What’s Going On in North Korea?
By Dennis Loo (12/13/13)
While there is not enough information at this time to definitively know what is happening, if one pieces together what has been reported from and about N. Korea and puts that together with what is known about how political power is exercised, certain things stand out.
Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s mentor and the second most powerful figure in N. Korea, was executed swiftly after a spectacular arrest and trial for allegedly plotting Kim’s government’s overthrow.
As The NYT reported today:
“I was going to stage the coup by using army officers who had close ties with me or by mobilizing armed forces under the control of my confidants,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency on Friday quoted Mr. Jang as having said on Thursday during his court-martial. “I thought the army might join in the coup if the living of the people and service personnel further deteriorate in the future.”
While it is impossible to know whether Mr. Jang actually said these things, there are aspects of this alleged confession that ring true in their essence. As the second most powerful political figure who has been in prominent posts for forty years, Jang a) could not have helped but have powerful allies in the military, and b) the living standards in N. Korea are famously bad for those outside of the elites and the military (which is kept well-fed because they are the bulwark against uprisings).
By way of some background, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il and his grandfather Kim Il-sung, have ruled N. Korea since 1948 under the guise of socialism but in actual fact it’s been an autocratic family dynasty operating under the phony cover of socialist principles. Kim Il-sung claimed to have superceded Marxism-Leninism with his Juche (from Wikipedia):
"The revolutionary theory of Kimilsungism is a revolutionary theory which has provided solutions to problems arising in the revolutionary practice in a new age different from the era that gave rise to Marxism–Leninism. On the basis of Juche (idea), the leader gave a profound explanation of the theories, strategies and tactics of national liberation, class emancipation and human liberations in our era. Thus, it can be said that the revolutionary theory of Kimilsungism is a perfect revolutionary theory of Communism in the era of Juche."
According to analyst Shin Gi-wook the ideas of Juche and Kimilsungism were in essence the "expressions of North Korean particularism over supposedly more universalistic Marxism–Leninism." In many ways, it signaled a move from socialism to nationalism. This was made very clear in a speech in 1982, when North Korea celebrated Kim Il-sung's 70th birthday, when love for the nation came before love for socialism. This particularism gave birth to such concepts as "A theory of the Korean nation as number one" and "Socialism of Our Style".
The Kim’s, in other words, have a cult around their male lineage and an exceptionally insular nationalism dressed up in the mask initially of socialism.
Jang before his execution had been openly pushing for economic “reforms” Chinese-style, meaning, adopting capitalist methods for N. Korea. He was accused by Kim of living a dissolute lifestyle, which is also likely true, given the fact that he a) was a high official and b) was advocating thinly disguised capitalist solutions, which would match his own capitalist lifestyle, to N. Korea’s economic plight.
The NYT goes on to state:
While Mr. Kim was inheriting power, his uncle built a “little kingdom” of his own in the party, with his followers calling him “No. 1 comrade,” North Korea said on Friday. Mr. Jang dreamed of first becoming premier “when the economy goes totally bankrupt” and then solving “the problem of people’s living at a certain level” by spending an enormous amount of funds he has stashed away, it said.
“Jang dreamed such a foolish dream that once he seizes power by a base method, his despicable true colors as ‘reformist’ known to the outside world would help his ‘new government’ get ‘recognized’ by foreign countries in a short span of time,” it said. That was tantamount to trying to overthrow North Korea by “ideologically aligning himself with enemies,” North Korea said.
There are a number of interesting and revealing aspects about these government’s official statements about Jang’s treason. They are admitting, first of all, that Jang built a “little kingdom” among his followers. In other words, he was behaving the way anyone in elite posts does, which is to cultivate their followers and build ties of loyalty. You cannot exercise political power without doing something along these lines.
Second, they are admitting that the economy is in deep trouble, the people's living standards are bad, and while asserting that Jang stashed away enormous sums, he was planning to distribute them to the public to solve “the problem of people’s living at a certain level.” Jang, in other words, according to the official statements, was a Robin Hood in waiting. But of course you have to kill off someone like that!
Third, the “reformist” label and the recognition of his government by other foreign nations are also slams against taking the Chinese capitalist-under-guise-of-socialism route that would be a radical departure from the Kim cult of personality that has governed N. Korea since 1948. Taking that road would definitely undermine Kim's position and spell his end. This apparently extremely sharp internal struggle in N. Korea over what road to take between two non-revolutionary “solutions” are to be expected. How powerful this struggle is was dramatically revealed in this sudden arrest, trial, and quick execution, which observers have noted is unprecedented.
On Friday, North Korea hinted at … purges [to come] by condemning “undesirable and alien elements” in “important posts of the party and state,” in “ministries and national institutions,” and in agencies dealing with foreign trade. It also indicated that a purge might reach the North’s military and secret police, saying that Mr. Jang has worked to “stretch his tentacles even to People’s Army.”
In other words, Jang was the head of a rival headquarters in the N. Korean Workers’ [sic] Party and more heads will roll as the troubles in N. Korea and competing “solutions” to it have come to a head. This crisis has been building for some time. The bankruptcy of the N. Korean road is evident and infighting is intensifying and erupting into the open. Even though Jang was Kim Jung-un’s handpicked mentor (by Kim Jung-un’s father), he apparently came to the conclusion that N. Korea could no longer long continue on the road it has been on for over sixty years.
Violence, whether in the form of officially ordered assassinations by presidents such as Kim jung-un are part of what repressive governments use in order to quell those who oppose them. President Barack Obama uses drones to assassinate people and on every Tuesday in the White House picks more names to be executed. What is going on in N. Korea, while brutal, can be understood if you view it through the lens of how political power is exercised when stripped of its rhetoric about "consent of the governed" and how power centers contend against each other. What the people of N. Korea need and do not have at this point, is a genuinely revolutionary alternative that ruptures with the dead end of a capitalist/nationalist economy that claims its mantle of legitimacy by dishonestly calling itself a workers’ or people’s state.
All is not still in the world. These are times of great turmoil and upheaval.