What is happening in North Korea?
Russia shares a border with North Korea. And it is our good fortune that Sanjuro, the Jotman contributor from Siberia, has tracked down and translated a recent interview with Vasily Mikheyev, an authority on the DPRK.
The remarkable interview is a stark reminder of how ill-prepared the world is to cope with even the most easily foreseeable scenarios.
There Will Be No “Berlin Wall-2”
Interview with Vasily Mikheyev, Deputy director of the IMEMO RAN (The Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Science) and Director of the Center for Asia Pacific Studies at the institute. Translation from the Russian (abridged) by Sanjuro.
The international press reports that Kim Jong-Il is seriously ill; some experts even speculate that he is not likely to last till the end of the year. Prof. Toshimitsu Shigemura of the Waseda University has told The Daily Telegraph that “doctors gave him only a few months”. These rumours have been circulating for over a year - how trustworthy are the current predictions?
North Korea is a unique, closed country. Hence there cannot be any “well -informed sources” that would know whether or not Kim Jong-Il will live to see the end of this year.
Concerning North Korea, there are three kinds of “analysts." First, journalists who are used to working in normal countries with open information that can be analyzed. They need a sensation, hence they fall victim to various rumours. Second, politicians and certain journalists who consciously escalate the situation. In the past few months it was Japanese sources that first reported some North Korean sensations. North Korea is a very sensitive problem for Japan, because of the Japanese kidnapped by the North Korean special services... The third group is comprised of experts who have been dealing with the topic for a long time and trust their experience and even senses, although nobody really has a complete picture of what may be happening in North Korea.
So, after this preamble, I could say that Shigemura’s statements cannot be taken seriously, because nobody can say how long Kim Jong-Il is going to live. Officials from the DPRK and even the US State Dept. claimed they have no information on the character of Kim Jong-Il’s illness. One photo where he doesn’t look good is still not enough. It used to be case in the past that Kim Jong-Il would fly rumours of his illness to observe reactions -- a practice quite common among dictators.
But still, I have a feeling that late last year -- early this year something definitely started to happen within the North Korean leadership and this is related Kim Jong-Il’s illness. No one can tell how long he is going to live, but apparently his health is even worse than before.
The likely death or retirement of the leader has spurred speculations on his successor. It was rumoured that Kim Jong-Un was appointed the successor. How likely is a peaceful transition of power from Kim Jong-Il to a hand-picked successor?
We shall learn the name of the new leader from North Korea’s official paper Rodong Sinmun (Rodong Sinmun). Neither the name, nor a photo, nor the title of Kim Jong-Un have appeared anywhere in the official press. The rest is only rumours. Kim Jong-Il’s own promotion started as early as 1975. I was in Pyongyang then and the first thing I noticed were the two portraits that started appearing in homes and offices: Kim Il-Seng and Kim Jong-Il. His party nickname “party centre” entered the speech, and papers started reporting how Kim Il-Seng and Kim Jong-Il are doing something together. There’s nothing like that at the moment.
Although a dictatorship, the DPRK is still a state. And so a new leader must be introduced to the people and the party elites. And if there’s nothing but speculations, then I believe the successor has not been chosen yet. […]
There is a real danger for North Korea and the adjacent countries that after Kim Il-Seng and Kim Jong-Il dies, there will be chaos. North Korea may turn into a land of lawlessness and banditry. There may be raids on the Chinese and even the Russian territory. […]
It was rumoured that China would rather prefer dealing with the other of Kim’s sons - Kim Jong-Chol (pictured in photo with girlfriend). How do assess China’s ability to influence what is going to happen in North Korea in case of death of the current leader. Will China be able to promote its own candidate for a leader.
China currently has no influence on North Korea and cannot determine its internal politics. Moreover, Pyongyang’s attitude towards Beijing is increasingly negative and suspicious. China, in its turn, is increasingly annoyed that Kim Jong-Il has abandoned the six-party talks and has done new nuclear tests (or an imitation of thereof); that Pyongyang is not willing to carry market reforms, and is only betting on receiving maximum aid from China. So at this moment, the PRC is prepared to coordinate its actions with other participants of the six-party talks, including measures in case of Kim Jong-Il’s death.
It is unlikely that Kim Jong-Un was introduced to the Chinese. Beijing has officially denied that he has visited China. Previously Chinese representatives would dodge questions about secret North Korean visits. Diplomat cannot tell the truth, but can’t lie either - that’s the Chinese diplomatic tradition. These Chinese denials mean that the rumours were wrong.
And as for Kim Jong-Chol, – there is also the eldest son Kim Jong-Nam. As the eldest son, by the Korean tradition, he should be the next leader. If China could bet on anyone, that would be Kim Jong-Nam who lives and does business in Macau, and hence is familiar with the Chinese market and business and, hypothetically, could steer North Korea onto the path of market reforms.
In any case, whatever China is going to do will be based on a resolution of the UN Security Council. China will not undertake anything that might cause allegations of one-sided illegal actions. The current activity of the Chinese diplomacy is aimed at developing a collective solution on what to do with North Korea, and that means that China is starting its preparations. The pattern would be as follows: first, promotion of market reforms and openness; second, (in the event of a collapse) support for that part of the leadership that is on the path of market reforms and openness; and third, provided the UN SC sanctions, - a peacekeeping effort to provide security at the most sensitive, nuclear installations in North Korea.
What’s the social and economic situation in the country? According to some reports, there are food shortages, according to others, there’s already hunger in the country.
[…] (Usually) external aid allows to somehow make the ends meet (and sometimes it doesn’t - it all depends on the harvest). The North Korean system is utterly incapable of normal economic development, so now, as the aid has been reduced, the situation is getting worse.
From refugee accounts, it is known that many people are constantly hungry. Hunger is the constant threat, but this year’s harvest is relatively good. So, on one hand, the situation is getting worse because the external aid has been reduced. On the other hand – it’s not so bad, as it would be the case if it were a famine.
How well do the army, the party and the security services control the situation? How well are these institutions aware of the changes in the leadership?
Only the most senior levels may be aware of the current state of affairs, and not even all of them. Hwan Zhan-Yep, ideology secretary of the party’s Central Committee, who defected in the 1990s, could not share anything serious about what was happening in the Kim Jong-Il’s surrounding, because the secrecy in the upper echelons is so high.
The party as such doesn’t have real control. Generally, the Labour Party of Korea cannot even be referred to as a Communist party even in its Soviet sense. There was not a single party conference since 1980, not a single general meeting of the Central Committee since 1993. Power is concentrated within the hands of Kim Jong-Il and the State Committee for Defence.
There is still some general control over the situation in the country, and it is maintained by the security services, but there’s an impression that this oppression machine is getting put of balance. The increasing number of refugees, of foreign cash in the black market are all signs of that. Cases of racket have become more frequent, or for instance of such “business” as illegal seizure of people’s apartments by gangsters.
There is control, but as the crisis is deepening, the security services are starting to lose it. For now it is only evident in the periphery, not in Pyongyang. And that’s one more path to the collapse.
What measures can South Korea take in the event of Kim Jong-Il’s death, or in the event of power void? Is a “Berlin Wall-2” scenario possible?
No, such scenario is completely impossible. The Berlin Wall was smaller by all parameters: height, thickness, length. The Korean Wall was built so that even tanks could not break it. So, “Berlin Wall-2” is not a realistic scenario. In my view, not only South Korea, but all the parties in the six-party talks must act in concert, and first of all – China and the US.
For South Korea, I envisage two scenarios: the first would be instant merger whereby North Korea becomes a part of South Korea. By the way, according to the South Korean constitution, its territory include the entire Korean peninsula - and the same is true for the North Korean one. But this plan would come at a great financial cost. If this happens now, when the five countries have no jointly coordinated program, the instant merger will result in a tremendous problem for South Korea, especially during the recession.
The second option, which is more realistic to me, is that if North Korea could for a while develop as an independent country, building its own democratic institutions, learning how to function in conditions of free market and openness. And then the two countries could merge. But South Korea has no real plan now, what to do after Kim Jong-Il dies. There is some development, but as far as I know, there’s no concrete plan of action.
What is Russia’s position on North Korea and its future?
Russia is not willing to take excessive responsibility for what is happening there, but is also willing remain part of the dialogue, demonstrating that it is interested in non-proliferation of the nuclear weapons etc. As far as its future it concerned, that is being discussed only within a close circle of specialists. Hence I believe that Kim Jong-Il’s death and further developments will be a complete surprise for the Russian leadership and Moscow will act as the situation dictates.
Is it possible that North Korea will attempt nuclear blackmail to prevent external interference in the domestic affairs?
Of course, North Korea has been engaged in nuclear blackmail, but not all experts realize that the DPRK has no nuclear bomb. Both tests were failures. No radioactive traces were found in the atmosphere after the second nuclear test. There is a nuclear program, but it’s not a deterrent, but a commodity that North Korea repeatedly sells outside. It leaves the talks, escalates the situation, gets money to get back in the talks, promises some concessions, gets money for the concessions. When the money is over, it starts escalating again - and this has been going on for the past years. As a deterrent, North Korea relies on its conventional weapons, and also special forces, guerrilla and anti-guerilla specialists, sabotage units. [Jotman: more about North Korea's forces and weapons here]
What position will Japan and the US take in the event of power transfer in North Korea?
Like other participants of the six-party talks, they will just have to wing it, because there’s been no coordination. China will likely be most active, because it's in a more dangerous position: it has a common border with North Korea and it’s longer that the Russian border with it. Generally speaking, the question of international reaction is very important. It’s quite bad that there is no joint plan.
To develop such a plan and to strengthen the common position of the five countries (Russia, China, US, Japan, South Korea), and to develop some understanding, for instance if Pyongyang has ability to conduct military operations on peninsula etc., for all these things it is necessary to carry on with the six-party talks even without North Korea. They said they were leaving. Alright. We should carry on together with the remaining countries, to minimize the threat today and to minimize the costs involved with making the DPRK a normal country tomorrow.
Interviewed by Svetlana Yaroshevskaya (Gazeta.Ru) and traslated by Sanjuro (Jotman.com).
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