Struggle for power north of the border

As a US negotiator trying to talk the North Korean government out of its program to build nuclear bombs, David Asher was able to ask the question that is today burning in the minds of millions around the world - why?

As a US negotiator trying to talk the North Korean government out of its program to build nuclear bombs, David Asher was able to ask the question that is today burning in the minds of millions around the world - why?

Why is the regime allowing its 24 million people to starve while it threatens to unleash a nuclear war that it could not win? Why, when it has the easy option of laying aside its bombs, living in peace and allowing prosperity to flow, as its neighbour South Korea has done with such spectacular success?

The answer that a top North Korean official gave: "Even if we have to eat cockroaches for breakfast, we will never do it," Asher recounts to Fairfax Media from his home just outside Washington DC.

"To normalise relations with the US and work in concert with the West would be the equivalent of putting a gun to our heads," the regime representative told the American.

"Our system is about being against you - if we accept working with you, we would be destroyed," the North Korean said during a conversation on the sidelines of the negotiations, the so-called six-party talks.

He wasn't talking about destruction at the hands of the US or any foreign foe, but at the hands of the North Koreans themselves. Because it would be an admission of profound national failure. This is a central insight.

After George W. Bush named North Korea as one of the countries of the "axis of evil," the regime in Pyongyang joined a self-styled "axis of resistance" with Iran and Syria.

The people of South Korea rose up in the 1980s against the military dictators who held power on their side of the DMZ. The communist dynasty that holds power on the northern side is desperate to avoid the same fate. So when the North this week declared that it would never surrender the ultimate symbol of its defiance, its nuclear bombs, because they were "our DNA" or "our life", it made perfect sense. It's the life of the regime at stake. And it's not in good hands.

While the regime of Kim Jong-un promised a nuclear strike on the US and moved an intermediate-range missile to the coast facing Japan to intimidate its neighbours, the US drew its missile interceptors closer as it braced for some sort of muscle-flexing.

But, most tellingly, the country that knows most about North Korea, its only major ally, China, has been massing forces along its long land border with Kim's country.

"China continued moving tanks and armoured vehicles and flying flights near North Korea this week as part of a military build-up in the north-eastern part of the country that US officials say is related to the crisis with North Korea," the Washington Times' Bill Gertz reported on Wednesday. Gertz is known for his close contacts with the US intelligence system. Chinese and South Korean media followed up with corroborating reports.

Why would China reinforce the border with its ally? Not because it fears an attack, but because it fears its collapse. Beijing's great anxiety is that millions of desperate North Koreans will seek to escape starvation or chaos by pouring across into China.

But that would only happen if the regime in Pyongyang loses control. China's behaviour tells us that it thinks the situation is deeply serious. It also tells us that it fears Kim's outward aggression could actually be the symptoms of internal throes of a regime struggling to survive, a new ruler who is having trouble consolidating power. "His threats are a sign of weakness, not strength," remarks David Asher, who is now a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington.

The plump-faced boyish leader, Kim Jong-un, known as Fatty Kim in the Chinese blogosphere, is the third in the Kim family dynasty that has ruled since 1948.

He was still sitting around getting drunk on Hennessy XO cognac, watching his beloved American basketball games, and rollerblading inside the presidential compound when his ailing father decided it was time to get him involved in the family business.

Knowing that death was settling upon him, Kim Jong-il abruptly elevated his youngest son from unemployed civilian to the rank of four-star general. It was the first time that Kim jnr had been named in the state-run news service. Up until that moment, he had never been seen in public. He had married the year before, but that was a secret and only confirmed years later. His correct date of birth is unclear, but he was thought to be 27 or 28 at the time of his dizzyingly fast promotion. It was September, 2010.

He was named supreme leader when his father died 15 months later. At 28 or 29, he became the world's youngest head of state.

Almost all our knowledge of his personality and tastes came from his three years as a student in a Swiss boarding school where he lived under a pseudonym, or from his father's long-serving Japanese sushi chef who fled to Tokyo and wrote his memoir. The boy, he tells us, has a temper. And though he has a good opinion of him, he added: "He's not the intelligent type."

The Chinese have a saying about the difficulty of passing inherited business empires to two generations beyond the founder: "Wealth does not pass beyond three generations." It's a common syndrome in business families everywhere. The vision fades, the drive is lost, a privileged upbringing dulls the competitive spirit. And rivals close in.

The founder of the Kim dynasty, Kim Il-sung, ruled for 46 years, making him the fifth most enduring leader of any country in the 20th century, according to the study of political leadership by an American academic, Arnold Ludwig.

He established the most thorough-going of modern personality cults. His adopted name Il-sung means "becoming the sun"; he was supposedly born in mystical circumstances on the sacred Mt Paektu, birthplace of the Korean race; his marvellous exploits were instilled in all citizens from preschool on; newspapers printed his words in bold, red type as Bibles once did for the words of Christ.

The state earnestly taught its citizens that Kim Il-sung had turned sand grains into rice to save his people from starvation; he had fought in 100,000 battles over 15 years, though inexplicably was absent in the real battles that Koreans fought against Japanese colonisers.

During his rule, his country's sponsor, the Soviet Union collapsed. This brought an abrupt end to the huge subsidies from Moscow that had masked the poverty of North Korea's economy. The country switched its dependency to China, a less generous ally. Kim died in 1994.

His son, the second generation ruler, Kim Jong-il, inherited the leadership. Notorious for his bouffant hairdo and platform shoes, he struggled vainly for a stature he never achieved, satirised in a US comedy film, Team America. It was the first dynastic transfer of power in a nominally communist nation.

His legitimacy was hugely aided by the long, visible apprenticeship he enjoyed as his father prepared him for rule.

But his reign was desperately unhappy for the people. A terrible famine gripped the country from the moment Kim Jong-il took power till 1998. Estimates of the number of dead range from a quarter of a million to more than 3 million.

Kim Jong-il ruled for 17 years, but the famine has never really ended. Despite occasional flirtations with economic reform, its closed communist economy based on the principle of "self-reliance" has delivered only misery for the people.

Two weeks ago, James Brown, a military fellow at the Lowy Institute, visited North Korea as a tourist. "The countryside looks dead and colourless, stripped of vegetation," he told Fairfax Media. "Deforestation over the past year was 20 per cent," as people cut down and burnt wood for warmth in a country where electricity runs for only a couple of hours a day.

"There are lots of reports that people are afraid of using the subway because they don't want to get trapped in the tunnels when the power goes off," says Brown. "All the big buildings were freezing cold."

"There was plenty of food for tourists, but at the end of every meal, if you waited long enough, you would see them sorting the scraps and putting them away to use again," reports Brown. "We ate separately from our guides, but the one time I walked into where they were eating, people freaked out and I was ushered out very quickly."

A UN survey in 2011 found what it called "the worst famine in a decade" and aid groups reported deaths from starvation. Six million people - one in four of the population - were at risk of starvation. UNICEF reported last year that one in 10 2-year-olds were severely stunted through lack of food. They will suffer physical and mental harm all their lives, and pass their problems to their children.

For years, people in the countryside have been reported to eat weeds to stay alive. Knowing this state of perpetual hunger, pictures of their fat-faced "Brilliant Comrade" take on a different meaning, more provocation than propaganda.

Against this reality, Kim is trying to recreate the mystical aura that his grandfather established more than half a century ago. "The regime has concentrated its energy on boosting the personality cult surrounding Jong-un," reports South Korea's Chosun Ilbo, one of the country's most credible newspapers.

"But many North Koreans privately consider Kim junior a lightweight. To overcome that perception, he has apparently been imitating Kim Il-sung's clothing and hairstyle."

Despite his title of "Supreme Leader," Kim appears to be in a power-sharing arrangement with his uncle, an aunt and the head of the army, a "gang of four." Is he struggling to establish primacy?

The pursuit of power and legitimacy also appears to be driving his dangerous game of military provocation. Kim "needs to show he has the guts," says Lee Yong-kyu, a North Korea expert at Korea National Defence University in Seoul. Kim will eventually be forced to do "something provocative to prove the threats weren't empty".

As he strives to live out the personality cult of his grandfather, the anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth is favoured by Pyongyang-watchers as the time for his act of military defiance - April 15.

And though his regime is estimated to have material for about four to eight nuclear bombs, according to the only Western nuclear physicist to be invited into the regime's labs, the American Siegfried Hecker, it is most unlikely to be a nuclear attack. Kim may look comical, but he is not crazy. He is pursuing power, not annihilation in the US retaliation that would be sure to follow.

In warning Washington, the official North Korean news service reported that "we formally inform the White House and Pentagon" that the US "hostile policy" will be "smashed" by the "merciless operation" of its "nuclear strike". It urges that "the US had better ponder the prevailing grave situation".

A professional Pyongyang-watcher, Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report in Washinton, muses: "Hummm ... if an attack really is coming, why urge us to 'ponder' anything?"

Cockroaches, anyone?

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