Over the past week, North Korea has significantly increased the pressure on South Korean and the United States through threatening statements and actions. In particular, the international media expressed concern about war breaking out following the March 30 official statement which stated that “north-south relations will be put at the state of war and all the issues arousing between the north and the south will be dealt with according to the wartime regulations.” This statement, however, was a little misleading as the situation on the Korean Peninsula is technically in a state of war. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Pyongyang was trying to articulate its perception that inter-Korean relations are now back to how they were at the end of the Korean War. For North Korea, the past ten years of cooperation and engagement was a period of “peace,” which it now considers over.
Along with other official statements by North Korea that talk of the Korean Peninsula being on the verge of nuclear war, it is difficult to see where all these threats and tough words are heading to. Does Kim Jong-un have an endgame or “exit” strategy for this current round of tensions?
There was a lot more optimism a year ago. At that time, Kim Jong-un began to exhibit a different leadership style from his father. This was apparent when the younger Kim gave an unprecedented public speech at the commemoration of Kim Il-sung’s centenary on April 15, 2012. Along with visits to theme parks and music concerts where Disney characters made a cameo, it became clear that Kim Jong-un was a more engaging and charismatic leader. By contrast, Kim Jong-il only spoke a few words in public and preferred to keep a lower profile. Some analysts began to see the potential for change in North Korea based on Kim Jong-un’s unique leadership-style and apparent focus on reviving the economy, possibly even at the expense of his father’s legacy; Songun or military-first politics.
However, the younger Kim’s approach to foreign affairs and national security has shown that Songun is very much alive. His policies to the United States and South Korea have also revealed much about some of the domestic challenges he faces and that seem to be driving his decisions now. In the past, Kim Jong-il would increase tensions, back down, and then pursue what South Korean scholars refer to as a “peace offensive.” Consider what happened in early 2009. North Korea conducts its satellite launch, the international community responds with UN sanctions, and a nuclear test is conducted in response. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton makes a private visit to free two hostages which is portrayed in North Korea as a political victory, they back down and the “peace offensive” begins. There was an apparent rationality to Kim Jong-il’s approach to the outside world. In this context, can Kim Jong-un be considered as a rational actor? Before answering that directly, consider the following three difficulties Kim Jong-un faces.
First, Kim Jong-un has yet to establish his own political slogan representing his legacy. He has inherited two legacies or narratives of North Korea that his politics must link with. The first is Kim Il-sung’s Juche which is the narrative of how Korea secured it independence and the state was established. The second is Songun which is how this achievement was secured amid a negative external environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a unipolar world order under U.S. leadership. Deriving his legitimacy from the Mt. Paektu bloodline, Kim Jong-un must develop his own legacy within this framework. This will naturally take time. Until then he will find himself completely constrained by his father’s Songun politics which does not offer him any exit strategy from the country’s current difficulties. Given that Kim Jong-un has already enshrined his father’s legacy and its achievements in the constitution, which includes the development nuclear weapons, he cannot just simply discard Songun.
Second, Kim Jong-un faces difficulties within his regime. Recent rumors in South Korea have speculated that there was an assassination attempt against Kim Jong-un in the summer of 2012 and that this accounts for his current tough policies. While the rumors were based on one unnamed source, the dismissal last summer of Ri Yong-ho who was chief of the army was a significant event that still has not been fully explained. Some have pointed to the fact that he was in conflict with Choe Ryong Hae, the political chief of the military. Such conflict and competition among senior figures within the regime is of concern. The abrupt dismissal of Ri Yong-ho showed that there are very few people in Pyongyang who are safe in their jobs. Living under such pressure, few would be willing to propose engagement policies that could be easily attacked as deviating from Songun politics.
Third, related to this first point and reflecting the difficulties in the second point, is that without an established policy by Kim Jong-un there is nothing for elites within the regime to take lead from. Currently, these elites can only operate within the confines of Juche and Songun and Kim Jong-un is final arbitrator as to whether these policies are correct within the context. It’s difficult for senior figure within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to suggest opening up dialogue with South Korea when most people would interpret that as going against the fundamental principles of Songun. Added to this difficulty is the fact that Kim Jong-un has to show that he can be a strong wartime commander among any potential skeptics within the regime or even populace as a whole. As Aidan Foster-Carter said, “Young, untried and by some accounts hot-headed, like a new Mafia boss succeeding his father, he may feel he has to show all concerned-his own team, as well as his many foes-that he is a tough guy, no pushover.”
To answer the main question, is Kim Jong-un a rational actor, it can be said that he is a rational actor within the limits of the North Korean regime. Until we see him push forward his own politics, and one that is more focused on reviving the economy, there will always be half-hearted measures for economic development interrupted by the latest confrontation with the outside world. One silver-lining to this dark cloud is the fact that the emphasis on developing light industries is still there. It is interesting to note that throughout March 2012, the only non-military appearance by Kim Jong-un was at the Light Industry Workers National Meeting on March 18. A radical change is possible, but it is difficult to see how it will happen now. Kim Jong-un’s New Year Address for 2013 should have be a sign that this year would follow along the Songun path when he stated “‘Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space!’ — this is the fighting slogan our Party and people should uphold this year.” Maybe we will have to wait for the next New Year’s Address for signs that he will established his own politics.