October 13, 2006
The Desperate Dictator: Kim Jong-ilBy Thomas Lifson
Any dictator who can allow a million or two of his 20 million countrymen to die of starvation, rather than open up his country to allow the adequate provision of proffered aid, must be pretty well invulnerable. Death by starvation is visible, prolonged, painful, and heart—wrenching for the survivors. Anyone dominant enough to compel mass acceptance of starvation must have an iron grip on the reins of power.
Or so one might assume.
Thus most foreign observers consider Kim Jong—il to be acting to achieve foreign policy goals of some sort by provocatively launching missiles and detonating nuclear devices. Perhaps he is demonstrating to terrorist state customers that he has salable goods? Or perhaps he is seeking unilateral talks with the United States? Or perhaps he is just aid—seeking or even anticipating another deal like he got with Bill Clinton, in which the United States will supply billions of dollars in aid in return for promises he doesn't intend to honor.
But an alternative theory of power in North Korea suggests that Kim is in fact desperate, and is acting to quiet a threatened rebellion by the only group which matters when it comes to domestic power: the North Korean military. His unsuccessful missile launches, his nuclear test which was probably a 'fizzle', and his number two man, Kim Yong—nam's bizarre threat to to take "physical steps" against the United States, all might all be part of an effort to persuade potential rebels among the military that he is still vigorously accomplishing the goal of making North Korea a mighty state, a major factor in the world able to command the attention, and intimidate even the United States.
A criminal enterprise
Consider the basic nature of the North Korean state: it is a criminal enterprise. It is no secret that illegal drugs, counterfeiting, and illicit trade in weapons provided most of the foreign currency available to the regime. The fruits of these crimes were distributed quite carefully by Kim to those whose support he needed in order to hold onto power, mostly military figures. Just like Al Capone and the fiuctional Tony Soprano.
While ordinary North Koreans scraped the bark off trees to ease their pre—death suffering, the inner circle feasted on delicacies and consumed large amounts of expensive cognac, boons granted them directly and personally by Kim, sometimes at bacchanals featuring comely young women called to serve in multiple ways, and lasting for days.
Such symbolic affirmation of both their utter dependence on the leader himself, and the availability of the 'best the world has to offer' in the way of pleasures — if only they maintain loyalty — is a powerful mechanism for cementing support. Adherence to the leader brings all things good, while breaking away is uncertain, and unlikely to bring about a personal improvement even if it succeeds.
Shocks to the system
The system mostly worked during the previous round of starvation. Despite the spectacle of extreme suffering all about them, there was no evidence of a military rebellion. However, the aftermath has not been so kind to Kim's hopes for an eternal dynasty of his descendants.
During the worst of the famine, substantial though not overwhelming numbers of North Koreans snuck into China, braving the waters of the Yalu River or somehow finding a boat or bridge crossing. Once outside the hermetic information bubble of North Korea, they discovered not just a booming China, but also evidence of an even richer and more advanced South Korea. The South Koreans are, after all, major investors in China, and producers of some of the most sought—after consumer goods there, such as Samsung televisions (regarded as even more prestigious than Sony in China). No doubt tens of thousands of them saw pictures of life in South Korea, with its automobile traffic and obvious affluence beyond the dreams of any North Korean. Imagine the shock of the feared (and much richer) Chinese craving Hyundai cars and Daewoo DVD players.
As the famine eased, no doubt large numbers of North Koreans returned home to be with family and friends, and to avoid capture and deportation by the Chinese (with deadly consequences upon arrival back home). Ensconced in their own home villages, tongues must have wagged about what they saw and what they heard. In a controlled media environment like the North, such covert oral communication becomes a vital mass medium. Because North Korea's military is so large relative to its population, there is no way that members of the military did not hear and pass along these stories.
The comforting belief that their own system, however uncomfortable, was superior to that of their cousins in the South could only be sustained in an information vacuum. Once that vacuum was broken, the entire rationale for accepting the regime's propaganda started to crumble, even within the support structure of the state.
This hypothetical damage was reinforced by the visible and successful actions the United States has taken to cut off the foreign currency Kim has been earning from counterfeiting. Just over a year ago, the United States Treasury moved against Banco Delta of Macau, which was the primary vehicle by which the Kim Gang handled receipts from its counterfeiting activity.
There is substantial evidence that the move against the counterfeiting operation has been spectacularly successful. Kim may well be running out of money to pay for booze, energy, and other necessities. If he can't provide the goodies to his inner circle, his hold on power is in direct jeopardy.
Shortly after the move against counterfeiting last year, North Korea kicked out the United Nations World Food Program, perhaps fearful of the monitoring activities food distribution permitted, or perhaps simply anxious to defiantly swagger before American imperialists and their lackeys.
But as a result, the food situation in North Korea became even grimmer. Reports circulated that even military units could not obtain adequate supplies, that resources were concentrated on only the Praetorian Guard units and those responsible for nuclear weapons and missile development.
Under these circumstances, with even army units hungry, it is easy to see that the resources being devoted to nukes and missiles would generate some opposition, however quiet it would have to remain. Tyrants always fear their bodyguards, and when those bodyguards come from the ranks of an unhappy military, there is ground for serious concern. To put it bluntly, Kim may have felt cornered, forced to demonstrate to his internal foes that his nuclear weapons and missiles worked, and that they were capable of world historical changes.
In the past two years, there have been fascinating if inconclusive signals that something was going on in North Korea with regard to Kim's hold on power. Disappearing portraits in official places and disappearing lapel badges on officials, seeing him replaced by images of his late father, the founder of the dynasty. Many in the senior military owe their positions to the father, not the son, and consider themselves the guardians of Kim Il—sung's legacy. His father fought the Japanese. The younger Kim grew up in luxury.
So, with restiveness over his focus of resources on missiles and nukes rising, Kim threw a tantrum. It has worked before for him. He bullied his technical staff to get a bomb test up and rolling, just as he did with the missile test.
And they blew it. He hurried them too much. Maybe he didn't have enough fissile material of sufficient quality. Or maybe the engineering challenge was too much. This sort of thing has happened before, for example with Khrushchev back in1962 —— he demanded a Mars probe be launched while he making the annual October Revolution speech. It blew up and killed most of the staff.
Consider the rather odd language of the official Korean Central News Agency announcement of the 'successful' test:
If I am right that Kim's back is up against the wall, and that the military may not be fooled by his claims of success, then the Bush administration's policy of tightening the screws via UN sanctions, in addition to the cutoff in trade and other sanctions that Japan has already implemented, may be just the right dose of medicine. Note that Japan has specifically denied that it will obtain its own nuclear armaments, something that will encourage the Chinese, Russians and South Koreans to go along with tightening the screws.
Make no mistake, the threat of nuclear proliferation via North Korea still exists. But it may be that regime change is not an unrealistic hope to solve that problem. Watch the United Nations very closely today, to see how cooperative the Chinese and Russians will be with a serious move to deny Kim the resources he nees for survival.
Should Kim be toppled in the wake of sanctions imposed over his nuclear test, the object lesson for the mullahs of Iran could not be better.
My deep thanks to J.R. Dunn for assistance in the preparation of this article.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of American Thinker.