As a long-time Korea watcher, I am hardly surprised by her remarks. In three decades I have frequently heard similar talk about North Korea’s supposed ‘irrationality,’ often coming from people in positions of power and authority.
Of course, these statements help sell a certain political line in dealing with the North Korean regime, but their usefulness does not make them true. Let’s face it: the North Korean ruling elite are great masters of political survival, and you do not survive against seemingly impossible odds if you are irrational.
The Kim Family regime has survived two dynastic transitions, the loss of great power sponsorship, a massive famine with little precedent in modern history, and decades of tense relations with virtually all its neighbors and partners.
How many regimes would not crumble under such pressure? I know of none. This achievement alone proves that the policy of the Kim Family, however brutal and antagonistic, has been rational and highly successful. So far, we do not have any indication that this situation has changed.
NORTH KOREA’S OBJECTIVES
One has to keep in mind the goals the North Korean leaders want to achieve. They pursue a number of goals, but one overrides all the others: regime survival.
All elites worldwide would like to stay in power as long as possible, preferably, indefinitely. However, very few people face risks as high as those faced by the Kim dynasty and its immediate entourage.
In most countries, a political defeat means that the losers retire to their countryside houses to write their memoirs. In some countries, political defeat might lead to disgrace and even (rarely, very rarely) a short stint in prison for a former president and a couple of his or her closest – and least lucky – advisers.
The vast majority of the old elite, especially those with ostensibly ‘non-political’ bureaucratic or technocratic positions, have little difficulty adjusting to the new order where the educated and politically experienced are not going to find themselves among the downtrodden and impoverished.
North Korea is different. Regime collapse is likely to bring unification, and unification is nearly certain to result in the wholesale replacement of the elite.
These people believe (with some justification) that a regime change would mean a loss of power, and, in many cases, imprisonment, even death. They know how they would treat the South Korean elite had they defeated the South, and they do not expect to be treated differently.
These fears might be partially exaggerated, but they are widely shared, and the regime works hard to maintain this fear among the “top 1%” of the North Korean society.
For the Kim Family and a tiny circle of top decision makers, regime collapse means the death of them and their loved ones. The stakes are exceptionally high, and regime survival is the overriding goal, with everything else clearly subordinated to it.
So what are the major threats Kim Jong Un’s government faces, and how does he deal with all these threats? In essence, the Kim Family has to deal with three possible sources of trouble, and each source has to be responded to in its own way.
So far Kim Jong Un has been good at both identifying the threats and neutralizing them. Needless to say, these actions have been rational, as the very fact of the regime’s continuing existence confirms once again.
For the Kim Family and a tiny circle of top decision makers, regime collapse means death
FOREIGN-BACKED REGIME CHANGE
The first threat is that of foreign invasion (think Iraq) or an internal rebellion actively supported from the outside (think Libya). Recent events have demonstrated to Kim Jong Un that his fears of a foreign invasion are not unjustified: after Afghanistan or Iraq, it is difficult to argue that his regime has nothing to be afraid of.
Perhaps, though, the major worry of Kim Jong Un is an internal rebellion which will be encouraged, supported and protected from overseas – like we saw recently in many parts of the Middle East.
There is only one policy which can dramatically reduce this threat – and this is the policy of military deterrence which, for a small and poor country, means nuclear deterrence. As we know, this is a policy that three generations of the Kim Family have pursued with gusto, and quite successfully.
After Afghanistan or Iraq it is difficult to argue that his regime has nothing to be afraid of
Now Kim Jong Un is determined to achieve what nuclear weapons experts usually call a ‘second strike capability’ that is, the ability to survive the opponent’s first attack and then still have enough nuclear warheads to deliver a counter-strike.
This is what Kim Jong Un is quite close to achieving now. Even though these efforts might provoke a military response from the U.S., and hence can be described as excessively risky, it is difficult to describe them as ‘irrational’.
He is aware that a country with a ‘second strike capability’ is unlikely to be attacked, or, in the case of an internal revolution, unlikely to face excessive pressure from the outside world – and he is probably right in such assumptions.
THREAT OF ELITE CONSPIRACY
Revolutions are sometimes started by the downtrodden masses, but more frequently dictators and kings have fallen victim to their own generals and high officials. According to a study, undertaken at the University of Kentucky in 2011, between 1950-2010 the world experienced 457 coups, roughly half of which (227) were successful.
For Kim Jong Un, things are made even worse by his young age. Since he succeeded his father in his mid-20s, the young leader found himself surrounded by generals and dignitaries twice his age. By the time of transition, he had been heir apparent for merely a year.
Kim Jong Un reacted to this threat by unleashing on the top military elite a terror on a scale North Korea has not seen since the days of mad factional struggle in the late 1950s.
The new policy largely targets military and security commanders, while economic managers are left alone and feel secure. Obviously, the young leader hopes to terrify the old guard into obedience, making sure none of them even think about a coup.
The idea of neutralizing a supposed conspiracy threat with the generous application of terror is by no means irrational
But as is the case with the ‘second strike capability’, such a policy, executed with excessive zeal, might backfire.
Indeed, the permanent risk of purge might terrify the generals, but it also can provoke them into starting a real conspiracy, just to avoid the fate of those comrades who have recently disappeared without a trace.
The idea of neutralizing a supposed conspiracy threat with the generous application of terror is by no means irrational. Many autocrats have done it – and it often works well.
Joseph Stalin, patron and mentor of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, executed more than half of the generals and admirals of the Soviet armed forces in the 1930s, and such actions did not provoke any noticeable resistance. On the contrary, the generals were paralyzed with fear, and Stalin’s regime remained unchallenged until dictator’s death nearly two decades later.
The assassination of Kim Jong Nam can be seen as another manifestation of the same policy. Kim Jong Nam, in spite of his non-political behavior, was a natural focal point for the opposition forces. After all, he was the only member of the Kim family who lived outside Kim Jong Un’s control and often behaved with little restraint.
Kim Jong Un apparently saw him as a potential threat and acted accordingly. Of course, it also mattered that Kim Jong Nam was the son of another concubine of late Kim Jong Il, and was protected by the Chinese – who Kim Jong Un and his advisers saw with great suspicion and distrust.
Of course, poisoning a brother does not look conventional nowadays, but North Korea is one of few surviving absolute monarchies, and one should not be surprised when it acts according to the standards, of, say, the Renaissance: the era when absolute monarchies dominated the world. Neither a Borgia or a Medici would have trouble understanding what happened in Kuala Lumpur, and would hardly find such behavior excessive.
A POPULAR REBELLION?
From time to time regimes have fallen victims to the outbursts of the popular discontent, and North Korea is especially vulnerable to such a threat.
A major problem is the existence of South Korea: rich and free, but populated by the people who speak the same language and claiming membership in the same nation. If North Koreans continue to learn about the gap which separates them from the southerners, they are likely to become very unruly, and a crisis might end in a violent revolution.
Kim Jong Un’s reforms are not accompanied by any political relaxation
To counter such a threat, the regime has had to follow two policies: it has to increase the living standards of the population, while also keeping common people isolated from the outside world and terrified of police terror. This is exactly what Kim Jong Un has been doing in five years of his rule.
On one hand, in the last few years, Kim Jong Un has initiated market-oriented economic reforms, very similar to what China did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Predictably, the policy has resulted in the palpable improvement of the economic situation, and, significantly, an increase in agricultural production.
In spite of huge income inequality, living standards in North Korea are growing, and the people, initially quite skeptical of the young leader, are beginning to appreciate him. This policy has an additional benefit of being good for economic growth which is, after all, also on the regime’s agenda – albeit as a distant second to the overwhelming goal of survival.
At the same time, Kim Jong Un’s reforms are not accompanied by any political relaxation. On the contrary: Kim Jong Un has significantly strengthened control over information flows. The border with China, once essentially open, is now kept under strict control, the sales of the smuggled videos inside North Korea are increasingly risky, and North Korean software engineers work hard to ensure that locally available computers are unable to reproduce media files which have no official authorization.
One wonders what is particularly irrational about the policies we just described. These policies are designed to counter very real threats, most of such policies have been tried before, usually with a measure of success, and so far these policies have worked in North Korea.
Of course, Ambassador Haley might believe (or pretend) that Kim Jong Un should accept denuclearization and allow a measure of domestic liberalization in exchange for generous economic aid from the West – like Gaddafi once did (and was lauded by Ambassador Bolton, one of Ambassador Haley’s predecessors).
Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un knows only too well how Gaddafi ended his days, and he has not the slightest reason to consider ‘rational’ a policy which is highly likely to have him and, perhaps, his family slaughtered.
As a long-time Korea watcher, I am hardly surprised by her remarks. In three decades I have frequently heard similar talk about North Korea’s supposed ‘irrationality,' often coming from people in positions of power and authority.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.