By Marc DuBuis
The past week has seen yet another round of heightened tensions rise and fall between North and South Korea, yet this time the outcome may actually be cause for cautious optimism for the future. In response to the death of two South Korean soldiers in a blast from a North Korean landmine, both nations traded propaganda and limited artillery salvoes as Pyongyang threatened to invade if its southern neighbor refused to cease its broadcasts. In this context, South Korean propaganda indeed presented a threat to the North Korean regime as it undermined the government’s ongoing efforts to hermetically isolate its population from the more prosperous, affluent, and free west. Despite the renewed conflict, however, the willingness of North Korea’s dictator to reach an agreement to de-escalate the situation, and even offer an official statement of regret, may suggest that Kim Jong-un has transitioned into a more stable phase of rule, having solidified his position amongst regime insiders since his assumption to power following his father’s death in 2011. If Kim has indeed proven himself in the eyes of essential regime insiders or sufficiently cowed these elites through purges, he may now enjoy greater room to maneuver in his foreign policy. While this undoubtedly presents a bleak future for North Koreans and the promise of continued headaches for western leaders, it may also ironically signify a shift toward lower-intensity animosity with Seoul and Washington. This would suggest that having proven his belligerent toughness to regime elites over the past four years on the nuclear issue, standing up to the west, and harassing Seoul, Kim might now be in a strong enough position that de-escalating the regime’s rhetoric is politically more acceptable. Indeed, while a firmly entrenched Kim likely condemns North Koreans to at least another decade of totalitarian domination, it may also ironically result in more instances of official willingness to back down in its foreign policy, something that bodes well for greater normalization of North Korea’s interactions vis-à-vis the West and particularly its southern neighbor in the years ahead.
Make no mistake. North Korea remains a horribly repressive totalitarian state, one in which its people suffer as much from food and commodity shortages as political disenfranchisement. Nor should we expect democratization or an especially cooperative North Korean diplomacy in the near future. Nevertheless, a willingness to negotiate a resolution to the present crisis alongside an official statement of regret is a significant change in the regime’s behavior. A public retraction of this scale would have likely constituted political suicide in the early years of Kim’s rule after coming to power in 2011. Indeed, an example of such perceived weakness would have been a potent weapon in the hands of elites dissatisfied with the regime and contemplating launching a coup to depose him. His ability to do make such statements now suggests that Kim has effectively solidified his position and already credibly portrayed himself as a decisive and aggressive leader against South Korea and the United States, if only in an attempt to impress domestic actors crucial to his rule. This will in turn permit the regime to engage in other retractions to ease heightened tensions in the event of future disagreements.
These considerations point to the simple fact that much of the North Korean regime and its inner workings remain remarkably opaque. To be sure, the Byzantine structure of the regime’s internal machinery largely remains a mystery to outside observers. While Kim Jong-un wields ultimate power within the state, it is decidedly less clear which elites and factions are the crucial elements to sustaining his hold on political power. Even with the presence of defectors, some of which were highly placed elites within the Pyongyang power structure[i], much of the relative importance between second and third tier members of the regime’s hierarchy remain somewhat of a mystery. Such accounts suggest that, in practice, loyalty and closeness to the leader dictates one’s position in the North Korean regime (Jin-Sung, 2014). These accounts also depict the immense human tragedy of living under such an oppressive totalitarian state. Indeed, even the highest elites regularly suffer from deprivation and commodity shortages, though this is still far better than the near starvation conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans (Jin-Sung, 2014). What is less clear, however, is who holds the positions vital to Kim’s continued rule, and on whom he must rely if he is to remain in power. We can assume, though, that the military and security structures of the state are among the essentials to Kim’s rule, particularly if he hopes to retain control over an impoverished and starving country and its brutally oppressed populace. Any attempts by Kim to strengthen his position would therefore likely manifest themselves as attempts to target the military and top officials to intimidate them and bring these organizational structures more firmly under his personal control.
The presence of greater regime maneuverability is therefore particularly likely as this statement of regret follows on the heels of at least two separate, state-led purges amongst the military and state officials over the past year. Having survived his first, and most dangerous, years in power, Kim is cunningly taking cues from other successful dictators by rearranging what Bueno De Mesquita and Smith (2011) term the “winning coalition” of his regime, seeking to remove individuals that initially supported, but could also threaten his rule.[ii] Even his own uncle was not safe as Kim successively purged all those that could threaten his position atop the North Korean hierarchy.
However, a stronger North Korean leadership under Kim, while distasteful, may ironically provide more opportunities for accommodations with the West. With fewer concerns over his ability to remain in power, Kim might be less inclined to continually risk escalating conflict with South Korea, the US, and their allies merely to convey his strength to domestic factions. Freed from this domestic pressure and relatively secure from the threat of coups, he may now have the political flexibility necessary to downplay the regime’s hostile rhetoric and to offer additional official expressions of regret without generating elite opposition. He may also repeat such actions in the future if the west does not overreach by heavily parading their victory in this instance. Should this be the case, greater North Korean willingness to ease tensions will have a profound impact across the peninsula and throughout the world.
The recent escalation and relaxation of hostilities between Seoul and Pyongyang may represent the start of what may become a new stage in Korean relations. True, North Korea’s status as a pariah state has not changed, nor has it shaken off its role as the hermit kingdom. It would therefore be foolish to expect a flowering of diplomatic activity or a drastic reversal in the belligerency of its rhetoric or in the contrariness in foreign policy designed to annoy and worry the West. However, Kim’s willingness to de-escalate tensions and even offer a formal statement of regret is of great significance, something that was politically unthinkable in the early years after his succession. Such admissions by the regime would have easily served as weapons in the hands of any disaffected elites prepared to launch a coup in the early years of his rule. This situation is increasingly remote given the recent regime purges, though it by no means remains impossible should the regime’s intentional repression, commodity scarcity, or violence against its own populace pass some unidentified threshold.
Nevertheless, Kim’s willingness to back away from escalating tensions with South Korea is at the very least a cause for cautious optimism for greater accommodations in the coming years. At the very least, the domestic pressure to engage in such behavior will have subsided as Kim has strengthened his own position at the expense of purged military and state officials, though it is likely that some degree of rhetorical saber rattling will never disappear entirely. This development is nevertheless of momentous importance, and may signify that Kim Jong-un, while more firmly established in his position as he purges potential threats to his rule, may as a result also enjoy greater political flexibility to deescalate political tensions and retreat from confrontation in certain circumstances in the future. A durable North Korean regime will therefore likely remain a thorn in the side of the West for at least the next decade or two, though the possibility of its greater policy maneuverability may make it a smaller and less irritating barb moving forward.
[i] Jang Jin-Sung’s memoir Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea is a particularly gripping account of a disgraced North Korean elite’s escape, one that also provides a shocking glimpse into the regime and society that had otherwise remained remarkably opaque to outside observers.
[ii] The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Allastair Smith is a necessary book for anyone curious about regimes and how they remain in power. Building upon a selectorate model emphasizing the number of individuals essential to the survival of the regime, Mesquita and Smith show dictatorships and democracies alike maintain their power by buying off those necessary to support the regime, albeit through private and public goods respectively. In the case of dictators relying on few elites, they note that the best policy is to reshuffle the essentials to their rule shortly after assuming power by eliminating some of the very elites that helped them attain their position. For any elite strong enough to help them into power could also just as easily remove them.
Marc DuBuis is a M.A. candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce focusing on International Security and Intelligence. Marc completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Oakland University with a B.A. in Political Science with research interests focused on the resource curse and international conflict.
He has presented at multiple research conferences, including regional Phi Alpha Theta history conferences, Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Conferences in Chicago, and the International Studies Association Midwest Conference in St. Louis. Published works include “The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization” in Security and Intelligence Studies Journal (Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2015), with electronic versions of “Resource Diversification and the Durability of Autocratic Regimes” (coauthored with Dr. Matthew Fails) and “Swedish Conduct in the Thirty Years’ War” forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly and the Grand Valley Journal of History respectively.