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North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
Report 230 / Asia

North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability

Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.

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Executive Summary

Transitions often present risks to authoritarian regimes, but the succession in North Korea has apparently passed with few problems. With no opposition from the military and China’s clear support, there are no signs to suggest that Kim Jŏng-ŭn, the young leader who replaced his father, Kim Jong-il, following his death in December 2011, is anything but in charge in his own right. Far from creating a regency of older family members or generals, the North Korean system has maintained its focus on a single leader and projected an image of stability and unity as it celebrates the centenary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il-sung. While that image appears to be accurate, there is nothing to suggest that the new leader is or will become inclined to take measures that would either improve the lot of the country’s citizens or reduce the regional frictions that Pyongyang is at the centre of.

Kim Il-sung invested considerable time and effort to ensure the transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong-il. The regime had two decades to prepare after Kim was anointed successor in 1974. In contrast, the second dynastic succession appeared to be rushed, leading many analysts to believe it would fail. However, though Kim Jong-il did not devote as much attention to succession as his father had, most North Korea watchers failed to recognise that the regime began internal preparations about a decade before his death. Many surmised that a committee of powerful figures, probably from the military, would step in and either oust Kim Jŏng-ŭn in a coup d’état or prop him up as a figurehead and rule behind the scenes.

Most of this analysis was based on flawed assumptions and misunderstandings of North Korean ideology and political institutions. Only a small number of individuals would have the capacity to conspire and execute a coup against the Kim family. Many analysts simply assumed the interests of the senior ruling elite and Kim Jŏng-ŭn diverge, but there are no clear signs that they do, despite the dismissal of Vice Marshal Ri Yŏng-ho, the former chief of the General Staff, on 15 July 2012. Arguably, the interests of senior party and military officials remain almost perfectly aligned.

Kim’s youth and inexperience often have been cited as reasons necessitating a regency of senior officials to rule until he is up to the task. Some have argued that he could not wield the extraordinary powers of his father, and therefore power would devolve in an unavoidable decentralisation process. Whether the regime continues as a personalised dictatorship or assumes a decentralised leadership structure matters, because it could affect several important policy decisions, including the possibility of economic reform and the development or abandonment of nuclear weapons.

Despite widespread speculation, several factors support the continuation of an extremely concentrated, one-man dictatorship. Chronic insecurity, a command economy, a strong tradition of democratic centralism, a complex structure of political institutions and a well-developed indigenous ideology all reinforce the Kim family cult and concentration of power. The apparent result is a smooth succession with little prospect for reform in the near future.

Although the succession is complete, the leadership faces difficult dilemmas. The poor economy remains the greatest long-term threat to the regime. Simple reforms could improve resource allocation, efficiency and productivity but would require repudiation of a decades-old system and ideology that form the foundation of Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s political legitimacy. Renouncing his grandfather’s and father’s legacies would not be rational if he wishes to remain in power.

Kim’s youth and relatively charismatic personality suggest he could be in power for decades. But if the regime fails to reform, the costs in terms of human insecurity and food insecurity will remain high. Continued isolation and “military first” orientation would predispose the regime to maintain its confrontational posture. Without the resources to sustain a conventional arms race with its adversaries, however, it would need increasingly to rely upon asymmetric capabilities, including nuclear weapons, for its security.

This indicates a period of uncertainty just as several key countries – China, Russia and the U.S. – face leadership changes or elections. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leadership seems to be feeling international pressure aimed at dissuading it from another nuclear test. However, as others increasingly focus on domestic politics, Pyongyang might feel there is little risk in testing more long-range missiles or another nuclear device. If it is strongly motivated to do so, there is probably little that could dissuade it. The only realistic strategy would be robust deterrence and containment.

North Korea under Kim Jŏng-ŭn is stable. There is no sign of any opposition to the dynastic succession, and the barriers to change are tremendous. However, the system is not sustainable forever, and it is difficult to imagine a gradual transformation and peaceful integration with South Korea. Meanwhile, reinforcing the status quo will not bring prosperity, only more backwardness and oppression for millions of North Koreans.

Seoul/Beijing/Brussels, 25 July 2012

Commentary / Asia

DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK

On 8 November 2014, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller into the custody of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence (DNI), for a return flight to the United States. Bae had been detained for two years after being convicted by a DPRK court for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Bae, a Christian missionary, was suspected of having proselytised against the regime, calling for a “religious coup d’état”. Miller was arrested in April 2014 and convicted in September 2014, also for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Miller reportedly tore up his tourist visa upon arrival at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport and asked for political asylum.

Some people expressed surprise at the sudden release of Bae and Miller. But Jeffrey Fowle, another detained American citizen, was released in late October. Fowle had been arrested for allegedly leaving a Bible in the toilet at the Ch’ŏngjin Seamen’s Club, a restaurant and bar for foreign sailors (and North Koreans with cash). Clearly, the detention of the Americans no longer served the purposes of the regime, but Pyongyang apparently requested a visit by a high-level U.S. government official before agreeing to their release. The Obama administration would have been sensitive about sending a high-level official because of possible criticism at home and because Pyongyang could manipulate the visit for propaganda purposes. The administration pointed out that DNI James Clapper was selected for the mission to emphasise that the visit was not to include broader diplomatic discussions.

Some analysts have speculated that Pyongyang decided to release the Americans because the regime is worried about international criticism of the DPRK’s human rights record. The UN General Assembly is preparing to vote on a draft resolution that could include a recommendation for the referral of senior DPRK officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The DPRK’s economic dependence on China could also help explain Pyongyang’s recent international outreach and so-called “charm offensive”.

While the DPRK certainly is motivated to deflect international criticism of its sorry human rights record and to diversify its international partners, the impact of Clapper’s visit on the DPRK’s internal affairs should also not be overlooked. The Obama administration was very careful to consider the impact of a high-level visit on perceptions and audience costs within the Washington Beltway. But was the administration as prudent regarding the way Clapper’s visit would be portrayed in Pyongyang?

Washington is right to be concerned about the manipulation of visits by high-level officials. The Korean Workers Party and state media are very adept at stage-managing visits and controlling media reports to ensure that visitors are perceived to be “paying their respects to the peerlessly great men of the Kim ruling family”. In addition, high-level visits can be portrayed as Washington’s recognition of the DPRK as a “nuclear state”, which is a regime priority. To counter this, the Obama administration has been clear it will not engage diplomatically with the DPRK until it is confident that Pyongyang will return to the Six-Party Talks and bargain in good faith to fulfill its previous denuclearisation commitments.

Many analysts have pointed out that the DPRK leadership is hyper-rational and only acts out of self-interest. The Obama administration has said there is no quid pro quo, and that Obama’s personal letter delivered by Clapper to Kim Jong-un “did not contain an apology in any way, shape or form”. But what was the price for sending Clapper? Certainly Pyongyang must have believed it got something out of the deal.

If past behaviour is a guide, the DPRK sought a written apology or admission of wrongdoing. (The most famous case is the capture of the USS Pueblo in January 1968. Negotiations dragged on for almost a year before the crew was released.) The contents of Obama’s letter are unknown; however, even if the president did not “admit, assure, and apologise” for the crimes of Bae and Miller, the regime can cite Clapper’s visit as an admission that Bae and Miller were spies.

That the DPRK has been reaching out to the international community does not mean it is becoming more liberal. The benefits of economic opening, trade, foreign direct investment, and technology transfers should be obvious even to the most conservative hardliners in Pyongyang. However, the Kim family regime has been nervous about subversive ideas entering North Korea from abroad. So the DPRK leadership faces a dilemma. Opening up is necessary for economic prosperity and successful implementation of the pyŏngjin line—the DPRK’s strategy to develop the economy and nuclear technologies simultaneously. However, opening up also raises the risk of social and political instability.

Since Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his power, the regime has increased internal security in the form of increased surveillance against threats from “enemies who wish to topple the DPRK”. Under these conditions, internal security institutions have a strong incentive to provide “more security”, which can be quantified by the number of people arrested, imprisoned, and executed.

We may never know how the DPRK government will depict Clapper’s visit in its internal communications, but if the regime is consistent with past practice, it will describe Clapper as having gone to Pyongyang to “admit, assure, and apologise” for the “crimes against the DPRK”. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Clapper’s mission “proves that Bae and Miller are guilty as charged” and the DNI went to pick up agents who were conducting espionage on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Obama administration claims it selected Clapper for the mission, but could Pyongyang have insisted on Clapper? If the DPRK insisted on the DNI and no one else, then sending Clapper to release the Americans probably is worth the cost of Pyongyang’s internal propaganda victory. However, considering the potentially increased risk that future American tourists could be charged with espionage, sending someone outside of the U.S. intelligence community might have been more appropriate assuming Pyongyang did not make Clapper’s presence a condition of the release of the two Americans.