China and Neighbourhood

A change in North Korean leadership is as much an opportunity for us to reach out to the regime as it is for them to engage with the international community

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Just as we in the international community struggle to comprehend the images of tearful North Koreans pounding their fists and wailing in response to the death of Kim Jong-il, they too would be confused to learn of the comparatively cold and militaristic response of its neighbours.

BY JAMES A. E. PEARSON | DECEMBER 21, 2011kim_jong-il

North Korea is fully aware of the superior capability of the military powers surrounding it, particularly given the presence of American forces in the South and Japan. Indeed, it is partly this feeling of  encirclement that has led it to very publicly pursue a weaponised nuclear program. In the aftermath of NATO airstrikes in Libya and the complete invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, we should be striving to understand Pʼyongyangʼs pursuit  of  nuclear  weapons  as  a  survival  mechanism,  rather  than  buy  into  its  own aggressive rhetoric that it could indeed launch an attack at any time. When convenient, overseas politicians and media seem to take North Korean propaganda more literally than the North Koreans themselves do.

Pʼyongyang knows that any such attack on its immediate neighbours is tantamount to a suicide mission.  A military outburst would not only completely destabilise the region, it would threaten the very existence of the regime itself, finally presenting hawks in the US, Japan and South Korea with easy justification to  launch ʻpre-emptiveʼ strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities. A change in leadership is unlikely to make North Korea any more confident that attacking its neighbours would make itself any more secure.

The North Korean military is also said to be one of the largest in the world, with roughly one in twenty  people enlisted in the forces. But this ʻstanding armyʼ is also one of the largest construction companies in the world –– many of North Koreaʼs roads, buildings and structures are built by soldiers from an army that is as much about easily mobilising and organising a national workforce as it is about creating a fighting machine.

In the days following Kim Jong-ilʼs death, many analysts have claimed that Kim Jong-un is unprepared for leadership and doesnʼt have the backing of the military, triggering fears of conflict or collapse. One after another has tried to tell us what Kim Jong-un knows or at least what they think he might know.

But the truth is more simple. We simply have no idea what kind of a person he is, what he is thinking and how he will restructure anything, if indeed at all. All we know is that he is about thirty years old and, in a culture still heavily influenced by confucian ideology, his youth may hamper his ability to command the same degree of automatic authority as his father or grandfather.

It is a mistake to assume that Kim Jong-il had control over every decision to come out of Pʼyongyang  since  he came to power. By imagining these lone dictators as the sole- decision makers with the fate of the country at their fingertips we are believing the North Korean propaganda that these men have a demi-god like capability to control every aspect of the state. This is certainly the image Pʼyongyang strives hard to create and those of us on the sidelines, only able to observe, cement these impressions by focussing on one man alone, ignoring those around him.

North Korea is controlled largely by a group of elites, descended from circles close to Kim Il-Sung and his  allies. A quick glance over the Korean Central News Agencyʼs (KCNA – North Koreaʼs official mouthpiece) recently published “National Funeral Committee” gives a fairly clear indication of who has been, and will probably continue to be, holding the reins of power. Whether or not Kim Jong-un has experience of leadership or the backing of the military is likely to prove irrelevant so long as his succession has been approved by those around  him  ––  recent  events  show  this  is  clearly  the  case  and  radical  change  is consequently very unlikely to happen in the immediate future.

It is therefore worrying to see amongst the many carefully worded diplomatic responses to the death of Kim  Jong-il the idea that North Korea is more of a threat now than it was before.  A  dangerous  assumption  is  being  made  that  this  change  in  leadership  will somehow immediately lead to aggression, as if Kim Jong-un will lack legitimacy without a fight –– a standpoint that seems to stem from many observers linking last years shelling of a South Korean island as being inherently linked to succession, completely ignoring the context of joint US-South Korean naval exercises just kilometres away from a disputed maritime border. Whereas such exercises would otherwise have gone unnoticed, the same can not be said if the DPRK were to launch joint naval operations with China in the same area.

Such contradictions in rhetoric, at least for the North Koreans, means the international community is painting a very confusing picture of itself. Writing in the Independent, former British charges dʼaffaires in  Pʼyongyang Jim Hoare points out “World leaders have said Kim’s death provides an opportunity for change, but they have hardly got off on the right track. Few have offered condolences. Others have concentrated on the problems and the dangers.”

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd was right when he said “It is at times like this that we  cannot afford to have any wrong or ambiguous signalling” yet in the same statement, he calls for North Korea to engage fully with the international community whilst talking  of  the  need  to  “deal  with  the  outstanding  problem  of  North  Koreaʼs  nuclear weapons program”. No word of condolence or sympathy for the fact that, for a lot of North Koreans, they have lost someone they believed was their sole hope  for  success and prosperity in the future. Whether or not Kim Jong-il was able to deliver on such promises is debatable. But what matters is, for ordinary North Koreans, this is a time of uncertainty and it is us who should be taking this opportunity to reach out to them.

Offering condolences to one of the worldʼs most infamous dictators does not automatically mean you are  aligning yourself to that country, its leadership or its policies. If we, the international community, want the DPRK to engage with us, perhaps now would be a good time for us to start engaging with it too. In the West, the UK has so far led the way since the establishment of an embassy in Pʼyongyang in 2001 with the DPRK following suit in London shortly afterwards. Closer diplomatic ties have therefore forced the UK to be more measured in its approach. Foreign Secretary William Hagueʼs statement on the death of Kim Jong-il was one of the only ones to recognise that, for the people of North Korea “we understand  this  is  a  difficult  time  for  them”.  By  no  means  explicit  condolences,  but nonetheless signalling that at least  some members of the international community can recognise that there are still people behind the unpopular face of the regime.


James Pearson read Chinese and Korean at the School of Oriental & African Studies and is now reading for a Master’s in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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