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The Waning Hermit Kingdom (Part I): A Faltering Kim-Regime

North Korean propaganda meant to generate nationalism conceals the grim reality of a fast-deteriorating regime. (Source: Flickr)

When tensions rose along the Korean Peninsula this past August, it was not military provocation, but South Korean speakers blaring anti-North Korean propaganda that spurred Pyongyang to declare a quasi-state of war. The recent clash between the Koreas involved their first major armed encounter in five years. However, unlike previous military aggression from the Hermit Kingdom, the scuffle in August garnered Pyongyang no foreign concessions. Such a turn of events highlights the decreasing efficacy of the Kim regime’s survival strategy.

An Authoritarian Toolbox

Since its inception, North Korea has endured such existential threats as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the famine in the 1990s, the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, and the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. The country’s unexpected political resilience stems largely from the Kim regime’s employment of Juche, a political philosophy that is often translated as “self-reliance.” Though lauded as a means of self-sufficiency and patriotism, Juche has allowed the Kim regime to preserve itself through manipulation of ideas and information, as well as aggressive militarization.

Government-controlled television and radio channels provide the regime with an iron grip over the media, allowing it to propagate its own narratives while ruthlessly censoring free speech. The domestic populace is indoctrinated to worship their Supreme Leader and taught that North Korea is victim to abuse from such foreign powers as the United States and Japan. The regime also promotes dangerous race-based nationalism, emphasizing the, “the pure-bloodedness and homogeneity […] of the Korean race.” By combining strong racial pride and stark xenophobia with the notions of vulnerability and victimization, the government attempts to generate domestic unity and frames itself as the protector of its own people.

Broken Political Tools

However, political philosophy, even one as historically effective as Juche, is not enough to sustain the North Korean regime. Its recent internal kerfuffles and inability to manipulate foreign governments may be the largest causes of its eventual demise.

When he became Supreme Leader of North Korea in 2011, Kim Jong-un initiated a “reign of terror” by executing about 70 officials, including his uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Such a purge is meant to stifle threats of coups and enforce loyalty to the regime, but this bloodshed has instead revealed Jong-un’s fragile authority. As a North Korean defector, formerly a member of the elite, explained to CNN in 2015, “Kim Jong-un’s regime […] is the most unstable [of the North Korean dictator’s],” and the “North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong-un.” Indeed, in 2012, the ruler was reported to have “enjoyed the support of more than 70 percent of the people, but it has now dropped to 58 percent.” Kim Jong-un might have extinguished immediate threats to his power, but the inept young dictator has risked the long-term support of his power base by generating distrust and dissent. Public broadcasts of the executions may even further threaten the regime’s survival, as such showings can create doubt of the seemingly weak and insecure leader who lacks the loyalty of even family members.

As if internal power struggles were not enough, Kim Jong-un must also deal with possible instability resulting from his country’s prolonged famine. In 2012, the UN reported that “About 16 million North Koreans – two-thirds of the country – depend on twice-monthly government rations.” However, a mostly mountainous country with only 15 percent of land available for agriculture, much of which has already been overexploited and degraded, Pyongyang is unable produce enough food to feed its 24 million people. This year, the UN reported that North Korea will suffer from significantly worse food shortages, as droughts are expected to contract food production by 50 percent. The regime has already reportedly reduced daily food rations by 21 percent to an amount less than half of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s recommended rations. Starvation and lowered standards of living will create discontent in the general population. That the regime continually invests in military and political projects instead of much needed infrastructure and agricultural reform only worsens its prospects for survival.

No Helping Hand

Ironically, aid from abroad has been North Korea’s primary lifeline. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has been North Korea’s main trading partner, accounting for 57 percent of its imports and 42 percent of its exports, 90 percent of its energy imports, and 70 percent of its food imports. Since 1995, the United States has provided North Korea with roughly 2.3 million metric tons of food. Between 1995 and 2005, South Korea provided nearly $1.2 billion in food and fertilizer aid. However, Pyongyang’s military belligerence and  continued defiance of international opposition to nuclear weapons development have jeopardized its vital sources of foreign aid.

Since Xi Jinping became leader of China in 2012, Beijing has pushed for the denuclearization of its southern neighbor. Indeed, in 2014, China declared a “red line” on North Korea and pushed its ally to halt all nuclear tests. Pyongyang’s failure to comply led to Beijing distancing itself from the Hermit Kingdom and lessening the amount of food aid it provided for the country. China even grew closer to South Korea and cooperated with the United States in prioritizing the denuclearization of and negotiating sanctions against North Korea. South Korea responded similarly to North Korean pugnacity by reducing food aid, and Washington, by far the most verbose in its calls for Pyongyang’s denuclearization, declared in July that it would not provide any food aid to North Korea, even in spite of the aforementioned drought.

As a result of Pyongyang’s belligerence, total humanitarian aid to the authoritarian regime, according to the UN, decreased substantially from $300 million in 2004 to $50 million in 2014. The recent transgressions in South Korea indicate that North Korea does not intend to deviate from its current path of military development and aggression, a trend that will only worsen prospects for increased, let alone continued, international aid.

Less Kimformation, More Information

Decreased aid from the international community and the consequent decreased standard of living for the North Korean populace provide ample cause for an internal revolt against Kim Jong-un. But perhaps the most pertinent threat to the regime’s survival is the increased dissemination of non-regime distributed information within the Hermit Kingdom. Pyongyang’s hyperbolic reaction to the South Korean blaring of anti-North Korean propaganda indicates that its greatest fear is a domestic population that is aware and informed. This apprehension is reflected in the regime’s repressive and stringent control over the media, which has earned North Korea rank 179 in press freedom (out of 180). However, cracks are beginning to show within the regime’s ability to control information.

Since the implementation of cell phones and an intranet about a decade ago, North Korea has struggled to balance economic productivity with regime survivability. While Pyongyang utilizes such mechanisms as the mosquito net to restrict digital information access and prevent connectivity to the outside world, surveys by the North Korean Human Rights Database Center and a 2012 report by InterMedia reveal that, in recent years, an increasing number of North Koreans have listened to foreign radios and about one-third have accessed foreign television broadcasts and radio channels. Ordinary citizens are beginning to circumvent television censors by using compact electronic devices to watch banned South Korean channels and overcome cell phone censors by smuggling in Chinese mobile phones. Independent citizen-journalists and non-governmental organizations have created something of a digital underground in an attempt to smuggle information and undermine the regime’s control over media. Resultant sources include Rimjing-gang, the first news magazine based on independent reporting from North Korean refugees; the Daily NK, an online newspaper based in South Korea but run by citizens of both Koreas that allows for increased non-governmental information flow; Free North Korea Radio; and Radio Free Chosun.

For North Korean citizens, increased access to non-governmental media means increased awareness of their own dismal standards of living compared to the quality of life outside of the Hermit Kingdom and also slowly growing channels of communication for dissent. Subsequent and collective discontent will likely incite a popular revolt against the Kim regime that will pose a significant challenge to its survival.

Unfixable Regime?

Though the Kim regime has survived significant threats in the past, an obstinate Kim Jong-un will likely be unable to navigate the tumultuous political landscape of his regime while simultaneously overcoming mounting foreign opposition and adapting to increased information leaks that have gradually and surreptitiously created dissent among North Koreans. With this trend likely to continue, it seems it is no longer a question of if, but rather when the regime will fall.