Underestimating Jong Un

‘Western optimists like to assume North Korea is on the verge of implosion. But the hermit kingdom is not going to collapse any time soon’

International Military

A history of wishful thinking would be a valuable aid to studying international relations. Arab liberals and secularists demonstrate against dictators, and the BBC and Channel 4 herald a new democratic dawn. Instead, the patient and steely Muslim Brotherhood comes to power and “Morsellini” neuters the army and then Egypt’s courts. Cuba? Property laws are slightly relaxed, and before you know it, Western optimists are predicting life after the Castros. Syria? Assad will fall like Gaddafi, except he has a lethal airforce and Iranian and Russian backing.

And then there’s the hemline theory of history. The wife of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, Ri Sol-ju, shows a bit more leg and flaunts a Dior handbag, while her husband larks about with the British ambassador at an amusement park. The hermit kingdom must be on the verge of collapse if Coca-Cola is available in Pyongyang. Except it isn’t, according to the company. 

 North Korea is not going to collapse any time soon. It has a powerful military that consumes a third of the budget. Leaving aside nuclear weapons, it has 13,000 artillery pieces that could blast Seoul in about 45 seconds. Carefully calibrated nuclear sabre-rattling—firing missiles including ICBMs over the neighbours—enables the regime to extort the food shipments that alleviate mass starvation. Malnutrition is hard to disguise: the average North Korean seven-year-old is eight inches shorter and 22lbs lighter than his South Korean equivalent. The family dictatorship has so many secret police agencies it cannot keep track of them. If one of the pictures of Kim Il-sung each citizen must display at home is dusty or off-centre, it’s six months in a labour camp. Punishment is transgenerational too. Some long-dead ancestor who collaborated with the Japanese can result in an entire family being incarcerated. The 26,000 exiles living in Seoul are not safe either. A North Korean assassin was recently captured with a Bond-like arsenal of “Q”-type equipment, including pens which deliver lethal toxins.

Chinese investors who have given up on the “liberalised” economic zones Pyongyang established south of the Yalu are a revealing source for how the regime operates. Most have left after experiencing North Korean shakedowns. They say that about three million people live a conspicuously better life in the “Republic of Pyongyang”, with access to luxury goods, nice apartments and good restaurants. This satisfied elite keeps the Kim dynasty in power.

But the Kims know that ideology counts too. As in Russia, where Putin combines pseudo-18th-century costume balls for the oligarchs with Orthodoxy and crude chauvinism for the masses, so the North Koreans have concocted their own peninsular story. 

Last April, big images of Marx and Lenin were removed from the capital’s Kim Il-sung Square. Instead, the regime has reverted to the doctrine of juche, which means national primacy rather than “self-reliance”. There is even a Tower of the Juche Idea in Pyongyang, each of its 25,550 concrete blocks symbolising a day of Kim Il-sung’s life. For juche is indistinguishable from “Kimilsungism”, the belief that the family’s primordial dynast was superior in every respect to Soviet or Chinese exemplars. 

This doctrine relies on what one might dub an autocephalous view of Korean history. There was no such thing as prehistoric migration. Since legend has it that the first Korean state was established by Tangun, son of a god and a female bear, in 1993 archaeologists discovered the very cave (near Pyongyang) where Baby Tangun and Mummy Bear dwelled in 3000 BC. Since great rivers are cradles of civilisation, so a “Taedong River Culture” was invented to rival those of the Mesopotamia, Nile and Yellow rivers. All external influences on the Korean language and early state formation (notably those of the Han Chinese) are erased in favour of autogenesis, with each sign of progress miraculously coterminous with the grim state north of the 38th parallel.

Kim Jong-un seems to have made short work of anyone who questioned his fitness for office. The purged army chief died in a gunfight with security agents, while his army vice-minister was obliterated by a mortar round after Kim said he wanted “no trace of him, down to his hair”. Kim has decreed that farmers can keep a greater proportion of crops that otherwise go into a state rationing system. Apparently 60 per cent of defectors to South Korea admit to getting food from markets outside that system anyway. So the “Shining Sun” Kim Jong-un is not going to suffer total eclipse, and all those who condescendingly titter about this weirdly murderous enclave of chauvinism and paranoia will have much more to laugh about in future. But their wishes will not become reality.