Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lee Chung Min on "Misreading North Korea"

Lee Chung Min
Dean of GSIS
Yonsei University
(Image from Yonsei GSIS)

On Tuesday, I read one of the most interesting analyses of North Korea that I've come across in a long time. Lee Chung Min's Korea Herald article, "Misreading North Korea," explains in clarifying detail that "Kim Jong-il is unable to give up nuclear weapons because" he -- as second generation of the Kim Family Dynasty (i.e., KFD) -- is "beholden to the Korean People's Army" (i.e., KPA). Lee maintains:
One of the most important lessons in coping with the three North Korean crises [of the past two decades] . . . is the fact that six decades of a unique totalitarian system has resulted in structural constraints that even Kim cannot readily control.
Kim Jong-il may be "in full control of his organization, his government . . . [and] still be the one who is in charge," as National Security Adviser James Jones stated August 9th on Fox News, based on Bill Clinton's report, but as Lee notes, "more relevant is to understand what exactly Kim is in control of":
The KPA under Kim Jong-il has become a state within a state that exercises more direct political influence than any other military in the world. Although it is true that Kim "controls" the KPA and that the army remains "loyal" to him, he has created a Hydra-KPA: a military that has, for all intents and purposes, become so strong that it no longer really needs the leader that created it, but at the very same time, a military that has become so intertwined with its founding family and decades of political intrigue that the KPA has become "operationally anemic," and at its core, absolutely and thoroughly corrupted.

As senior echelons of the KPA begin to line up behind [Kim Jong-il's third son and heir-apparent,] Kim Jong-un, it has become, in reality, "three armies" under one roof: (1) the top echelons of the KPA and loyal units that serve with one sole function -- protecting and preserving the KFD at virtually all costs; (2) a two-tiered armed forces whereby a "powerful, modern" military comprises the top 20 percent marked by nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and an array of special forces but a "hollowing out, third-rate" military that comprises the remaining 80 percent with soldiers that are barely fed, have extremely limited operational training, and soldiers who are, in reality, conscripted laborers rather than professional combatants; and (3) perhaps most importantly, a military which has become totally, thoroughly and irreversibly corrupted through state-run companies attached to virtually ever[y] major organ of the armed forces not only to raise foreign currency for the "Dear Leader" and his family, but increasingly, to bolster their own private coffers.

Whatever ideological commitment the KPA may demonstrate in public and however many soldiers may shout their lungs [out] to become "human bombs" in defense of the "Dear Leader," the reality is that the KPA poses a clear and present danger not just because it has access to nuclear devices and other WMD assets, but because it is on a path to self-destruction.
The Korean People's Army thus has as two of its three primary purpose the protection and enrichment of the Kim Family Dynasty, but there was a price to pay:
The Faustian bargain that Kim signed with the KPA as soon as he gained official power was to retain and strengthen their loyalty in exchange for giving the KPA the most prominent role as the vanguard of the DPRK.
And there is a consequence from this for the outside world:
[T]he most important and enduring reason why . . . [Kim Jong-il] isn't willing or even able to give up his nuclear weapons is due to the central role of the KPA in maintaining the Kim regime.
In short, Kim Jong-il cannot risk alienating the military's support if he wants the Kim Family Dynasty to survive. But can the "third son and anointed heir, 26-year old Kim Jong-un," retain the military's loyalty and exercise the "power and authority to effectively control the KPA" even if it is mostly a hollowed-out, third-rate military? Or rather, because it is a hollowed-out, third-rate military led by its corrupt, self-serving higher echelons down a path to self-destruction?

That is the question.

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At 7:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Kim Jong-il is unable to give up nuclear weapons because" he -- as second generation of the Kim Family Dynasty (i.e., KFD) -- is "beholden to the Korean People's Army"

I don't know that Kim Jong-il is "beholden" to the KPA, but he certainly needs their support in making any significant changes in defense. From that fact, we cannot conclude, however, that Kim Jong-il actually wants to give up his toys or that he would if he could.


At 8:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I wouldn't conclude from Lee's analysis that "Kim Jong-il actually wants to give up his toys."

Rather, that even if he did want to give them up, he would be constrained from doing so.

The KPA props up the regime, and in that sense, Kim Jong-il is beholden. Of course, the KPA needs the Kim family's 'legitimacy', but that legitimacy is weakening as the Kim family moves ever further from Kim Il-sung's era. With time, powerful leaders in the KPA will come to question its need for the Kim family at all, especially when that 26-year-old upstart with a foreign education comes to power.

Power in an authoritarian system is a slippery thing. Take the example of Iran. The Revolutionary Guard is needed by the state as the primary force undergirding the power of the theocrats, but as the Guard strengthens itself in this role, it comes to need the theocrats less and less. Of course, it has to establish its own Islamic legitimacy, but it seems to be doing that.

In North Korea, how would the military establish its legitimacy? Perhaps this would not be so difficult. The North's ideology is already largely shifted to Songun, so if the military is already 'first' in this "Military First" policy, a lot of legitimacy is already there for the taking.

In short, Kim Jong-il or his successor has to keep the military leadership content with his reign.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:28 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

This strikes me as rather old news - the Military First Policy is quite old now and its consequences and implications have been quite obvious for almost as long. I suppose it needs repeating though as a corrective to all the wishful thinking that has pervaded South Korean (sunshine policy)and US (generally,appeasement-like engagement with a soupicon of stupidly aggressive rhetoric from the Shrub) attitudes toward the NORKS for the past 10 years or so. My guess is that this article is occasioned by an upcoming opening in the LMB administration for which Lee is angling for an appointment.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, the Songun policy is old news, certainly. I don't think that Lee Chung Min even mentions it in his article. I was borrowing on it to make a point about legitimacy to Sonagi.

What interested me in Lee's article was his analysis of how the Kim Family Dynasty is gradually losing control to the military -- but to a military that itself is declining.

This fits my impression that we're witnessing a slow-motion collapse of North Korea. When and if it happens, things could get very interesting around here.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:15 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I hear that.

I also was stuck by the similarities between the mechanism of decadence/corruption and resulting enervation of the political system in the North and the late Joseon Dynasty - albeit the latter's military weakness was a function not of the empowerment of the military but of the very long-term marginalization and derogation of the military (along with opening the ranks of military exam passers to anyone with the dosh to help the King pay for his frivolities and thereby creating a large population of resentful and grasping grafters).

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The issue of resentment is also interesting -- there must be vast reservoirs of 'han' up North, dangerously pressing against everything damming it up.

I wonder who will get the blame for all that when the flood gates finally burst open.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:41 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

That'snot too hard to guess: #1 Japan, #2 The US

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Or perhaps US #1 and Japan #2 since the US 'divided' the peninsula.

Jeffery Hodges

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