The Ghost of North Korea

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North Korea's Unha-3 rocket ready to launch at Tangachai-ri space center on April 8, 2012. Image by Wikimedia Commons.

TOKYO – At 7:39 a.m. on April 13, North Korea fired a missile (which it called a satellite launch) in the face of opposition from almost the entire international community. In a perverse way, the world got its way, because the vehicle exploded a minute after takeoff, its debris falling harmlessly into the sea.

North Korea typically goes silent after such episodes: “failure” does not exist in its political lexicon, so it cannot be reported or discussed. The country’s media routinely meets any failure with outpourings of patriotic music and bombastic praise for the regime.

But this time was different. Behind the scenes in North Korea, failure does have consequences. In the coming weeks, we will most likely learn of a purge of those responsible. Indeed, the engineers and scientists involved in the launch probably put their lives on the line.

Moreover, North Korea could not deny failure this time, because the regime invited international media to attend the event – even allowing foreign reporters into the mission-control room – in order to legitimize it as a “satellite” launch and not a weapons test. The “failure” could not be concealed, so it was quickly admitted.

What was supposed to be a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the late Kim Jong-il on April 15, and of the regime’s new beginning under his successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, ended up being a funereal salute. Supposedly ordinary people in Pyongyang told foreign media, with a practiced spontaneity, that “success is born of repeated failure.”

That is a chilling sentiment. The missile launch is believed to have been a legacy of Kim Jong-il, who fervently believed that the North’s survival required it to develop nuclear and biochemical weapons. So the failed missile launch probably means that a resumption of nuclear testing is inevitable, following tests in 2006 and 2009.

However, radioactive elements, such as Krypton-85 or Xenon-135, were not detected in the atmosphere after previous tests. Just as the North called the recent missile a “satellite,” an underground explosion caused by conventional explosives cannot be used as a bargaining chip unless it is called a “nuclear test.” The next one probably will occur as soon as 500-1,000 tons of dynamite have been secured.

The failed launch also marked a security fiasco for the North, as a South Korea think tank obtained the final orders for it. These instructions casually referred to Kim family business, indicating that “the teachings should be executed by Kim Kyong-hui” (Kim Jong-il’s sister), that “Kim Kyong-hui and Kim Jong-un should take care of the family,” and that “Kim Kyong-hui should handle management of all assets inside and outside the country.”

Foreign media often focus on Kim Kyong-hui’s role as the wife of regime insider Jang Sung-taek, but, as Kim Jong-il’s sister, she has been firmly in control of personnel changes since her brother’s death. Of the 232 members on Kim Jong-il’s funeral committee, she was listed 14th; her husband was 19th. She is routinely ranked higher than her husband in terms of protocol. Indeed, Jang Sung-taek’s promotion to General was her decision.

The problem is that Kim Kyong-hui is in poor health, owing to years of alcohol abuse. Moreover, she is so capricious and self-centered that even Kim Jong-il had trouble keeping her in check. Due to her poor health, it is unclear how long she will be able to continue advising Kim Jong-un, now surrounded by military personnel in their seventies and eighties who supported past generations. He needs advisers closer to his own age, but none is at hand.

Dynastic concerns now seem to be paramount for the regime. Speculation is growing, for example, about whether Kim Sol-song – the second daughter of Kim Jong-il’s third wife – will be appointed when Kim Kyong-hui is no longer able to perform her duties.

Before his death, Kim Jong-il reiterated that at least three nuclear reactors should be built. He also warned that China, despite being North Korea’s closest ally, is also the country that merits the most caution. North Korea, he insisted, must not allow itself to be used by China.

When Kim Il-sung (the “Eternal Great Leader”) died in 1994, Kim Jong-il relied on his father’s teachings to reinforce his authority. Indeed, there is no way of knowing whether his ideas and policies throughout his reign were actually Kim Il-sung’s. Perhaps Kim Jong-il’s “Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System” should now be viewed as an official document that stipulates which instructions are to be followed when, where, and by whom. In that case, his successor, the callow Kim Jong-un, can claim to be bound to do as he was told.

North Korea routinely pushes the international community around. But the North is itself being pushed around by the teachings of a ghost, conveniently used by the people who remain in charge in Pyongyang. How long will the rest of the world allow itself to be pushed around by a ghost?

Yoriko Koike, Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser, is a former chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party, and currently an opposition leader in the Diet.

Copyright Project Syndicate

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:

Time for the Strategy of Coevolution: How South Korea Can Shape the Future of the Kim-Jon-un Regimefrom the East Asia Institute (EAI).

North Korea after Kim Jong-Il: Implications for East Asian Securityfrom the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

North Korea’s Leadership Transition: Stability Rather Than Chaosfrom Chatham House.


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