Dynastic politics and the slippery slope to war in North Korea

Be careful what you wish for

Albere Mozqueira

PHOTO: "Soldier on the border" by Scott Gunn is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Politics, International relations | East Asia

14 May 2020

When it comes to dictatorships, it’s better the devil you know, Alberto Mozqueira writes.

While the death of a dictator should usually be a cause for cautious optimism, or perhaps even celebration, the potential death of Kim Jong-un is grounds for serious concern. North Korea is an extremely parochial dictatorship, and while it currently uses state controls over the free market and draws certain elements from a Marxist-Leninist playbook, it functions much like a feudal monarchy, whereby a divine right to rule is the source of the Kim family regime’s legitimacy.

Kim Il-Sung, the first North Korean dictator, had serious revolutionary credentials gained in the fight against the United States and South Korea in the Korean War during the fifties. His son and grandson have done much to control the flow of information in and out of North Korea, and successfully inculcated the populace with obedience to the regime through an unceasing campaign of information warfare. Everything from newspapers to the national anthem exults the virtue of the North Korean system, and the right for the Kim family, and only the Kim family, to rule North Korea. Kim Jong-un is akin to a living god, and the existence of hostile neighbours in South Korea, Japan and the United States’ forward basing, provides a strong enough external threat that North Korean elites buy into supporting the system.

Both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il have managed to anoint successors before dying, although the ascension of Kim Jong-un was a rather rushed affair. Kim Il Sung spent a decade building up widespread support for his son Kim Jong Il, and slowly gave him increased responsibility and autonomy up until his death in 1994 at the age of 82. His role in North Korean society remains hugely important, and as the Eternal Leader, is the fount from which Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-un derive their legitimacy. With Kim Jong-Il’s sudden brush with mortality in 2008, when he suffered from a serious stroke, Kim Jong-Il sought to hastily install Kim Jong-un as the next leader. His first few years ruling North Korea appeared to be shaky, and Kim Jong-un extensively purged his party cadres to secure his rule, with reports of party members being executed with aircraft cannons. However, even that shaky start would be preferable to the consequences of Kim Jong-un dying without a clear heir.

North Korea currently has a large conventional force and a credible nuclear arsenal with the means to deliver it. Despite reporting zero COVID-19 cases, it is likely in the grip of the global pandemic that has been paralysing the globe, and as an extremely impoverished country, has very limited means through which to fight it. If Kim Jong-un had died, the stability of the North Korean regime would be on extremely shaky ground.

The cult of personality and the brutal reprisals against any who question the Kim family regime have kept the military in check, but the ambitious wouldn’t wait forever. The Korean People’s Army is unlikely to seek to engage with the United States, as their legitimacy and importance within North Korean society is derived from guarding the DPRK from the evil imperialist American empire. It goes double for the nuclear arsenal that Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have so carefully developed, and in the case of total state collapse, the US and China may have to race to secure it before it ends up in the hands of an even more unsavoury actor than that of the rogue state.

Kim Jong-un’s sister has been floated as a potential successor, as she is a child of Kim Jong Il and his mistress, and a close advisor and confidant of Kim Jong-Un. Unequivocal support for her is unlikely, though, despite the importance of the family line to the state. With the death of the paramount leader, North Korea’s social structure is under threat, and repeated coups or a civil war that drags in South Korea and the US is foreseeable. The cost of rebuilding North Korea is routinely floated at over three trillion USD, or double the entire annual GDP of South Korea.

The human costs are even more unthinkable, with a general war on the peninsula estimated to run into the millions of deaths in the first months of conflict alone. The risk of Chinese and South Korean/American forces clashing in a deteriorating North Korea is also plausible, as both race to secure territory to prevent a rerun of the Korean war. China would be willing to weather significant costs to maintain a buffer between itself and South Korea and this is probably just one of its contingency plans. State collapse is never pretty, and unfortunately, the life of Kim Jong-un could be the only thing preventing a direct military clash between the world’s two superpowers.

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