Confused about North Korea? — Think Syria

No, I’m not saying that Korea will descend into Civil War like Syria.  However, there ARE the ingredients for an error that will produce open conflict.

What Korea and Syria both have in common is unexpected rulers with shaky legitimacy.

In Syria, the regime of Hafez al-Assad was ruthless, but canny and supple.  Hafez knew how to wield power as well as keep it; he balanced Syria between the USSR, the US, Egypt, and Israel, always keeping control, but getting support from varied sources, and exercising a persistent influence in the region.   His regime was personal, but also had a strong party (Ba’ath) behind it.

But the regime became naked patrimonial rule when instead of picking the best qualified person, or a military or party favorite, he chose his son Bashar as his successor.  Bashar had never intended to rule; he trained as a  physician and ophthalmologist.  At age 29, when his older brother died, he was suddenly thrust into the role of dictator-in-waiting.

When Bashar took power after his father’s death, he lacked the skills to manage a complex regime alliance and deal with rebels.  He proved ruthless, to be sure, but also inflexible, over-reactive, and lacking deep support.  He has led Syria into a horribly bloody civil war, although I doubt that was his intent.  Rather, he simply did what he thought was needed to appear strong and keep power.  It is not clear whether he is being led by his military and political commanders, or is just running things poorly on his own.  But either way, the caliber of rulership declined with Bashar, and his response to the spread of the Arab Uprising into Syria has been to become a pariah to many of his people and dependent on the Hezbollah/Iran connection that wishes to keep his country as a transit lane between Tehran and Beirut.

The parallel with North Korea is strong.  Kim il-Sung was a strong leader, liberation hero, and Communist Party strongman, much like Stalin.  He moved toward personalist rule by appointing his son Kim Jong-Il as successor.  But this was no unexpected rise.  The younger Kim was groomed by 30 years of political life, and was a member of the Politburo and military commission for 14 years before taking power.  The transition was not only expected, but involved a successor with strong positions, legitimacy, and control in the Party and military taking power.  Under Kim Jong-Il North Korea remained a party state, where Kim Jong-Il’s legitimacy came as much from his role and experience in the Party as his parentage.

The same cannot be said of Kim Jong-un.  A virtual unknown, like Bashar he expected his older brother, Kim Jong-nam, to take power.  But Kim Jong-nam fell out of favor and Kim Jong-Il settled on Kim Jong-un to be his successor.   Kim Jong-un, was, however, young and inexperienced, and time was short.  It was only in 2010 that he became a general and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, despite having no prior political or military experience!  A major propaganda campaign was carried out to persuade N. Koreans to support their new “brilliant leader.” Two years later, Kim Jong-Il died and Kim Jong-un became leader of North Korea.

Kim Jong-un is thus also a pure patrimonial leader; he is in power solely by virtue of his parentage, not through working his way up the Party and military ladder.  That is a dangerously weak position.

It is thus not surprising that Kim Jong-un has been a saber-rattler as he attempts to shore up his position with the military and convince North Koreans that they need him as shield against mortal dangers.  He has to be a war-monger for domestic consumption.  The problem is how much he can maintain this role without stumbling into a real shooting war with the south. He has already overstepped several times by testing missiles, sinking a South Korean submarine, and firing on a South Korean island.  And we do not know how much he is being guided by military and party officials, or is just pushing himself forward in a way that manifests his deep inexperience.

Patrimonial or personalist regimes are profoundly vulnerable in times of stress, precisely because their legitimacy is weak.  They depend on patronage and personal loyalty, both of which can vanish if people perceive the ruler as weak.  Such regimes therefore often over-react to provocations, suffer defections, and fall to revolution or rebellion, as they lack the corporate strength of party-based or military-based regimes.

Even before the current troubles, the position of Kim’s government in North Korea was weakening.  Cell phones were bringing in news of the outside world, and how much more prosperous South Koreans are.  China was growing impatient with supporting an economically failing regime, prone to recurrent famines due to its insanely rigid non-market economy (although limited market openings have proved essential to avoiding more severe famines).  China has been urging N. Korea to adopt Deng Xiaoping style economic reforms, but N. Korea has resisted, knowing that if it tries to win people’s support by promising economic growth, South Korea wins that game hands down.

The one card that Kim Jong-un can play to keep himself and his party in power is fear.  We thus should not be surprised that he aims to keep his country on the edge of war, raise fears of international alliances against his country, and indulges the military in tests of ever more weapons.  What we have to watch out for is that these domestically motivated maneuvers create threats and attacks that the rest of the region cannot tolerate.  At that point, a real shooting war could arise.  On my last trip to Korea, I visited the DMZ — it is a war zone, on a war footing.  It would take very little to start a military conflict.

Still, Kim’s position is weak; if he starts a war that North Korea is certain to lose, it is likely that his own position would quickly fail and his government be overthrown.  So I do not expect he will actually act to start a war on his own.  But his inexperience is such that he may blunder into a war without intending, and like Bashar al-Assad, destroy his own country in the process.

Kim Jong-un thus lacks both experience in politics and legitimacy with the Party and military elite.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Global Economy, The Middle East Revolts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Confused about North Korea? — Think Syria

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  8. Devin says:

    I have a hard time believe that Kim Jong-Un is pulling any strings in this charade: would the military of North Korea really allow a 29 year old kid, Great Leader or no Great Leader, to bring them to their own destruction?

    • More like how close to the edge the military wants to push Kim, and then whether Kim will want to retreat or show he can go even closer — that is the risk, as his bravado and the seduction of power to the inexperienced may lead him to think he can walk on air for a little while (like Wily Coyote!)

  9. Raja M. Ali Saleem says:

    There are no doubt some similarities between Bashar/Syria and Kim Jong-un/North Korea which you have highlighted (another one can be the presence of a permanent enemy,holding sacred national land at the behest and with the support of foreign powers). However, there are some differences in Bashar and Jong-un which makes it difficult to draw parallels. Bashar has been in power for more than 12 years so while he remained illegitimate in the eyes of Syrians, most powerful groups in the current ruling coalition had long accepted his rule. Bashar, unlike Jong-un in 2012-3, faced no pressure to prove himself in 2011, when the civil war started. Secondly, the kind of legitimacy and cult status Kim family enjoys in North Korea has never been possible for the Assad family in Syria. Therefore, while the main threat to Bashar comes from the people, the main threat to Jung-un is from within the ruling coalition. Without Arab Spring, in all probability, Assad would have continued to rule for another ten years.

    • You are right that Bashar was in power longer, and the Arab Uprisings changed the context. Nonetheless, this was the first major test of Bashar’s ability to manage risk and wield power; and he has responded with brute force rather than subtlety.

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