Kim family saga: third and final act
Jun 18th 2009
From The Economist print edition
North Korea’s dictator is on the way out; take aim at his successor
BRUTAL, pot-bellied and unpredictable: the same adjectives are always together on the larder shelf when editorial writers describe Kim Jong Il. But how helpful are they any more? There’s no quibbling over Mr Kim’s brutality. He runs his country like a gulag, and a Kim-made famine killed a twentieth of the population in the 1990s. As for pot-bellied, the description no longer holds, since, after a presumed stroke last summer, the Dear Leader looks frail, and as gaunt as his underfed subjects.
And unpredictable? The word has always been unhelpful, for it misses how foreseeably Mr Kim’s Communist dynasty has blackmailed the outside world, defying the odds and the end of the cold war to cling to power. The notion of unpredictability is based on the tantrums North Korea throws. The latest began earlier this year with bellicose rhetoric, missiles and, last month, a presumed nuclear explosion (though spooks are puzzled at the lack of radiation, and wonder if this was simply a mountain-full of TNT). Yet ever since the North’s push for a nuclear capability caused increasing concern in the early 1990s these hissy fits have been routine. Each time North Korea has cranked up the tension only to try to exploit it, usually by returning to multilateral negotiations on better terms—more aid goodies and respect.
With the latest nuclear test, Mr Kim has raised the stakes higher than usual. To many that belongs to the familiar wearisome pattern of abuse. President Barack Obama, who has yet to articulate a North Korean policy, has begun to talk of the country as if it were an ill-behaved toddler that should not be rewarded for bad behaviour. Robert Gates, his defence secretary, says that America is “tired of buying the same horse twice”. President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea has reversed his predecessors’“sunshine policy” of unconditional aid. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me again (and again), shame on me.
Yet now a growing band of North Korea-watchers, even in China, divines a new unpredictability which, they say, is more disturbing than the tired old blackmail. This band says North Korea no longer intends to return to the table. After the United Nations Security Council imposed fresh sanctions on June 12th, as punishment for the nuclear test, the North said it would not just make more plutonium bombs, but enrich uranium too. Unlike earlier bellicosity, today’s rhetoric lacks calibration. When North Korea now says it does not mean to give up its bid to be a nuclear-weapons power, blimey, perhaps it means it. This week Mr Lee was in Washington to seek Mr Obama’s reassurance that South Korea sits under American protection, and to make it clear that neither country would accept North Korea as a nuclear state.
It was always wishful thinking to suppose that Mr Kim was developing his nukes in order to trade them away. His dynasty has spent half a century trying to acquire them, and the deal on offer from the outside world is unalluring. In essence it offers North Korea development aid and recognition in return for nuclear disarmament. Neither side of this bargain is in Mr Kim’s interests. He would lose two powerful, related tools of totalitarian control: the claim to be holding the line against an outside world bent on war and destruction; and the enforced isolation of his benighted people. A nuclear deal would make a nonsense of the first claim, while development would bring much more knowledge about the outside world.
Now his own poor health and the looming succession make even the pretence of a negotiated process too risky. The alternative to the status quo is not gradualist modernisation, as in China. Rather, it is collapse and unification on South Korea’s terms. Already, the broad population is profoundly embittered with the corrupt tinpot despotism. If Mr Kim and his cronies are not tried for crimes against humanity, it may be because they have already been strung up from lampposts. In trying to ensure his dynasty’s survival, the hard line is the 68-year-old Mr Kim’s only option. He is digging his regime in for the long term. Quite literally: the country is a vast network of tunnels and underground complexes for the leaders. Starved of cash, North Korea is drawn to other pariahs for business—even selling tunnelling advice to Myanmar’s junta, another bunch of totalitarian troglodytes.
Un-likely to succeed
After him is another matter. This Mr Kim has anointed as successor his 26-year-old third son, Kim Jong Un. The older Kim relied for his legitimacy on the strength of his father, Kim Il Sung. From his father he assumed the mantle of a neo-Confucian sun king, not unlike Emperor Hirohito before the war. The irony is rich since Kim and his fellow band of guerrillas swore oaths of fealty to each other when fighting the Japanese (and Japan remains a bogey). They became North Korea’s ruling elite. The oaths passed with Mr Kim to the second generation, which holds all important posts of power. But now his pot belly is gone, his left arm looks nearly paralysed, and intimations of his mortality abound.
Can the third generation hang together? More likely, they will hang separately. These days other temptations distract the elite, which travels widely. Take Mr Kim’s eldest son, accosted this month by Japanese television crews in Macau. Yes, he had also read the reports about his younger brother. Yes, the decision was his father’s, with unerring judgment. No, he hadn’t spoken to his father for a while. And (the subtext): could he please go gambling now? This generation of Kims does not look promising, and that is great news. At his Swiss boarding school, where he passed as the son of a chauffeur, Kim Jong Un was known for bossing players around on the basketball court. It is a start, but hardly adequate training for an absolute dictator. And that is just why the outside world should not give up on North Korea but stick with its inducements. They will yet prove the regime’s undoing.
《经济学人》（The Economist ( http://www.economist.com ))