War Stories

Will North Korea Stay Crazy?

We know practically nothing about its new leader and what he might do. That’s scary.

Deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (above) named his son Kim Jong-un his successor

Photo by Damdmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images.

Kim Jong-il, the pygmy tyrant of North Korea, is dead at the age of 69. His 28-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, now assumes the throne of Pyongyang. According to various press analyses, the new leader is either a bumbling naïf or a clever, multilingual operator who’s already formed alliances with key generals. He will either push market reforms or preserve the status quo. He will reach out to the West or step up confrontation or do neither.

Here’s the real answer: We really don’t know much of anything.

And by “we,” I don’t mean just the pundits. A few years ago, when the elder Kim was said to have suffered a stroke, and rumors churned of a succession crisis, I asked a fairly senior U.S. official whether even our intelligence agencies had much insight into the dynamics of internal North Korean politics. The official replied, “No.”

The country’s nickname is, after all, the Hermit Kingdom. Intelligence analysts pore over the government news agency’s stories and photographs and debrief defectors, learning about who sits where, and which officials are up or down. But little of substance is known about what any of these people really think or what policies they favor.

For instance, it is known that Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek is a powerful figure in the North Korean military. It is widely suspected that Jang will act as a sort of regent to his nephew, the one who trains him and keeps him in line. But it’s not at all known whether Jang is a military hardliner, an economic reformer, or what.

Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, says the regime’s politics are similar to the Soviet Union’s under Stalin, with one important difference: They are overlaid with a dynastic element, which underlies the ruling party’s claim to legitimacy.

Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-il’s father, was the first leader of North Korea, beginning in 1945, when the peninsula was split into two nations, the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea in the south. He was a guerrilla fighter, battling against Japan in the Second World War . Afterward, he mythologized his record into that of a “Great Leader” (his nickname forever after) whose triumphs secured Korea’s independence. Since then, the Korean Workers’ Party, the Kim family, and a nationalist ideology of Kim Il Sung’s invention have survived as the inseparable elements of a single package.

This package ensured Kim Jong-il’s ascension to the throne after Kim Il Sung died in 1994. And it will probably ensure that Kim Jong-un is at least given a lot of leeway.

There is, however, a difference between the two successors. Kim Jong-il was 52 when he succeeded his father. He’d been groomed for office, and had held senior posts in the party and the regime for a quarter-century. By contrast, Kim Jong-un was a total unknown until January 2009, when suddenly his father designated him as the successor. (Kim had two older sons, but they were deemed unsuitable; one had stirred a scandal by trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport, so he could visit Disneyland.) The following spring, Jong-un, despite a lack of military experience, was appointed to the National Defense Commission. In October 2010, he was elevated to the commission’s vice chairman with the rank of four-star general.

When Kim Jong-il became leader, he continued his father’s policies and displayed a similar shrewdness for handling power. Kim Il Sung had regarded North Korea as a “guerrilla state” that would operate—as Scott Snyder put it in Negotiating on the Edge, a brilliant book about the Kims’ diplomatic style—as “a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything.” Kim also (rightly) saw North Korea as “a shrimp among whales,” and so maximized his leverage by playing the whales—the much larger, often hostile nations all around him—off one another. One way of doing that was to sow an atmosphere of constant “drama and catastrophe,” which also served to rationalize his repressive domestic policies.

Kim Jong-il played this weak hand no less capably than did his father, threatening to launch wars, build and fire nuclear weapons, unleash terror of various kinds—using the threats as blackmail to obtain much-needed economic assistance, in the form of food, electrical power plants, or (through various banking schemes, which went unexamined for many years) hard currency.

The Kims were particularly agile at playing their great neighbor, and at the moment best ally, China. In recent years, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have tried to persuade the Chinese to join them pressuring North Korea—through sanctions and other means—to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. Nearly all of North Korea’s trade comes through China. If anyone has leverage over Pyongyang on these matters, it’s the leaders of Beijing.

But the Chinese are willing to go down this road only so far. They have no interest in seeing North Korea build a substantial atomic arsenal. Yet they have even less interest in seeing its regime collapse, which would probably send millions of North Koreans dashing for the Chinese border, creating a humanitarian crisis that Beijing has no desire or ability to deal with.

Nor do the Chinese have a lot of interest in relaxing the region’s tensions. As long as Pyongyang appears to be a threat, the United States will keep a certain share of its military forces bottled up in northeastern Asia to protect South Korea and Japan—and, therefore, fewer forces further south, to protect Taiwan and the South China Sea from China’s own power-balancing act.

It’s unclear what Kim Jong-Il’s death means for the prospects of nuclear arms control. There were rumors, earlier this month, of a possible bargain by which the United States would send 250,000 tons of grain to the North Koreans, in exchange for the suspension of their uranium-enrichment program. The U.S. envoy to North Korea, Glyn Davies, was scheduled to return to Beijing next week for discussions about possibly reviving the long-moribund Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nukes.

The truth of these reports, much less the chance that the new North Korean leader will be in any position to act on them any time soon, is not known.

Soon after Kim Jong-il came to power, he and the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium program and opened up its reprocessing plant to Western inspectors. But Kim Il Sung had started these talks. The various ministries were all behind them; Jong-il simply continued what was already in motion.

In the final weeks of his presidency, Clinton sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang for talks on a ban of missiles. Twelve hours of face-to-face talks were held—Albright, Kim Jong-il, and their respective staffs. Some of Albright’s assistants—including Wendy Sherman and Robert Einhorn, who now work in Hillary Clinton’s State Department—later said that Kim seemed very alert and competent; he knew most of the issues very well, and made decisions without ever consulting the officials around him.

Soon after George W. Bush entered the White House, his secretary of state, Colin Powell said at a press conference that he would pick up on those missile talks where Clinton left off. Bush made it clear that no such talks would take place, and Powell was told to backpedal.

Bush and Dick Cheney were interested in defeating evil, not making deals with it. They not only stopped the talks, but canceled the Agreed Framework. The North Koreans resumed churning out plutonium. Occasionally they sent word, through intermediaries, that they’d like to make a deal. Again, Bush wasn’t interested.

Finally, in October 2006, they detonated a nuclear bomb. Then Bush suddenly did get interested in talks, but it was too late. A deal was finally struck, but it was full of loopholes and had no effect.

When Barack Obama entered the White House, he was initially interested in resuming serious talks with the North Koreans. But now Kim Jong-il was resistant. It soon became clear that talking with the North Koreans was pointless and that the best thing to do was simply to ignore their antics, stop playing their game.

But the North Koreans do have nukes, perhaps as many as a dozen (even though they’ve tested only two bombs, each of very small explosive yield). They are working on missiles (even if all three of their long-range missile tests have fizzled). An unstable country with these sorts of things can’t be ignored for very long. Nor can it simply be bombarded. As the Joint Chiefs made clear to Clinton and Bush, when they entertained the notion, we don’t know where all their facilities are, and they have a few thousand artillery rockets near the South Korean border, which they might fire at Seoul in retaliation, easily killing 1 million or more civilians.

At some point, then, the game will start again. What the stakes and tactics will be, no one knows. Much of what happens will depend on a dynastic inheritor, not yet 30 years of age, about whose character, style, disposition, intelligence, and just about everything else, we know very little. That’s nerve-racking.

If North Korea’s new leader is smart, he will play on that fact. He will, at certain key moments, behave like a loon. And that will raise two further questions: Is the craziness strategic, or is it real? And which of those two possibilities is more dangerous?