By JOSEPH WEBSTER
WASHINGTON — With recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, this is a complex period for South-North relations. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in more than a month, a high-level North Korean delegation recently traveled (unannounced and without Kim) to Incheon, South Korea, to meet with their counterparts in the Seoul government, and a North Korean diplomat just last week acknowledged for the first time that labor camps exist in the country and that Pyongyang intends to conduct a human rights dialogue with the European Union.
As these developments unfold, we sat down with Eunjung Lim, a visiting assistant professor of Korea Studies at SAIS, to try to make sense of what’s going on in North Korea today.
Dr. Lim, thank you for meeting with The Observer today. Although reading North Korean intentions is often a fool’s errand, it seems increasingly likely that the North Korean government may be signaling that they want to engage with the outside world. However, the North Korean government also has a history of using peace talks as a mechanism to obtain aid and strengthen the regime without changing its fundamental characteristics. This is an extraordinarily complicated situation. What do you make of all this?
Kim Jong Un has been in power for about three years. But he’s relatively young and his tenure is still relatively short when compared with his father, Kim Jong Il, which means that we don’t know much about him personally. North Korea has always been a “black box” country, a Hermit Kingdom. So nobody clearly understands what’s going on over there. So any analysis or opinion is just an opinion. First of all, let me clarify that my opinion is just that — another opinion. I have been watching expert analysis and news reports, but their opinions are varied too. It’s hard to interpret these superficial facts.
My first impression is that he is sick. That’s pretty obvious. He’s been shown limping on television. Some experts believe he has gout. Because gout is not a severe disease, he did not go to another country for treatment, according to some Korean reports. [This means] he’s still in the country, somewhere near Pyongyang.
So North Korea has the capacity to treat his sickness?
Of course, of course. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, all had similar health problems. They all suffered from heart conditions. Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack. Many experts — this is not my own analysis — but according to those experts, they have all had the same heart conditions. [Kim Jong Un] has been sick for several weeks, or even longer than that. But this disease doesn’t appear to be life-threatening.
Since Kim executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek [in late 2013], he has been consolidating power. Choe Ryong-hae (Kim’s former military second in-command) has been a little bit controversial. Many experts assumed Choe might be the next person executed, after Jang, but he proved he is still alive when he showed up at the Asian Games [in Incheon, South Korea] two weeks ago with two other high-level officials. All the three emissaries at the games are powerful people in North Korea.
Their visit to the South had intentions at different levels. First of all, Kim wants to signal domestically that he is OK by dispatching this special delegation for the Asian games. North Korean athletes, especially the soccer team, did well, and it’s well known he has a love of sports and entertainment. This was his way of showing he’s OK.
Internationally, they want to signal that they want to change the current stalemate situation. I was printing out an article by Jenny Town, deputy director of the USKI [U.S. Korea Institute] and Joel Wit, a senior fellow here, and according to them, we have to be very careful. The North Koreans are multilayered. On some level, they can show their friendliness, but at the same time, behind the curtain, it’s uncertain what they are doing. It’s hard to generalize their behavior. It’s not a monolithic player.
Talking of consolidation and a potential coup: Kim Jong Un has been shown limping on TV several times. While it is perhaps not without precedent, it does seem strange for an authoritarian regime to show weakness. Was that a signal that was supposed to be read?
Some experts assumed that something might be ongoing, like a coup or a rebellion. Intentionally or not, they released a video that showed weakness in Kim. But I personally, along with many historians, think that the Kim regime is very resilient. The leadership is pretty resilient. Their resilience, to make a long story short, comes from the Kim family’s money power — the so-called politics of gifts. Kim Jong Il actually started that. He was distributing all these luxury goods, all these things to his cronies, who, as a result, were absolutely supportive of the Kim family. So my point is, the Kim family has been using carrots and sticks with these powerful families. When someone opposes the Kims, they are executed, purged or sent to one of several political camps. But when they help the regime, they are provided with precious things. The Kim family is like a monarchy, and they have been coherent in that sense. It’s pretty hard to imagine treason or rebellion.
In South Korea we had an authoritarian regime, but we had a conscious people. In the North, the people are pretty well-brainwashed and the power elites are pretty well-controlled or trained by the Kims. I don’t know— who knows? I don’t think that kind of military coup will happen. That’s my guess.
American experts or Western observers often assume that some kind of bottom-up uprising or a military coup is possible. I think that a bottom-up uprising from the people is almost impossible. A military coup is also hard. The Kims have been on the top, but their leadership is almost oligarchical. They share many of those benefits. The main reason Jang Song Thaek was killed was because he was accumulating capital outside of the Kim family. As we all know, there is a dual economic system in North Korea. The people’s economy is terrible, but among the power elite, in the so-called court economy, the Kims have been at the commanding heights of the economy, and Jang Song Thaek was challenging the Kims’ monopoly. Of course, some analysts will say that Jang Song Thaek’s intention with his accumulated money was to reform the whole North Korean economy. Some people will say that. But who knows the intention of a dead man?
Regarding the economy, there are reports that North Koreans are being sent to foreign countries such as Vietnam and Mongolia and being schooled in privatization. Obviously, this would represent a monumental shift in the economic model of North Korea. Is privatization likely to occur?
This could be another special economic zone. It’s not a free market, but they are trying to attract foreign investment. Kim Jong Un is trying to reform the economy. But again, he wants to monopolize those decision-making processes. That is why Jang Song Thaek was executed. It looks like he is trying to reform the economy, but they cannot abruptly open the whole country, so that is why they are selectively opening up specific zones.
Russia and China are huge investors in North Korea, but China’s border [in the northeast] doesn’t reach the ocean. They have to connect their border with North Korea to the ocean somehow. But Russia, they of course do have ports in [the Russian Far East]. There seems to be some conflicting interests between the two. I’m not adamantly opposed to sanctions, but Russia and China have more leverage over North Korea, economically speaking.
The Kim regime also wants to diversify the economy as soon as possible [in terms of relations with other countries]. This is why they are engaging in dialogue with the Japanese. Of course the rhetoric is about the abductee issue, but there must be dialogue about economic issues too. So, my general impression is that they want to reform the economy gradually, but at the same time Kim Jong Un doesn’t want to lose his monopoly over decision-making.