Up until just before the Soviet Union collapsed, very few people in the West thought it ever would. The system was so tightly controlled and repressive that there was no apparent that the people could overthrow it and if it remained change would come at a snail’s pace.
Such was the power of propaganda that outsiders had no idea that most of those who maintained the Soviet system, and spouted this propaganda, had stopped believing in it long before, and were just looking for someone else to give them a way out so they wouldn’t be the one to take the blame.
But that was almost thirty years ago. But regimes can change, and do, out of the times, political expediency, or just to survive. Surely the same thing can’t happen nowadays, in the hermit kingdom of North Korea or can it?
After all, the outside world and its ideas don’t penetrate as easily as they did in the USSR, where most people have a story about reading illegal literature and listening to illegal broadcasts. VOA News and Western consumer goods have not made many inroads. But they serve their purpose, as a litmus test of what is actually happening in the region.
But North Korea is rather different case study, isolated and has taken its own course. This is much to the dismay of many who have long predicated its collapse. For many in the West the perception is the country is fonder of executing people that plotting a future course. They want to recall that those who suggest reform as what the USSR and China experienced would seal their fate.
Things are not so simple, as people are now learning that Kim Jong is a pragmatic leader and knows that change is needed, as he is a survivor too, and is learning the rules of the game quickly. He has been provided good teachers with a line of American presidents who thought they had the best teaching methods—threats and biting sanctions.
But the opposite is occurring, and as a NYT article sums it up so well, Trump Said He Would Tame Rogue Nations. Now They Are Challenging Him. I would change one word, tongue in cheek, and replace challenging to taming!
What is especially funny thing is, since former Ambassador Thae Yong-ho defected in 2016 he has continually stated that the North Korean people can, and should, force Kim out through a popular uprising.
It is not going to happen, and the same can be said of other so-called rogue states that are not falling in line with US policy: on bitter adversaries of the United States — North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, as they understand that they can hold their ground and take on President Trump and the same US policy as those who came before.
In the case of NK, this is most apparent in Trump’s reaction to the recent test firing of short range missiles. It is like the little boy who throws a fit when he does not get what it wants, as for NK—it is just to fire missiles when summit meeting are yielding the desired results. It is worth noting, as reported by NEO, “that the DPRK missile industry has gone from carrying out a minimum test as a trial to a series of test for new weapons and even greater capacity and accuracy.”
No Big Deal!
You would think that two tests over in recent weeks appear to signal that if the president Trump does not return to the negotiating table, his personal diplomacy with Kim Jong, could revert to old hostilities. But Donald Trump is too preoccupied with his own problems.
Trump is more focused on the Art of the Deal, thus ignoring Kim Jong’s manipulative tantrums. But NK having nuclear weapons is what got Kim to the point where he could meet directly with a US president and talk from a position of strength.
This much is clear, as quoted in the NYTs from a Politico interview articles that Trump did not “consider that a breach of trust at all” to the firing of short range missiles and he was not that much frustrated by this.— even though he had said the previous day that “nobody is happy” about the tests.
Some new dynamics is going on, and without the means for Kim to create his own identity in the absence of political clout and with the help of those on the outside who could support his policies. Kim can’t win at first impression in such maneuvers; however, first impressions can be deceiving.
But in the meantime Donald Trump is giving him every opportunity to try, by treating him as a genuine statesman whose achievements are the culmination of so many years of the same policy. Nonetheless, domestically, North Koreans are longing for improvements and will have more changes of getting them as long as Kim is afforded some semblance of respect by the outside.
It is no coincidence that Hollywood has tried to portray him as a spoiled little dictator, as he is not, nor is he the president as represented in the Interview, a 2014 predicative programming production. The story line is how some American film idols are set up by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean leader. It did not work out as planned, as so often the case with covert operations, but it was an opportunity to first introduce the stereotype of the North Korean leader to an American audience.
There is a reason many of North Korea’s monumental official portraits, and the famous bronze statues at Mansu Hill, are of both Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il.
Kim Il-sung was genuinely loved and respected by most North Koreans, and the inflated hero worship associated with North Korean leaders had some foundation when applied to him.
In England they have a phrase: “Bob’s your uncle”, meaning something like “it’s as easy as that”. It is supposed to have originated in 1887, when Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (otherwise Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, or “Bob”) made his nephew Arthur Balfour the Chief Secretary for Ireland, despite his apparent lack of qualification for the post.
In ordinary circumstances, Balfour wouldn’t have got the job. But when Bob’s your uncle, everything turns out the way you want it – including succeeding Bob as Prime Minister fifteen years later. But the concept undoubtedly entered the minds of some in intelligence agencies, and thought that with punishing sanctions and threats all would turn out their way.
The son may be unlike the war hero and state builder Kim Il-sung, as Kim Jong-il had no known accomplishments to his name prior to taking over, or even any public profile, before he ascended to power. His only legitimacy came from being his father’s son, much like what happened in Syria with Assad.
Claim to Fame
But now he is proving himself with using tools of diplomacy and shooting off missiles. Various leaders over time have tier own way of showing off any claim to fame. Peter the Great, and several other Russian Tsars, kept unfeasible numbers of mistresses, to show they were set apart from the rest of humanity, and therefore the normal rules did not apply to them. In a dynastic system, where some people are born superior, you can do this.
In a supposedly egalitarian system, you can’t succeed your father unless you have some quality which obviates this bourgeois connection, and sets you apart from other men, of which the otherwise undistinguished Kim Jong-il was very much aware.
Kim Jong-il also presided over the Great North Korean Famine of 1994-98, brought on by American sanctions, which the official agencies call “The Arduous March of Suffering”. The problem with broadcasting propaganda all day long is that people have to keep believing it.
North Koreans know there is a world outside their “Utopia”, even if they don’t know anything positive about it. They may not care about politics, but they care about their stomachs, and they are not going to automatically support a system which leaves them starving unless they know it is not the fault of their own leadership but comes from outside decisions—as from the United States.
Kim Jong remains the most mysterious world leader due to his own obfuscation, and how he is reported in movies and the Western press, not the secrecy of the North Korean states. Kim ascended to power back in 2011, and few know even the most basic biographical details of his history. But one thing is certain, actions speak louder than words and even the UN is now concerned over recent tests.
North Korea is still the state of Kim Il-sung, made in his image. This has created a classic revolutionary scenario: the current leader and his system are under threat from both those who respect the system as it was, due to its previous leader, and those who don’t agree with it.
If Kim Jong continues the policies of Kim Il-sung forever, as he has pledged to do, he simply invites unfavourable comparison by the Western media with his heroic grandfather. If he reforms the system, he will merely embolden those with their own reform blueprints to press further.
His achievement in getting The Great Satan to give his country legitimate membership of the nuclear club is impressive, and does go some way to justifying the sacrifices his people have made. This gives him confidence, as to stay in power, he has to learn to play the game, and much will be achieved when his weapons work better—or at least give that appearance.
Mouse that roared!
Kim knows he can’t rely solely on his self-reliant socialism to feed his people and needs outside technology transfer and funding. However ideal the system may be, it just doesn’t work in the face of sanctions and today’s geopolitical realities. He can be compared to the mouse that roared and Kim is doing the unthinkable, winning!
Indeed, the mismanagement of the economy on top of many rounds of sanction helped to create the Great Famine. However, now he has the means to bargain for survival, shift the blame and come out as the victor, and the basic premise in the funny American movie could work.
The Grand Dutchy of Fenwick close to bankruptcy goes to war with America and accidently wins, at least on the diplomatic front in a game of chicken. For many years North Korea has relied on a combination of Chinese handouts, foreign aid. There was also some semblance of unfettered capitalism that helped the economy to stay afloat. Over time, the capitalism has increased but that too has its drawbacks.
China keeps giving North Korea official handouts but without this system in place, North Korea would continue to be weak, so much so that it could be invaded and occupied. It may be that the US is trying to take over North Korea’s initiative through the nuclear talks before competent nuclear expertise becomes one of the imported commodities to one of the worlds’ last experiments in communism.
But US-instigated regime change is not working well. It has proved to be a crash course for the Korean leader in how to deal with the West on its own terms, especially in a language they best understand – force and the threat of force. It is the main bargaining chips used in this dialogue, and especially considering the proximity of South Korean cities to North Korea.
Whichever way North Korea looks, change must come. Kim Jong-un is not going to facilitate that change by being a nice guy. Without the means to create his own identity, Kim can’t win—and he has to pursue the same policy until the country can get back on its feet.
Donald Trump is giving him every opportunity to win, by treating him as a genuine statesman whose achievements are the culmination of so many years of Kim following the same policy. And when some status quo is achieved North Koreans will then want improvements; Kim can’t provide them the change on his own—and Trump knows this too!
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.