the Moranbong Band’s canceled tour might be exploding into a bigger issue. “When you call back scores of workers from abroad, that’s a pretty big deal,” she pointed out.

Naturally, she added, speculation about the order’s motives has quickly reached a fever pitch. Some posit that Kim Jong Un could be experiencing “mood swings” so close to the 4th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, perhaps causing him to lose his temper over the Moranbong Band dispute and call back the workers in China.

Some cadres briefly put forth the possibility that maybe the callback was somehow related to mourning-related events for Kim Jong Il, held at foreign embassies and the like over the past three years, but admitted that “that doesn’t really seem to fit.”

Although, the reason will surface in a matter of days, “they can’t help but be nervous,” the source said, adding, “After all, workers abroad are never called upon to return without good reason.”

Families of the workers who have been recalled are reassuring each other, noting, “While it’s bad news if only a few workers are recalled, all of them being told to return simultaneously means that they are probably just going to attend a large meeting or some kind of educational session,” the source explained. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK claims corroboration from two separate sources, although I’ve yet to see this reported by other media. If this is true, I wonder how it will affect relations between Pyongyang and its Chinese business partners, some of whom must still have fresh memories of the Jang Song-thaek purge.

If Kim Jong-un has arguably mismanaged his foreign relations, it’s also true that he can survive several years without recruiting new foreign investors or donors, and months without Chinese support. The relationships he can’t afford to mismanage are those with the top minions whose support he needs every day. But Kim’s management of these relationships also looks increasingly unsteady, as the elites show signs of alienation and discontent. As Kim Jong Un prepares for his own Ides of May, Stephen Harrison, a professor of Latin literature at Oxford, compares his recent purges of his senior advisors to those of Tiberius (fate uncertain), Nero (overthrown), and Caligula (assassinated). 

If there’s any pattern to all of this, it’s one of tactically uncompromising decisions that are beneficial to the regime in the short term, but are strategically self-defeating. This suggests that the flaws in Pyongyang’s strategic judgment go all the way to the top.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the article. Unfortunately, I suspect that the most apt classical comparison will turn out to be with Sulla.

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