Korea: The Prince Of Potential Takes Over


December 27, 2011: Kim Jong Il's death might be considered a good career move. He had made a desperate promise that, by 2012, North Korea would undergo a massive increase in living standards. Amazing things were supposed to happen by Kim Jong Il's birthday on February 16th. This was in response to the growing popularity of consumerism in North Korea and knowledge of the higher South Korean and Chinese living standards. Most North Koreans are having a hard time getting enough to eat but in the capital, Pyongyang, the promises included 100,000 new housing units. The capital is a special place in North Korea. You need permission to live there and the city is obviously much better off than the rest of the country. This is because the most loyal, and crucial, government employees live in Pyongyang. However, Kim Jong Il's building plans had turned out horribly wrong. Not only would the plan not produce 100,000 new apartments but many were built using substandard materials and unsafe practices. Hundreds of students drafted to help in the construction were killed or mutilated by work accidents. The construction managers were under tremendous pressure to get the 100,000 new apartments built, at any cost. The new buildings were so poorly built that Pyongyang residents feared being given an apartment in one of the new buildings. Some of the shoddy new buildings had already collapsed and city residents were wondering how the government would spin the collapse of finished, and inhabited, apartments. The apartment debacle was expected to provide Kim Jong Il with a public-relations disaster in 2012, but with his timely death, that crises is avoided. The heir, Kim Jong Un, can disavow the 2012 promises and choose another direction. But there aren't too many choices here because the North Korean economy is a mess that is getting worse. Most North Koreans face food shortages and unemployment, or underemployment. There is no future and most North Koreans know it. So in early 2012, Kim Jong Un has to come up with a believable (to North Koreans) solution to the hunger and poverty. The world waits and wonders.

China has long proposed a solution. Earlier this year, Kim Jong Il visited dozens of Chinese companies and the explosive Chinese economic growth of the last three decades was explained. Kim met with his Chinese counterpart and agreed to greater economic cooperation. This included special trading privileges for China and Chinese firms setting up companies in North Korea. This was meant to show the North Koreans how it is done and help the North Koreans to create their own version of the "Chinese economic miracle". Some overenthusiastic North Korean media specialists promptly announced that the north would enjoy spectacular economic growth by next year. But the "Chinese strategy" got bogged down in the North Korean bureaucracy, where many senior officials fear opening up the economy as the Chinese have done. There is some scant hope that Kim Jong Un and his handlers will push for a Chinese solution and get away with it.

North Korean media is suddenly full of new revelations about what a great and wonderful fellow their new leader is. For example, Kim Jong Un is identified as the man behind the artillery attack on South Korea (Yeonpyeong Island) 13 months ago. The North Korean media has announced that Kim Jong Un will continue the "military first" (in food and other resources) of his father and grandfather. This made the 1.2 million people in the military happy, along with over five million family members of career NCOs and officers, but for the other 18 million North Koreans this just means more privation.

A lot of North Koreans are just going through the motions when it comes to public mourning. Privately, there is great fear and uncertainty about the new government. The heir, Kim Jong Un, is in his 20s and it's unclear if he has the ability to hold things together. Apparently he is controlled by his aunt (the younger sister of Kim Jong Il) and uncle (Jang Song Taek, a powerful official, who has long been advising Kim Jong Un and his father). It's still unclear what the new leadership will do to solve the many crises facing North Korea. Famine and lack of fuel and jobs are just the most pressing matters, there are many more problems. Kim Jong Un's uncle has been in trouble in the past for his pro-reform attitudes. He has also gotten into trouble for openly saying that the economic situation in North Korea was very difficult to deal with. But now Jang is at the very top. If ever there was a chance to enact some real economic reform next year would be the time to do it. But with that reform will come cultural change, and North Koreans will eventually demand less dictatorship and more democracy. That unrest may take years to develop, while famine and massive unemployment are here now.

In the north, the secret police have been called out to find and silence those spreading the rumor that Kim Jong Il was not really dead or had been murdered. Kim Jong Il was not very popular and all manner of real or imagined skullduggery was associated with him. The funeral takes place tomorrow (and more memorials the day after that) and the government does not want any lack of enthusiasm visible. Several hundred North Koreans have been ordered to attend the funeral and are being coached on how to act.

December 26, 2011: China openly announced that it supported the new North Korean government of Kim Jong Un and his followers (and handlers).

In North Korea, the general responsible for the November, 2010 artillery attack on South Korea was dismissed. It's always been a mystery over exactly what led to that attack.

December 25, 2011: In the north, the legal markets were allowed to open. Kim Jong Un was given credit for this move, which pleased a lot of hungry North Koreans.

December 24, 2011: North Korea publically acknowledged the lack of mourning for Kim Jong Il in South Korea and declared this a serious lapse in manners. The usual threats were made and life went on.

December 21, 2011:  Security was reduced and illegal (but usually tolerated) traders were allowed back on the streets (back alleys, actually) so that people could buy food and other essentials not available in government stores. Legal traders, fearful of having their goods confiscated, are only selling to those they know.

December 20, 2011: South Korea revealed that in the days after the death of North Korean leader Kim Kong Il, the North Korean military changed their communications frequencies and encryption. This is an expensive procedure and is usually done just before a war. This action made it difficult for South Korea and the United States to read North Korean military communications they had tapped into.

December 19, 2011:  Chinese and North Korea border security authorities announced that there would be no bureaucratic hassles for North Koreans returning from China to mourn the death of Kim Jong Il. There were still stricter controls on anyone trying to get out, for any reason. But many North Koreans are staying in China and students report being told by their parents in North Korea to stay at their studies and to not, under any circumstances, return to North Korea.

December 18, 2011: At 1 AM, the North Korean Chinese border was unexpectedly closed, with special troops being sent to key crossings to ensure compliance. A few hours' later orders were issued to shut down all economic activity and restrict movements of the population. By 9 AM troops were on the streets of cities telling everyone to go home and stay there. Then the media announced the death of Kim Jong Il a day earlier. He was described as dying from overwork. But it was no secret that he had been ill for over three years and his demise was expected. At 2 PM people were ordered to go to where they worked (or pretended to work) for some organized grief. Those who did not show sufficient enthusiasm would be punished. At 5 PM, students and teachers were ordered to show up at schools to show their grief (which would be graded). People who were around in 1994 noted, quietly, that the mourning for the death of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in 1994 was much more sincere and expressive. His heir, Kim Jong Il, presided over 17 years of decline and starvation. Kim Il Sung, propped up by Soviet subsidies and deceptive accounting (not rebuilding worn public and economic infrastructure) had provided a decent life. But in the early 1990s, the Soviet Union and their subsides (free food and cheap oil) disappeared, and the poorly maintained infrastructure began to break down.

December 17, 2011: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il dies of a heart attack but the news is kept secret for 24 hours. Kim Jong Il had prepared for the succession (of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un) over the last three years (since his stroke in 2008) by removing from power (sometimes via execution) senior officials who might object to a third generation of Kims running the country.

In China, American and North Korean negotiators agreed that North Korea would cease its uranium enrichment efforts (thus halting the production of more atomic bombs) and, in return, the U.S. would send North Korea 20,000 tons of food (mostly rice and wheat) a month for the next twelve months. 




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close