June 20, 2006
North Korea Rattles the CageBy Thomas Lifson
The important thing to keep in mind about analyses of North Korea's behavior is William Goldman's famous dictum about producing hits in Hollywood: nobody knows anything. Until Madeleine Albright made her journey to Pyongyang in 2000, paying court to Kim Jong—il in front of over 100,000 spectators (and thereby ratifying his status a world leader to any domestic doubters), no American official had ever been in the same room with the man who is publicly worshipped as a near—god by his people, at least when the authorities are watching (which is most of the time). By comparison, our inadequate intelligence on Iran, the other axis of evil nuclear wannabe, is comprehensive.
You know that matters are bizarre when the New York Times editorial board uncharacteristically endorses the foreign policy actions of the Bush administration, as it did today.
Bad weather over the launch site has postponed the launch for at least a few hours or maybe days. But hoping for sensibility from Kim Jong—il's regime is a rather slender reed upon to rest any hopes for peace. It is only barely a year since the last crisis over missile testing by North Korea, and the prospect is that more will follow, regardless of the outcome of the current scheduled missile launch.
Part of the problem in getting a handle on the North Korean situation is the age—old tragedy of Korean geopolitics: its location at the juncture of major powers China, Russia, and Japan. The brutal realties of this location are what originally caused historic Korea to become the Hermit Kingdom.
Kim is regarded by some as a pawn of the Chinese. While it is true his regime is utterly dependent on China for fuel and land access to the rest of the world, the relationship is far more complex than that of a vassal. Historical antagonisms aside (and this must always be hypothetical because those antagonisms are very real), China fears two opposite outcomes in North Korea. A complete collapse there, not at all unthinkable in light of the mass starvation a few years ago, would send millions of refugees into China, and undoubtedly cause substantial disruption, and discrediting of the Beijing regime's foreign policies. But the antipodal outcome, any steps toward actual reunification with the South would confront Beijing with another potential Japan sharing a border across the narrow Yalu River.
China no doubt enjoys the discomfort of the Americans and Japanese, but only up to the point where Japan begins to rearm in earnest. Japan and The United States have already implemented unprecedented levels of integration of their military forces, and the Japanese are spending serious amounts of money on building a high tech force, light on manpower but heavy on capability.
Kim has been put on notice by Prime Minister Koizumi that 'severe action' will result if the launch is carried out, and with Japan rapidly losing its nuclear allergy, China, Russia, and many other neighborhood residents worry that the only country ever to endure nuclear attacks may someday soon be able to share the experience with others.
While it is possible that Kim is jealous of the attention lavished on Iran, or perhaps hopes to extract generous offers of aid in return for appearing to back down on the missile program, domestic politics may be the deciding factor. It is always tempting to assume that brutal totalitarian dictators enjoy unquestioned and secure power simply because of their draconian actions. In truth, the more brutal the tyrant, the greater the probability that insecurity over his hold on the instruments of power is the primary motivator of the brutality.
Kim Jong—il walks a tightrope in holding onto office. He will never be the equal of his father, Kim Il—sung, in terms of domestic public regard, no matter how relentless his propaganda machine. His brutality has yielded starvation, and hunger usually makes people cranky. But reform would be seen as weakness.
A year and a half ago, portraits of the Dear Leader started disappearing, but that crises passed, with no explanation ever reaching the public. There are recurring reports from defectors of anti—government movements being active. And there are the very curious reports of a train explosion in an area where the Dear Leader's private train had passed only hours earlier. The regime subsequently claimed that the explosion was merely a planned excavation in a mountain, for a hydroelectric project.
Nobody knows anything.
Yet there are few things we do know. The skyline of the capital city, Pyongyang, whose residents are the comparatively prosperous and powerful elite of the nation, is dominated by the shell of the Ryugong Hotel, a 105 story concrete tower, one of the biggest and tallest buildings in the world, originally intended to shame the skyscrapers of the South with the glorious achievements of the workers' state. It is so badly constructed that the elevator shafts are out of plumb and could never be used; the substandard concrete is reportedly falling off in chunks, endangering those below. It is an enormous rotting hulk, never a good look for the fashionable dictatorship. And you can't miss it.
If Kim were to demolish the hotel carcass, it would be a full—fledged admission of failure, which is probably why it still stands. But to leave it on the capital's skyline, a decrepit pyramid reminiscent of a vanished formerly powerful monarch, cannot be doing much to solidify his hold on power. As with economic reform, he is stuck in a situation where time is not on his side.
There is zero chance that Condoleezza Rice will come to pay court, as Madeleine Albright did, and few chances for other reinforcement of Kim's hold on power. While small steps toward economic reform, such as tolerating local food markets, are reported here and there to have improved the lot of the people, such reforms also diminish the power of the state and empower the people. So they will not be allowed to progress very far.
A tyrant who is believed to be a fading force is one who will take extreme measures to hold onto power and keep his rivals afraid. A showy launch of a missile, demonstrating that his regime is capable of rattling the cages of the superpowers, may well be Kim's way of demonstrating to his military and to his people that he remains a dominant political force, not to be trifled with the by the Yankees, much less by domestic rivals.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.