In the past few days, the United States and the Asian neighborhood have once again been abuzz with the recent bellicose rhetoric coming from Pyongyang. Some, like the editors of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, think that North Korea’s saber-rattling is a result of paranoia common to many authoritarian regimes. Most, on the other hand, think that the current escalation is merely an exercise of tactical brinkmanship on Pyongyang’s part. The general analysis is that this is just a way for the North Korean regime to test the mettle of the newly-installed administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and to consolidate its bargaining position in order to leverage for foreign aid. I generally agree with this prevailing view, but my opinion has a slightly different nuance.
North Korea is unique in the sense that it is probably the only country in the world that experiences famine after undergoing industrialization. It started out with an economy much bigger than South Korea’s during the early post-war period, but its government stubbornly pursued Songun, or military-first policy, at the expense of building adequate infrastructure that could have facilitated growth in the agricultural sector and in other industries. Making matters worse, the Democratic People’s Republic shunned post-war international trade and, during the 1970s, lost access to credit after it defaulted on its enormous foreign debt, much of which were used to fund the regime’s many wasteful white elephants. Deprived of a steady source of foreign exchange, North Korea has been treating foreign aid as a form of income since then.
This is why the regime of the late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il used the country’s nuclear weapons program as a leverage to gain aid, cleverly escalating tensions every now and then to extort concessions from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. There is no doubt that his son, Kim Jong-un, sees saber-rattling as a way to gain “income” too, and that part of the reason behind the on-going provocations is to do exactly that.
However, as I have consistently stated on this blog, the main motivation of Kim Jong-un– or more accurately the ruling clique that props him up, which is reportedly led by his uncle Chang Song-taek– seems to be slightly different from that of his father’s. More than leverage for aid, the goal seems to be the consolidation of the boyish dictator’s two-year rule. This probably explains why Kim went ahead with his satellite launch in March last year despite the fact that doing so entailed the cancellation of a generous American offer, painstakingly negotiated by his Foreign Ministry just the month before, of 240,000 tons of grains.
Political scientists would often tell us that to remain stable, regimes need political legitimacy, which is usually derived from sovereign mandates. For autocratic countries, identifying sources of legitimacy is tricky, since there are no elections. In North Korea, for instance, being a Kim is not an automatic basis of legitimacy. Kim Jong-il had to prove his worth: He worked as a senior official for ten years before succeeding his father, yet he still had to face at least one coup before he could consolidate his rule during the first few years of his term. In contrast, Kim Jong-un never had the experience his father had prior to taking the reins of government, and so it is likely that his legitimacy in the eyes of the ruling elite has not yet been established. More that that, the ruling elite can only prop up the Kim dynasty for so long; sooner or later it would have to come up with something to reinforce its legitimacy in the eyes of the North Korean people, in the same manner that the Chinese Communist Party has taken to fanning nationalist flames to justify its rule.
Unlike his grandfather the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, who hyped his wartime exploits, and his father Kim Jong-il, who encouraged popular mythology about his birth, Kim Jong-un seems to be humanizing his position to endear himself to his people. For instance, he has been regularly seen delivering speeches, sporting his gorgeous wife, and smiling in public– things his aloof predecessors never deemed worth doing. As he tries to reach out to his constituents in an apparent attempt to win genuine mandate, he seems to see the need to unify his subjects by invoking a foreign threat, and to show the ruling elite that, despite his smiling demeanor, he is as tough as his forebears. This seems to be his idea of gaining political legitimacy and keeping the elite in check and, as we shall probably see in the next few months, it is not without great cost. The question is, are people in Pyongyang buying it?