North Korea, the cost of paralysis

A new study of the inner workings of North Korea's regime is an important account of its dark political genius. But big states in the international system share the blame for its success, says Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
21 August 2013

In his fascinating and well-informed study of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia - Andrei Lankov states that anyone who regards the leaders in Pyongyang as crackpot dictators living in a personal fantasy-land have badly misunderstood the nature of their regime. Rather, he argues, North Korea is the most consistent practitioner of Machiavellian politics in the modern world.

It is, moreover, on the whole highly successful in terms of how it operates. It may be land of starvation, poverty and an imploding economy; but the tiny elite who run it have managed to capture the attention of the world’s most powerful countries, to blackmail them, humiliate them, and cause them frequently to concede to its demands. This elite, composed of no more than a few thousand people, have maintained their lifestyles by focusing most of its economy to military expenditure and the production of dysfunctional but politically very effective nuclear weapons. Against this achievement, the misery of its own people is of little account.

The hard stare

Lankov is a realist and his lucid description of the regime is greatly helpful. Its portrait is complemented by that of John Everard, who from 2006-08 was British ambassador to the Pyongyang; his memoir - Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea - acknowledges that the country was still being run by ancient figures first put in place by Kim Il-Sung after the war of 1950-53. The hope here is that their demise might allow a shift of power, but this is countered by the fact that their families too remain tied to the system and see no future for themselves unless it survives. This old elite is relieved of the effort to consider planning for scenario B, C, or D; from its viewpoint, there are really no alternatives. This helps explain the single-minded purposefulness of these leaders - and why they are one of the rare negotiating partners able to outstare the Chinese.

The Chinese government, faced with an "ally" like this, should be accorded some sympathy. They too, on Lankov’s account, are roped into the same almost unbreakable bonds with North Korea as the rest of the world - unable to jettison a regime they regard mainly with distaste, but also largely impotent when it comes to trying to influence it. The Chinese have tried: Kim Jong-Il was shown around Chinese development zones in the early 2000s and then again in 2011, shortly before his death. He looked interested and impressed - but did almost nothing to introduce such reforms at home, the Kaesong complex apart. North Korean under his son, Kim Jong-un, remains unreconstructed, disruptive and diplomatically poisonous. Tellingly, even  Everard, with his long and distinguished engagement with the issue, does not produce any fresh blueprint. 

Among the greatest problems posed by the DPRK is that its nuclearisation has closed off any option of building a diplomatic wall around it and letting it decay in isolation. The world might chose to turn its back on Pyongyang, but the DPRK's political and military leaders can make others take notice - by sending missiles over Japan, and testing nuclear devices. Chinese leaders have gone to admonish them, but their words have done little to change the regime's behaviour. The DPRK has split the elite in Beijing in ways that few other problems manage, forcing even simple questions to be sent upwards to the politburo for it to decide what to do.

The hostage state

Lankov shows the situation is one of political paralysis. The leadership has but one course which it consistently pursues: maintain a system that keeps 20 million people in poverty and fear, but allows a tight core of families and their satellites - at most, a privileged group of 2 million - to enjoy a relatively decent life. The latter may be no better than the moderately well-off in the rest of the world, but it is enough to reward and justify what they are doing. The loyalty of 10% of the population is enough to control the fate of the rest.

It is obnoxious politics, and a disgrace to the modern global order. In that sense, the DPRK is the true joker in the world's diplomatic pack. China, the United States and the United Nations may uphold the high standards of modern diplomacy, but a small, ruined state can hold them all hostage by practicing the ancient arts of blackmail and threat. Perhaps that is why the DPRK deserves especially close study. For it is a reminder us that behind the grand status-symbol buildings of the foreign ministries in Beijing, Washington and New York (and Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow) is the broken estate ruled by the Kim family and their cronies. They are able to play with these prestigious states - the six other players in the currently suspended six-party talks - by a mix of capriciousness and calculation: reading where the "red lines" are, skirting close to them, but never quite crossing them.

The sobering message of Lankov’s timely and powerful book is that the Kim regime is vicious, selfish and rotten to the core of its being: no joke, but deeply serious. Its existence is a monument to an era of great-power, cold-war politics whose survival shames everyone. For the DPRK's leaders, this history is their whole world, which they continue to use without compunction. For the people of the DPRK - to adapt James Joyce's famous line - it is a nightmare they cannot escape.

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