A vulnerable North Korea could have profound security implications
By SAMUEL RAMANI | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 6, 2015
On July 11, 2015, North Korea announced during a summit with Laos' military delegation that it had appointed a new defense chief, Gen. Pak Yong-Sik. This appointment indirectly confirmed the South Korean Intelligence Service's allegations that North Korea had executed Yong-Sik's predecessor, by close range anti-aircraft gunfire.
If this is true, it's the latest in a long string of executions. According to the South Korean foreign ministry, Kim Jong-Un has executed 70 government officials since he took power in late 2011. His father Kim Jong-Il had executed only 10 officials when he was four years into his rule.
Even by North Korea's draconian standards, Kim Jong-Un's repression of elites is extraordinary. It is especially striking that purges are occurring when there's no immediate leadership succession, the most common time for mass executions in totalitarian regimes.
And it suggests that in the Hermit Kingdom, turmoil is festering. North Korea is struggling to contain an economic catastrophe resulting from the worst drought in a century, which will cause more acute food shortages. When you add financial turmoil in China, the the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's principal international patron, the situation becomes even bleaker.
Despite these grave challenges, few political analysts expect the North Korean regime to collapse. Based on my research on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, I agree that the regime's complete implosion is unlikely in the near future.
But two trends suggest the regime is growing weaker. The first is North Korea's shift in how it suppresses discontent among elites. Instead of using patronage, as it has in the past, it is increasingly using violent purges. The second is a sudden thaw in relations between China and North Korea, which will likely result in more assistance coming North Korea's way.
North Korea's purges reveal that it can't just buy elite loyalty any more
Many people believe that North Korea is an irrational regime held together by a brutally repressive personality cult. That's not entirely accurate. In recent years, the North Korean regime has held onto the loyalty of the elites by buying them off with luxury goods and lavish building projects in Pyongyang.
Excluding the elite class, North Korea is a totalitarian state. It prevents popular unrest by isolating its citizens from the rest of the world and by relentlessly punishing would-be defectors with banishment in prison camps.
But totalitarianism doesn't explain how North Korea keeps its elites in line. In particular, the military possesses a sense of institutional identity and responsibility that could conflict with the regime's goals.
In their 2013 book "North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy and Society," Scott Snyder and Kyung Abe-Park describe Kim Jong-Il's military-first policy as a way of suppressing the military's independent identity. The military-first policy, codified in 1994, gives the Korean People's Army the lion's share of the North Korean government's financial resources. Through this policy, the North Korean authorities tacitly acknowledged that communism was losing its influence. The policy was also a modification of Kim Il-Sung's "Juche" ideology, which claimed that independence, a national economy, and an emphasis on self-defense would establish true socialism.
But as ideological bonds get weaker, patronage has become the glue that keeps the regime in power. North Korea's political and military elites flaunt luxury cars, high-tech products, and lavish jewelry. Those privileges prevented any en masse defections that could seriously threaten the Kim dynasty's stranglehold on power.
Right now there is no empirical evidence that the North Korean regime is losing its ability to buy off Pyongyang's elites or keep their standard of living stratospherically high, comparatively speaking. But the fact that the regime is resorting to violence is evidence that government patronage is not working as well as used to.
Why? There are two reasons.
If just anyone can be rich, the super-elite want to be super-rich
First, the economic benefits of patronage have been distributed more broadly over time. At first they were largely confined to the "selectorate," the fiercely loyal inner circle of elites who govern North Korea alongside Kim Jong-Un. According to Snyder and Abe-Park's estimates, in 2013, the selectorate was an exclusive group consisting of 200 to 5,000 prominent civilian and military officials.
But 1 million people are now classified as elites by the North Korean regime. According to economist Park Sung-jo, 200,000 to 300,000 of these elites have living standards so luxurious that they can be compared to affluent residents of New York City or Dubai.
Could the members of the selectorate resent sharing their prosperity? Here's my theory to explain the increase in executions: The military and political elites are demanding more extensive privileges to distinguish themselves from the newcomers. If that's true, North Korea's dire economic conditions may mean the regime simply cannot meet these officials' demands. Purges could be the only way Kim Jong-Un can preempt coordinated resistance within the regime's inner circle.
Second, North Korea under Kim Jong-Un has suffered ideological factionalism. This factionalism has been sparked by disagreements on the DPRK's relationship with China and on the implementation of the military-first policy. Elites with dissenting views cannot be easily bought off, as these views are based on deeply held principles or vital personal interests.
Kim Jong-Un publicly admitted to divisions within the North Korean government by describing the 2013 execution of his uncle as the removal of "factionalist filth." Factional divisions in North Korea predate this 2013 execution, as North Korean defector First Lieutenant Kim reported deep divisions over the appointment of Kim Jong-Un as Kim Jong-il's successor as early as late 2010.
In addition to previously mentioned disagreements on foreign and military policy, factional divisions have been triggered by North Korea's deplorable economic conditions and the populace's slight increase in its ability to learn about the world through access to independent media sources.
Despite North Korea's economic woes and increased public awareness, visible dissent is still largely confined to within the military ranks. For example, a moderate sect within the military pressured Kim Jong-Un for larger food rations for soldiers.
But Kim Jong-Un's official view is that North Korea should invest in technological development over the welfare of the armed forces -- and so he purged this sect from the North Korean military. Gen. Pyon In Son, the head of operations of the North Korean military, was executed in January 2015, as Kim Jong-Un tightened his grip over the Korean People's Army.
Since its harder to buy off people's principles, the only way to silence differences is repression -- much as, after World War II, Kim il-Sung (Kim Jong-Un's grandfather, who ruled from 1948-1994), systematically purged his ranks of both pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet opposition factions.
China has been North Korea's primary international patron, and since the end of the Cold War, its principal supplier of food, arms and energy.
But under Kim Jong-Un, the relationship has become increasingly strained. After KimJong-Un launched a missile in 2012, China supported extended U.N. sanctions against North Korea -- the first sign of cooling ties.
China has continued to signal great disapproval of many of North Korea's actions since then. The DPRK's most contentious actions include continued nuclear tests without Chinese consent, and Kim Jong-Un's December 2013 execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was a crucial Beijing ally.
When the DPRK escalated its nuclear technology development, China suspended crude oil exports to North Korea in 2014 and openly called for the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Wavering Chinese support can explain North Korea's increased strategic cooperation with Russia.
And yet China appears to be reconciling with North Korea, even though the isolated nation hasn't modified its policies. Last week, Kim Jong-Un honored Chinese victims of the Korean War for the first time since 2013. China will be investing in a North Korean port-building project, and Kim Jong-Un will be visiting Beijing in September 2015, at the Chinese government's invitation.
Why did China change its behavior? Beijing fears that the drought severely threatens the North Korean economy. North Korea's main source of energy is hydropower, which is threatened by the drought. And because of the drought, Pyongyang is sending office workers to help farmers plant rice, hurting national productivity. In contrast to North Korea's denials of the 1990s famine, the current drought has been widely reported on in the North Korean media, which will increase pressure on Kim Jong-Un and bolster moderates resistant to the military-first policy.
All this means North Korea's risk for instability is heightened. China's conduct is probably a tacit acknowledgement that the North Korean regime is vulnerable. And if that gets worse, China could have a harder time countering the U.S.'s current push to gain more leverage in the Asia-Pacific region.
In short, North Korea's regime has gotten weaker and more vulnerable. The economic troubles, the surge in executions and the surprise turnaround in relations with China can't be dismissed as business as usual. These are uncharacteristic and anomalous trends that suggest serious underlying problems -- and could have profound security implications for the Korean peninsula and the Pacific region as a whole.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy.