The world’s political leaders were astonished when Kim Jong Un, the pudgy and inexperienced 29-year-old leader of North Korea, recently denounced Jang Song-Thaek, one of his closest advisers (and, by the way, his uncle by marriage) and then swiftly ordered him executed.
To better understand the mysterious and belligerent Kim’s domain, The New Republic recently interviewed B.R. Myers, who may be unknown to most of us and perhaps even to many experts, but he’s well positioned to analyze North Korean matters since he works for Dongseo University, just down the peninsula in South Korea. He is also the author of “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.”
The American people should hope their political and military leaders familiarize themselves with Myers’ insights, even if they disagree with them.
“North Korea has prided itself on complete unity ever since the establishment of a ‘unitary ideology’ in 1967,” Myers observed. “Power struggles elsewhere were gloated over as evidence that only North Korea had leaders whose greatness stood above dispute.”
Against this carefully contrived background, Myers continued, the humiliation of Jang must have left North Koreans confused. How can they be expected to continue their faith in the infallibility of their leadership?
And how should this jolting instance of instability be understood in terms of North Korea’s future behavior? Was it an isolated incident, or was it a signal, deliberate or otherwise, that further unrest is likely?
“I was not all that shocked by the purge itself,” Myers told The New Republic. “Kim Il Sung purged his own brother. Kim Jong Il effectively purged his own eldest son. As for Jang’s punishment, it’s not as wild and brutal as all that. The Chinese execute people for corruption too. The shocking thing is the indiscretion with which the regime has gone about everything.”
Myers added: “Anyone who still thinks some gray eminence is pulling Kim Jong Un’s strings just doesn’t realize how much long-accumulated mythological capital the latest propaganda has destroyed in a matter of days. Keep in mind that this is a state where whole clans are dragged off to prison camps for one relative’s wrongdoing, and you get an idea of how shocking this will be for a North Korean. That in itself indicates that generals did not force Kim Jong Un into all this rhetoric. On top of everything you have that gratuitous talk of how Jang was waiting for the economy to get worse.”
To that point, Myers was assessing the implications of the Jang affair for North Korea’s domestic politics, where the people typically are denied access to reliable international sources of information and where the government propaganda fuels the nation’s collective ignorance of foreign affairs.
But elsewhere, what happens in North Korea represents an entirely different challenge. And he ended the interview on an ominous note: “As I see it, North Korea cannot cease being a military-first state without losing all reason to exist. To ask the regime to disarm is to ask it to commit political suicide.” And, as he also observed in his New Republic interview, “neither sticks nor carrots are going to keep the regime from continuing to arm itself ... and continuing to look for the tension that is its lifeblood.”
Myers’ observations may be at variance with conventional wisdom, but they appear worthy of Washington’s careful attention.
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