North Korea launched a rocket. Denunciations flowed around the world. But it was a non-event, one of the least surprising "crises" of the year.
A year ago the much beloved "Dear Leader" died as he indefatigably devoted himself to his people's welfare. Wailing crowds mourned his passing. Kim's son, the "Great Successor" Kim Jong-un — tagged the world's sexiest man by the Onion — took the helm of state.
Since then there have been stories of imminent change. The 29-year-old Kim went to boarding school in Switzerland where he reportedly followed American basketball and lionized Michael Jordan. He regularly speaks to the public and enjoys meeting regular folks. He likes Disney and takes his beautiful young wife with him. She has a taste for fine fashion and designer goods. Obviously Kim is a liberal reformer.
North Korea watchers especially are expecting fundamental economic reform. After all, Kim fils has repeatedly emphasized the need to improve living standards. His uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen by some as the real power behind the throne, reportedly has emphasized economic policy. A top military man was defenestrated from the corridors of power apparently to reassert party control over civilian enterprises controlled by the army. Reports have circulated that Pyongyang is relaxing controls over both factories and farms.
So far, however, nothing much seems to have happened. It's a bit like the appointment of KGB head Yuri Andropov as the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. He reportedly enjoyed jazz and Gypsy music, drank scotch whiskey, wore tailored clothes, laughed at political jokes, and collected abstract art. Never mind the many human rights violations committed on his watch, observers tagged him as a liberal reformer. Alas, Andropov merely reinforced the status quo. The USSR actually grew more repressive and enfeebled on his watch.
Still, serious people have been hoping for reform in Pyongyang. Alas, the dream has died with the so-called Democratic Republic of Korea's latest rocket test.
The Kim government insisted that it was merely sending a satellite into space. However, few observers believe that Pyongyang, with active missile and nuclear programs underway, had such limited objectives. Moreover, the North tested another rocket in April, which proved to be less successful, wrecking a deal reached shortly before with the Obama administration.
There are several important lessons from the latest incident. First, Kim Jong-un — whether as symbolic leader or genuine ruler — is acting as a true successor to his father and grandfather. There has been no improvement in human rights; to the contrary, the regime has tightened border enforcement, sharply reducing the flow of refugees across the Yalu into China. So far the leadership has exhibited greater interest in increasing party control over government economic activity than in relaxing party control over private economic activity. The hint of "glasnost" after the failed rocket launch in April has not been followed by any evidence of "perestroika."
Second, North Korea's problem is the system. Undoubtedly, there are "moderates" and "technocrats" within the DPRK government. There may even be a few "liberals." However, there is no evident opening for them to influence policy. Any serious reform would threaten the positions, livelihoods, and even lives of a regime full of apparatchiks. It would be hard enough for Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il at the height of their powers to drag the Korean Workers Party and Korean People's Army into the 21st century. A newer, less certain, and likely collective leadership isn't likely to try.
Third, Kim Jong-un and Co. continue the regime's "military first" policy in substance if not name. Although the ouster of army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho may have reimposed party control over the military, the armed services continue to consume a prodigious share of the country's economic resources. By one estimate the missile launch facility, related operations, and two launches this year cost $1.3 billion. That's more than three percent of the country's estimated GDP, and enough to purchase 4.6 million tons of corn for a starving population.
Moreover, North Korea's nuclear program apparently continues apace. Rumors abound of a possible nuclear test. South Koreans worry that the North will follow its missile launch with a nuclear blast, highlighting the threat if Pyongyang marries bomb and rocket. Even if the military has lost clout vis-á-vis the party, it retains its predominant position vis-á-vis the people.
Fourth, China lacks the willingness to even try to restrain Pyongyang. Beijing blessed, however reluctantly, the monarchical power transfer from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il. The People's Republic of China has done the same for the shift from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. Indeed, Chinese investment in the DPRK has increased in recent years. Rising academic and public debate over the value of Beijing's alliance with the North has not been matched by any change in Chinese government behavior. The PRC appears to have decided that North Korea's survival is a vital interest, no matter how irresponsible and provocative Pyongyang's behavior. With President Xi Jinping barely a month into his presidency, any switch in official policy seems far off if ever.
Fifth, any softening of South Korean policy toward the North would reflect the triumph of hope over experience. The "Sunshine Policy" was a well-meaning attempt to buy liberalization in the DPRK. Alas, the effort was a complete failure. Republic of Korea President Kim Dae-jung bought a summit meeting that was never reciprocated. For a decade North Korea pocketed food, money, fertilizer, and more without moderating its splenetic rhetoric, reducing its conventional threats, or slowing its missile and nuclear programs. When the Lee administration finally closed the aid spigot Pyongyang responded with attacks on a South Korean ship and island. So continues the North's policy today.
Sixth, it does not pay to reward the DPRK in response to its threats. For years a pattern developed of North Korea issuing threats and then temporarily sitting down at the negotiating table in return for money, food, energy, and other benefits. Unfortunately, Pyongyang has learned that it gains the most when it threatens the most. Even with an agreement in hand earlier this year to trade food assistance for a return to the Six Party Talks, the North moved ahead with its rocket test, wrecking the entire deal. Only continuing and firm Western denial will cause the DPRK to unlearn this pattern.
Seventh, there is little positive for anyone to do with Pyongyang. The North Korean leadership likely puts survival above all other objectives. While economic reform might strengthen the country, it could weaken the state, empowering anti-regime forces. Political reform would be even more dangerous. Years of privation and starvation have weakened government controls and exposed regime myths. Give the North Korean people their druthers and Kim Jong-un might end up hanging from the nearest lamppost. The DPRK is a system without a soft landing for political losers. The risks are far greater than the rewards of liberalization.
It is time for a change in policy. Washington should declare that the North is East Asia's problem. The ROK can defend itself; American troops should come home. Deterring Pyongyang should become South Korea's responsibility. The U.S. should focus on nonproliferation, warning of overwhelming retaliation should North Korea transfer critical materials or processes to terrorist groups.
Whoever wins the ROK's presidential election on December 19, Seoul should confront the DPRK without illusion. The North Koreans may be separated brothers and sisters, but the North's leadership is ruthless and brutal. The only policy that Pyongyang respects is toughness — a stronger military, better preparedness, and no subsidies. If South Koreans prefer to go soft, that is their choice, but they should accept the consequences. It makes no sense for America to defend the ROK as the South underwrites the Kim regime.
Japan should abandon the illusion that the present regime is ready to make an accounting for those kidnapped. Tokyo's policy has been stuck on Pyongyang's undeniably outrageous behavior decades ago. But the North's nuclear and missile programs are far more important and pose a genuine security threat to Japan today. The latter, which faces an election and likely power transition, must create a more robust military capable of defending against both the DPRK and China.
Russia should stop playing footsie with Pyongyang. Even Vladimir Putin appears to have no interest in restoring Cold War-style ties with the North. Moscow gains too much from its relationship with South Korea. However, Russia has been improving its links with the DPRK. It's a losing game. The isolated, irresponsible Kim regime wants to use Moscow to create some balance with China, but has little to offer the Putin government.
Finally, the PRC should focus on its long-term interests: stability on its border, reduced threat of conflict in the Korean peninsula, end of nuclear proliferation that could spread to South Korea and Japan, fewer desperate refugees crossing the Yalu, increased trade with a wealthier united Korea, and improved claim to regional leadership. All of these would be advanced by transforming if not ending the Kim family criminal enterprise known as the North Korean government.
The DPRK's latest military adventure should surprise no one. The time for illusion is over. Kim Jong-un is proving to be anything but a serious reformer.