The man who was widely regarded as second-in-command in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Jang Song-thaek, was not long ago arrested, tried and executed. He was accused of having “perpetrated anti-party counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of [the] party and [the] state and the socialist system”. It sounds a bit old-fashioned, but then again North Korea is generally seen as an old-fashioned communist regime. In perfect Stalinist mode, Jang’s image has been removed from official photographs. However, behind the archaic language and approach, it seems there may be political business of a more contemporary character under way.
The arrest was televised, as was Jang’s court appearance and sentencing. The television coverage was deliberate: the authorities clearly wanted Jang’s destruction to be witnessed. The question is which section of society was intended as the primary audience. Was it intended to frighten other high officials? Perhaps, but they would have known anyway the risks attendant on their chosen careers. Possibly the events that were televised were primarily for the benefit of the wider public, not to terrify them by showing the persecution of an ordinary citizen but to edify them by showing a lofty figure brought low. If this is the case it would mark a change in emphasis. Traditionally the governing Workers’ Party has followed a Stalinist model of terrorising the general public.
The purpose of the televised purge may have been to demonstrate that the new leader, Kim Jong-un, was changing things and that he was prepared to take on elevated figures, including his uncle, in the process. The big change which is said to be under way in Korea is the liberalisation of the economy and the gentle winding down of the command model. Neo-Stalinist terror doesn’t work in free enterprise economies. A recent UN report reveals that state terror against the people has long been the practice in North Korea. But such behaviour would be counterproductive in a private enterprise economy. Perhaps it is no accident that two of the country’s largest internment camps have apparently recently been closed. State terror may be easing in an effort to win public support for, and engagement with, the new economy. Private enterprise involves putting your head above the parapet. In order to do this you have to feel reasonably comfortable it will not be chopped off.
Patrick Maurus, in a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique, argues that the North Korean public lost faith in the fifty-year-old regime as a result of its failure to feed the population during the period 1995-97 (“The Arduous March”), a period which saw mass malnutrition and a loss of between 3 and 10 per cent of the population. It is sometimes difficult for those of us in the West who regard the country -with good reason- as a giant prison camp to comprehend that even an autocratic regime such as the North Korean one requires a significant level of public support. Historically, it seems, the regime has enjoyed a certain category of support and indeed has had many admirers in South Korea who regard their own dependence on the US as a national humiliation.
“The Arduous March” of the 1990s was indeed arduous but its negative effects on the public’s view of those running the country were probably multiplied by the coincidence of increasing prosperity in neighbouring China. That increase in prosperity has continued apace since and ordinary Koreans are well aware that this is related to China abandoning the model of the command economy.
It is hardly surprising if, as Maurus reports, North Korea has begun to follow the Chinese path. Private business, he says, has taken off throughout the country, special economic zones have been authorised, the light and heating is back on in apartment blocks and the supermarket shelves are well-stocked. If supermarket shelves are full, this has probably been achieved with aid from China, which has a strong interest in North Korea being a close friend, perhaps even a satellite. Such a relationship would enhance China’s geopolitical interests in the wider region and assist in its struggle against the US for position as the dominant power in the South and East China seas and indeed in the Western Pacific.
The alternative and unlikely path of modernisation for North Korea, that of following the liberal democratic politics of South Korea, would be a disaster for China and would, of course, delight the US. Presumably China is aware that the availability of consumer goods in Pyongyang offers some protection against that outcome and if such goods are in fact increasingly available, it is likely that Beijing has put its hand in its pocket to assist.
From China’s point of view, if it achieves a sort of benign hegemony over a prosperous North Korea it will in turn be easier for it to gain influence in South Korea, which it will presumably try to develop by using the anti-Japanese card for all its worth. China is willing to play a slow game as it patiently waits for the US to go quietly into that long Asian good night. It remains to be seen whether the US will oblige. The current portents do not suggest that it will.
From the Korean point of view the problems that arise from a gargantuan and successful China next door are concerned with national pride and the logical fear of a small country that it will be culturally, economically and politically overwhelmed by its larger and more powerful neighbour.
Assuming the Koreans continue to move away from their failed command economy the best way to avoid becoming a Chinese dependency is to become an economic powerhouse. Ironically, Chinese investment will be crucial to achieving that end. If the country does enjoy a period of exponential growth, then North Korea will more than likely become an autonomous ally of China rather than a satellite. This is possibly what North Korean strategists are striving for.
The recent nuclear antics of the DPRK should perhaps be seen in this context. They were not necessarily the behaviour of backward generals. The need for self-assertion may be behind the tendency of the North Korean military to rattle its nuclear sabre from time to time. As the state abandons its traditional political and economic model it may wish to emphasise that it still regards its independence as vital. The South may be the supposed target but a message may also have been intended for their friends to the north. Certainly the Chinese didn’t care for the nuclear swaggering and joined in the international sanctions. The DPRK nevertheless made its point: it may be changing but it is not available for a takeover.
In order for North Korea to avoid being weakened during the process of change it will have to establish and maintain a unity of purpose among disparate groups within the country. The military are still pampered so they should stay onside. It seems the political and administrative elites are slowly being replaced by technocratic elements and the masses are being treated to an improved standard of living. Things then are looking quite positive on the unity front. “Factional acts” of the sort which brought Jang Song-thaek’s career to a sudden end are the danger to be guarded against. Unity at all costs will be the watchword.
Maurus suggests that Jang Song-thaek may have been “too pro-Chinese”. If it is the case that he went too far ahead in embracing the logic of a new Chinese alliance then his execution may have been regarded as politically necessary and may have served multiple purposes. It would have indicated to the Chinese that the Koreans will be setting the pace in their relationship; elements in the political and administrative elite who are dragging their feet or – just as bad – being too imaginative would see the danger of such behaviour and the public – a crucial element in the new departure – would have been psychologically comforted by the execution of a prince. All in the garden therefore would take on a rosy aspect except, of course, for Jang Song-thaek (sensational reports in China claimed that he was thrown to a pack of starving dogs) and those huge numbers suffering in the many camps that still have not been closed.