The Key Question

Stability is the word on everyone’s lips, from diplomats, to cable news pundits, to the man on the street. But when headlines shout, “Concerns over stability on Korean peninsula,” what do they mean?

Stability in North Korean society is almost a given, at this point. Transfixed as we are by the cultishness of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, we often miss the fact that the Kims are just one node in a broad social and political structure. “Just” might be understating it: Kim Jong Il was the most important component of that structure and his son, Kim Jong Un, appears set to now occupy a similar, if necessarily diminished, echo of that role.

While it remains to be seen how far that transfer of legitimacy and practical control can be taken, what is clear now is that the rest of the system developed under Kim Jong Il remains entirely intact.

North Korea’s well-developed surveillance system kicked into a higher gear even before the announcement was made last Monday. Travel restrictions are always in place, but usually can be avoided if one has the personal connections or financial means. These began being enforced even more strongly in the days before they made the news public and will probably continue for weeks, if not months. Reports by news organizations with clandestine reporters in North Korea suggest people are regulating their own behavior.

Additionally, both at work and in in one’s community, North Koreans are used to keeping a close eye on each other to ensure deviation from acceptable activities is minimal. There are no genuine civil society spaces where change can be organized as civic life is dominated by group activities, a fact that is likely to remain truer than usual going forward.

The propaganda apparatus remains strong, starting as it does with elementary school and extending to encompass news, entertainment and adult education. Most importantly, it has continued to generate ideas that resonate with the North Korean people. It is true that the propaganda apparatus isn’t as monolithic as before the Kim Jong Il era and that ordinary people consume media and information outside official channels. Nevertheless, the official narrative still dominates the average citizen’s worldview.

Pyongyang’s propagandists are very, very good at what they do. Outside, there is an impulse to say, “The people won’t accept the son as they did the father.” This idea is not entirely untrue, but it precludes the possibility of more nuanced ways of inspiring loyalty over the next few years. If the government achieves some measure of success in terms of trade, development or geopolitical goals, it will be easier to create messages that continue to motivate ordinary people.

At the top end of society, things are also unlikely to change drastically in the near to medium term. The military will still be the dominant institution, with the party and the government being subordinate. Kim Jong Il’s funeral committee list offers hints that the Korean Workers’ Party (WPK) might be on the rise somewhat, but it is difficult to imagine it surpassing the army in importance. The military is also well represented on the funeral committee and curiously, Jang Song Thaek—widely regarded as Kim Jong Un’s closest ally—was way down the list in 19th place.

Individuals will be jockeying for position at the very top, as elites compete to join and influence the consortium of power that is forming. There will also be competition in the influential echelons just below the top.  There will be winners and losers, but not to the degree that a risky institutional reordering will take place. After all, elites are all in the same boat, one which they wish to keep afloat. Infighting can only go so far without jeopardizing everybody’s privileged position in their society.

The risk then that some kind of destabilization of North Korean society will spill across borders or cause the leadership to lash out in desperation is low.

But what of the prospect for armed conflict and geopolitical instability surrounding the Korean peninsula? This is the other major concern: that Kim Jong Un will either want to show military toughness to placate hardliners or will be unable to resist if the Korean People’s Army wants to demonstrate continuity through a show of force.

Again, this situation is unlikely because such a dynamic was largely played out in 2010. The sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were aggressive actions. The exact reasons for these military confrontations are concealed behind Pyongyang’s cloak of secrecy. We can’t know exactly how the decisions developed. Yet from Kim Jong Un’s perspective, they were likely successful events, whether they were autonomously decided to show toughness or responses to requests from the military. Either way, the 2010 attacks probably give Kim Jong Un the political capital to resist any calls for a major military display.

After all, those incidents came with a high price internationally. They inspired widespread diplomatic rallying around Seoul and, more importantly, created difficulties for China. Beijing felt compelled to stick with its ally in the face of strong criticism and a deterioration of relations with Seoul and Washington over the issue, but clearly did not like having to do so.

Speculation on the details of Kim Jong Un’s circle is difficult, but it certainly includes important military figures. Kim sits on the WPK’s Central Military Commission, which was mentioned before National Defense Commission (NDC) in the announcement of his father’s death. (Another hint that the party’s role will be bigger?)

Kim Jong Un and Jang Song Thaek’s power base may take root in the party over the long term and the WPK may gradually increase in relevance. For the present at least, Kim Jong Il’s preferred organ of governance—the NDC—and its members will still occupy a central role and any decision to take military action ends there. Kim the younger doesn’t sit on the NDC, but Jang Song Thaek is a Vice-Chairman. Oh Kuk Ryol and Kim Yong Chun, also both Vice-Chairmen, were very loyal to Kim Jong Il.

They, and Central Military Commission members, know that they can ill afford to anger the Chinese at such a sensitive time. Whatever internal logic might exist for a military provocation, it probably would not outweigh risking the support that they earned through several trips to China over 2010 and 2011. It would endanger the very political order they are trying to secure.

News media has a stake in conflict, so the thematic emphasis has been very much about the potential for instability. Right now, though, quiet is in everybody’s interests. Most of all, for the North Korean leadership.

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