The importance of the lesser evil: why world politics still needs Kim Jong-un
Posted On May 4, 2020
Article by Laura Morazzini | Illustration by Guido Brualdi
For two weeks, the world held its breath. On April 15 Kim Jong-un’s absence at the celebration for his grandfather’s birthday didn’t go unnoticed and sparked rumours about Kim’s possible demise. His reappearance on May 2 relieved some observers and frustrated others. While you might have hoped for a sudden resolution of the ‘’North Korea problem’’ with Kim Jong-un’s death or impossibility to rule, here are a few reasons why hoping for the dictator’s premature departure is not recommended.
1.Political instability and nukes should never go together
Every person familiar with the studies of hereditary successions in autocracies knows that the legitimacy of the ruler decreases succession after succession. Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader and founder of North Korea, was dramatically aware of it and carefully organized the transition of power to his son Kim Jong-il.
As a matter of fact, as Atsuhito Isozaki pointed out (pdf here), one of the main lessons learned by Kim Il-sung from the events in the USSR and China is the importance of a loyal successor . A family member was therefore chosen.
The last tassel of the puzzle was the creation of a national mythology that depicted the Kim family as heavenly derived, creating a new national creed that firstly revolved around Kim Il- sung and was later extended to his close relatives.
Kim Jong-un’s children are still too young to rule. If Kim’s siblings were reluctant to step in, the chances that an outside member of the family would be able to maintain the same legitimacy enjoyed, in the best-case scenario, by Pyongyang’s last ruler, are scarce.
Graph by Ian Bremmer retrieved from Euroasia group
As Ian Bremmer clearly showed in the graph above, at extreme low levels of political openness, increasing levels of stability are needed in order to assure the survival of the system. Would this requirement be met if Kim died?
Most importantly, do we want nuclear weapons in the hands of what would be an unstable state? It is not coherent to fear a stable – even if anachronistic and heartless- autocracy with nuclear weapons, while hoping that chaos will make the world safer from Pyongyang’s nukes.
2. A revolution is not possible yet
The most likely reason that could lead to an impulsive celebration of Kim Jong-un’s poor health is the hope for a revolution. Nevertheless, this doesn’t take into account the extreme conditions in which this revolution should take place.
In its report , the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea clearly stated that:
”[…] the body of testimony and other information it received establishes that crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State.” (art. 75)
As the same report states, the access to food, is used as ‘’a mean of control over the population’’, which is an even more effective strategy if we consider that, according to the World Factbook issued by the CIA (pdf here), the GDP per capita in 2017 was just $1,700 (in South Korea, in the same year, it was $39,700).
Nevertheless, the most powerful tools the regime posseses are the songun and yongje policies. One complements the other: the former is an accurate profiling of the whole population which assures an ongoing and invasive surveillance of every single individual; the latter allows the regime to automatically punish for a crime not just the individual, but also his whole family and friends, children included.
As Andrei Lankov pointed out ‘’even the great famine of 1996-99, which killed as many as one million people, created no immediate domestic political challenge’’.
Most importantly: what constitutes a reliable alternative for a population that knew just the Kim family’s rule and whose knowledge of the outside world is anachronistically limited? Substantial economic reforms and a simpler access to outside information might make an upheaval possible, but, as for now, the necessary requirements are not met yet.
Let’s now hypothesize that Kim had died and the regime did actually fall.
3. Unification is unlikely, at least for now
If you’re hoping that the fall of the regime might lead to unification with South Korea, you should check some data first. The Peterson Institute for International Economics has elaborated and collected different possible unification costs from various sources and the estimates range from a minimum of 300 billion and a maximum of 1,731 billion. On which country (or countries) would these costs fall?
It is worth reminding that for South Korea, Japan has always been a more dangerous neighbour than North Korea and that the current status quo is better tolerated in Seoul than in Washington. As Lankov again states ‘’Seoul, like Beijing, would prefer to see a Chinese-style ‘developmental dictatorship’ emerge in Pyongyang’’.
While South Korea doesn’t rule out unification, the only realistic way to achieve it requires a long transition process. Moreover, in case of collapse, the pressure created by North Korean refugees at the Chinese border would be dramatic. In 2017, as tensions were spiralling up between North Korea and the US, China built five refugees camps in the eventuality of a sudden exodus following regime collapse.
Last, but not least, China is not ready to jeopardize the important economic profit she gains from her trade with South Korea with a premature unification, while at the same time, losing another ally in a region already dominated by US security partners (Fiori-Kim, 2014). As a matter of fact, a sudden and unplanned unification could only take place through absorption, whose immediate consequence is the adoption of South Korea’s philo-American orientation.
4. Tensions would escalate in East Asia
The most worrying and immediate consequence would be a sudden escalation of tensions between China and the USA, in a moment already characterized by a deterioration of their relationship due to the leaders’ finger pointing about Covid-19’s origin.
The lack of power created by a possible collapse would generate a new battlefield for American and Chinese interests. As mentioned above, China wouldn’t allow an early absorption by South Korea and the USA wouldn’t stand still while China intervenes.
The escalation would be real, the USA would flex its muscles, but Chinese ‘’jurisdiction’’ will have to be recognized. China wouldn’t allow such humiliation right in her backyard. Either a government at China’s image and likeness would be established in Pyongyang or a formal ‘’protectorate’’ would be created.
It is, indeed, far more likely that it will be Beijing leading the transition process in North Korea rather than Washington or Seoul. This would reinforce China’s position in East Asia and destabilize the entire Korean peninsula, where China’s influence would be far more solid, calling for more American troops on South Korea’s soil and therefore creating a new ”Cold War scenario”.
Our best-case scenario for North Korea is an organized top-down democratization, ambiguous in nature and similar in form to the one experienced in Myanmar. This will inevitably take time. As the legitimacy of the regime decreases generation after generation, new ways of winning obedience will have to be found. Soon or later, these new ways might finally involve the consensus of the population. Just not now. Now we need a stable interlocutor who feels enough safe to negotiate some changes within the status quo.
It’s not optimal, it’s not fair, but it’s the lesser of the evils.
 in 1956, Nikita Kruschev severely criticized Stalin’s policies in what became famous as the ‘’Secret Speech’’ and Liao Bao, China’s heir apparent, organized a putsch against Mao, who trusted him.