Kim’s legitimacy

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?

Pyongyang’s fireworks

Many students of international politics have gotten so used to North Korean missile testings they merely reacted to this week’s missile launch with what amounts to an academic shrug-off: They took note, but only a few tried to make sense of the development. After all, there already is a default narrative for every North Korean rocket launch: It’s a way for the regime to seek attention and gain leverage to extort aid.

But I think this week’s missile testing deviates a bit from this default narrative. This time around, the regime in Pyongyang has a different motivation, and the rocket launch’s implications could prove to be much more significant.

Basic political theories tell us that regimes need legitimacy to remain stable, and that unlike democratic regimes, which gain mandates through electoral victory, dictatorial regimes like China and North Korea have uncertain sources of legitimacy. The regime in Beijing, for instance, draws its legitimacy from either its performance on the economic front or its ability to secure national interests– hence, it tends to beat nationalist drums at the expense of countries like Japan and the Philippines whenever it sees its legitimacy challenged. In North Korea’s case, Kim Il-sung drew his legitimacy from his semi-fictional wartime exploits; while his son, Kim Jong-il, made the defense of his father’s legacy, along with the defense of the country’s sovereignty amidst threats from “evil countries” like South Korea, Japan, and the United States, the bedrock of his mandate.

In an international conference of Korean studies specialists I attended in Manila earlier this year, one European academic correctly pointed out that the new regime of Kim Jong-un would sooner or later have to identify its preferred source of legitimacy. He suggests that the regime could choose from either a performance-based mandate or a legacy-based mandate. The former is similar to the Chinese model, and is very risky, since the current regime’s ability to deliver the North Korean people’s economic needs is questionable. The latter, on the other hand, requires the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty and an emphasis on continuity. It looks like the boyish dictator Kim Jong-un has opted for this safer track.

The perpetuation of the Kim dynasty requires pandering to pomp and symbolisms. North Korea is currently celebrating the centenary birth year of its founder, Kim Il-sung. Decades ago, the regime has promised 2012 to be Year of Prosperity– the year when the country would finally achieve prosperity and national strength. A successful launch of a space satellite is the best way to celebrate this milestone. Pyongyang had hoped that the spectacle would beat patriotic drums, remind the impoverished North Koreans of the greatness of the Kim dynasty, and hopefully make them forget the looming winter famine. This week’s missile launch, therefore, is essentially a badly-needed fireworks display.

In short, while seeking international relevance in order to gain aid had been the late Kim Jong-il’s motivation when he launched his rockets during his time, Kim Jong-un’s motivation this time around is to strengthen his domestic legitimacy in order to consolidate power.

To be sure, the clique behind Kim Jong-un, led presumably by his reportedly powerful uncle Chang Song-taek, had to weigh the value of this grand fireworks display against its geopolitical implications. And I suspect it wasn’t an easy choice.

Firstly, South Korea and Japan are in the midst of their respective election campaigns. While South Korean front-runner Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly Grand National Party) has distanced herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative track, she may now be inclined to move to the right, quashing any hopes for reviving the now-discredited Sunshine Policy. In Japan, on the other hand, the rocket launch further emboldens right-wing politicians like Shintaro Ishihara and Toru Hashimoto of the right-wing Japan Restoration Party (JRP), and the presumptive Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Now, there’s nothing new with the Saenuri in Seoul and the LDP in Tokyo aggressively seeking to isolate the North Korean regime in various international fora. But what’s new this time around is that the typically sober Obama administration could be compelled to turn hawkish towards Pyongyang. This is because, as a couple of Japan specialists have correctly pointed out, the successful missile testing has put American military interests, if not the United States itself, within the range of North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). No longer would Washington use North Korea as a bargaining chip over Japan; North Korea has become a mutual core national security interest for both countries. Further, this has given the United States, and its allies Japan and the Philippines, greater incentive to push through with the reportedly planned East Asian missile defense system, which China has unsurprisingly questioned.

Finally, last week’s missile testing was an in-your-face defiance of Beijing, which had earlier told its junior neighbor, in an unusual but unmistakably firm tone, not to go ahead with the planned missile launch. The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, would likely be pressured by the Beijing elite to whip Pyongyang a bit in order to rein it back in. Afterall, China could ill-afford a disobedient puppet, especially now that Myanmar has just escaped Beijing’s orbit.

North Korea needs a satellite

So soon after agreeing on a moratorium on all missile testings and other nuclear-related activities in exchange for American food aid, the North Koreans are again making what appears to be a complete u-turn: They will launch a satellite into orbit next month. While, as Pyongyang insists, a satellite launch is different from a ballistic missile testing, both use the same technology. The proposed launch, therefore, could in fact be a violation of the spirit of last month’s Leap Day Deal.

Not surprisingly, the Asian neighborhood is abuzz: South Korea is condemning its northern neighbor for this latest provocation, the Philippines is seeking US help in monitoring the North Korean rocket, while Japan is thinking of shooting that rocket down. The United States has said it might hold off the food aid. Even China, Kim Jong-un’s only ally, is reportedly peeved. What’s with the North Koreans?

The initial reaction of most analysts is to say that this is just another example of North Korean deal-breaking. Remember the cycle of North Korean negotiations we have discussed in the previous blog entry? The late Kim Jong-il was good at cutting a deal and then breaking it after getting what he had wanted. This time around, however, Kim Jong-un has not even laid his hands on a single American grain yet. Obviously, he needs the 240,000 tons of US food, which would prevent a looming famine, badly enough to agree on a deal with the Americans. Why then is he risking a cancellation of the food aid by insisting on going ahead with the satellite launch?

Well, first of all, I think Kim Jong-un is not really the one calling the shots in Pyongyang. In fact, I don’t think policy-making there is being conducted by a single authority. Like most other countries, North Korea, especially in this fragile post-transition period, is not a monolithic actor. There are different power centers with competing intentions. There are those who are keen on ending the country’s isolation, while there are those who don’t see the wisdom of dealing with foreign powers. What makes this worse is that Kim Jong-un and his regency are probably too inexperienced– and they just haven’t consolidated control yet– to coordinate these competing visions and harmonize them into one consistent policy.

Indeed, it could even be that the Foreign Ministry officials who had sought the Americans out last month are not even aware of the plans to launch a satellite, which were most likely pushed by military officials. Between these two competing elites, it is the army that has greater leverage over Kim Jong-un and his handlers, of course. And for them– and this is probably shared by Kim Jong-un and his regent Chang Song-taek too– launching the satellite is so vital to the stability of the regime it actually trumps the need for American food aid.

The symbolism of a satellite launch on the eve of the centenary birthday of North Korean founder and eternal president Kim Il-sung is very important for the regime in Pyongyang. The said regime had long promised 2012 to be the year for North Korea to finally achieve strength and prosperity. Therefore, it must have an extravagant display of prosperity by pulling off nation-wide celebrations, and of strength by pulling off a successful launching of a communications satellite. The regime is clearly aiming to raise the morale of the impoverished North Korean people with these symbolic rituals. Indeed, I suspect that this eccentric regime thinks that its legitimacy in the eyes of its people depends a lot on this satellite launch.

As for Kim Jong-un, his legitimacy as a leader in the eyes of the North Korean elite, and therefore his ability to consolidate power, would probably depend a lot on this satellite launch, too. As I have said in a previous post, keeping the North Korean elite in check requires doing something, well, spectacular.

A nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay

When North Korea announced a couple of weeks ago that it’s putting a moratorium on all missile testings and other nuclear-related activities in exchange for American offer of 250,000 tons of food, the mainstream media called it a breakthrough. Some thought it a sign that the new North Korean leadership wants to return to the negotiation table again, or that the moderate factions are gaining the upper hand in Pyongyang. I think it was merely another ploy to gain short-term concessions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the announcement as a “modest first step in the right direction.” She didn’t say where exactly this right direction leads to, but if she thinks it’s a negotiated denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, I’m afraid she’ll be very disappointed. The fact of the matter is that the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons. At least not through diplomacy.

For the North Korean leadership, nuclear weapons are a vital insurance. The regime in Pyongyang believes that the country would become vulnerable to aggression by the United States and its allies if it gives up these weapons, and it has at least two precedents as basis for its fear: Iraq and Libya. Both countries gave up their nuclear programs after a combination of intense sanctions and diplomacy. Later on, Iraq was invaded by the United States while the Americans helped topple the Qadaffi regime in Libya. For the North Koreans, these are not mere coincidences.

Moreover, nuclear weapons give Pyongyang the leverage to negotiate its way to get food, oil and other forms of assistance from the international community. So much for Juche. This is why the cycle of all negotiations between North Korea and the rest of the world has always been the same: Pyongyang rattles its nuclear sabre, the international community prods Pyongyang to give up its nukes through offers of aid, Pyongyang yields empty promises and token concessions, the international community gives aid, Pyongyang again rattles its nuclear sabre, and so on.

For years, the message that the international community has been sending to Pyongyang is that building more nuclear weapons is the surest way to be able to feed its citizens and maintain its million-man army. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations are guilty of sending this message when they appeased the late Kim Jong-il.

It would be naive to think then that the new leadership in Pyongyang is willing to compromise its nuclear deterrent through negotiations. The real reason why North Korea agreed on a moratorium is because the country is in the midst of preparations for a grand and pompous nation-wide celebration of the centenary birthday of the country’s Founder and Eternal President, Kim Il-sung; therefore, it needs vital resources. Moreover, since the regime had declared 2012 as the national Year of Prosperity, it can ill afford another famine. But, again, make no mistake: North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons.

The United States, South Korea, Japan and other stakeholders must realize that spending too much political capital on denuclearization talks is not the best option. Indeed, zealously pursuing denuclearization in past negotiations have merely propped the regime in Pyongyang up. The inconvenient truth is that denuclearization will never happen unless through force. Unless the world is willing to use force, a nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies should re-examine their strategy in any future negotiation. While they must remain publicly committed to denuclearization, their real focus must shift from persuading the North Koreans to give up their nukes towards merely preserving the status quo and making sure they won’t share their nuclear technology with terrorist organizations and other rogue states. Such a shift in focus would make the parties less likely to give too much concessions to the regime in Pyongyang, but it requires policy-makers to be more creative in coming up with effective ways to contain the nuclear crisis within North Korea.

Dear Leader says goodbye to earthlings

The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-il, has passed away. His seventeen-year “enlightened” rule will be commemorated in a grand state funeral scheduled next week. The government has now called on the North Korean people to “loyally follow” the Young Leader at the Forefront of the Revolution, Kim Jong-un, as he leads the country towards the 2012 Year of Prosperity.

Except that he won’t really lead the country to prosperity, of course. And this is not only because, as anyone can point out, it’s impossible for the seclusive and impoverished pariah state that is the Democratic People’s Republic to attain prosperity in the immediate future; it’s also because the Young Leader would not lead North Korea at all. Or at least not yet. The man to watch is not really Kim Jong-un but his uncle, Chang Song-Taek.

It is true that the twenty-six year-old Kim Jong-un has been groomed to take the place of his father and to continue the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty, but it remains to be seen if he actually has what it takes to solidify his rule. Surviving in the reclusive political system in Pyongyang– a system that rewards only those who are shrewd, ambitious and ruthless– is not a walk in the park.

Kim Jong-il was a heartless and ambitious man who had been groomed to succeed his father, the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, since his childhood; while Kim Jong-un, the third son of the Dear Leader, was chosen by his father practically at the last two minutes of his rule and only because the father had no choice– the first son was deemed too effeminate and the second, the one caught trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport, rather eccentric. Kim Jong-il had ten years of running the day-to-day business of his father’s regime before he assumed power in 1994. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, was made a general only in 2009, after his father suffered a stroke. Kim Jong-il had always been the epitome of ruthlessness, the Western-educated Kim Jong-un not very much. And the thing is, even the highly-prepared Kim Jong-il needed three years to consolidate his rule after assuming power– he had to face two attempted coups.

Whether or not the Young Leader would survive depends heavily on the Kim family’s ability to firmly inspire loyalty and fear among the ruling elite, and doing this is something few observers would say the Young Leader is capable of. I suspect, then, that this task now falls on the shoulder of Chang Song-Taek, the shadowy and powerful husband of Kim Jong-il’s favorite sister. Chang has a considerable power base he has consolidated through the years. He had been considered a threat by Kim Jong-il, who had him put on house arrest in 2003, only to be released through the intercession of the Dear Leader’s sister. Since then he had been unstoppable, and by last year he has been able to take the Young Leader under his wing. An analyst for Korea Institute of Defense calls him ” the bridge from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un.” In effect, he has been acting, and would continue to act I bet, as a regent of sorts for the Young Leader.

Very little is known about Chang, but for him to be able to rise to the position he is in now, I suspect he has the ambition, shrewdness and ruthlessness required by the North Korean political system. The question is whether he intends to continue perpetuating the Kim dynasty or create a dynasty of his own. The only certain thing is that, in order for him to maintain power, he would have to keep the ruling elite in check. And in North Korea, the best way to do that is to do something, well, spectacular.

Seoul knows this, which is why it has placed its forces on red alert. Tokyo, Beijing, Kremlin, Washington and other concerned capitals know this very well too. North Korea is indeed in for some interesting times.

Crisis calls for tough balancing act.

So, both Washington and Seoul are convinced that based on overwhelming evidence a North Korean torpedo is responsible for the sinking of South Korean ship Cheonan. This has to be the toughest challenge yet to maintaining the pale imitation of stability in Northeast Asia.

Continue reading “Crisis calls for tough balancing act.”

Kim Jong-Il launches his rockets.

And the biggest gainer is Taro Aso

For the nth time, global attention is on North Korea as it defiantly carried out just a while ago a rocket launch seen by many in the region as provocative.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the “liftoff took place at 11:30 a.m. (0230GMT) Sunday from the coastal Musudan-ri launch pad innortheastern North Korea.”

Not surprisingly, the launch was followed by a chorus of condemnations from some world leaders. President Barack Obama called it “provocative” while President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea called it “reckless.” Japan, meanwhile, has requested an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council which will begin hours from now.

Continue reading “Kim Jong-Il launches his rockets.”

Political kabuki.

Japan’s warning to North Korea over its planned missile launch reveals the willingness and the ability of Tokyo to flex some of its military muscles amidst its supposed “lack of a standing military forces.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamuro said Japan could shoot down the rockets.

“Legally speaking, if this object falls toward Japan, we can shoot it down for safety reasons,” he asserted.

Yesterday, North Korea revealed coordinates forming two zones where parts of the multiple-stage rocket would fall, unveiling its plan to fire the projectile over Japan toward the Pacific Ocean sometime between April 4 and 8. One of the “danger” zones where the rocket’s first stage is expected to fall is in waters less than 75 miles from Japan’s northwestern shore.

Continue reading “Political kabuki.”

Rough sailing indeed.

Last December, I speculated that 2009 would be a tough year for the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It seems I was right.

Last year, Pyongyang embarked on its usual saber-rattling rethoric after Japan decided to halt its fuel aid to the hermit country for its “failure to resolve” the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals. The North Koreans insisted that the issue has been resolved, claiming that the Japanese abductees are already dead. Japan refutes this, saying Pyongyang has consistently failed to present conclusive pieces of evidence that will prove the death of the abductees.

And yesterday, an ex-spy from North Korea who had defected to and is now living in South Korea, Kim Hyon Hui, met with the family of Yaeko Taguchi, one of the Japanese abductees, in Busan. Kim told Taguchi’s relatives that the abductee is still alive.

Continue reading “Rough sailing indeed.”

Rough sailing ahead for the six-party talks.

Looks like 2009 would be a tough year for the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

A Japanese newspaper has reported that a senior North Korean diplomat has stated that Pyongyang would halt the process of dismantling its nuclear facilities unless Japan “implements heavy fuel assistance” to the hermit regime.

It can be remembered that right after the appointment of conservative Taro Aso as Japan’s prime minister this year, Tokyo announced that it will no longer extend fuel aid to North Korea unless progress is made on the abductions issue. In turn, North Korea has accused Japan of not fullfilling its end of the bargain, claiming that fuel aid has already been agreed upon in the negotiations.

Continue reading “Rough sailing ahead for the six-party talks.”

Terrorist state no more?

And so we saw yet another concession to Kim Jong Il last week coming from US President George W. Bush: the removal of North Korea from the list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

Bush promised to do this as early as June, when the North Koreans agreed to dismantle their facilities at Yongbyon; but the US postponed the delisting after Pyongyang refused to agree on the method for verifying the dismantlement of the programs. Last month, Kim ordered to restore the plutonium-producing facilities and talks of another nuclear test began to leak, prompting the Bush administration to finally remove Pyongyang off the list.

Continue reading “Terrorist state no more?”

Honeymoon over.

In a previous blog entry about the six-party talks, I explained why testing nuclear bombs was a wise thing for Kim Jong Il to do. The logic was simple: if you have the bomb, others will take you seriously.

And indeed Kim was taken seriously. George W. Bush had to embarrass himself by giving a lot of concessions to the dismay of his neocon friends and even at the expense of US relations with the Japanese who are still stuck on the Abduction Issue.

In return, the North Koreans gave less. They refuse to account for their nuclear arsenal, and they still have not disclosed anything with regards to their dealings with rougue states like Syria. They even missed their Dec. 31 deadline of dismantling their nuclear reactors.

Continue reading “Honeymoon over.”

What the six-party talks proved.

Pundits point to the on-going six-way negotiations between the two Koreas, Japan, the US, China and Russia on the North Korean nuclear crisis as proof that diplomacy works.

Of course diplomacy works. That has been proven even before these six-party talks came about. What really was proven there is a totally different matter: a lesson that I’m sure diplomats from Tehran to Damascus are taking notice of.

Continue reading “What the six-party talks proved.”