by Alexander Evins
Following new U.N. Security Council sanctions and a failed attempt at so-called basketball diplomacy, the DPRK’s bellicose rhetoric has markedly increased in fervor and severity. Their recent threats of armistice nullification and preemptive thermonuclear war are demonstrating a more defiant side than has yet to be seen from their young leader. Despite the similarities between the current provocations and those carried out under Kim Jong Il, it seems more prudent than ever to analyze the regime’s actions within the context of the DPRK’s evolving social landscape.
In the last few years the façade of Pyongyang has undergone rapid change – from the new Mansudae Street apartments to the completed exterior of the Ryugyong Hotel to the new face of the Kim dynasty – but it’s not just Pyongyong’s façade that’s transforming. While most of the major construction projects were associated with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung, there have been a series of other noticeable changes that go deeper and may represent a newly increased ‘level of consciousness.’ While privileged Pyongyangites are growing accustomed to cell phones and traffic jams, ordinary citizens outside the capital are beginning to get a glimpse of the outside world.
The breakdown of the information cordon and the reported subsequent increase in the black market sale of outside information has resulted in an influx of external media. In May 2012, Intermedia’s report on North Korean’s access to media stated that “access to outside media has grown considerably” and that “North Koreans today are learning more about the outside world than at any time since the founding of the country.” For a regime that establishes its legitimacy in pure-blooded Korean socialism and the false notion that the South is an oppressed and occupied state, while attempting to maintain the illusion of self-reliance in the face of impending external threats, this is of the utmost significance in the context of long-term survival. Widespread realization in the North that South Koreans are content with their way of life and national identity, and are no longer intently focused on reunification, could be detrimental to the Worker’s Party line.
This is no longer Kim Jong Il’s Korea. The regime is starting to face new challenges that necessitate a new playbook. A playbook which identifies that the populace may be modernizing at a faster pace than the socialist political machine. In the absence of years of observations of Kim Jong Un’s political moves, the existing analytical model developed to Kim Jong Il has been applied in an attempt to understand and, albeit poorly, predict the regime’s actions. The context of this evolving, and potentially centrifugal, social landscape may offer insight into the actions of this young, charismatic, foreign educated, and Android powered phone toting leader.
Are we observing a regime-driven war on the home front disguised as a response to international condemnation?
Internally, Kim Jong Un is faced with the challenge of reaffirming hearts and minds under the pressure of external media infiltration – a fact Pyongyang has no choice but to address if they plan to maintain the status quo. As bits and pieces of the outside world trickle in, the regime is further forced to reinforce its legitimacy, as well as the legitimacy of songun – something in itself antithetical to any real economic reform. What better way to reinforce regime legitimacy than by going back to their bread and butter of manufacturing impending external threats. By “nullifying” the 60-year-old armistice, heightening troop readiness levels, and directly threatening a preemptive nuclear attack, the regime is actively and rapidly manufacturing a renewed threat of a US-led invasion of the North. Such impending threats, and the ensuing wartime atmosphere felt amongst the people, could greatly foster a unifying sense of nationalism while re-demonstrating the value and importance of songun ideology.
Such asymptotical warmongering also gives the young leader the ability to demonstrate, both internally and externally, full control of one of the world’s largest militaries. We have seen a wave of reshuffling and a number of notable demotions at the highest levels of the Korean People’s Army since Kim Jong Un took office. This shake-up has been interpreted by many as a means of demonstrating decisive leadership under the auspices of some type of loyalty assessment program. Analysts worldwide have questioned the extent of KJU’s influence over the military.
In a recent interview with the German language version of Spiegel Online, Rüdiger Frank, chairman of the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna, offered insight stating that “First, it’s about demonstrating inward strength. Kim Jong Un’s new in his office, he has made some personnel changes, which has caused a considerable stir in North Korea.” He continued, Kim Jong Un “must demonstrate that he has control over the country” while putting on an “international show of strength and making it clear that Pyongyang is only open to dialogue if it happens at eye level.”
Loyalty to Kim Jong Un, unlike that garnered by his father, the great nuclear and songun commander who guided the people through the Arduous March, or his grandfather, the eternal hero of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle, is rooted solely in his bloodline. KJU has yet to personally accomplish anything to derive original loyalty. On top of this, in Korea’s traditionally patriarchal society, the notion of a 29 year-old leading elderly generals is almost unnatural. By preparing the military for an external threat, KJU could potentially, though temporarily, refocus any internal dissent while externally demonstrating full control and single-minded unity.
Externally, the regime is likely using the threat of war as a means of attracting sufficient attention from the U.S. in an attempt to bring Washington back to the bargaining table – something we have seen before from Pyongyang. When Dennis Rodman returned from his controversial ‘basketball diplomacy’ trip to the DPRK, many, including the White House, scoffed, almost laughingly, at the relayed message from Kim Jong Un – something that would have surely enraged Pyongyang. Mr. Rodman conveyed that Kim Jong Un expressed that he is not his father or his grandfather and that he does /not/ want to go to war, but he greatly wants an audience in Washington. Furthermore, Pyongyang can use this to test the waters of South Korea’s newly elected conservative administration led by President Park Geun-hye.
If we don’t take Kim Jong Un at his word then we may be throwing away a valuable perspective on his intent, and ultimately loose the realization that these belligerent actions are potentially more reflective of domestic issues than ostensible international threats – threats further amplified by America’s enhanced show of strength during the ongoing annual joint ROK-US military exercise Foal Eagle.
Pyongyang is facing a number of difficult challenges in maintaining the status quo under a changing social landscape. Kim Jong Un is faced with tackling a modernizing populace whose hearts and minds need to be reaffirmed under the backdrop of conflicting outside information, a military that sees its long held societal primacy in danger and whose absolute loyalty to the dynasty is questioned, and an enduring and immensely powerful U.S. presence at his back door.
An invasion of information from the outside world has already begun and its effects on the populace are not negligible. How the Kim dynasty goes about ensuring lasting regime and songun survival, while demonstrating the loyalty and single-minded unity of the military, in the forefront of an awakening populace remains to be seen, but it will certainly take more than what the existing playbooks have to offer.
*Note: In a recent interview with The Sun, Rodman suggested that Kim Jong Un is being forced into acts of aggression towards the West by “menacing generals” who wield significant influence. This is inconsistent with reports documenting Kim Jong Un’s history of personnel movements and purges at the highest echelons of the military./
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