North Korea stands apart from the rest of East Asia. In a region known for robust economic growth, integration, and long-term planning, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—North Korea’s formal name—is the only country in East Asia that is poor, isolated, and appears to have little grasp for thinking in terms of the longue durée. North Korea’s leadership is focused exclusively on the tactical challenges of short-term regime survival. In this way, the Pyongyang elite constitute a throwback to the most morbid tyrannies of antiquity, akin to the fantastic descriptions of ceremonial politics and intrigues that we find in the annals of the Old Testament, Herodotus, and Gibbon.
Contrast this with the rest of the region. In the past fifty years, Northeast Asia has risen from a backwater devastated by war to become the economic, political, and military center of the early twenty-first century. Its dominant powers—China, Japan, South Korea, and, because of its presence and interests in the area, the United States—lead the world in economic growth, technological innovation, and military strength. But they are all quietly thinking about North Korea’s longue durée. They all recognize that North Korea could collapse, and are maneuvering themselves to prepare for such a contingency. Yet they are also aware that Pyongyang could survive its current challenges but evolve into something new and different, and each of these countries has an idea of what it would prefer North Korea to become. The stage is set, therefore, for some of the twenty-first century’s great powers to compete, cooperate, or potentially enter into conflict over this, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
Whatever the future may hold for the DPRK, the present is certainly weird and horrific. Recently, at the first conclave of the Korean Workers’ Party since 1980—when the current ruler, Kim Jong-il, was introduced to the world—Kim’s son, Kim Jong-un, the next in line to lead the hermetic regime, was similarly unveiled. Kim Jong-un, in his mid- or late-twenties, was made a four-star general, though he has no military experience. Hailed as the “brilliant comrade” by the regime’s propaganda machine, Kim Jong-un was also appointed vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Military Commission. He is rumored to have undergone plastic surgery, in order to more closely resemble his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who founded the North Korean state in 1948 and continues in death to hold the title of president.
North Korea’s entire raison d’etre is now the preservation of the Paektusan bloodline, a reference to the sacred volcanic mountain where Kim Jong-il was supposedly born. (In reality, he was born in the Soviet Union.) Because the twenty-something Kim Jong-un is obviously inexperienced and lacks a military and party network to support his claims to power, regents have been appointed. Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyonghui, has also been named a four-star general, raising her to the status of Imperial Aunt. Her husband, Jang Song-taek, has been promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, which controls the military and other domestic security forces. Generational cohorts in the military have been promoted, in order to keep the armed forces content with the regime, even as other officers and civilians—presumably malcontents—have disappeared in purges thinly disguised as mysterious car accidents.
As brutal and opaque as regime politics in North Korea may be today, comparisons with purge-ridden Eastern European Communist systems in the late 1940s and early 1950s prior to de-Stalinization don’t quite capture the unreal ambience of the DPRK. The Kim family regime is actually more evocative of early- and mid-twentieth-century Japanese militarism with its focus on ethnic purity and the centrality of the state and military power, as well as of Romanian Communism in the 1970s and 1980s under Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, whose very promotion of Romanian peasant culture and emphasis on the ruling family also contained fascistic elements. Because one cannot overestimate the salience of human intrigue, greed, loyalty, and passion that play out behind closed doors of such secretive environments, regime politics in Pyongyang are more than Herodotean; they are, in fact, deeply Shakespearean.
Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, a member of the Defense Policy Board, and the author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Abraham M. Denmark is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where he directs the Asia-Pacific Security Program.
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