By Georgy Toloraya
24 August 2012
What would YOU do if after attending a privileged boarding school and a few years of university abroad your destiny suddenly catapulted you into a position of highest authority and responsibility for a troubled and impoverished country, one seen as part of an “axis of evil?” This is exactly the situation Marshal Kim Jong Un faces today and I doubt if there are people around him who have enough courage or knowledge of the world to give him substantive advice. After all, most of them have been selected for their obedience and ability to implement the “wise guidance of the Leader” without daring to have their own opinions. North Koreans are not likely to rely on advice from foreign scholars, whether out of pride (chabusim) or suspicion of malicious intent. But being an irresponsible foreign scholar is a good opportunity to suggest some ideas about: “What would I do if I were Marshal Kim?” Please don’t think the author is a megalomaniac or that he fully shares the logic he thinks this young leader is about to follow.
So, if I were this young Korean sitting in The Office in the Mokran Palace in Pyongyang and working out a strategy…
Bolster Government, Firmly Establish Power
Would you expect me to push democratization to bring freedom to my long-suffering and oppressed folk? Even being young and probably idealistic does not mean I would be stupid enough to overcome my instinct for self-preservation. Should I try any variant of “glasnost” or “liberalization,” several months or a couple of years later both I and my beautiful young wife would find ourselves exiles at best, while South Korean troops would be imposing a curfew in Pyongyang to prevent riots and chaos. Liberalization and easing of controls without many years of educating people on how to be responsible for their own fates usually bring more evil than good. To be well-intentioned and go down in history as a “liberator” is attractive, but the sad facts teach me to be extremely prudent and gradual. Otherwise the commotion and sudden confusion of the population will inevitably result in a decrease in security, the loss of morals in the people responsible for it, a spread of hostile propaganda that would invite dissent and internal riots, and finally, foreign interference. Not quite foreign, actually, asSouth Koreaconsiders us to be a part of its own territory and no one in the world would dare defend us. And here is the basic difference between me and Deng Xiaoping or any other reformer. Due to the division ofKoreainto North and South, I do not have the luxury to experiment with security, as an overthrow of the regime, unlike elsewhere, would mean the end of the DPRK. Period.
So the logical thing to do, however much I might feel humanistic and liberal inside my soul (not so much, actually, having seen even at school the hypocrisy of Westerners and their arrogance toward Asians), is to strengthen controls (installing what Russia’s Putin calls “vertical of power”) and make my subjects obey.
I would start with the people around me. I have already established myself as a no-nonsense boss, someone not to be reckoned with. Some uniformed guys, toward whom my father seemed too lenient, turned out to be slow learners. However, now they know the truth.FiringRiYoung Ho, who seemed to have had his own ideas and agenda, turned out to be (a bit unexpectedly) not a big deal. These old men around me well remember my grandfather’s (whom I resemble to them) purges and would never think to challenge my decisions. My uncle is valuable to me now, as he is experienced and shrewd; he has also experienced the trauma of being demoted by my father and will not cross my red lines. But the day will come when I will send him and the likes of him to retirement or, at best, to ceremonial posts (he might succeed Kim Yong Nam). Then I will put my own people in their places—those whom I find trustworthy and well-educated (maybe I should dispatch some young gentry to study abroad now).
I will also have to streamline the governance system. The power from above should stream down through the party, while the military and security forces should limit themselves to their own functions. However important they are in a country like ours, which is on the war footing, they should not dictate political and economic decisions during peacetime. The thing of utmost importance is to eradicate corruption, now omnipresent in all levels of civil service. Government officials should have the opportunity to get rich, but not by accepting bribes for breaking the rules. These rules should be sacred, while the ones who guard them are disposable.
Internal law and order should be reestablished, as many people have somehow lost their ideals and obedience over the last few years. I will send more inspectors to all corners of the country, and the Party people will be entrusted and privileged to lead the task of putting my house in order. This initial tightening of the screws (closing the borders for refugees, inspections, etc.) is needed to make people see that I do what I say. I need to cement order so I can pursue my own agenda.
I will also have to review all the existing laws and regulations (I will probably set up a special body for that) to ensure the laws are logical and just in order to make people willingly obey my new rules of the game. Outdated and stupid rules (like prohibiting women from riding bicycles) should be abolished. I am lucky not to need a parliament to do this. The new legal system should allow people to take initiative and not discourage “grass-root” activity aimed at bringing benefit to society. However, this easing of regulations does not mean I will tolerate disrespect of authority or anti-state activity, nor will dissent be permissible at this stage (although constructive opposition could be allowed later—much later, perhaps sometime in the second half of my rule, a couple decades from now).
What about the basis of our Republic—socialist ideas—in fact, actually imposed on us by Soviet dominationists and Chinese revisionists? I might doubt the relevance of this outdated ideology, but I need to use my predecessors’ legacies in order to preserve the unity of my nation. So I will pay lip service to socialism. And, of course, I should derive knowledge from juche, which really is about being independent and following my own line, a rarity not many leaders can afford in modern world.
But this is not enough. I should set a “national goal” agenda for the next maybe fifty years, and pursue it like, for example Lee Kuan Yew (although I do not need his efforts to go down in history, but he has made a good place out ofSingapore… Brunei is also a very interesting example to study). What should I call this new ideology? I have already suggested “patriotism” as a new banner—meaning putting the state and nation’s interests ahead of one’s personal interests. In fact, this is a very Confucian ideal, one which runs deep in the blood of Koreans.
I should later suggest some sort of “New Deal.” Something like Son-Ae-Guk (patriotism first) or Nara Sarang in authentic Korean or Shin-Bu-Ryok (new prosperity and power). No doubt it would be based on juche and songun, but also on the concept of “kangsong taeguk” (strong and prosperous state), putting in the forefront prosperity and modernization (another Russian catch-phrase, though outmoded there now). But, of course, this ideology is to be centered on the uniqueness of the Korean nation and the achievements of Kim I l Sung and Kim Jong Il, which have made Kim Il Sung’s nation the unique and most dynamic nation in the world (if, only in private, would I say it with tongue-in-cheek).
Focus on the Economy
So, the political system needs just some re-dressing and new people (first of all in the Party) to keep my country going for decades. However, there are problems demanding urgent practical steps. I should really center my attention on the economy. Now that we have the nuclear deterrent (at least our enemies think so), we can divert our attention to addressing the parts of the economy that are the most pressing. I should not challenge the “socialist” and “collectivism” rhetoric, as I want to avoid undermining the myths of the founders—egalitarianism is not alien to Korean spiritual values—and must still display respect for my grandfather and father’s comrades-in-arms. I should also not let in Western consumerism—a normal person does not need all these vanity goods like Gucci and Breitling (though maybe I can reserve some for my staff for when they travel abroad to show our sophistication). Looking at global economic trends, I should probably join the camp of “green growth” and “sustainable development” as our domestic industries lie in shambles anyway and I could get aid from the likes of the BRICS (and maybe evenSouth Korea) to develop a new “green” economy and ecologically-friendly consumer styles.
At the same time, the Chinese and Vietnamese are good examples of how to match communist wording with vibrant market economies. But I cannot fully follow their “reform and opening” path, as it would lead to the collapse of my state. Actually, at this first stage, I need no “opening” to hostile foreigners to improve the situation in such areas as agriculture, local industry, services, and small-scale private construction to increase export and foreign-currency earning ability of the country.
The long-due decision to let peasant families grow crops and sell 30 percent of it after giving the rest to the state, as suggested in the June 28th measures, is just a start. After the crop (seemingly not very good this year) is harvested, we will provide the Party committees and peasants with a well worked out set of regulations on agricultural production and trade in agricultural products (we will have to study not only Chinese but also West European experiences in order to do that). Also, small-scale private production (at the first stage, allowing only up to three to four hired workers) should be introduced on the basis of the “local industry” facilities and by selling some primitive means of production to entrepreneurs (only they should be called something different like “socialist innovators”). Numerous restaurants and service units already exist under the auspices of party, military, and administrative organs. Why not let entrepreneurs compete with them? By the way, these numerous entities should function in a more transparent manner with uniform rules for their activities (including taxes to the state budget in addition to revenues to their “master” organizations). The DPRK, of course, will remain a country without taxes—at least not collected directly from the people. But some levies should be introduced: sales levies, first of all, which will spread the economic burden more equally between the rich (rather numerous now) and the poor.
While implementing these measures, which will surely boost my support on the grass-root level, I should not alienate the elites. The party-government-military-security people should have their share of the pie legally, or else they will look to get it illegally. The idea of Russian-style “state corporations” created out of Ministries and staffed by officials is worth noting. Such a scheme would give my immediate servants incentives to be loyal and at the same time, pursue economic growth, providing personal rewards. Luckily, I have a very efficient security and control mechanism that prevents theft (we will publicly shoot a couple of government thieves before it becomes an epidemic like in China). We are also fortunate to be free from the kind of gangster capitalists who ruined Russian reforms. Maybe I should invite several foreign economic experts to draw up a blueprint. The information they get will of course end up in the hands of US and South Korean intelligence, but this is a lesser evil. Besides, they won’t get critical statistics or sensitive data anyway.
We should also not discard free economic zones and export-oriented entities. In line with the improving economic situation, we should create transparent and logical rules to attract foreign investment. We have taken this first step with the Chinese, giving them almost full control of the economic zones in the islands on the Amnok (Yalu) River and in Rason on the east coast. The Rason zone has not been much of a success so far, as hopes for Japanese investment have also floundered. Nevertheless, the Russians and Chinese are competing with each other over the logistics here, which is a hopeful sign. However, it is inevitable that the bulk of investment will come from the South. We will just have to wait for a less crazy government there. Then we will renew the Mt. Kumkang tourism project and push the trans-Korean railroads, both to China and Russia, and the gas pipeline from Russia. If we ever succeed in building the trans-Korean railroad along the eastern coast, we can turn much of the coast, isolated from the rest of the country by a fence along the railway, into a huge recreational ground for South Koreans.
No Friends, Only Enemies Around—Can This Be Changed?
We should be prepared for the reality that no major breakthrough in our relations with the South will take place in the near future. The ruling circles of that country probably feel bitter disappointment that our country did not collapse as they predicted to happen throughout 2009-11, when some “hawks” actually thought unification by absorption was right around the corner. They also have a grudge against us for our brave attacks in 2010, when we showed them we won’t be an easy target. By personally going to the Mudo Island and awarding the soldiers—not the generals—I have shown that no provocations from the South will be tolerated and also have given a big moral boost to the simple servicemen. The South Korean population, unfortunately, is receptive to this hostility, as the greedy Southerners feel themselves deceived that they did not accomplish their task of changing our system using the leverage of subversion-through-aid, despite all the money they allocated to this end throughout the last decade. At some point, a new generation of politicians will come to power in the South (and this is not the next administration) whom I will be able to talk to with ease, for whom I may even make the grand gesture of traveling to Seoul to meet (something my father could not afford to do for security reasons).
Later, when our country becomes a more prosperous place and has a better international image, we will really talk in earnest with the Southerners (who should also grow more independent from their US bosses before that time) as blood brothers. Actually, the joining of hands by North and South in the conquest of international markets and in checking the growing influence of China would be beneficial for both parts of our nation. I probably should not revise my grandfather’s suggestion (at that time, just a cover-up for the unification plan) of a confederation—but this is a long way ahead. First we should revive trade and economic cooperation (which has been quite successful in the first decade of this century), proceed to grand logistical projects (like the gas pipeline) and humanitarian projects, and find a solution to the West Sea fishing problem. Then the time will come to head to a serious bilateral framework document, unlike the declarative agreements of 1991, which will be legally binding for our relations. Not that I believe in international law, butSouth Koreawill have to determine its stance and take some kind of obligation to accept the DPRK’s existence. Even the US won’t be able to restrain them from doing that as we travel down the road of national reconciliation together.
In the foreign policy field, I cannot do much right now as the whole world remains hostile and would gladly see us fall. I intended to improve ties with theUSimmediately after the death of my father, but his dead hand actually pushed the ignition button of the unlucky rocket from out of the grave. That was immediately used by our enemies to isolate and pressure my country. But every cloud has a silver lining: I managed, based on this experience, to postpone my father’s decision to hold another nuclear test, despite obstruction from the military. Nevertheless, our patience is not unlimited; if we don’t get positive signals from the US soon, I will have to give in to the hard-liners and “reconsider” the nuclear issue (for example, get rid of the September 19, 2005 obligations and perform another nuclear test). For this, I will have to carefully calculate what influence this decision would have on presidential elections in South Korea and the US, as well as reactions from China.
However there is still some time left and hopefully my opponents will get the message. Establishing some kind of permanent relationship with the US is my first foreign policy priority. The timing is not bad, particularly if I am able to give the impression of some positive changes in my country. I will watch how the situation develops for Myanmar, now courted by the West (although the outcome for that regime, which will likely be ousted, and that country, which may break into pieces, is predictably bleak). Sending signals, likeMyanmargenerals did, that I would like to get out from under Chinese dominance is a real game-changer. GettingNorth Koreato become a sympathizer of theUSin its growing confrontation with Beijing is a big prize forWashington. The Americans might even tone down their criticism of human right violations, and demands for “immediate denuclearization” would become less urgent.
Of course, everybody understands I will keep to my nuclear arms until the last moment. However, I might promise eventual denuclearization (simply returning to September 19th statement after some tug-of- war negotiations in the course of next year) and agree not to develop new nuclear technologies. I could also curtail our missile program. The fear of our missiles seems irrational in the minds of the Americans and I could well sell out this program for a price (these ballistic missiles are not going to help in case of a real war anyway, so their deterrent value is minimal). That does not mean the American establishment will soon make a strategic decision to tolerate a country and a regime like mine, but they can become less insistent on trying to overthrow it—the logic of “our son of a bitch” would also be important for them in order to check not only China, but also Japan and an increasingly willful South Korea.
China is my biggest headache. Our Chinese comrades feel more and more that they can afford to mentor and even threaten me. Not only by reducing aid (they won’t suspend it altogether, as the fall of my country is not in their strategic interests), but also by keeping my half-brother JongNamas an ace up their sleeve as a pro-Chinese contender to the throne. I will pay lip service to traditional friendships, but will also keep an eye on Chinese attempts to economically colonizeNorth Korea. I will also use Russia as a counterbalance—my father’s last journey there made the Chinese really jealous. At the same time, I should be cautious with the Chinese, especially after their change of power to the fourth generation; they grow more and more assertive and will not like too much teasing from Korea, although we will never be their client state. As for the Japanese, I do not expect much good from them (except for some sushi), but I should not irritate them. I really do not know, however, what else we can do about the dead abductees… this is an impasse that I cannot solve. We should reopen talks with them on this issue, not simply shy away from it, but probably we will have to wait for normalization with the US to happen first, and then Tokyo will follow suit. But I will have to make some promises both to them and the Americans on “humanitarian” issues, as well as the nuclear issue to get out from under sanctions, which increasingly hurt. I do expect an increase in aid after I send signals that I am ready for some changes.
One thing my father would not take into account (although he was advised to do so) is the power of information and public relations in the modern world. Look how important our athletes’ success in the London Olympics was for our image. My impromptu publicity drive gained unexpectedly good results, so I will engage in PR efforts in earnest. Maybe I should hire an established Western PR company to rebrand my country so it will not be seen as a member of the “axis of evil” and a laughing stock any more. First of all, of course, I should get some foreign writers who will put our propaganda materials into proper English and a context familiar to Westerners, so they do not look so ridiculous. Some stories, videos on YouTube, films, and posts with a human touch about our life should also be disseminated. This is not as expensive as you would think (although we will face opposition and blackouts by the mainstream media) and would bring us enormous benefits.
Finally, in the future, when I set up relations with the West and am accepted in what they call the “international community,” I should think about renaming my country. Should it be simply the Koryo Republic? If we ever have a confederation with the South, it would be easy just to change that to the Koryo Federation—and Hanguk, as well as Choson, will became history. I see no reason why by my hwangap (60th anniversary), I cannot win a popular vote from both North and South for the presidency of what would be the first truly independent and unified (if not homogenous) state in 5000 years’ Korean history….