December 27th, 2011
06:29 PM ET

Cha: North Korea's moment of truth

Editor’s Note: Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and Senior Adviser at CSIS.  He was director for Asian affairs on the NSC from 2004 to 2007. His book, “The Impossible State: North Korea’s Past and Future” will be published by Ecco Press in early 2012.

By Victor D. Cha - Special to CNN

With the funeral procession marking the passing of North Korea’s second leader Kim Jong-il, the question is what comes next?

It would be wrong to interpret from the funeral proceedings that all in Pyongyang is back to normal. Many analysts have watched the speed with which Kim Jong-un has been adorned with titles (“Great Successor”) and deduced that the North Koreans are carrying out their succession plan with precision.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, a well-choreographed funeral procession is something the North Koreans did once before in July 1994 when Kim Il-sung died.  In a society where carefully choreographed displays of nationalism are the norm, managers dust off the playbook and carry out the task with the same precision.  However, if anyone thinks that the North Koreans had a well-laid plan for succession before Kim’s death, they have been reading too many Cold War spy novels.

Just think about it - in North Korean society, do you think any leader could have said, “Hey, let’s come up with a succession plan for when Kim Jong-il dies”?  This is a place where an undusted portrait of Kim Jong-il could get you thrown into a gulag.

The only time when the topic was broached was in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s stroke in August 2008, yet even then, when Kim Jong-un was anointed and the Party propaganda machine started churning out tales of the young son to build his cult of personality, these preparations were suddenly stopped, most likely by the father who did not want anyone starting to write him off.

No, this succession has not been planned.  They are improvising each day.

Lately, we have seen many pictures of Chang Song-taek, junior Kim’s uncle and regent in the power transition, donning a military uniform to show he is in charge.  We have seen the proliferation of footage of Kim Jong-un taking on a leadership role.  Yet these are not signs that the leadership transition is well underway; instead, they are signs of a desperate rush to establish leadership when none really exists.

People forget that after the sudden death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, then-successor Kim Jong-il was absent for weeks, if not months.  But this was not seen as a vacuum of leadership.  Kim was basically running the day-to-day operations of the country for some 15 to 20 years already.  He was in control; so he did not need to show it.  In this regard, the efforts now to plaster the pages with images of the young Kim and his uncle manifest insecurity and the anxiety to show all is under control when it is not. Unlike the funeral, they have no playbook for running the country after the Dear Leader’s sudden death.  They are making it up as they go.

For U.S. policy, there is only one thing worse than a nuclear North Korea and that is a leaderless regime without clear control of its nuclear arsenal. Denuclearization has been the cornerstone of our policy for twenty-five years. Now if the regime cannot hold itself together, U.S. policymakers need to have a plan ready for a “loose nukes” disaster in the country.  This may sound alarmist, but only up until we hear the first rumors in the coming weeks and months that things are amiss in Pyongyang - factional struggles, rogue military units, Kim family squabbles.   Then, such admonitions will be deadly sober.

Can we negotiate with the post-Kim Jong-il leadership?  Maybe offer them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get out of their current mess?  Analysts surmise that the young Kim’s brief period of secondary schooling in Switzerland - where he reportedly took courses on democratic political systems and U.S. elections - might make him a more enlightened leader.

Here’s the problem: First, we don’t know who the leader of North Korea is yet.  Reaching out to Pyongyang now could poison the hand we touch in the dark dynasty’s palace politics and create more instability in a country where “Juche” or “self-reliance” laced with a heavy dose of anti-Americanism is the ruling ideology.  Second, watershed change as described above requires strong and visionary leadership – like Deng Xiaoping’s modernization reforms or Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

The Chinese will go “all-in” with North Korea to prevent a premature collapse of its communist brother on its northeastern flank.  But no matter what Beijing does, it cannot turn the twenty-something-year-old boy we see weeping at his father’s wake into North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping.

Finally, North Korea’s post-Kim Jong-il transition is likely to feature increased roles by the Party vanguard and the military.  These two groups are not likely to pursue an ideology that opens up to the outside world.  On the contrary, the defining moments that this generation of North Korean leaders has seen were the near-collapse of the Chinese communist party in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Arab Spring.

Moreover, breathing down their necks is a spectacularly successful South Korea.  Insecure regimes like this in the middle of a power transition tend to get tougher, not more liberal.  The emerging ideology, as I describe in my forthcoming book, built for Kim Jong-un is more hard-line and more conservative than his father’s – what I describe as “neo-Juche conservatism.”

The ultimate irony is that this new hard-line ideology will not succeed under Kim Jong-un because of an unintended legacy left by his father.  Kim Jong-il not only bequeathed nuclear weapons to his country, but he also gave them markets.

Driving the economy into the ground and abandoning the government ration system in 2002, Kim Jong-il let the starving North Koreans fend for themselves, which led to the creation of markets where people bought and sold goods in order to survive.  Even after the government reinstituted rations, it could not squelch the markets which went underground.  Defectors today report that they obtain nearly 60 percent of their livelihood from the market.

This is the future of North Korea: A market-based mentality that is creating an independence of thought from the government; and a weak, inexperienced leadership that is taking a more orthodox communist stance to cover up its own failings.  This system cannot hold, and we should all be ready when the moment of truth for this dictatorship arrives.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Victor Cha.

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Topics: North Korea

soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. Ang

    Watch "National Geographic: Inside North Korea" on Netflix

    December 28, 2011 at 8:36 am | Reply
  2. M. Edward

    Cutting through all the propaganda, let's get real. I loved and respected both my Mother and Father, I believe I'm a typical person, I grieved and I shed some tears. I even have been known to have misty eyes at times, I teared up at my daughter's wedding at the birth of my grandson's I even misted up while watching Hugo with my grandson this past week. I find it extremely difficult to accept all the tears and hysteria displayed over the death of Kim Jong-il. This is just theater.

    December 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  3. kebcarerra

    Every cult has it's defectors that tell how terrible things are inside. Your job was taken away and your house was repossessed because the big bank mismanaged the peoples money. The bank that mismanaged the money got bailed out , made record quarterly earnings and the CEO that mismanaged the money gave himself a million dollar bonus. Let' help the defectors in our own country. Bring justice to wall street and Bank of America , Goldman Sachs etc. Don't allow our "dear leaders " let these criminals walk.

    December 28, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  4. davetharave

    Saw the 'mourners' on TV last night, they look so goofy. One guy in a suit was leaning back, shaking his arms and wailing. He looked like James Brown. They all know that if they don't look like they're about to rupture that the secret police will come and throw them in jail. What a life.

    December 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • melvinslizard

      I don't know karate, but I know c-r-a-z-y

      December 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  5. Ashleigh Kirk

    So still no clear new leader for North Korea. They need a 'The Apprentice' season. The rivals can look useless and Donald Trump can decide. Try 'Survivor NKorea'. Network rating MA (mature audiences) 'may contain violence, torture, blackmail, murder, perverts, zombie crowds... follow my tweets at AshleighCKirk

    December 28, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  6. Ashleigh Kirk

    NKorea's plan to get advanced technology :starve the people till they look like little grey aliens and hope that will attract the
    real things.More on twitter @AshleighC KIrk

    December 28, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  7. Ralph

    You are not crying ......Jail for you
    You have no tears.......Jail for you
    You don't cry hard enough.......Jail for you
    You don't wail loud enough......Jail for you
    Your children don't cry.....Jail for you and them
    Your elderly parents didn't come into the snowy streets and cry....Jail for you and them
    Your neighbor said you prepared food and didn't cry.......Jail for you
    Your friend saw you on the bus and you didn't cry...........Jail for you.

    Welcome to North Korea where we tell you how to live and help you die if you don't learn how to live.

    December 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Reply
  8. Mike

    Let's have a look at the "Great Successors" agenda for tomorrow, shall we?
    9:00a -Large breakfast
    10a- Torture peasants for fun
    11a – Portrait of himself on a horse holding a sword in the air.
    12p – Large lunch
    1p – Sentence starving peasants to camp 22 for eating too much.
    2p – Watch as people worship him. Anyone who does not "worship" with enough conviction will be dealt with later.
    3p- Sentence people who did not worship hard enough to concentration camp for re-education.
    4p – Nap.
    5p – Large dinner. Left overs go to his dog. Dogs left over given to starving people.

    December 28, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  9. goo6er

    Joke heard in the lounge of the Pyongyang Marriott:

    Kim Jong Ill?

    No. Kim Jong dead.

    December 29, 2011 at 12:38 am | Reply
  10. Hasai

    Within the next five years, NK will have developed a nuclear-armed ICBM capable of reaching the continental US.

    Shortly after that, they will start demanding tribute. I suspect people will stop laughing at that point.

    IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation,
    To call upon a neighbour and to say:
    "We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
    Unless you pay us cash to go away."

    It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
    To puff and look important and to say:
    "Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
    We will therefore pay you cash to go away."

    And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
    But we’ve proved it again and again,
    That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
    You never get rid of the Dane.

    ~Kipling

    December 29, 2011 at 8:56 am | Reply
    • MickFarland

      Kipling was a wise man. Well posted

      December 29, 2011 at 9:53 am | Reply
  11. Chicken Flippers

    The moment of "TRUTH" wont come to North Korea until the North Korean people have uncensored access to the worlds news, internet, and goods.

    December 29, 2011 at 9:10 am | Reply
  12. RobCM

    Do we really know that Kim Jong-il death was sudden?

    December 29, 2011 at 11:57 am | Reply
  13. lee96

    Truth? The people of North Korea have been denied their truth since the creation of their nation. Kim Jong-Il hardened his country to live upon bare necessities, while diverting his strength and resources to developing some of the world's deadliest nuclear plants. The tears of these people? They may not be crying for Kim Jong-il's loss, but instead, crying for their environment; one of the most ravished, bleak lands filled with terror and insecurity now without a leader. What's even more despairing for these people, is that they once had the money to live well; now they're in the pits of Asia. No one's death is something to be celebrated, but citizens around the world should hope that Kim Jong-Il's son, raised in a Swiss environment, may engage in drastic reform.

    January 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  14. Kate Almona

    When the burble bursts nobody can stop it. There must be a "Change" which is very constant in any Socciety. For the first time I saw the sun shine during the funeral procession. With the presnce of the sun, I know that the sun will shine for the citizens of North Korea for them to see the difference that they have been in TOTAL darkness.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:59 am | Reply
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