Forget weapons of mass destruction: North Korea’s threat to its own people could be grounds enough for regime change, says Jasper Becker

Small signs often portend big changes in closed societies, such as the secretive court of North Korea’s Kim dynasty. Portraits of Kim Jong Il have disappeared from key public buildings like the People’s Palace of Culture and the Mansudae Assembly Hall. The media have stopped using the honorific “Dear Leader” in official bulletins.

A decade after his father’s death, Kim Jong Il’s star might finally be in the descendant. His decision to tone down his grotesque personality cult, at least the aspects visible to foreigners, might be a sign that he is finally giving way to growing internal and external pressures.

In Japan, there are rumours that as many as 130 North Korean generals have fled, and that China, which has sent 30,000 troops to the border, is taking precautions in case the regime collapses and it feels the need to intervene.

All this will please those in Washington for whom regime change, not engagement, has always been the preferred option. The first George W Bush administration has been heavily criticized for dropping the engagement policies pursued by president Bill Clinton. The 1994 Agreed Framework has collapsed. North Korea has pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has threatened to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods to weapons material or may already have done so. In return for abandoning this reprocessing, Kim had been promised two light-water nuclear reactors, but this project has now been almost entirely abandoned.

Under US secretary of state Colin Powell’s leadership, the US has opted for “hawkish engagement” which boils down to refusing to deal with Kim Jong Il on his own terms. Washington accused Kim of breaching the 1994 Agreed Framework and running a secret programme like Iran’s, which uses centrifuges to produce enriched uranium. It has increased military and diplomatic pressure on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and, when it threatened to take unilateral pre-emptive strikes in early 2003, China agreed to help. The result has been China’s first effort at multilateral diplomacy – the six-party talks that it has hosted. These have gone through four rather unrewarding rounds in Beijing.

What do they want?
What does Kim want? And should he get it? Above all he wants US guarantees that if he pursues reforms and opens up the economy he will be kept in power. He fears he might be overthrown or dragged out and shot like Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu – and that his state will disappear like the German Democratic Republic. Second, he wants to get billions in aid each year to rebuild the country. In return, he is offering to give up nuclear weapons and adhere once again to the NPT.

Some Americans, such as former US special envoy to North Korea Jack Pritchard, are convinced that a diplomatic bargain can be reached with Kim, and that a crisis can be dealt with peacefully. South Korea’s left-wing government is following the Sunshine Policy (pioneered by former president Kim Dae Jung) hoping that if Kim Jong Il gets the reassurances he needs, he will open up, and the regime will fade away. Kim Dae Jung hopes to use South Korea’s chaebols (industrial conglomerates) to invest in North Korea as a sort of Trojan Horse and to achieve what they did with South Korea’s own dictator, president Park Chung Hee. So South Korea is trying to guide Kim into a “soft landing”.

Quite what China wants no-one really knows. It has never liked Kim Jong Il, but finds North Korea useful in its dealings with Washington over Taiwan, its top priority. Once before it had sacrificed the chance to conquer Taiwan to back North Korea’s war against South Korea. It surely would not do so a second time.

It is also unclear what Japan’s goal is in this issue. What is certain is that it has an interest in regional security and preventing proliferation. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan itself could easily initiate their own nuclear arsenals if the regional consensus on proliferation were left in tatters by some action from Pyongyang.

A moral issue
But above and beyond proliferation or the reform of a communist state, North Korea is a moral issue. Between them, Kim Il Sung and his son are responsible for the deaths of over 7 million Koreans – 3 million in the Korean War, at least a million political prisoners in the past 50 years, plus 3 million in the famine. This famine probably started in the late 1980s when the economy collapsed, and the policies that Kim Jong Il chose make this a crime against humanity, since these deaths were preventable.

When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, South Koreans were convinced Kim Jong Il was either a spoilt playboy or a young technocrat and closet reformer. American scholar Selig Harrison believed he was engaging in “reform by stealth”, and so should patiently be helped along.

Former US defence secretary William Perry, who drafted an influential policy report for the Clinton administration, came to believe 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.” However, both judgments about Kim were wrong. The younger Kim was far more opposed to reform than his father. People were starving to death when Kim Jong Il persuaded his father to accelerate the nuclear weapons programme, inflate the size of the military and pour scarce resources into gigantic economic projects that failed to produce returns. The economic collapse took place in the mid-1980s, but the younger Kim, who filtered all information that went to his father, misled him. Before his death, however, Kim Il Sung took back the reins of government and considered replacing his son as the crown prince.

After 1994, Kim was widely hated. Parts of the military rejected him from the start. Refugees speak of plots to assassinate him in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1995. Many refugees reported that in the early 1990s soldiers were starving to death. One, Kim Sum-ming, said that in 1993 he saw 12 fellow soldiers dying of malnourishment. When they were given pork to eat in celebration of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il’s birthdays on April 15 or February 15, their digestive systems could not cope and they died.

The country has been racked with unrest. Almost all refugees report seeing slogans such as “Down with Kim Jong Il” painted on walls, pylons, railway carriages. Statues and murals of the Kims have been defaced and destroyed. The halls erected for the worship of the Kim family, have been burnt down. Sometimes the mutilated bodies of officials have been found.

Refugees told me how they were forced to attend rallies at which those accused of stealing food or engaging in illegal trading were garrotted, burnt at the stake or shot. Pamphlets calling for Kim’s overthrow and for reforms have been found in street markets in Hamhung, Chongjin, Sunchon and even in Pyongyang.

To stay in power Kim organized purges and a terror campaign in such key industrial cities as Songrim, Kimchaek, Nampo, Hyesan and Sinuiju. In 1998, Kim sent 149 tanks to put Songrim under martial law. By then thousands had left their homes. Many had fled to China. All the factories had shut down, the trains no longer ran and there was no electricity.

To the rescue At the nadir of his fortunes, Kim received help from an unexpected source. South Korea launched its Sunshine Policy, and the Clinton administration and the international community came forward with emergency aid and gifts of hard cash. Kim could reward loyal followers with German cars, Swiss watches and Cognac.

Kim Jong Il might have felt vindicated by his hesitancy. He is still there when so many other communist tyrants have been swept away since 1989. On the other hand, the people that survived are stunted, sick and bitter. They blame Kim Jong Il for this catastrophe and hate him in a way they never hated his father.

Many no longer believe in the personality cult or the leadership of the dynasty. Kim escaped another assassination attempt in 2001, and in 2004 missed by minutes a massive explosion at Ryonchon as his train passed the city. So a policy of engagement would be keeping in power not only a repulsive dictator, but one whom even his own people detest.

Further, it is hard to believe that Kim would ever be capable of managing reform. In the decade since his father’s mysterious death, he has not produced anything resembling a coherent strategy, let alone a plan. None of the government or party institutions now functions because he decides everything. His personality is partly to blame. He pays attention to details but his attention often wanders. He reacts to events like a manic-depressive, his emotional swings preventing him from ever achieving a patiently conceived programme of change. Every few weeks another great idea pops into his mind: everyone should eat hamburgers, or stop smoking, or they can watch Star TV and log on to the Internet. Sometimes he thinks women shouldn’t wear red trousers or sit on the back of bicycles because it is indecent.

At times he has authorized markets; at other times he has thrown traders into jail or executed them in public. One day he talks of setting up the Pyongyang stock market; the next he wants to go back to central planning.

The regime’s long record of cheating on or abrogating on international agreements dates back at least to the 1970s, if not to the Korean War. It is therefore hard to conceive how international inspections would ever be able to work, even if Kim agreed to give up his nuclear weapons. Korea has 500 miles of tunnels and caves, in which anything could be hidden.

And even if in the next few years an American president negotiated a diplomatic bargain with Kim, it is hard to imagine how a Republican Congress could be persuaded to approve it. Even Clinton was unable to get Congress to back his 1994 Agreed Framework with money. Instead he had to turn to South Korea and Japan to fund it.

Turning to the UN is even less plausible. Its record in North Korea is a shocking disaster. The international community has already supplied the country with a 10-year-long emergency food programme, the largest and longest in history. Yet the World Food Programme has never been able to monitor convincingly the distribution of food aid or assess the health of the population. Equally embarrassing, the programme clearly failed to prevent millions of deaths.

The UN has also failed to force China to observe the International Convention on Refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees failed to insist on setting up refugee camps or on processing applications for political asylum. Instead, it allows China to organize regular manhunts, with thousands of refugees being sent back every month to face death or imprisonment. Third, the UN has been powerless to prevent Kim from flouting the rules of the NPT. Even under the 1994 agreement, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were never allowed to inspect sites or find out if plutonium had been extracted and used for weapons.

Jasper Becker
Jasper Becker lives in Beijing. He is the author of Rogue State: the Continuing Threat of North Korea (Oxford University Press, New York, 2005).