Op-Ed from today’s WSJ – as I said, this situation merits attention, especially given N. Korea’s supposed nuclear capabilities:
The Son Also Falls
By JASPER BECKER
November 24, 2004
BEIJING – Is North Korea’s regime finally cracking? That question lies is behind the buzz of excitement prompted by last week’s story that dictator Kim Jong Il wants to tone down his personality cult, no longer wants people to call him the “Dear Leader” and has ordered some of his portraits removed. Perhaps it is a long-awaited sign of the start of political reform. But it is best to be skeptical.
Provided the information is true, North Koreans will probably just assume the orders are just another mad whim from the palace. For 20 years they have heard contradictory orders about possible reforms and it is far too late to restore confidence in Kim Jong Il’s leadership.
In the 10 years since his father’s mysterious death, Kim Jong Il has not produced anything resembling a coherent strategy, let alone a plan, for his troubled country. The reason none of the government or party institutions now function is that he decides everything.
At times he was authorized markets but at other times he has thrown traders into jail or executed them in public. Some days he talks of setting up the Pyongyang stock market, the next day he wants to go back to central planning.
Every few weeks another brilliant idea pops in the mind of the greatest genius known to mankind: everyone should eat hamburgers, or everyone should stop smoking, or they can watch Star TV and log onto the internet. Sometimes he thinks women shouldn’t wear red trousers or sit on the back of bicycles because it is indecent.
One of the prices to pay for this erratic behavior is that Kim often has to repeat his latest instructions several times. People are often too frightened to obey in case it is a trick and they are dragged off to the prison camps for showing disloyalty. Slavish loyalty is the country’s only currency, but even that has been devalued.
When his father died in 1994, South Koreans were convinced that Kim Jong Il was a young technocrat and a closet reformer. American scholar Selig Harrison believed that Kim was engaging in “reform by stealth” and so we should patiently help him along.
Yet by now the Kim dynasty is beyond saving through any kind of grand diplomatic bargain. Over three million North Koreans are dead and the survivors are stunted, sick and bitter. They blame Kim Jong Il and hate him in a way they never hated his father, Kim Il Sung.
They think he hid the collapse of the economy from his father. People were starving to death in the 1980s when Kim Jong Il persuaded his father to accelerate the nuclear weapons program and inflate the size of the military.
Kim Jong Il may have felt vindicated by these policy choices when so many other fellow Communist tyrants were swept away after 1989, but he is only just hanging on. Parts of the military rejected him from the start. When even in 1992 many units had to establish special wards for the recruits dying from edema, some officers felt they had to do something.
Refugees speak of plots to assassinate Kim Jong Il in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1995. In Pyongyang he narrowly escaped an attempt in March 1998 and another in 2001. This year, he escaped by minutes a massive explosion at Ryonchon as his train passed on the way back from China.
By 1998 even members of the military and party elites were dying of hunger and Kim was forced to impose martial law in key industrial cities like Kimchaek, Nampo, Hyesan, and Sinuiju, North Korean refugees have told me. For instance, in February 1998 troops backed by 150 tanks occupied Songrim where the steel mill had shut down and hundreds of workers had already died of hunger. The troops stayed there for three months, staged public executions and send hundreds into the camps, a North Korean couple who say they witnessed the event told me.
Anyone who succeeded in launching an uprising could count on widespread support. Almost all refugees report seeing slogans such as “Down with Kim Jong Il” painted on walls, pylons and railway carriages and throughout the country. Statures and murals of the Kims have been defaced and destroyed. The halls erected for the worship of the Kim family have been burnt down and sometimes the mutilated bodies of officials have been found killed in their homes, refugees have told me.
There have been reports of smaller incidents nearly everywhere, like riots at food distribution centers at the small provincial town of Pangsan, Yongan Province, or Hamgyon near Taechon, on the east coast, where people stoned Kim Jong Il’s portrait in the railway station. In one major incident in 1998 Kim sent 5,000 troops by helicopters into Orang county on the east coast to put down protests over food shortages. The area was sealed off and soldiers erected road blocks amid reports that up to 500 people died.
A Ministry of Public Security issued a decree in 1997 warning that those looting, stealing, selling or trading in food would be shot. Refugees from Hamkyong Province in the north told me how they were forced to attend public rallies at which those accused of stealing food or engaging in illegal private trading were garroted, burned at the stake or shot. In one incident refugees described how five men caught stealing grain stored in the railway station were executed in Musan, three by being garroted. In response pamphlets calling for Kim’s overthrow and for market reforms were found in street markets in Hamhung, Chongjin, Sunchon and even in Pyongyang.
That all attempts to overthrow Kim have so far failed have led many to conclude that it is probably best to deal with him, as the Clinton Administration tried throughout the 1990s. Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, who drafted a 1999 report recommending engagement with the regime argued on U.S. public television last year that that “there was no evidence at all that pressure would cause that regime to collapse. They have an iron police state in North Korea, and the misery of the people was not likely, in our judgment, to lead to a popular overthrow of the government.”
Perhaps he is right, but North Koreans have tried. And Kim probably came closest to losing power in 1998 just when South Korean president Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy started to deliver a steady supply of extra food and cash. No gesture that Kim now makes to placate anger against him will do. Without outside help, Kim Jong Il cannot hope to preserve his dynasty.
Mr. Becker is Author of “Rogue State: the continuing threat of North Korea,” to be published next year by Oxford University Press, New York.