John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He spoke to Alex Doherty about the politics of North Korea under the late Kim Jong Il and where the country may go from here.
I think that Kim Jong Il will be judged harshly, as harshly as Enver Hoxha in Albania. Both leaders managed to preserve the independence and sovereignty of their countries – but at enormous costs. They both steered paths between the superpowers. They both aspired to create autarkic economies and monolithic cultures. Their policies, however, resulted in surveillance states, poverty, and isolation. Additionally, Kim Jong Il had none of the charisma of his father and all of his ruthlessness. He ushered his country into the nuclear club, which may well have staved off military intervention from outside. But the proliferation policies of the regime – regarding Pakistan, Iran, probably Syria – have not made the world any safer.
There’s no particular reason to expect Kim Jong Eun to pursue disruptive policies. Kim Jong Il did not embark on an effort to ramp up regional tensions after the death of Kim Il Sung. There might be some symbolic shows of force to demonstrate that North Korea has not been weakened by this succession. But the trajectory that Kim Jong Il was on prior to this important year of 2012 – the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth – was one of regional engagement: with Russia, China, and South Korea. Efforts had been made to reengage with the United States as well. In the short term, we might equally expect a continuation of these policies in order to fulfill the legacy of Kim Jong Il.
North Korea’s isolation is in part a reflection of philosophy, in part a geopolitical calculation, and in part a result of the policies of outside actors. Originally, North Korea opted to avoid accepting a subordinate position in the Soviet sphere, and so adopted the juche philosophy of self-reliance. When it subsequently solicited loans from Europe in the 1970s, it discovered that it had neither the resources nor the desire to accept a subordinate role in the capitalist world either. In the 1990s, this attitude translated into a certain wariness toward both China and South Korea as well. Today, the more hard-line policies of Lee Myung Bak have not encouraged isolationist tendencies within North Korea but, rather, pushed it further into its skeptical embrace of China. U.S. sanction policies, meanwhile, have been in place basically since the Korean War. So, U.S. policies did not create North Korean isolationist tendencies during the Cold War, but they did encourage them. However, if the United States were today to turn on a “charm offensive” and welcome North Korea into the international community – and the international financial institutions – we might very well see the end of North Korea’s relative isolation. Pyongyang no longer has any ideological opposition to capitalism, as long as the current elite remains in charge.
There are a couple reasons why the situation in North Korea is different from that of China in the late 1970s. First of all, there isn’t a lot of investor interest in North Korea, as there was with China. It comes down to numbers. One billion Chinese represents a significant potential market. 25 million North Koreans is, by comparison, not worth the investment. Second, China was largely an agricultural society at the time of the 1979 reforms. It could achieve a great deal simply by reforming the ag sector. North Korea is a predominantly industrial society, so agricultural reform wouldn’t have the same kind of effect. In addition to these differences, North Korea doesn’t want to simply follow a foreign template. It wants to develop its own path that reflects its own relatively advanced economic position (advanced compared to where China was when it began reforms in the 1970s). Finally, I don’t think the North Korean ruling elite has figured out a surefire way of introducing economic reforms that don’t irrevocably erode its own commanding political position in the society. If it can answer this riddle, we might well see a version of the Chinese reform model introduced in North Korean under a different title and with a certifiably North Korean pedigree.
The nuclear program was designed to meet several needs. First of all, it has helped to even the playing field with North Korea's adversaries, given the rapid deterioration of the North's conventional military capability. Second, it has served as the ultimate deterrent, particularly given what has happened in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya. Third, it has represented a mark of international distinction, since few countries belong to the nuclear club. Fourth, it has served to provide a measure of legitimacy to the government at a time of economic distress. Fifth, it has been a money-maker in terms of relations with nuclear wannabes (e.g., Iran). And finally, it has served as an on-again, off-again bargaining chip to ensure the engagement of the international community, to extract concessions, and to potentially trade for a comprehensive settlement that enables North Korea to make a quantum leap in its economic circumstances.
The function that is missing from this list, of course, is the actual use of nuclear weapons. North Korea is not locked into a duel with other nuclear states in the region (like with India and Pakistan in South Asia). Nor would a small and unreliable arsenal of nuclear weapons play an important battlefield function against adversaries that either have massive arsenals (the United States) or are under the umbrella of such powers (South Korea, Japan).