Danger zone

With Kim Jong Il’s failing health, relations with North Korea are more fraught than ever before

Danger zoneIt’s been quite the year for North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom rang in July 4 by test-firing seven short-range missiles. In May, Pyongyang, the prime suspect in a cyberattack that knocked out the websites of several U.S. agencies, tested a nuclear weapon as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—two days after tearing up the truce that ended the Korean War. Since April, it has also walked away from disarmament talks, restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyong, tossed out international monitors and aid workers, jailed two U.S. reporters, and cranked up war rhetoric against rival South Korea. No, it’s not the first time Pyongyang has threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of fire or put its one-million-strong army on high alert. But combined with the naming of an heir—Kim Jong Il has apparently appointed his third son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, to succeed him, according to South Korean intelligence—it amounts to a lot of noise from Dear Leader’s regime.

Not since Kim Jong Il took power in 1994 following the death of his dictator father, amid purges, suicides and helicopter crashes, has North Korea’s behaviour appeared so erratic, say top Pyongyang watchers. Yet one thing seems clear: the tub-thumping is aimed at a domestic audience, first and foremost. To North Koreans, it suggests that Kim, dramatically reduced by a stroke (and, if recent reports are true, suffering from pancreatic cancer), remains fierce and in charge. That same message is also aimed at anyone who might attempt to capitalize on his now unmistakable physical weakness. A coup is every dictator’s biggest threat; according to Chinese leaks he has faced such attempts as recently as the late ’90’s. And for Kim the current danger is real: North Korea is effectively bankrupt, he can barely afford to keep the lights on or deliver basic food, and instability is said to be mounting. For all anyone knows, there could already be a power struggle in this state sealed off from the outside world. “If there is an incipient coup under way or being planned,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, “we will be the last to know.”

Kim looks haggard. Even state media cannot conceal it. The potbelly is gone, his skin is pallid and his left arm appears paralyzed. The new, hardline shift in foreign policy is “directly related,” says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at Washington’s Center for International Policy. Kim, who needs the backing of nuclear hard-liners to stay the course as he paves the way for the handover of power, has “greatly reduced” his work schedule, says Harrison. Day-to-day management has been turned over to his brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek (he returned to favour in 2006, having been purged in 2004 amid rumours he was building a rival power base). In April, Chang joined the hawkish National Defence Commission, the government’s de facto top organ, which recently grew from eight to 13 members: the biggest it’s ever been. The enlargement suggests it is being developed as the core of a military-dominated collective leadership (as in Burma)—all still ostensibly loyal to Kim.

Two months earlier, Yonhap, South Korea’s biggest news agency, reported that Chang had shifted support to Kim Jong Un (from Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam), and will engineer the succession. Chang and others may well be playing along now, but when Kim dies the gloves might come off. “There is deep political uncertainty about what is going to happen after he passes,” says Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. But for now, “individuals and institutions within that system have a strong incentive to demonstrate their loyalty. Everyone wants to show how ‘down with the program’ they are—a dynamic that lends itself to ratcheting up behaviour or exaggerating conservative or reactionary tendencies.”

Alarmingly, one area where this may be occurring is in Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy. For 20 years the regime has been playing nuclear chicken with the world: escalating tensions only to exploit them by returning to the negotiating table and winning cash, oil and goodwill in return. But the recent tests have raised stakes higher than usual. According to the going hypothesis, they are more than just posturing. “Some months ago a decision was made in Pyongyang to go nuclear at all costs,” says Paul Evans, an expert in Asia-Pacific security issues at the University of British Columbia. North Korean officials make no bones about their desire to be recognized as a nuclear-armed state. The test in May, believed to have been up to 20 times as powerful as North Korea’s first nuclear test almost three years ago, was felt as far away as China’s northeastern Jilin province—and brought them one step closer.

Like his father, Kim trusts only his relatives when it comes to top security organs. Unlike his father, who ruled through North Korea’s political wing, Kim took power with very little support from the Korean Workers Party. Instead, he is “totally dependant on the military,” and needs its support to designate a successor, says Jennifer Lind, an East Asia specialist at Dartmouth College. Whether the transition takes, however, is far from clear, says Noland. “Rivalries within family, the party and military make this very complex.”

So far, Pyongyang hasn’t made any official announcements. But according to South Korean intelligence, North Korea’s embassies and consulates have been told that Kim has designated his third-born son as his successor. And soldiers are said to have adopted a new slogan: With all our hearts, let’s protect Kim Jong Un, the young general, the morning star general who inherits the bloodline of Paektu. Unofficial confirmation may have come via his eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 38, who was considered his father’s natural successor until 2001, when he was nabbed trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Interviewed by a Japanese TV station in the Chinese gambling haven of Macau, he said yes, the succession reports were true. The other brother, middle son Kim Jong Chul, 28, was reportedly deemed “too effeminate” by Kim Sr. (as for his daughters, well, gender parity turned out to have been another of Communism’s failed promises).

Most of what is known about the next Kim—a “big drinker” with a fondness for basketball, menthol cigarettes and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies—comes not via the CIA or South Korea’s national intelligence service but from Kim Jong Il’s former sushi chef: Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym), who worked for Kim for 20 years and became a kind of companion. Jong Un, he wrote in his memoir, I was Kim Jong Il’s Chef, was one of at least five children born to Kim by three different mothers. He and his elder brother Jong Chul were born to Kim’s third wife, Ko Young Hee: a Japanese-born dancer who died from breast cancer five years ago. As a child, he drove a Mercedes-Benz with special pedals and seat around the grounds of the Kim home. Dubbed the “Cute Leader” by the CIA, Jong Un is said to have have attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland, and to have continued studies at Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang. A portly five foot nine, he is believed to be the spitting image of his father; like Kim Sr., he is thought to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure.

But even as the succession drama plays out, the elder Kim has put millions of his countrymen at risk of starvation by shunning humanitarian assistance, inducing sanctions, and rolling back economic liberalization. In March, Pyongyang rejected all food aid from the U.S.—since the famine, the single largest food donor—kicked out five aid groups, and has failed to request customary deliveries from the South. Aid has dried up anyway in the wake of the nuclear test, says the UN World Food Programme. The UNWFP has received just 15 per cent of the US$504 million needed for the lean months leading up to North Korea’s November harvest, and is scaling back a planned relief operation to reach 6.2 million people to just two million. Already, nearly 40 per cent of children are “chronically malnourished,” according to UN data.

Last year, even after North Korea posted one of its strongest growth performances of the decade, its economic growth rate still ranked 213th in the world (ahead of only Zimbabwe and three others). The bottom fell out in the nineties, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union—and the end of preferential trading and friendship prices—and outdated technology and infrastructure. Within a few years GDP was halved, cratering in the late ’90s, when a preventable famine that has killed as many as 3.5 million people (at least one-twentieth of the population, which stands at 23 million people) began.

Starved of cash, North Korea turned to illicit revenue sources. Last month, the Washington Post unearthed evidence of a global insurance fraud, which has netted hundreds of millions of dollars on large and suspicious claims for fires, train accidents and floods from insurers including giants Allianz Global Investors and Lloyd’s of London. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have for years linked the regime to weapons exports to Iran, Syria and Pakistan—which earn Pyongyang $100 million per year—and the trafficking of narcotics and counterfeit currency and cigarettes. (“Like the mob—but with nukes,” is how Eberstadt characterizes the regime.)

Beijing, which spends 30 to 50 per cent of its foreign aid budget on Pyongyang, also accounts for nearly three-quarters of North Korea’s total trade. Pyongyang is counting on continued Chinese support, yet opinion in China, which appears to have been caught unaware by the recent nuclear test, conducted 80 km from its border, is shifting. Media has been scathing: an editorial in the South China Morning Post said it showed how “out of step” the “isolationist regime” had become “with the world in the 21st century.” Beijing itself has taken an increasingly critical stance on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Last month, it voted in favour of wide-ranging UN sanctions because of nuclear tests it “resolutely” opposes—tantamount to a public spanking.

But when Kim misbehaves, Beijing is the biggest loser. His antics encourage South Korea and Japan to build up their own militaries and debate whether they too should go nuclear—a disastrous scenario for China, which nurses ambitions of replacing the U.S. as the region’s dominant power. At the same time, the regime’s weakness is a danger for Beijing. Not only would a fallen North Korea potentially unleash several million semi-starved refugees over the border, but potential unification of the country under Seoul would create a large, democratic, pro-American ally on its border.

Yet China is not the only nation that has an interest in North Korea’s continued existence. A breakdown of the regime would have a global effect because it would require the “mother of all humanitarian interventions,” says Lind, who, with a colleague at the RAND Corp., is mapping the military, policing and humanitarian missions needed to stabilize and demobilize the well-armed North. They figure that some 300,000 soldiers would be required—more than the combined number dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan. Further complicating things, many of North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons program sites and military installations are buried in a maze of underground tunnels. The spectre of loose nukes is even more “horrifying,” thanks to the regime’s extensive smuggling ties, including rumoured links to mafias across East Asia. And unless South Korea was encouraged by a huge infusion of Western aid, it is unlikely that the world’s 15th largest economy will readily entertain German-style reunification—which, 20 years on, still hasn’t fully taken.

“You could go broke betting against North Korea,” says Noland, whose most famous work—a 12-year-old piece for Foreign Affairs, titled “Why North Korea will muddle through”—explained the regime’s remarkable endurance. “That said, this time somehow feels different.” Different—and more dangerous. “Totalitarian regimes close to demise are apt to get panicky and do rash things,” U.S. journalist Robert Kaplan once wrote. The situation in North Korea is deteriorating fast. Positions are hardening all around, including in Beijing. At this point, says Evans, the chance of an inadvertent escalation from even a small incident looks increasingly likely; a military confrontation, he adds, is “far more likely” than at any point in the past two decades.