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The World Watches North Korea

CAS prof says power transfer ominous for U.S., China

Kim Jong-un, North Korea, Kim Jong-il

The world is carefully watching the transfer of power from the late Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Photo courtesy of Flickr contributor Petersnoopy

With the official mourning period now over for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who died December 17, attention has turned to his youngest son and successor, Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il ruled the secretive state with an iron fist for 17 years, succeeding his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994. In late December Kim Jong-un was officially named supreme leader of North Korea, as well as supreme commander of the world’s fifth largest army. Beyond his age (thought to be 28) and his signature flat-top haircut, little is known about the new leader or about whether he’s a true replacement for his father or the puppet of behind-the-scenes powers.

Slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, a reality that looms over any discussion of reunification of the Korean peninsula or easing of the dictatorship’s hold on its 24.3 million citizens. And rumors of a new famine (as many as 1.5 million North Koreans died of starvation in the 1990s) have raised serious questions about the economic stability of the deeply insular nation. In fact, suggests William Keylor, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history, the safest future for North Korea, its neighbors, and the world, at least as it now appears, may be a continuation of the status quo.

In the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death, BU Today spoke with Keylor about the transfer of power to Kim Jong-un, the prospects for change in the country, and why Americans should be deeply concerned about events unfolding on the Korean peninsula.

BU Today: On the surface, Kim Jong-un’s ascent seems like a smooth transition. Can we assume he commands the same power as his late father?

Keylor: This is a monarchical regime, and if you think back on European rivalries, when the king is dead, long live the king, but the dukes and the barons might overthrow the king. The uncle is important, but also the aunt, a gray eminence, and the two other sons of Kim Jong-il. All three sons are from different mothers, so there’s that intrigue as well; it’s really byzantine. The key point is that the military high command holds all the cards. If Kim Jong-un retains the support of the upper echelons of the officer corps, the transition from father to son will probably be a smooth one. This regime is almost unique in the modern world. There are other family-run regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and rivalry among the many brothers there, but that country doesn’t have nukes, and it always comes back to that for me.

Aside from the official line, where does news about North Korea come from?

All we know is what we get from defectors or South Korean intelligence. Aside from that, it’s a complete question mark.

What about U.S. intelligence?

To my knowledge, we have no intelligence assets in North Korea. It’s a completely closed society. There is information from defectors to South Korea, and also, several years ago, from a Japanese cook for the ruling family who wrote a memoir about what he saw, and that’s all we get. The other way, and this was done with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, is to observe who appears in public with leaders. We used to look at who was standing next to Khrushchev. We try to figure out who’s in and who’s out.

If Kim Jong-un’s power is tenuous, what is the worst scenario that could result?

Let’s imagine that there is a power vacuum. If there is, there’s going to be a struggle for the succession—if the military is going to transfer its support to one of the other sons or the uncle—and that means there’s going to be a very serious crisis. The nightmare scenario is that one of those groups might embark of some kind of aggressive military move in order to win the support of the people. North Korea’s forces are 1.2 million strong and could at any time attack South Korea. Another concern is: what if whoever does take power there allows these nuclear weapons to get into hands of other governments or of terrorists?

How much of a threat are North Korea’s conventional armed forces?

One threat is ground troops, the infantry, are poised to attack South Korea, and that could really wreak havoc. The navy and air force have been sort of shortchanged, so they’re not really much of a threat.

What’s the range of North Korea’s nuclear weapons?

They have tested some intermediate-range missiles that could certainly take Japan and South Korea, the two main adversaries. Japan is the colonial power that occupied all of Korea from 1905 to 1945, and the state has very strong anti-Japanese sentiments. There has been some suggestion that Kim Jong-un himself is very anti-Japanese, so that’s bad news for Japan. And North Korea has always claimed it should rule the entire peninsula. The Korean War never really came to an end, though there was an armistice.

Wouldn’t North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons against the south be suicide?

You are articulating the view of rational choice theory, which says that leaders would not do something that would lead to their own destruction. These are people so completely cut off from the outside world that they might not act in a rational way.

Nukes aside, what else could result if the North Korean regime was weakened or collapsed?

Let me again engage in counterfactual analysis. Let’s say the regime does collapse; let’s say there’s chaos and instability. The first consequence would be a massive flow of refugees going to China, and the Chinese are very concerned about that. They worry about an influx of North Korean refugees that could lead to economic crisis, starvation, and chaos.

What is China doing, or what might it do, to prevent that?

China is an ally of North Korea, so that’s the irony. They’re the only ally, and yet they’re worried about this outcome. My sense is that China and the United States have a strong incentive in discussing this situation, because they both have a lot to lose—the United States because it’s an ally of South Korea, and the worry is that somebody will get control of these nukes and possibly use them. China and the United States both have a strong interest in preserving stability, and very strong concerns about any precipitous breakdown.

Are you saying that the status quo is best for the rest of the world, if not for the people of North Korea?

Maybe the best thing is to let things stand as they are. It’s not good for the North Korean people, but good for the rest. And the other thing, and this is speculation, is if the regime collapses and that leads to reunification of the Korean peninsula, then one has to assume that China would have to be very concerned about that, because the United States has very strong forces in South Korea. Would those two military forces be extended to North Korea? All of these issues have to be addressed. China and the United States have to get together. There was a hint of that when Hilary Clinton called the Chinese foreign minister following Kim Jong-il’s death and opened a discussion.

BU has about 225 students from the Republic of Korea. Do Korean students voice their concerns to you?

I have a couple of South Korean students in my class, and they’ve expressed deep concern about what’s happening up there. I think it’s really unprecedented. On this small peninsula, you have the most closed, backward society and one of the most economically and technologically advanced, highly educated countries in the world. Yet the two countries share the same peninsula, same language, history—it’s just extraordinary. I’m always amazed by the South Korean students we have at BU.

In this age of information technology, how does North Korea manage to keep its citizens so isolated?

If you have a totalitarian regime that uses force and violence to maintain control over a society, it is very difficult to penetrate that society. They call it the hermit kingdom. Having said that, there are some indications that the outside world is getting in there. The Internet and cell phones exist in North Korea, and the government tries to control them, but it isn’t completely successful, so there is the beginning of penetration. But look at how well China does in controlling the Internet and shutting down websites.

What did you make of the video of North Koreans sobbing uncontrollably over Kim Jong-il’s death?

I really wish that CNN could go in there and interview some of these people, ask them, what is the source is your sadness, what makes you sob. Is it that you’ve been so brainwashed that you regarded this man as a god, or is it that when you see a cameraman out there you want to make sure that you project that kind of mourning because you fear being punished? In a totalitarian police state, the only analogy I can think of is Stalin’s Soviet Union. When Stalin died, people were crying and lining up to see his coffin, and yet later on it became clear how many anti-Stalinists there were.


One Comment on The World Watches North Korea

  • irish1104 on 01.11.2012 at 4:50 pm

    If one looks at the development of North Korea as similar to that of the Soviet Union, one notices that the stability (if you can call it that) of North Korea has lasted for over 6 decades. That is about the same length of time as that of the USSR before cracks appeared in the government that eventually led to its demise. There are no such apparent cracks in North Korea, at least for now. It seems that the NK’s are pragmatice enough to keep Kim Jong-un as the leader and resist any internal attempts to alter that situation. It seems to be in THEIR best interests to keep this continuity exactly as it has deen thus far defined. However, it seems that any continuation in the domestic policies that cause further and more severe famine in the country could create a crisis serious enough to cause the NK’s to divert attention away from that problem by doing something provocative outside against the South.

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