When it comes to message control, our current Prime Minister’s office has nothing compared to the likes of Pyongyang. The rulers of the DPRK have for the last seventy years been quite fastidious when it has come to shaping the regime’s official message. After all, when you enjoy the benefits of controlling both the media and your diplomats abroad, the only thing you really have to worry about are the folks who decide to leave your tightly-controlled society.
It’s surprising that despite some extreme shocks to the system, including the famine and the death of the only leader the country had ever known in 1994, the regime’s grip did not grow any “looser.” Perhaps the areas around the country’s northern provinces have become a little more porous after the famine, but despite the relative free flow of knowledge that appears to be growing in the borderlands between China, the number of people (successfully) fleeing the country has dwindled, especially after the recent power succession.
This makes the conflicting messages coming out of the country quite surprising.
For the first part of Kim Jong Un’s reign, many North Korea watchers were all holding our breath, wondering if spring had come to Pyongyang. If the man was educated in Switzerland, how bad could he really be?
We saw Mickey Mouse. We saw Rocky IV. We saw short skirts and even, gasp, Kim Jong Un appear in public with a woman in tow, something his papa would never have done. We saw the DPRK urging tourists to come visit as if it were the Bahamas, while its Wind Mobile Orascom 3G network was expanded to a million users. We saw a visit by Google and a famous maybe not so famous D-list-in-the-vein-of-Jean-Claude-van-Damme former NBA star proclaim that all Kim Jong Un wants is a call from Barack. If this were all that were coming out of Pyongyang these days, it would seem that hell would be freezing over and the Leafs poised to win the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, at the very same time, we have not-so-great things coming out of Pyongyang as well. OK, that was an understatement: it seems that all that North Korea wants to do is pre-emptively nuke us. Early in the Kim the 3rd reign, we witnessed a failed rocket launch that was relatively quickly followed up by a successful second one – alarming enough that the Americans have decided to re-invest billions in the dubious science of missile defence. We saw a third nuclear test that has triggered yet another round of sanctions. We have seen Pyongyang threaten to nuke Washington, South Korea, and now even Japan. We have seen propaganda videos wish for not so subtle destruction, with the target list including New York City, President “I Just Want Him To Call Me” Obama, and US soldiers . We have seen rather sexist comments directed toward the ROK’s new female president, while an old North Korean favourite, the “sea of fire” has been dusted off and brought to its full glory and bluster. Most recently, the North Koreans have stated that the nuclear program is now off the table and they have no intention of negotiating it away.
When pro-engagement North Korea watchers state that Pyongyang actually wants peace, it seems they have half the picture – after all, how could anyone who likes Rocky IV really want to go to war? On the other hand, when you use the words “pre-emptive nuclear strike”, it’s hard to not take someone seriously. Even if it is the North Koreans.
So it appears that Pyongyang, in a moment of rare contradiction, seems to want both war and peace at the same time. Even Tolstoy, in his infinite wisdom, knew that both could not happen concurrently. So what has happened to the erstwhile iron grip of the Pyongyang message machine?
Unfortunately, there is very little but conjecture, and at the best, circumstantial evidence to support any explanation. However, using loose reasoning, there are five distinct ways to explain this behaviour.
The first is the most sinister of them all: nothing has happened in Pyongyang, and all this is a ruse to befuddle us and mask the regime’s true intentions. This is also the explanation that is supported least by any evidence. Pyongyang has never really been known to play games: usually, when the term “sea of fire” is used, it does not really mean an invitation to tea and crumpets. Reversely, when the regime has invited folks in to the country, such as Kim Chin Kyung for PUST, it has done so more or less in good faith. There seems to very little for grey in the regime’s message spectrum.
The second explanation is a variant of the first: nothing has happened in Pyongyang, but either “war” or “peace” is a sham. This explanation stems from the whole “saving face” line of reasoning. For North Korea to truly open up, it must do it from a position of strength, or so the argument goes. It cannot do so from weakness, so it stirs up the war drums to show that it is still a strong nation; on the other hand, it quietly is opening up the country to show that it actually truly means peace.
Again, past behavior does not suggest that this is actually true at all. In fact, it may be a pipe dream of sorts from folks who want to believe that all this talk of pre-emptive nuclear war is rubbish. Unfortunately, North Korean behavior does not actually reflect this. The sinking of the Cheon’an and Yeonpyung island shelling demonstrate that North Korea is willing to back its words with force. Furthermore, the risks involved with brinksmanship cannot be lost on the bright minds in Pyongyang; everyone, including the North Koreans, must have realized how close the peninsula was to war before Jimmy Carter decided to make an unauthorized visit in 1994. As one former senior Clinton administration official once told me, “the bombs were strapped on the planes and we were ready to go.”
What truly refutes the “Pyongyang actually only wants peace and to open up the country argument” is that it is not only waging a war of rhetoric outside the country, it is actually intensifying the efforts to also control its own people. With the increased efforts at controlling the steady stream of North Koreans escaping the country, the regime, with Chinese cooperation, has halved the number of North Koreans who have successfully made it to the South. It has also at the same time expanded the political prison camp system and done nothing to effectively loosen the grip it has on its own people. If this is Pyongyang’s version of reform, then the world is a better place without it.
The third possible explanation is that again, nothing has happened in Pyongyang, but the new leadership is incompetent or confused. There may be a bit of an argument for this: assuming that Kim Jong Un is fully in charge, what much can you really say about a leader that has not yet broken thirty? Unless he is indeed some kind of political prodigy, can we really expect someone at that age to govern effectively?
On the confused side, Kim Jong Un may possibly have some space in his heart for reform, hence the preliminary signals of glasnost. Yet on the other hand, he may also understand that every step of reform may also be a direction in the eradication of his own rule. Hence, the hardline language.
Yet this is making two huge assumptions: that Kim Jong Un is fully in charge and that he has surrounded himself with equally confused or incompetent figures. Both assumptions stand on shaky ground. Even if symbolically, Jang Song Thaek flutters in the background of many of the public photos released of Kim Jong Un looking at things. If he is not fully in charge, the second assumption becomes an even more important one: to say that the people around him are not wizened political operators may be underestimating the Pyongyang elite. There is nothing to suggest that the elite have grown any dumber over the past twenty years since they negotiated one of the best deals that anyone has extracted from the United States with the 1994 Agreed Framework. The individuals that publicly have surrounded Kim Jong Un are by reputation savvy political operators. This includes the infamous and forementioned Jang Song Thaek, but also long survivors (both politically and not!) of the DPRK political apparatus, such as Kim Yong Nam as well. With over twenty years of toying with the Americans, it may be premature to assume that the North Koreans have suddenly rolled over.
The fourth possible explanation is that something has indeed happened in Pyongyang, and that there is internal dissent within the ranks. From a common sense perspective, this explanation remains the most convincing. It has long been discussed amongst North Korea watchers whether the Kim Jong Un regime would remain airtight and loyal. Unconfirmed reports, the best of its kind that come out of North Korea, have stated that there was some sort of disagreement as to the third nuclear test.
To say that everyone in Pyongyang has marched evenly to seventy years of marching orders is a stretch of logic: the North Koreans, to everyone’s chagrin, are not automatons. Even Jang Song Thaek spent some years in the North Korean political wilderness “self-correcting” himself, a sign that he committed something unpleasant to the regime. More recently, the rumours that swelled around Ri Yong Ho’s removal (from “illness” to “gunfight at the Pyongyang Corral”) show that Ri, part of the succession committee and the “hero” of the Yeonpyung shelling, could even be purged.
What the regime has done wonderfully in the past is mask and quell any discontent without anyone really noticing. Why else would the world think North Koreans are automatons? Yet at some point of time, one would have to think that the fissures would either be too great, or central authority too weak to control any dissent that may be floating around the capital city. The rather conflicting behavior coming out of Pyongyang could be a result of this fissure between the reformers who want everyone to be modern and have a 3G capable phone, and the military (or other hardliners), who want a big red blazing sea of fire. Tapping into Kim Jong Un’s own possible lack of confidence or confusion, both these parties could be competing for Kim Jong Un and Co’s time and devotion. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is: it’s the classical infighting that happens in any other decision-making body in the world. We saw a similar fight within the Bush White House over North Korea policy itself between Dick Cheney and Co. and Condoleeza Rice and Chris Hill, with Rice triumphing over Darth Dick Cheney for a more moderate policy.
And this segues nicely into the fifth explanation: that something has indeed happened in Pyongyang, and with the loss of centralized power, North Korean decision making has become flatter. Or dare I use the word, “democratic.” Rather than Kim Il Sung, or Kim Jong Il, or the military ruling by diktat, could it be that the regime is slowly evolving out of a centralized decision-making process and to a more devolved one? Unfortunately, other than the conflicting messages that are coming out of Pyongyang, this explanation too is unsupported, but one that could be a logical progression out of strict centralized rule. On the other hand, with the regime seemingly consolidating Kim Jong Un’s rule, it seems unlikely that power is actually being doled out. Ask any China watchers (or Bo Xi Lai, for that matter) if after nearly thirty years after introducing capitalism Beijing has relinquished any of its power.
As you can see, there is a severe lack of evidence to support any of the explanations proferred above; indeed, in this blogger’s humble opinion, any North Korea watcher who clings to any of the explanations religiously does so with very little evidence and at his or her own peril. After all, not only do we not have evidence to conclusively state one or the other, but some of the explanations above are not mutually exclusive of each other.
Unfortunately, North Korea is as opaque as ever. At least with Syria or Iran, there is a fair deal of openness to play with. Unfortunately, this opacity not only does the outside world no good, but does North Korea no good as well: for if intentions were at least somewhat transparent, there would be less uncertainty as to what would happen next and the threat of any conflict could diminish drastically (unless Pyongyang is actually warped enough to want war). Instead, we are forced to read tea leaves and ponder into our large crystal balls, perhaps overanalyzing each and every step that Pyongyang takes. At this point, what has been discussed by everyone, including the North Koreans, include “all they want to do is open up” to “nothing” to “another missile/nuke test” to “sea of fire in Baengnyungdo” to “sea of fire in Seoul” to “sea of fire in Washington DC” (Yikes!)
As with all things DPRK, we will have to wait and see – in this case, “strategic patience” may just have to end being plain old “patience.”