Peace and Security in Northeast Asia By Herbert Wulf  |  19 January, 2022

Kim Dynasty: Firmly in Control

Image: Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang (mundosemfim/Shutterstock)

When Kim Jong-un took power in North Korea in December 2011, many observers speculated that the young 28-year-old, politically inexperienced son of the late Kim Jong-il and grandson of the first president, Kim Il-sung, would hardly remain in power for long. The communist Kim dynasty was likely to end soon. Today, after ten years, the dictator is firmly in control. What is his economic and security record after ten years?

Since North Korea has isolated itself even more to ward off the pandemic than it has in the past, outsiders know relatively little about the concrete economic development on the ground. It seems, however, that North Korea experiences profound economic difficulties. Above all, the tight and tough sanctions, but also the inefficiently planned economy, play an important role. Covid-19 has not made the situation any easier.

At the end of December 2021, Kim Jong-un gave two lengthy speeches at the 4th plenary session of the 8th Congress of the Korean Workers' Party. Among other things, he spoke of the "shortcomings and important lessons revealed in this year" and announced that the food, clothing and housing problems of the population must be solved. The state press agency, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), reported extensively, giving an impression of the current food shortage. North Korea is not in such a dramatically poor supply situation today as it was in the mid-1990s. At that time, weather-related crop failures, salinisation of rivers, undersupply of fertilizers and a low technical level of agricultural machinery aggravated the bottlenecks that existed before. The devastating famine prompted the government at that time to accept aid from abroad. The North Korean ruler's recent speeches, which focused on the development of agriculture, give an idea of people's needs today. On January 5, KCNA quoted Kim Jong-un with his call “for markedly strengthening the political and ideological might of socialism and further consolidating the state's potentiality of independent development despite all shortages and difficulties”.  

Two aspects are remarkable about Kim's statements on agriculture. First, Kim made similar promises to improve the situation of the people ten years ago, at the beginning of his term. The supply situation obviously remains tense and the closure of the borders to ward off the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, because trade close to the border, especially with China, seems to be severely disrupted.

Secondly, it is interesting which path the government intends to take to remedy the crisis situation: discipline in implementing the economic plan and state control of the economy. In two different phases, in 2002 under Kim Jong-il and in 2012 under Kim Jong-un, the government experimented with limited, cautious liberalisation measures. Fixed prices for staple food were abolished and so-called farmers' markets were created, where farmers could offer their products. In 2012, the government wanted to experiment with Chinese-type land reforms and decentralised and market-oriented decision-making processes. Now, the government turns back to the older models by emphasising the planned economy. Farmers are to be ideologically motivated; the state intervenes more strongly again. In order to increase production in agriculture, individual (market-oriented) incentives are no longer used, but state-controlled science and technology. According to Kim: “Powerfully expediting the three revolutions—ideological, technical and cultural—in the countryside is the most important task arising in settling the socialist rural question.” (KCNA, Jan. 1, 2022). This concept originated during the 1970s; it illustrates the backward-looking, orthodox strategy, which relied on autarky and self-sufficiency, but has not really solved the food shortages.

Does the government want to turn back the clock by four decades? North Korea's economic future, especially its food supply, is anything but bright. The coming years are likely to be as problematic as past ones, unless fundamental political changes lead to overcoming the isolation of the country.

Are such fundamental changes in foreign and security policy possible or can they be expected? The regime in Pyongyang still regards its nuclear weapons and missile programme as its life insurance. It uses the weapon systems as a deterrent and at the same time as a bargaining chip in the disarmament talks, which have failed several times in the past. Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, fully committed to expanding the nuclear programme from the late 1990s and terminated North Korea’s membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. When Kim Jong-un took power, the country possessed an estimated four to six nuclear warheads. Today there are 40 to 50. Negotiations between North Korea and the US, as well as other governments, especially China and South Korea, have seen constant ups and downs for decades, but no breakthrough. The Obama administration applied the concept of "strategic stability": in other words, not changing the power balance in the region. Donald Trump's concept consisted of high-profile PR summits and pressure on North Korea. The agreements between Trump and Kim at two summits in 2018 and 2019 remained too nebulous to make real progress.

US President Joe Biden signalled that he was ready for diplomacy, but with the unmistakable reference to a necessary denuclearisation. The regime in Pyongyang has not yet responded to the repeated US invitation to reopen negotiations. According to the Kim administration, today's US policy is not a basis for negotiations. In Pyongyang's eyes, it means hostile US policy, double standards, and two-pronged policies. "Hostile policy" is, first of all, the annual US-South Korean military manoeuvres. North Korea does not expect the conclusion of a "big deal", rather reciprocal gradual measures. Pyongyang expects gradual steps by the US, such as easing of sanctions and security guarantees. According to the Kim administration, it is "double standards" that North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes for their “self-defence” are severely sanctioned by the United Nations, while South Korea and the US can carry out their programmes without being reprimanded. Finally, North Korea criticises the "two-pronged policy" of the US, which consists of offering diplomatic dialogue in order to appear peace-loving, but at the same time exerting pressure by military and economic means.

Pyongyang reacts with a mixture of warning and concession: "Power-for-power and goodwill-for-goodwill". North Korea counters US policy by strengthening its own power. The five-year plan, adopted a year ago, prioritises strengthening the armed forces; nuclear and missile technology will be further developed. In the first half of January 2022, two missiles were tested. The scientists and engineers focus on increasing the range of the missiles; they develop hypersonic and submarine-based missiles as well as military reconnaissance satellites. And at the same time, a North-South Korean conventional arms race is underway – South Korea with modern weapons, North Korea with quantity. It is unlikely that negotiations will take place before the South Korean presidential election in March. The second part of North Korea's strategy, "goodwill-for-goodwill", is obviously not on the agenda today.

Despite the negative economic record, Kim Jong-un seems to be firmly in control, partly because the nuclear and missile programmes function as the regime’s life insurance. Meanwhile, Kim-Jong-un is the undisputed ruler who can rely on his closest lieutenants. In the early years after taking power, he had potential competitors eliminated, sometimes with brutal means, in order to strengthen his position. After his sister Kim Yo-jong, head of the Ministry of Propaganda and Agitation, moved into the inner circle of decision-makers in recent years, an early end to the communist Kim dynasty does not seem likely.

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.