The Beginning of the End of North Korea?

With no known talent other than eating, Kim Jong-un is an improbable fit for “Outstanding Leader.” Korean Central News Agency-AP

Totalitarian states are dangerous during political transitions, and when the country in question is a compulsively secretive, comprehensively militarized, international pariah with a collapsed economy, the risks are multiplied. North Korea's unique solution to the problem of transferring absolute power is hereditary succession, an avowedly communist variant on the divine right of kings. Its anointed new king, Kim Jong-un, untried and of no known talent other than eating, is an improbable fit for the propaganda accolades of Outstanding Leader, Supreme Commander, and "Sun of the 21st Century." This pudgy young scion of a monstrous dynasty is, further, surrounded by "guardians." We have never yet had to deal with a feudal totalitarian regency, and regencies of any stamp are by nature unstable.

Even so, too much has been made of the "uncertainty" consequent on the death of his self-indulgent and ruthless father, Kim Jong-il. Uncertainty is a constant of dealing with the hermit Kim-dom. Like his father before him, North Korea's founding "deity" and Eternal President Kim Il-sung, the dead man cultivated uncertainty as a key component of regime survival.

Jong-il learned at his father's knee that unpredictable behavior was a fine way to extract from foreign governments the hard cash, food aid, oil, and other Danegeld that sustained his reign of terror. North Korea's international strategy is best described as a protection racket, and it worked right up to the last. In the 48 hours of "mummy rule," while Kim's death was still a secret, U.S. and North Korean negotiators were in Beijing finalizing the umpteenth blackmail contract, this time to provide substantial American food aid in return for a mere suspension of a part of North Korea's uranium-enrichment program—the part Pyongyang had provocatively displayed a year ago to visiting American scientists with just such an outcome in mind.

Not even China, North Korea's only powerful protector, was spared the Dear Leader's calculated capriciousness. An ideological comradeship that was officially "as close as lips and teeth" was put under repeated strain by Kim's nuclear brinkmanship and habit of springing nasty surprises. The Chinese were infuriated when, without giving warning to Beijing, North Korea conducted its first nuclear-weapons test in 2006, just a year after formally pledging, at talks convened by China, to dismantle its nuclear-weapons programs in return for aid and political concessions. Although China is justly criticized for undermining international sanctions on Pyongyang by keeping up flows of food, fuel, and even dual-use chemicals, the Chinese were not being entirely untruthful when they protested that their influence was limited. China's determination to keep North Korea in existence as a strategic buffer made it, too, vulnerable to blackmail.

The concerns that keep this geographically insignificant failed state high on the worry list remain the same. Still technically at war with South Korea, paranoid and aggressive in equal measure, North Korea possesses chemical and biological weapons and a formidable missile capability, and is close to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power with not only Japan but also the U.S. in potential range. It is known to have exported missiles and nuclear technology to Pakistan, Syria, and (with Chinese connivance) Iran. Since 1994, the West has struck deal after deal in failed attempts to get Pyongyang to give up on nuclear weapons—a failure that has undermined the international nuclear-nonproliferation regime. To keep the regime stable, China has unavailingly urged on it a version of Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening up"; and South Korea has only recently abandoned a "sunshine policy" of aid and investment, aimed at relieving their northern compatriots' suffering, rendering the regime more responsible, and averting war in the event of a political explosion or a ruinously expensive reunification in the event of regime collapse.

That sunshine policy was always in reality a storm umbrella. The question now is whether a storm is about to hit, and forecasting North Korea is all but impossible. Uncertainty now affects not only its external policies, but also the unplumbed depths of its internal politics. Kim Jong-il's heart stopped before he could cement his callow son's authority over the million-plus Korean People's Army, or even the "guardian council" headed by the chief of the general staff, Ri Yong-ho, and by Pyongyang's voraciously corrupt power couple: his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who herself exacted a four-star generalship at the time of her nephew's elevation, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, the Korean Workers' Party enforcer who now also sports a full general's epaulettes.

Since Kim Jong-il's demise, the propaganda machine has spared no effort to affirm an adoring people's insistent demand that Jong-un be hailed as unquestioned Supreme Leader by the Army as well as the party. But despite the impressive outward display of unity at the top, the battle for control is unlikely to have been settled. The real issue is not just if any of the fractious Kim mafia comes out on top, or whether real power lies with the Army's most powerful generals. It is whether the fanatical personality cult of two dead Kims is transferable to yet another without the system cracking.

The nation knows nothing of the son they hail as "the lighthouse of hope"; and with famine upon them again, hope is short in supply. Due to trade with China that includes smuggled cellphones and DVDs, control of information is no longer absolute. More and more people know how wretchedly they live compared with China, let alone South Korea. So many thousands of families have perished in prison camps that the existence of these hellholes is common knowledge—a deterrent, but also a reality to set against the saturating official myth of benevolent leadership. A disastrous experiment two years ago bred cynicism unknown before. In a bid to crush the private markets allowed in the wake of the devastating famine of the 1990s, the Dear Leader forced citizens to turn in old money for new at a hefty loss and banned the possession of foreign currencies. Overnight, people already at the edge were robbed of their tiny cushions of savings while food prices rocketed. Despair trumped fear. Protest was so widespread that for the first time ever the regime apologized, executing an apparatchik in hope of deflecting blame.

The bitterness lingers, as does nervousness in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, that nervousness intensifies opposition to reform. The Dear Leader was adamant that improving living standards would lead to "bourgeois thinking" and the death of North Korean socialism. And the country's formidable means of repression remain in place. When the economy went into free fall after Soviet subsidies vanished along with the Soviet Union, the regime just filled up graves and gulags and held fast. Yet so much suffering and death has begun to corrode the iron cage. Mass mourning is easy to choreograph and, in the better-fed capital, may largely have been genuine. But there has been conspicuously little footage of the miserable countryside. What will at least initially be a collective leadership has every interest in reducing social tensions.

A nervous China, too, is set on preserving the regime. The last thing Beijing wants is a Korean Spring as it, too, prepares a changing of the guard. But it will not tolerate "uncertainty" à la Kim Jong-il: China will stand by Jong-un only if he can keep the hatches well battened not only on domestic dissent, but also on military provocations that would further complicate relations with the U.S. and South Korea. The Chinese could use the undeclared but real power vacuum to enforce economic reform under what would amount to a Chinese protectorate. "Leadership from behind" is all that can be expected from the Obama administration in an election year, but if Beijing clamps down on adventurism, then Washington should at the very least insist on serious, not fake, nuclear negotiations.

In March, North Korea celebrates the centenary of Eternal President Kim Il-sung's birth, a date by which its physically and mentally degraded people have repeatedly been promised that they will inhabit "a strong and prosperous nation." In its need to produce some small rabbit out of the hat, there is a chance, however remote, that the as-yet-unsettled hierarchy will respond to pressure. The one certainty while Kim Jong-il lived was cheating by Pyongyang. The certainty his son and his relations must be impelled to entertain is that the coffers have run dry of Danegeld. That lesson, once learned, would mark the beginning of the end of North Korea as we have known it.