The DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea aka North Korea] did it again. It pulled the wool over its spotters in the ROK [Republic of Korea aka South Korea], the US, and elsewhere.
It blew out the 62 candles on its birthday cake. Kim Jong il was much honoured, it goes without saying. The grand pooh bahs who cast a hard eye on what they think will happen in the DPRK or pretend with 'authority' they can read the intentions of its leaders, came up empty.
Much was made of Kim Jong il's two recent visits to China, to inform Beijing of the 'imminent' proclamation of the 'Dear Leader's' youngest son, Kim Jong eun as his successor.
'The FT' [Financial Times of London] carried an 'opinion piece' by the hawks Robert Kaplan and Abraham Denmark. 'A power transfer that will shake Pyongyang' [8 September 2010]regurgitated banal observations: change of leaders demands an assertion of the right to lead; the youthfulness of 'twenty something'Kim Jong eun highlights his lack of experience and authority; inexperienced, he will be the cat's paw of his uncle and senior military and party officials, 'whose ambitions, wealth, and safety will not be under his personal control as they were under his father [and his grandfather]'.
Untested, in other words, he is a 'figurehead', and what's more, should Kim Jong eun fail to impose himself, Kaplan and Denmark anticipate the long awaited collapse of North Korea.
Wrong. Kim Jong il is still very much in charge. Kim Jong eun is already being initiated in the practical application of the wheels of power. According to a former South Korean minister of reunification, the younger Kim has for some time been in learning the ropes of leadership from the ground floor up. His guides and instructors, although long in the tooth,are the ones who put his own father through his paces. So, we can surmise that the 'Dear General' is being well schooled in the art of governing. In other words, he is cutting his teeth in the same way his father did. Still, the elder Kim is in shaky health so his training may take a quicker path with 'guidance'.
Everyone talks of Kim Jong eun's schooling in Switzerland, which remains shrouded in uncertainty. Assuming he went to school there, he is well versed in English and French at least; he is acquainted with things and tastes western. Schooling the DPRK has also prepared him for a leadership role which his birth guarantees.
Kaplan and Denmark are wrong again. They seemingly know very little of DPRK history, the role of the KWP [Korean Workers Party] and the military. It is a long history, older than the formal beginnings of North Korea in 1948. It has root and branch in the anti colonial struggle against Japan in the 1930's, and the imposing figure of Kim Il Sung and the ideology which he and his party and military forged to survive a brutal war. It lay the broad outline of authority and collective decision making based on 'democratic centralism'. Thus, its history is almost 80 years old.
Let's now consider the 'lingusitic' debate going on in the ROK. Pyongyang announced that it would hold the founding of the DPRK in early ['sangsun'in Korean]September.
It did but in South Korea, yet it came as a surprise below the 38 parallel. Why? As the 'NYT' [New York Times]correspondent in Seoul Choe Sang hun reported,'sangsun'aignify a fortnight or the first 15 days of the month. In South Korea, everyone or at least everyone knows that the DPRK was proclaimed on 9 September 1948, and surprise, surprise, surprise, the 62 anniversary of its creation took place on 9 September 2010. Nothing to write home about! And yet even the South Korean DPRK watchers should have known better. This raises an interesting question: if the ROK and DPRK speak the same languague, it stands to reason that words have the same meaning. Not so. Take for example capitalism. It means one thing in capitalist South Korea and another in socialist North Korea. This is not a trivial matter. It poses a serious problem as to the reliability of ROK sources since analysts outside of Korea rely on ROK translations and reporting on what they do know and what they suspect is going on in the DPRK. The same lesson equally applies to America's North Korean clerisy.
[For those scholars, analysts, researchers, and diplomats and spooks who are out of the 'circle of consensus'otherwise known as received wisdom, they are beyond the pale of the accepted. They tend to treat the DPRK not as an aberration, but a rational state, and to deal with it on its own terms. Furthermore, google will point you to their articles, books, and the like, but rarely will you find them in the main stream media nor in publications of those who have the imprimatur of having been accepted by the elite.]
Choe Sang hun, the 'NYT' man in Seoul also lets us in on a secret: the reason Kim Jong il plays with his cards close to his chest. 'Kim Jong il appears to prize the mystery surrounding his government. When he met [ROK] president Kim Dae jung...he was delighted to learn that the outside world regarded him as a hermit and his government as an enigma'. His secrecy feeds the never dampened western blast furnaces of speculation producing the 'sure thing' about Mr. Kim's leadership and his 'personal quirks'.
Really! Mr. Kim may have been amused by the story his 'elder brother' from the South told him. Still. Of course US style of journalism treats everything thing as though it were 'born yesterday'. As such, the longer view is lost or ignored. In a quick glance backwards, we do find that the DPRK is 'irrational' since no one can make head or tail of what they are doing for it falls outside of what the analysts define as normal. Again, a little scratching of the surface would bring forth a history of the KWP [Korean Workers Party] in the pattern was set in the 1930's as to how decisions are made. [As a practical matter, no government bruits the nuts and bolts of how decisions are reached!]
What's more, since from its creation, the DPRK has been held at arm's length by the non communist world. It has been vilified especially from the Korean War [1950-1953]forwards; its name put on the index; it was and is the object of a war of words; its proclamation of intentions are not to be trusted, so on and on. Little wonder then that the heir to the 'hermit kingdom' retires from ordinary discourse and ways of doing things; the government compensates by stressing that the DPRK is 'sui generis' in all its undertakings, in the its ideology, in the way it has built a state and takes care of its people. It has honed its defence mechanisms to a sophisticated point.
Consequently, its behaviour pose a problem based on a conjectual hypothesis which proves faulty. And has sprouted like mushrooms an army of tea leave readers.
But America's North Korean clerisy do follow events in DPRK to a very fine degree.
Look at the right wing Petersen Institute's Marcus Noland. A frequent traveller to the DPRK, he can and does tease out trends representing an orientation to newer directions in North Korean publications. Look at an example he announced inadvertently as a boast:in September 2009 he read in the Korean an article signed by Kim Jong il's sister hinting at currency reform. He shared this with his other clerics but not with the general public. ['Knowledge is power' after all, isn't it? The magician does reveal his secrets only within his confraternity and even then with a trusted few!]In November the re evaluation of the won went into effect causing untold hardship among the small people and even hit the 'core cadre' which are the backbone of the North Korean state.
Kim Jong il & co. put a break on this reform but it did take its toll and seemingly crippled the opening towards market reform and a budding market economy on a limited basis.
Dr. Noland published a paper evaluating this 'bold' move. He condemned it for the personal suffering it engendered, but more than that, he took Kim Jong il & co. to task for not fully understanding and embracing the capitalist mechanisms of a market economy.. Specifically in his analysis, he based it on the acceptance of the Pareto curve. Well that is all well and good for Mr. Noland who is born and bred to capitalist economics, but in studying the ins and outs of the DPRK's economic standpoint, it makes little or no sense, since North Korean economic is not a study in capitalist tools of analysis. So, although we can understand his moral outrage,his analysis is besides the point.
It turns out that North Korea did not put a break on economic reform. A brief article in the 'NYT' alerted us to the fact that Pak Pong ju, a former North Korean prime minister banished these last three years for 'pushing market reforms', has 'returned to the centre of the country's economic policy'. Which means that Kim Jong il is giving economic reform another chance!
What is not said is that the DPRK does things its own way. It owes nothing to anyone its official line says. It will study and adopt reforms but the new wine has to fill old bottles with labels long known and accepted with the weight of tradition and old truths. What emerges as the DPRK inches towards say economic reform, is a step which is by nature and kind purely North Korean.
Almost 20 years ago when famine hit the DPRK hard and the state no longer receiving loans from the collapsed Soviet Union, the German economist Rudiger Frank, trained at East Germany's Humbolt University, who lived and studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, wrote an interesting article in which he showed on the information he could cull that the DPRK had a savvy economist or a coterie of economists who knew their trade, that were not only looking out for the survival of the tottering state but had begun tracing a path for future development and reform.
North Korea is not so closed off from the outside world. We cannot and should not dismiss its cadres as boorish or out of the loop. Its 'core' is not unfamiliar with western ways and economics and politics. They know how to exploit contradictions in say US positions when bargaining with Washington. They can and do strike hard bargains in trade. And when it comes to state of the art in rocketry and nuclear technology they are no slackers.
Bazinga! Kim Jong il & co. are not without a few surprises. It seems foolhardy not to deal with them on a state to state relations.