Dynamite and dynasty in North Korea: Explaining recent events in the Hermit kingdom

Joel Campbell

North Korean flags fly in the capital city of Pyongyang, 2007. Image Credit: Flickr

On 16 June 2020, North Korea took the unexpected step of blowing up a liaison office used for talks with South Korea in the border town of Kaesong. Ostensibly, Pyongyang was upset about Northern defectors and their Southern supporters floating balloons with anti-regime propaganda, money and entertainment DVDs over the Demilitarized Zone. These unwanted packages are destabilizing because they show that life is better in the South. They were also frustrated that nuclear talks with the United States have not resulted in any agreements to relieve heavy United Nations sanctions. Unusually, the destruction was announced not by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, but by his sister, Kim Yo-jong. The plot thickened when we learned that the Leader, known for previous health scares, had been out of public view for some time.

Business as usual

Is any of this surprising? Not really.

First, the North Korean government has a habit of destroying things when they want to make a show for international audiences. They exploded a cooling tower for a research nuclear reactor in 2008 and the entrance to a nuclear test site in 2018. Both were designed to demonstrate they were serious about nuclear agreements with America. Dynamiting the liaison office was their way of showing they don’t feel they got much from improved inter-Korean relations — and that Southern promises of better ties with America failed to materialize. The defector balloons were a side issue. Indeed, Pyongyang values Kaesong, where a now-shuttered North-South industrial complex operated for a decade, and where the government claimed its first official COVID-19 case occurred.

Second, Kim Yo-jong’s announcing the explosion was just another step along her upward arc since her brother took power in 2011. Making bellicose statements, she showed North Korea’s elite that she is as tough as her brother and willing to be equally merciless toward Pyongyang’s enemies. That is the way power works in the North: you have to prove you are nastier than anybody else.

Third, Kim Jong Un has dropped out of sight before and, though somewhat worse for wear, he didn’t appear to be suffering from life-threatening conditions. Despite his unhealthy lifestyle, he is still only thirty-six years old. We can thus plan for the autocrat to be around for several more years. So, why are they promoting his sister? Very simply, she is a potential heir in a worst-case scenario.

A question of succession

North Korea is a Communist dynasty — members of one family have ruled the country since its founding in 1948. There are no other immediately appealing Kim family heirs who could step into the Supreme Leader Marshall’s shoes should he die suddenly. His children are far too young to wield power. Meanwhile, Kim Yo-jong is now, among other things, propaganda minister and member of the Politburo. In light of Kim Jong Un’s quick ascension when his father died due to his own legendary bad habits, the family probably wants to avoid repeating the 2011–2014 terror campaign which removed possible opponents within government. As always, Kim Jong Un had to show he was crueler than everybody. Should the day come for her to become Supreme Leader, the younger Kim will be well prepared.

The biggest problem Kim Yo-jong may face is perceptions of her gender. North Korea is an extremely patriarchal society, and the military and ruling Korean Workers Party elite are especially male-dominated. Would the party accept a female leader? Grandfather Kim Il Sung may provide an answer. In Northern state propaganda posters, the Great Leader was occasionally portrayed in feminized images, as if he were both father and mother of the nation. The man now dubbed Eternal Leader embodied the best of male and female gender identities. Presumably, Kim Yo-jong as leader would establish an over-the-top personality cult on par with her forebears. She could easily transform into both mother and father of the people.

How should the West respond?

So, let’s go back to that blown-up liaison office. Is there any chance for improvement in either inter-Korean or North Korean–American relations? Perhaps, but don’t be too hopeful. Another pattern of North Korean behavior is a clear aggressive-conciliatory cycle. When Pyongyang isn’t satisfied, it pushes toward crisis. Then, when Seoul, Beijing and Washington respond with calls for dialogue, the North Koreans claim they want peace. This cycle played out in 2017–2018. The Korean peninsula seemed poised for war after a series of missile and nuclear tests, but then everything changed when the North proposed talks and participated in the South Korean Winter Olympics.

The problem usually has been the inability of negotiators to get beyond mutual mistrust. It may be time for America and South Korea to approach things differently.

Kim Jong Un launched some mild reforms after ascending to power, allowing more local markets and decision-making on production and quotas. Policymakers abroad should find ways to respond to these steps, and encourage North Korea to transition from a command to a market economy, a path also trodden by China and Vietnam in recent times. In addition, democratic governments should allow more North Koreans to study and live in western countries, just as they invited Russians during the 1970s and 1980s. On matters of hard security, instead of going for a comprehensive nuclear deal, policymakers should start with confidence-building measures on conventional military matters, as NATO did with the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Then both sides could work up to bigger deals on nuclear disarmament.

Confronting the situation in North Korea can often seem like a repetetive cycle of behaviours. To break this cycle, the international community needs to think outside the box.

Joel R. Campbell is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Pacific Region at Troy University.

He is also a regular contributor to the International Affairs book reviews section.

Read Joel Campbell’s recent reviews here.

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