Kim Jong Un: A New Ruling Formula?

October 12, 2015 12:15 AM

The events surrounding the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party have gotten a surprising amount of outside interest, partly because of Pyongyang’s assiduous courting of the foreign press. The anniversary is the first quinquennial or decadal one since Kim Jong Il died in 2011, and it was clearly dressed up as a major coming out party for Kim Jong Un. Most analysis of the speech read it through the standard lens of boastful bellicosity. Yet it also included very interesting appeals to the mass public, and particularly youth, raising the question of whether the byungjin line is being polished into a subtly new legitimation strategy.

First, we have to take note of the diplomatic backstory. Quite prominent on the reviewing stand was the Chinese envoy Liu Yunshan. A video clip from overwrought local coverage posted by the International Business Times shows the unusual attention given to Liu, a member of the Politiburo Standing Committee (PSC) holding powerful positions both in the Secretariat and with respect to propaganda. Liu’s presence was oddly emblematic; as far as we can tell, he was the only foreign dignitary of any heft at the celebration. And there is little doubt that he is the most prominent Chinese political leader to visit the country in the Xi-Kim Jong Un era; the only visits from Politburo members since Kim Jong Il's death were National People's Congress vice-chair Li Jianguo in late 2012 and Vice President Li Yuanchao in July 2013 (China Times has good background on past visits) and neither were members of the PSC.

The key question is the message he was carrying from Xi Jinping, and not simply the stock salutations. The fact that North Korea didn’t undertake a satellite launch for the anniversary could well be due to technical constraints, but might also reflect pressure from Beijing. Not coincidentally, Liu publicly restated Beijing’s mantra of restarting the Six Party Talks just as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken was in Beijing consulting with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the Chinese military. But North Korea was sticking to its quite contrary line about negotiating a peace treaty first (both at the UN and in a Foreign Ministry Statement), which is a complete non-starter. I will believe the Six Party Talks talk when there is a joint announcement of a date certain.

And of course, there was the bellicosity of the speech itself, which seemed to be the main story line in virtually all of the American press coverage: “Kim will stand up to any threat,” “North Korea ready for ‘War’ with “American Imperialists,’” and so on. In later posts, we will cover in more detail the analysis of the hardware on parade and the ongoing miniaturization debate. But the speech is much more nuanced than that, and needs to be read carefully by all North Korea watchers.

The speech leads with salutations to the military and makes clear how the survival of the party is indebted to the military and security apparatus. But in contrast to Kim Jong Un’s earlier New Year’s speeches—some of which openly appealed to the military to support Kim as the embodiment of the nation—this speech talks repeatedly about the Party’s relationship to the people. The party serves the people, is not separated from the people, trusts the people. And stating openly and repeatedly that the government bears responsibility for the material well-being is a pretty risky commitment to make with such force, even suggesting that the party is accountable to the people. Several paragraphs provide the feel:

“Bearing full responsibility for the political integrity and material and cultural life of the people and taking care of them has been a matter of paramount importance for our Party and a mission it cannot neglect even for a moment.

That our Party, even in the worst situation decisive of the country's destiny, has prepared precious seeds and socialist assets for the happiness of the people through painstaking efforts and invariably pursued the people-oriented policies is an expression of the politics of love for the people that can be administered only by our Party that has shouldered the responsibility for their destiny.

As our Party has always regarded the masses of the people as the root of its life and as the source of its inexhaustible strength and given top and absolute priority to their interests, our people have followed it believing it as the genuine guiding light of their destiny and as their mother, and a grand flower garden of single-hearted unity has made its proud appearance on this land.”

        These sections come before—not after—the discussion of maintaining military might. And rather               than emphasizing the priority given to the military only, the security section of the speech talks                   about the importance of both sides of the byungjin line:

 “In the course of organically combining defence of the country with socialist construction after putting forward the line of promoting economic construction and building up defence capabilities in parallel, our Party gained valuable experience in radically increasing the overall national strength by itself and at the same time improving the people's standard of living even though it lacked in everything.”

Immediately following the discussion of the military, Kim Jong Un pivots again to another major section of the speech devoted to youth. In some ways, this section is the most important because it contains an overt generational appeal: “I am one of you, and we are the future.” The speech is not only about the obligation of the youth to the party, but also of the party to the future of the youth. Indeed he virtually elevates the youth to a third prong of the country’s grand strategy (“By continuing to hold fast to the three-point strategy of attaching importance to the people, to the army and to young people as its foremost weapon, our Party will advance forward vigorously towards final victory and accomplish the Korean revolution.”)

An occupational hazard of being a North Korea watcher—and a dangerous source of bias—is the belief that a system that is so odd, so politically sui generis and distorted, must be fragile. But we have plenty of authoritarian regimes that persist, and even enjoy popular support. It is time to consider not only whether Kim Jong Un has consolidated power internally within the regime, but whether he has landed on a populist legitimation strategy—resting ultimately on investment in Pyongyang and gradual relaxation of controls on economic activity—that could keep him in power for some time to come. Being a young Pyongyang resident, watching the country’s military might on parade, with a young leader who is speaking directly to my wish for a better life: what’s not to like?

Can he deliver? Why not, exactly, if the regime continues to experiment at the margin with reforms, tolerates capitalists with increasing capacity to invest, and the Chinese continue to anchor the system?

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