Like the rest of us, the world’s political leaders were caught by surprise when Kim Jong-un, the pudgy 29-year-old leader of North Korea, recently very publicly denounced Jang Song-Thaek Sung-taek, one of his closest advisers (and his uncle by marriage), and then swiftly had him executed.
To better understand the mysterious and belligerent nation that lies above the 38th parallel, a reporter for The New Republic recently interviewed B. R. Myers, and although Myers is unknown to most of us and perhaps even to many experts on global politics, he has the advantage of analyzing North Korean matters for Dongseo University, just down the peninsula in South Korea.
He also recently wrote a book called “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.”
The American public, and people around the world, should hope that their political and military leaders familiarize themselves with Myers’ insights.
“North Korea has prided itself on complete unity ever since the establishment of a ‘unitary ideology’ in 1967,” Myers told The New Republic. “Power struggles elsewhere were gloated over as evidence that only North Korea had leaders whose greatness stood above dispute.”
Against this carefully contrived background, Myers continued, the very public humiliation of Jang must have left the North Korean people confused. How, Myers wonders, can they be expected to still believe in the infallibility of their leadership?
But that’s a problem for the Pyongyang government. Others are more interested in how this jolting emergence of instability should be understood in terms of North Korea’s future behavior. Was it an isolated incident or a signal that further unrest — with international implications — is on the near horizon?
“I was not all that shocked by the purge itself,” Myers related to The New Republic. “Kim Il-sung purged his own brother. Kim Jong-il effectively purged his own eldest son. As for Jang’s punishment, it’s not as wild and brutal as all that. The Chinese execute people for corruption too. The shocking thing is the indiscretion with which the regime has gone about everything.
“Anyone who still thinks some gray eminence is pulling Kim Jong-un’s strings just doesn’t realize how much long-accumulated mythological capital the latest propaganda has destroyed in a matter of days,” Myers added. “Keep in mind that this is a state where whole clans are dragged off to prison camps for one relative’s wrongdoing, and you get an idea of how shocking this will be for a North Korean. That in itself indicates that generals did not force Kim Jong-un into all this rhetoric. On top of everything you have that gratuitous talk of how Jang was waiting for the economy to get worse.”
Late last week North Korea threatened to “mercilessly” attack South Korea “without notice” to protest demonstrations in Seoul, the south’s capital, on the anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the North Koreans objected to the “repeated extra-large provocations to North Korea’s highest dignity.”
Here in the west, and elsewhere in the world, what happens in North Korea presents an entirely different challenge. As Myers noted: “Americans cannot shake the mirror-imaging notion that the North Korean elite is divided into reformers and hardliners. It seems any official involved in trade is considered a reformer, while anyone in the army is a hardliner — especially if he took part in one of the two attacks on South Korea in 2010.”
But the truth, Myers cautions, is that the North Korean military actually is heavily involved in trade, and it is the revenues from that trade that enhance North Korea’s fighting capabilities. And Myers concluded with an insight that may not be universally recognized: “As I see it, North Korea cannot cease being a military-first state without losing all reason to exist. To ask the regime to disarm is to ask it to commit political suicide.”
There’s no guarantee that Myers is right, but surely his observations are worthy of Washington’s careful attention. And, as he observed in his New Republic interview, “neither sticks nor carrots are going to keep the regime from continuing to arm itself ... and continuing to look for the tension that is its lifeblood.”