With Kim Jong Il’s promotion of two family members to senior military posts in time for the historic Workers’-party conference in Pyongyang last week, the Communist world’s latest succession crisis officially got under way. Actually, “promotion” may not be the right word, given that neither the Dear Leader’s 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Eun, nor his 64-year-old sister, Kim Kyong Hui, had held military positions of any significance before they were elevated to the rank of four-star generals.
For the surreal North Korean regime, these days must seem like the Twilight of the Gods. The state’s unification strategy, its raison d’être since the “military first” doctrine emerged in the early 1960s, has visibly and utterly failed. The people have been starving for decades. The government is almost friendless. The state religion — a grotesque amalgam of Stalinism, Confucian collectivism, and god-worship of the Kim dynasty — is melting into a tide from all sides. They have nuclear weapons, which must feel a bit like wielding a Götterhammer, but it has gotten them precious little of what they hoped for. Perhaps most important, Red China’s emergence as a major capitalist power presages nothing good for this aging and decrepit relic of Stalinism. In an inversion of the Wagnerian tragedy, the dwarf has been undone by the mighty.
The tide around the “fortress of socialism” is rising particularly on the Yalu River. North Korea’s remote border with China runs most of the course of the Yalu. On the other side of the Yalu, China’s economic miracle is approaching relentlessly. The thriving metropolis of Shenyang, one of China’s ten largest cities, and Daidan, one of its principal ports, are but a few hours’ drive by freeway from the border town of Dandong.
The once-forbidding border has opened up considerably, partly because of official policy and partly because of the extent to which the North Korean black market — which survives on official corruption — has eroded the internal authority of the regime. Both governments still work hard to keep anybody from getting out of North Korea, but hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees have nonetheless escaped to China and South Korea, vastly improving our understanding of daily life in the Hermit Kingdom.
As chronicled by Korea experts such as Prof. Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University, in Seoul, the refugees paint a picture of a decaying dystopia. In today’s North Korea, illicit trade is the principal means of subsistence — only a small fraction of the people’s nutritional needs comes from official rations, by some estimates as little as 6 percent of their caloric intake. Moreover, the illicit trade has flourished inside the government’s own infrastructure: Bribery allows traders to “rent” space on the government’s own trains and trucks, and even to pay “duties” at border checkpoints.
According to one refugee, only schoolchildren undergoing indoctrination at official party camps any longer believe official propaganda about the shining success of North Korea and the pervasiveness of squalid conditions elsewhere. Chiefly because of the flood of black-market videocassette recorders and cheap South Korean videos in the last ten years, North Koreans now know what they could not have known before — namely, that it is they who live in squalor while their fellow Koreans to the south enjoy breathtaking material comfort.
After the ruinous famines that followed the end of Soviet subsidies (a million North Koreans or more may have died in the mid-1990s), the regime is said to have toyed with market reforms. But, writing in the journal Asia Policy, Lankov argues persuasively that the regime was merely trying to adjust to the reality of a new informal market that had arisen in the failure of the state’s own food-distribution system. In the last five years, as increased trade and aid have relieved some of the pressure on Pyongyang, North Korea has once again embraced economic and political repression — and confrontation with its adversaries abroad.
As George Kennan wrote of the Soviet Union in his Long Telegram at the dawn of the Cold War, understanding the sources of North Korean conduct involves questions so “intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought,” that any assessment is hazardous. But one thing seems increasingly clear: If you really want to understand North Korea’s behavior, shift your focus from Pyongyang to Beijing.