North Korea‘s choice
There seems to be a general consensus that North Korea’s new “First Secretary” Kim Jong-un utterly botched his first big test of leadership by going ahead with the launch of a new rocket despite international condemnation, only to see the missile disintegrate less than two minutes into its flight.
The price has been heavy. Not only did the North waste millions of dollars on what amounted to a dud fireworks display, but the U.S. immediately withdrew its offer to provide 240,000 tons in food aid as part of a nuclear-and-missile freeze pledge by Pyongyang.
But seen in another light, recent events may be grounds for cautious optimism in that things may actually be changing in North Korea ever since the Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un took over the reins after the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December.
One subtle sign was Kim Jong-un’s decision to deliver a 20-minute speech broadcast live to the nation during the mass celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder. It was a display of self-confidence by a figure who had been dismissed only months earlier as unready to assume power. In contrast, his father is known only to have made a one-sentence public utterance during his 17-year reign.
There were also other signals of openness. International television crews were invited into the reclusive country to film the rocket launch preparations as well as the festivities in Pyongyang. More significantly, the government made an unprecedented public admission to its own citizens that the rocket launch had failed.
Hopes for change in North Korea have been repeatedly dashed before. Analysts once believed that the rise to power of Kim Jong-il might herald a new generation of pragmatic leadership. Quite the reverse happened.
But it must now be abundantly clear to the civilian elite in Pyongyang, if not the military leadership, that North Korea’s sell-by date is rapidly approaching. The apparatchiks might be willing to embrace their version of “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better” as long as they can keep their privileges and, either avoid a military coup by hardliners or pay a one-way trip to the International Court of Justice.
Admittedly, those are big ifs. But the arrival of Kim Jong-un offers a unique opportunity of trading on his family credentials to introduce a form of authoritarian capitalism, the path to riches already taken by China and South Korea. Such a development would almost certainly be welcomed by North Korea’s wealthy neighbors, who would be happy to help finance economic reforms if it meant more stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Helping concentrate minds in Pyongyang are the contrasting images of what is happening in Syria and Burma, both close allies of North Korea. Should Kim Jong-un stick to the old ways, he might eventually face the same situation confronting Bashar al-Assad, who flubbed his chance at reform when he inherited the country from his father 19 years ago. And then there is Burma, which is finding that its reform moves have suddenly made it popular in the international community.
But are there any hopes for change in light of Pyongyang’s recent provocations? Perhaps there are if events are looked at from a different angle. Start with the Leap Day agreement in which North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program and missile testing in return for U.S. food aid. At the time, the deal was seen as an unexpected conciliatory gesture by Kim Jong-un at the start of his reign.
Shortly thereafter news came of the long-planned rocket launch, which was viewed by the outside world as a provocative demonstration of North Korea’s stubborn continuity. But perhaps a Pyongyang power play was at work instead.
Having made his conciliatory move towards the U.S., Kim Jong-un needed to appease the military faction by allowing the rocket launch to go ahead. But in doing so, he may have hoped to discredit the hardliners since the rocket launch was almost destined to fail given problems with North Korea’s previous rocket tests.
It might appear that those lobbying for the rocket launch were deliberately being set up for a fall. This would explain the invitation of foreign journalists into country to witness the launch and Pyongyang’s rapid and uncharacteristic admission of failure.
Meanwhile, North Korea was frantically trying to signal to the U.S. that its intentions were peaceful and the rocket launch should not be seen as a deal-breaker. Pyongyang was almost apologetic about the test, suggesting that the launch was imperative for domestic political purposes in light of the 100th anniversary celebrations for Kim Il-sung.
Some analysts detect other moves to put the military in its place despite Kim Jong-un’s public pledge to adhere to his father’s “military-first” policy.
There are suggestions that the new regime is trying to reassert the authority of the Workers’ Party over that of the National Defense Commission, which gained dominance under Kim Jong-il. The Japanese media is reporting that Kim Jong-un has told party officials to study successful Asian economic models and discuss them without fear of criticism.
Whether this interpretation of events is valid remains to be seen. But it would gain credence if Pyongyang refrains from testing more rockets or exploding another underground nuclear bomb.
Otherwise, Washington is likely to escalate its tough rhetoric to reach stronger sanctions and the narrow window of opportunity for Kim Jong-un to alter his country’s course may be permanently closed.
John Burton, a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is now a Seoul-based independent journalist and media consultant.