WEEKEND READ: Departing Dear Leader?

North Korea's neighbours are making preparations just in case North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is replaced or dies.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) supposedly has increased its deployments along the North Korean border since September, reinforcing border monitoring and barrier systems, the Financial Times reported on Thursday, citing unnamed US officials. While this report is unconfirmed, it does fit the pattern of other preparations regional powers have been making.

On October 28, South Korean media reported that US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was pushing the Pentagon to upgrade existing contingency plans for dealing with civil war or anarchy in North Korea into more concrete operational plans. Then on November 12, a Japanese newspaper reported that the US military and the Japanese Self Defense Forces were reviewing possibilities for joint operations in response to a potential emergency on the Korean peninsula or Japan.

Now, with this new report about Chinese forces, the PLA in theory is anticipating the need to deal with masses of North Koreans fleeing famine conditions. And on Wednesday, North Korea itself announced that in December it plans to close the demilitarized zone along the border with South Korea to cross-border traffic (of which there is not much in any case). That’s rarely a sign that everything is going well.

North Korea has always been a rather odd place – dominated after its founding in 1948 by the personality cult of Kim Il Sung, and equally dominated since his 1994 death by his son, the equally cultish Kim Jong Il. North-east Asia has been plagued of late with reports that the junior Kim is gravely ill, raising the possibility (perhaps even probability) of an impending leadership transition, which would be only the second in the country’s modern history.

In dynastic systems such as North Korea, power transitions typically are clean affairs only when the entire elite buys into the transition ahead of time. Dynasties mean that no matter how hard-working or clever one is – or how terribly the country is run – there is little prospect for someone outside the line of succession to move up the ladder. As most of the North Korean military and intelligence elite have less-than-charitable thoughts about Kim’s offspring – and in particular his eldest son – a stable transition would be a dubious prospect even under the best of circumstances.

And these are not the best of circumstances.

In 1995, North Korea suffered a severe famine caused by floods that peaked in 1997 and that probably resulted in the deaths of around two million people. (We say "probably” because the information vacuum in North Korea is notoriously thorough.) In 2006 and 2007, North Korea again suffered natural disasters on a scale significant enough to destroy 25 percent of the 2008 rice and maize harvest. The most recent report from the United Nations World Food Program, released in October, says that the spike in food and oil prices in the first half of 2008 has diminished North Korea’s ability to purchase basic staple foods and the fertilizers and fuels needed to farm them adequately. So North Korea could be facing a leadership transition and a famine simultaneously.

If this is indeed an imminent leadership transition – and we emphasize the word "if” – and there is about to be a battle royal to oust the Kim dynasty, there are essentially only two likely outcomes.

In the first scenario, a coalition manages to hold the country’s leadership together – whether that coalition be the Kim clique or some other coalition made up of elements of the military/intelligence complex that has ruled the country since the Korean war. In this scenario the centre more or less holds. It could be sloppy. There could be mass deaths from the famine. But in the end there would remain a totalitarian regime. Its outlook on the world might evolve in the years that follow, but North Korea would – for now at least – remain the North Korea the world has known for two generations.

The alternative scenario the one where things go to hell. One of the downsides of a dynastic/totalitarian system is that there is an extremely small number of people who know anything about running the country – the information vacuum is so complete that, apart from the top few dozen people in the regime, literally no one (inside or outside the country) has a clue as to what is really happening within its borders. Were this core cadre to shatter due to internecine conflict, that would in essence be the end of organized government in North Korea for a time. Among the things that would break are the food distribution and communications networks that keep the average hungry North Korean fed (to the extend that they are indeed fed).

Given the extreme secrecy that shrouds the North Korean regime, it is impossible to say with any level of confidence which of the two scenarios is more likely. In scenario one, it matters very little what anyone does to prepare – preparations are not necessary because, strategically, nothing really changes. In scenario two, it matters very little what anyone does to prepare, because – global financial crisis aside – should a country of 23 million people simply fall apart into anarchy in the space of a day or three, any reasonable preparations would quickly be overwhelmed.

Kim may show up in one of his odd outfits in a few days and all this North-east Asian worrying may prove to have been for nothing. It is not as if the report of the Chinese troop movements is particularly compelling – after all, it did come from the Financial Times, a publication far more familiar with the ins and outs of derivatives, mortgages and banking than the opaque world of the Chinese-North Korean border. But the North Korean regime can be best described as not just stable, but ossified.

And all things eventually do come to an end.


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