Feature

The Hermit Kingdom

An unchanging, irrational Stalinist dictatorship? Not so much.

Forget the hairdos and the funny suits. Kim Jong Il is no madman.

We don't have access to his shrink, of course, but there's absolutely no evidence to suggest that he's irrational. In terms of judging his own people and the international community, he seems to have done a remarkable job with what he has been given. One reason: cold-eyed awareness of the reality of his position. He has told at least one reliable source that his own regime's propaganda is all lies, and he surely knows -- given that he maintains constant access to the Internet and CNN -- that his economy is a basket case and his country is an international pariah.

He also knows that it's almost impossible for him to reform without putting his own government (and probably his life) at risk. While Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping was able to allow in investors from Taiwan and Hong Kong to jump-start his economy without having to worry that they would end up calling the shots, Kim faces an unhappy neighbor in South Korea whose economic strength means that any sort of perestroika-style economic modernization could quickly lead to loss of political control. Indeed, Kim is thought to have circulated videotapes of the execution of Romania's communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to North Korean communist party members, just to make sure they get the point.

Given such constraints, Kim's hysterical rhetoric, missile launches, and stentorian nuclear threats look like a cynical but logical strategy for blackmailing the world into handing over adequate food and money for him to keep his regime in business. Kim may be a dictator, but he's not deluded.

What's more, it's not just about Kim. No one should be expecting the regime to change even if Kim himself departs (a prospect much discussed since his recent bout of poor health). Although Kim has reportedly tapped his third son as his official heir, the day-to-day affairs of the country have been run for years by the Kim-headed National Defense Commission, and Kim's powerful brother-in-law, who recently joined it, is already positioned to act as regent should Kim Senior pass away. Even if 26-year-old Kim Jong Un actually becomes the putative new Great Dear Bright Amazing Leader, he's likely -- given his youth and inexperience -- to be a figurehead.

And even if this latest Kim is granted some measure of real power, you can forget all those hopeful news reports about the presumably liberalizing effect of his purported Swiss education. For Kim 3.0 will face the brutal reality that his father does: Any substantial opening will entail ceding control to the much more powerful South. For the moment, though, the North is gradually moving toward some form of collective leadership. Its aging members will be reluctant to vote for any sort of drastic reform, but they'll face the same sort of pressures that Kim does today.

Those pressures are only increasing as North Korea grows more open to the world than at any point in its 60-year history. Notwithstanding ritual media references to North Korea as "static" and "Orwellian," today's North Korea is a place where people make a living off private markets and international trade. In the mid-1990s the North's economic mismanagement compounded the damage from flooding, triggering an epochal famine that killed as many as 2 million people. The corresponding collapse of state-managed networks for the production and distribution of food forced many North Koreans -- including party members -- to look to their own devices to keep themselves fed (and the government increasingly looked away). In 2002 Kim's government tacitly acknowledged this when it pushed through a series of tentative economic reforms that essentially allowed this minimal market sector to continue existing.

Under the "sunshine policy" instituted by the late South Korean President Kim Dae Jung at the beginning of this century, the North and South dramatically boosted economic cooperation, spurring trade and travel and even creating two enclaves inside the North where Southern managers and tourists mingled with Northerners. The North did its best to restrict access, but knowledge and goods from both zones have spilled out -- perhaps one reason why Pyongyang has seen fit to crack down on both of them in recent months. One defector told Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick in 2005: "It is not the same old North Korea anymore except in name."

Lately, according to scholars such as Andrei Lankov at South Korea's Kookmin University, the government has been struggling to push back against the unwanted consequences of this reluctant liberalization. Not long ago a Japanese newspaper reported a new wave of raids by so-called "109 squads," special police units that sweep through villages in search of illicit videos and music from the South. As recently noted by members of parliament in Seoul, smuggled South Korean ramen noodles and whoopie pies are particularly prized by those in the North who can afford them. Kim Jong Il has reason to take such trifles seriously. The number of North Koreans who have voted with their feet over the past decade, leaving the country for economic and political reasons, is now probably in the hundreds of thousands.

Of course, North Korea still maintains a vast police state that includes a network of concentration camps spanning the country. And yet there are also intriguing signs that the government's power is no longer unlimited. As part of the campaign to reassert its authority, the central government has repeatedly tried to crack down on the grass-roots private markets that serve as the main source of sustenance for ordinary folk, but so far it has notably failed to make the measures stick. An attempt to close a key market in the city of Chongjin last year actually set off public protests. And a new set of tough regulations this year has proven mysteriously hard to implement -- perhaps because communist party officials now rely on the markets to stay alive themselves.

Yet the idea that the North has enclosed itself in an airtight seal remains a staple of international coverage. That may have been accurate in the past. But over the last 10 years the country's trade with China has mushroomed, and with the inflow of Chinese goods have also come video players, South Korean DVDs, and illicit Bibles. Defectors report the popularity of everything from South Korean boy bands to the movie Titanic. As a result, the regime's propaganda has largely lost its punch.

North Korea's growing dependence on cross-border trade also means that it's much more vulnerable to external pressure than is commonly recognized. Many North Korea watchers think that sanctions imposed by the administration of George W. Bush in 2005 played a crucial role in bringing Pyongyang back to the six-party talks a few months later; the sanctions proved effective because many Chinese banks shut down their business with the North for fear of losing access to the U.S. financial sector. And this year trade between China and North Korea has slipped perceptibly -- perhaps because a new round of U.N. sanctions, imposed after Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon last year, has also affected the North's financial dealings with Chinese partners. That could be one reason why Pyongyang has suddenly started making overtures to the international community again after months of saber rattling.

So let's try to forget the lazy assumption that Kim is simply unhinged. (For what it's worth, at least one of the U.S. officials to have dealt directly with him, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, has repeatedly insisted that "Kim is not a nut.") There's no question that the regime remains extremely dangerous to its own citizens -- and potentially to the outside world as well, through proliferation or desperate acts of aggression. And many experts warn that it's highly unlikely that Pyongyang will ever give up its nukes. The nuclear program is the only national success story that Kim Jong Il can really call his own, making it a key source of legitimacy at a time when his standing is weaker than ever. But that doesn't mean that outside powers should take off the pressure. Containing North Korea's threats to international security will continue to be a full-time job.

Illustration by Sean McCabe for FP

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