Home » Understanding North Korea, Beyond Its Palace Intrigue
Featured Global News News North Korea

Understanding North Korea, Beyond Its Palace Intrigue

North Korea has been led by a single family since 1948. International fascination with the internal goings-on of the “hermit kingdom” can be relentless. The global media has taken an interest in the rise to political prominence of Kim Yo-jong, sister of the current supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. Every time Kim Yo-jong attends a high-profile diplomatic summit, threatens the United States, or vows to turn the Pacific into a firing range, the global media reacts with speculation that she is her sickly brother’s imminent successor.

Two commentators have recently tried to make sense of all this guesswork. Yoshihiro Makino, former Seoul bureau chief of the Japanese Asahi Shimbun, released Kim Jong-un to Kim Yo-jong in December last year. Tufts University professor and former US government adviser Sung-Yoon Lee weighed into the debate this week with The Sister.

Neither book assumes much prior knowledge about North Korea. Despite the efforts of historians like Suzy Kim and pundits like those on the Blowback podcast, there is little knowledge of North Korea in the West. In order to engage with Makino and Lee’s arguments, some basic context is crucial.

Postwar Division

The modern picture of North Korea held by most commentators — an armed-to-the-teeth mix of dictatorship, grey-market entrepreneurs, and malnourished workers — is in fact relatively new. North Korea was reduced to near-preindustrial rubble by US bombs during the war from 1950 to 1953. But postwar reconstruction, turbocharged initially by Soviet-bloc aid, witnessed the rapid development of cities, heavy industry, and agriculture. Previously underused labor and land was efficiently organized, and mind-blowing growth rates — 36.6 percent from 1957 to 1960 — at least temporarily left its poverty-stricken South Korean neighbor in the dust, as breathless economists like Joan Robinson marveled.

This postwar boom hit its limits in the 1960s, due in part to a reduction in foreign aid, a small domestic market, labor shortages, limited foreign trade, and astronomical levels of military spending. A modernization drive in the 1970s — involving increased purchasing of plants and technology from the West and Japan — increased growth slightly, but to nowhere near those initial postwar levels. Any technological advances that North Korea gained from increased foreign trade were also simply not enough to deal with its chronic labor shortage, and contributed to its ballooning trade deficit.

These economic highs and lows were directed by the Workers’ Party of Korea, a hyper-centralized organization that has operated under the brutal stewardship of Kim Il Sung’s “guerrilla” faction since it triumphed over all internal rivals in the 1950s.

Communism had mass support across the Korean peninsula in the 1940s and ’50s. But while the North Korean state didn’t lack popular endorsement, it did lack any will to develop its people’s councils into genuine democratic foundations. This, coupled with its prewar nationalist trappings — and the military’s absolute domination of postwar power — mean that the working class has never had any meaningful control there.

In the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union — which had rarely demanded debt repayments — coincided with a series of catastrophic floods that decimated North Korea’s limited arable land. Millions perished from starvation, and hundreds of thousands fled abroad. In response, a tolerated private shadow economy emerged, which the nation now depends on to feed and power itself.

The Merchant Behind the Curtain

The question of contemporary political power is paramount in Makino’s and Lee’s books, though they differ in their emphasis.

Lee’s argument, somewhat hidden among salacious detail, is that power in Korea is a kind of vortex. In North Korea, power is in the hands of whichever individual happens to hold the Kim family banner. Kim Yo-jong is “powerful” in the sense that she exists close to the center of this vortex — a trusted aide and confidante whom Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un regards with genuine affection. The government certainly has other stakeholders, who are driven by a need to retain their existing privileges. But to Lee, these stakeholders seem peripheral. Lee has previously suggested that the Kims’ control is doomed in the long run. This is primarily due to the fundamental dynamic at the heart of Korean politics: two rival states in close proximity competing for hegemony over the peninsula.

The emphasis in Makino’s argument is different. He argues that power in North Korea is a brutal and delicate balancing act. The Kim family is virtually untouchable — unless its members decide to kill each other. But their isolation renders them hopelessly dependent on a wider elite that has its own schemes.

This elite’s power exists in two separate (though intertwined) spheres. Economic power rests with the so-called donju — those who have built fortunes in the grey economy in areas like private transportation, banking, and trade. More explicit political power is held, according to Makino, on the third floor of the Central Party Building. “Red nobles” (guerrilla-faction descendants) based in this office play the role of information gatekeepers to the Kims. Makino argues, for example, that Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui withheld information from Kim Jong Un during the 2019 summit with the United States, because a rapid improvement in relations between the two nations would not have been in the interest of the newly affluent class. While this elite is clearly not untouchable — Kim Yo-jong allegedly punished Choe for her trick — Makino makes a decent case that their level of influence is colossal. The line between these political and economic spheres of power, naturally, is murky.

Reading Milton Friedman at Kim Il Sung University

A second theme running through both texts is whether full capitalist restoration is on the cards, and how Kim Yo-jong’s political fortunes relate to such a change. It is relatively well known that some official capitalist reforms appeared in the 1998 constitution (around the same time that Milton Friedman apparently became required reading at Kim Il Sung University). But how far is this likely to go?

Makino says it is undeniable that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes exist in North Korea (he calls them “the wealthy class” and “merchants,” respectively). There are, he argues, roughly one million merchants. The wealthy class emerged at the end of Kim Jong Il’s rule, and numbers in the thousands. They hire workers, make a profit, and operate in construction, trading, transportation, and other industries. They run both grey-entity companies and official enterprises — after mandated quotas are met, state companies can sell products freely in the market.

Ordinary people, Makino stresses, are being bled dry by this system. They have to pay exorbitant bribes — these are functionally taxes — at every level of the system. But they are also forced to take on exploitative part-time jobs, such as water deliverers in apartment buildings where the pumps don’t work, to make ends meet. As residents can now easily find information online about who is offering the cheapest groceries where, women working as merchants to supplement meager state incomes must compete quite viciously for market share.

Makino tentatively suggests that Kim Yo-jong is sympathetic to further market liberalization. It was her idea, he claims, to convince her father to roll out 3G mobile phone service in the country, in a joint venture with Egypt’s Orascom Group. But her personal desires, he stresses, are secondary to what actually happens. Any seriously destabilizing economic change will require the Kims to vacate the seat of power for good.

On this last point Lee seems to agree. A “reform and opening up” period would be too destabilizing for the state. The Kims are also terrified by, and will not accept, the prospect of a German-style reunification, where the richer nation absorbs the poorer one — in this case the South absorbing the North. Lee downplays the other economic developments described by Makino, presumably because he doubts their significance.

The Kim Is Dead. Long Live the Kim.

On the question of succession both books wisely hedge.

Makino emphasizes that no North Korean supreme leader has or will ever nominate a successor. To do so would be to erode their own power by creating a pole of attraction for scheming donju and “third-floor” cadres. For example, he explains, Kim Jong Il stopped the Korean People’s Army movement praising Ko Yong-hui, the mother of Kim Jong Un, to avoid precisely such a phenomenon. This seems logical enough. Makino also, however, falls back on the idea that women simply can’t attain power in North Korea. He cites Kim Jong Il’s disgust at the power struggle between his stepmother Kim Song-ae and his sister Kim Kyong-hui, and his approval of the old Joseon proverb, “when a hen crows, the family is ruined.” Kim Yo-jong, he concludes, is not a successor; she’s simply a piece on an increasingly complex chessboard.

Lee concurs that Kim Jong Un’s recent debuting of his daughter was less a declaration of a successor, and more a general gloat to the world that the Kim’s dynastic red monarchy is here to stay. But he does think that Kim Yo-jong’s various positions of official responsibility prove that she is fundamentally a backup in case her brother is incapacitated. For now, he argues, the Kim siblings are playing a game of “bad cop, worse cop,” with the sister taking the latter role. On the point of their government’s long-term prospects, Lee’s perspective has changed. While in previously commentary he gave the North Korean government another decade at most before its inevitable collapse, in The Sister he suggests that Kim Yo-jong could be powerful “for decades to come.”

Both books play to stereotypes about women’s historical role in North Korea. They emphasize the patriarchal and Confucian background of the nation, and mark the novelty of the new entrepreneurial class being dominated by women. This emphasis on the rarity of women in politics does not differ greatly from most commentary about Kim Yo-jong. No one would bother denying that women are politically underrepresented at every level of society in North Korea. But this recycled theme obscures the fact that from the 1940s to the 1980s there were proportionally far more women in government, prominent political roles, and organizational leadership in North Korea than in the United States, the UK, Canada, or Australia. Oppressed they certainly are. Historically absent from politics, North Korean women are not.

The North Korean people fought off Japanese colonialism under a socialist banner, only to be labeled “lower-than-barbarians,” killed en masse by the United States and its allies. They built a new nation from the ruins, only to have their miracle fall into the hands of a ruthless authoritarian clique.

The global obsession with a cartoonish Kim succession drama serves to relegate the struggle of ordinary North Koreans to the background. Theirs is a grim tale, and it deserves far more attention than the games of the “red nobility.”

Source : Jacobin