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No Easy Answers: North Korea’s Leadership Transition

25th April, 2016

By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow 

Whilst it is often the nuclear and ballistic missile tests of North Korea that attract the greatest share of international attention, arguably more important to the ultimate fate of the country are the internal challenges the regime faces and the unintended consequences of the solutions that are attempted. Pyongyang’s continuing and precipitous economic decline has forced the government to take a fresh look at leveraging technology to survive. However, this has had the inadvertent effect of enabling foreign news and media penetration, thereby exposing the population to some of the flaws in the government. More broadly, North Korea’s leadership has attempted to accelerate economic development by allowing limited free-market initiatives to take root. But the end result has often simply been the spread of crony capitalism, corruption and the development of alternative sources of patronage. To secure his position, Kim Jong-un has also taken great pains to concentrate his leadership at the expense of his father’s political allies and others seeking their own loyalty networks. As a result, the membership of Pyongyang’s governing elite has undergone considerable turnover in recent years, often via the medium of highly publicized executions and unexplained fatal accidents. This restructuring has promoted a climate of fear and discontent within the higher echelons of North Korean society, undermining the sense within the elite that the continuation of the existing order is in their interest. Many of the attempts by the regime to remedy North Korea’s many problems have, therefore, inadvertently made Kim Jong-un more vulnerable as he attempts to consolidate his power.

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that digitalization has empowered North Koreans with regard to their knowledge of both the regime and the outside world. Cellular phones, laptop computers, portable memory files, and other technologies – brought into use to help further economic development – have allowed information beyond government control to reach a far broader audience than at any other time in the Hermit Kingdom’s history. Pyongyang has, perhaps unwittingly, helped expedite the electronics revolution through a joint venture with an Egyptian telecom company to provide its limited Koryolink cellular phone service. Although the 2.4 million subscribers Koryolink claims in North Korea may be over-reported, this figure speaks to a broader high-tech transformation. Moreover, a steady stream of media files on DVDs, USBs, and other small items are making their way across the porous Chinese border.

With the advancements in information technology, two unintended consequences have emerged. First, when Kim Jong-un targets a senior official for removal, speculation about his ousting sweeps across the state faster and with less control than was the case prior to the aforementioned advancements. As a result, it is harder for the Kim regime to shape the narrative, thereby adding to the pervasive fear among government officials that removal is done to punish independence and success. Second, Kim Jong-un is increasingly being held accountable by the general population. Exposure to the outside world has turned the ire of the people toward the regime: many North Koreans are now aware of the truth regarding life in China, South Korea, and the United States and can now see the gap between reality and their government’s propaganda. North Koreans are also beginning to realize sanctions and outside animosity are driven by the reckless actions of the government. Even as Kim Jong-un’s purges continue, there is pressure for improved standards of living. These two factors have increased the complexity of Pyongyang’s problems.

Beyond digital technology, a second major development has been how economic hardships have forced the Kim family to permit capitalistic enterprises and general decentralization in attempts to alleviate some developmental difficulties. In allowing government and private individuals to pursue their own financial gains, Pyongyang has lost a powerful factor in its control of the population. Private wealth is no longer tied to support of the Kim family. A largely unregulated black market has formed which has allowed people to survive and prosper. Private wealth has also introduced a degree of governmental cronyism that has delegitimized the central authorities. But perhaps more troubling for Kim Jong-un has been the rise of individuals with their own power structures. Semi-autonomous fiefdoms represent a direct threat to Kim Jong-un’s heretofore unquestioned authority. It should therefore come as little surprise that Kim Jong-un would be willing to take drastic action to remove individuals with their own loyalty networks. A prime example of Kim Jong-un’s approach is the unfortunate end to his uncle, Jang Sung-taek – a man hand-picked by Kim Jong-Il to help guide his son who was executed due, in no small part, to his possession of a semi-autonomous support base. Although many are aware of Mr. Jang’s demise, more impactful was the systematic removal of many of his subordinates. That wider net of victims has undoubtedly increased the fear others throughout the government feel. The issue is particularly relevant to stability because as Kim Jong-un continues with the process of centralizing power, there remain a number of individuals with their own spheres of influence, and therefore with some ability to act outside of the auspice of the regime.

The third major issue in North Korea has been the bloodletting that has apparently been designed to wipe away vestiges of the previous rule. Initially, it appeared that Kim Jong-un had embarked upon a process of removing individuals close to his predecessor to assert independence from his father. Yet, the depth of his actions may indicate a broader motive. Rather than just removing those closest to Kim Jong-Il, it is possible that the younger Kim is attempting to remove the thinking of the old government as well. For instance, senior military appointments have increasingly been given to party members with no experience in the armed forces and to so-called special operators – some of the more hardline soldiers. Addressing the broader impact of these changes is paramount. How long will Kim Jong-un continue to remove senior officials at, or near, the current pace? North Korean officials may be increasingly presented with the choice of execution or removal versus an attempt on Kim Jong-un’s life. Without knowing how long the purge will continue, officials have reasons to worry.

Considering the increasingly pervasive climate of fear in North Korea, the potential for instability has, perhaps, never been greater. The country is not without a history of attempted rebellions. Although little-documented, there were a number of insurrection incidents during the famine years of the 1990’s and into the twenty-first century. Attempts on Kim Jong-Il’s life and military coups, albeit unsuccessful, have begun to eat away at the aura of invincibility for the regime in Pyongyang.

Making matters worse, there are serious concerns about the credibility of new appointees. A number of recently promoted individuals have connections to the special operations and intelligence communities, excluding the wider Pyongyang elite. Should this pattern continue, the majority of North Korean officials will find themselves outside of the best appointments, and will therefore have less to gain from continuing to participate in the institutional process. The diminished prospects might lead some to consider taking greater risks, including reaping benefits from the black market economy. Military officials are also facing increasingly limited opportunities due to the appointment of senior party officials to four-star military positions: rather than promoting career uniformed personnel, Kim Jong-un has taken to selecting party cadres. There is danger in restricting the advancement of talented individuals in the defense establishment, as over the long term, limitations may motivate some soldiers to explore options to rebel.

Ultimately, Kim Jong-un is presented with two overarching handicaps. First, his youth presents a credibility gap. There remain very legitimate questions over how he is perceived by older officials. If vulnerabilities begin to emerge, whether economic or political, the dictator will be faced with a mounting likelihood of instability. The second theme is his advisors’ skills. As Kim Jong-un surrounds himself with special operations personnel, intelligence community officials, and party ideologues, he is constricting the intellectual latitude of those surrounding him. Given the tremendous changes which have taken place in recent years, old tactics are less likely to be effective. Propaganda campaigns, hiding information, and expecting people to accept hardships are increasingly approaches that are wearing thin. Considering this environment, the potential for instability, domestic unrest, and even insurrection has increased. The new leadership should be looking at ways to be more innovative; however, given the backgrounds of those individuals in power, they are more likely to draw from standard North Korean control tactics.

Although many experts posit that the transfer of power within the Kim regime might be the most likely time for domestic stability, the manner with which Kim Jong-un has consolidated his support is, arguably, more like to cause stability problems than solve them. Targeting senior officials, many of whom have their own power bases, has broadened the range of potential victims. Perpetuating a climate of fear and disillusionment is not the most pragmatic way for a young leader to govern. While the Kim regime has ruled through authoritarian practices, its ability to generate loyalty from its citizens by leveraging both physical and psychological tools has played an important role. However, as the cultural and economic situation evolve, the old tactics and people that rely on them may be increasingly ineffective. Under these conditions, the stage is becoming set for a spike in instability which could lead to domestic unrest. How Kim Jong-un handles his current leadership team in the coming months and years could do much to alter the possibilities for internal conflict.

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the HSC Security and Defence division, a Special Assistant to the United States Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and a James A. Kelly non-resident fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has completed his Executive MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, holds a master’s in East-West Studies at Creighton University, and will be starting his PhD in International Relations at George Mason University in Fall, 2018. His foreign relations areas of concentration include East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. Davis has been published in International Affairs Forum, the World Business Institute, and the International Affairs Review, the Diplomat and RealClearDefense. He was also a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.