Kim Jong-un is the third leader of North Korea, from the only family to lead that country since it was formed in 1948 as a Stalinist prototype; founded by his grandfather, Kim il-Sung, (1948-1994) and followed by his father Kim Jong-il, (1994-2011)
It’s as close to a royal dynasty as you can have in the communist world.
And certain laws of royals apply.
Think of Edward I, Longshanks, who was the grandson of King John, of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame, who was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, of Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn fame. Both Henry II and Edward I are considered two of England’s greatest kings, but they sired two of England’s most disliked kings, the sniveling weenie back-stabbing John and Edward II, son of Longshanks, who, if you saw “Braveheart” you know was a gay man who, because he had to keep the noble line going, married a French noble woman anyway, who did her royal duty anyway, and had children by him anyway, one of whom, Edward III, eventually deposed him, and probably had him killed, simply because he couldn’t put that gay Gaveston lover of his out of his life. Christopher Marlowe even wrote a play about it once it was a safe enough distance away from the Plantagenet line to make fun of one its royal members.
For modern context, all this English drama occurred during the Middle Ages, 13th and early 14th centuries, when feudalism was more in flower than knighthood…and yet, the poor serfs of England lived better than have the majority of people of North Korea since the Stalinist Kim dynasty was sprung on them in 1948.
Keep that in mind, for it means that one of the key elements of dynastic survival for the North Korean line, loyalty, is missing.
Since the Normans invaded England in 1066 there have been only six (6) royal dynasties (some argue five, others argue seven.) Almost a thousand years. The Chinese had many more, beginning around 1600 BC, their dynasties running 3500 years. Most of China’s dynasties lasted over 250 years, which are considered good runs, cementing in China the notion of the palace court as the central focus of society for three millennia, until the early 20th Century.
Over the same period Korea was divided by several smaller royal lines. Korea had only a brief stab at unified royal government just before the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) in which both China and Russia lost their power in the region to the more modern militarized Japanese. Korea quickly became a colony of Japan (a very nasty period) which lasted until Soviet tanks entered Korea in 1945 after hastily declaring war against Japan (pay attention) just a day after the dropping of the second A-bomb at Nagasaki. (Paradoxically, the bombs were named “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”)
In just three weeks the Soviets were able to gobble up millions of square miles of Japanese-held territory on the mainland simply because the Kremlin had been neutral during the whole Pacific war, and had maintained an embassy in Tokyo. So when the Japanese asked them to serve as go-betweens in providing the Japanese reply to the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded Japan’s total surrender, some contend they garbled the translation of the Japanese term “mokasatsu” in the reply which insured Truman would drop the bomb quickly enabling the Kremlin to quickly declare war and seize all that real estate without any real fights, including most of their main prize, Korea.
It was from those gains that a Stalinist regime under Kim Il-Sung was installed in 1948, thus precipitating the Korean War which was intended to complete the conquest of the peninsula.
An interesting history as to how and why this dynasty came into being, it’s important to keep in mind that North Korea is also a dynastic kingdom with all the trappings of an oriental royal house which runs thousands of years deep. So the first rule to know is that weak kings may come and go but the center of life, the heart beat of the entire kingdom, is the survival of the dynasty.
Chinese understand this better than Americans, and they know that Un is more like the weak King John than the strong Edward Longshanks.
And those who are most likely to defend to the death this regime’s survival are those who eat well because of it. Those who live inside the castle grounds are always better fed, warmer and more secure than those who live outside it. Of North Korea’s 25 million population, 7.8m are on active military duty, reserve and paramilitary, meaning that they represent close to 50% of the total population, which is a very high percentage for a country that hasn’t really been at real war for almost 70 years. By comparison, the ratio of a feudal lord’s available troops versus those outside the walls feeding his kingdom was closer to 10%. The world’s most efficient slavery system, feudalism, survived close to a thousand years because of its single ability to keep its food producers fed. North Korea has not been able to do that for at least 35 years.
It’s these 50% non-producers inside the castle whose rice bowls depend on the survival of the Kim dynasty.
You can see why, then, that there are few North Koreans outside the protections of the castle wall who wouldn’t trade places with 13th Century English serfs in a heartbeat, while the loyalty of those inside its walls is problematic. In this Kim dynasty loyalty only runs so deep, no deeper than the rice bowl. But life on the inside is hardly sweet. From my experiences there, observing Seoul police training against their own citizens or Katusa troops serving with American troops in the field, and Korean textile production companies being asked to leave some other SE Asian countries, where they had moved their factory labor, because they were so heavy-handed with employees, I know there is often the risk of pain associated that extra portion of food and the luxury of being able to live inside the castle walls.
My guess is that very few people have any greater loyalty to Kim Jong-Un, or Big ‘Un, than that rice bowl. Those few would comprise his inner circle, perhaps only a few close advisors, military mostly, and scientists, perhaps his former regent, plus his household staff, who usually know every secret. These are the zealots, or so we assume.
But they too are closely watched.
A paranoid regime, everyone is looking over his shoulder, so one can never be sure who is willing to lay down his life for Dear Leader on any given day. Even among other communist regimes the “glorious revolution” rarely stands the test of time past the first generation, after which self-interest rules almost every decision a ruler’s inner circle makes. The American Left even suffers from this loss of purpose.
So then, in many respects Kim Jong-un may be the most expendable man in North Korea so long as everyone else, or almost everyone else, can remain secure in what they have. How many people are really willing to die to save the nuclear program? How many people are really insistent on keeping the other half of their population in starvation-level poverty just to maintain their own station?
Answers to these kinds of questions require insights into Korean thinking and culture that few Americans have, but in all likelihood, many Chinese do.
I’m sure North Koreans have never seen the television show “Dallas” as Soviet citizens were able to do thanks to the outlaw Channel One (which I got to watch) in 1991. But it helped throw down the USSR, because every Soviet citizen found out the government had been lying to them. But in their frequent intercourse with the Chinese over the past 30 years the North Koreans cannot have failed to take notice of the improvement of Chinese clothing, maybe even their health. Chinese media probably slips across the border as well, and while not the rich-folks-of-Texas variety, they cannot help but take notice of what ordinary Chinese people are wearing and eating, or how the rooms are furnished on Chinese television. I saw my first Chinese soap in 1974 and it was the first thing I noticed.
So, if you believe in the cultural value of gossip, this is what Korean street gossip is likely about; hope.
Hope of what lay just over the hill.
Forget anything Hollywood can produce, Donald Trump is the easiest man alive to vilify and hate in North Korea. But also fear. And in North Korea that fear is palpable, because it is what has always driven the regime’s control politics ever since it first began in 1948. And every person inside the castle gate, the upper 50%, knows that no, they cannot destroy America, even as they don’t know their government can’t find any target smaller than the Pacific Ocean with their missiles. Those 10% in-the-know also know that America can destroy their entire country during Trump’s salad course at Mira-a-Lago.
What they don’t know is that Donald Trump would never do that horrible thing…unless those 10% idiots inside Big ‘Un’s inner circle went all Rambo as a final death wish. And since in North Korea they always know such types exist, they naturally worry.
And they naturally blame Donald Trump for it.
I want to think Donald Trump knows these things, and it puts him in the catbird’s seat, a place he likes to be. Trump knows that by playing the theatrical villain he can induce President Xi Jinping, who has many fingers on the pulse inside North Korea, to be able to move events along, based on the nuclear exigency Xi also trusts will never occur, namely that Trump will launch a preemptive strike against North Korea without provocation.
To induce a palace coup in North Korea would require brinksmanship which no American president ever had to confront since JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis (or so history reports). But I submit that Donald Trump has the past history of dealings with Chinese to understand the inter-cultural dynamic, as well as understanding what China and Xi stands to gain if they play along. The key cultural element Trump brings to the table is one that China doesn’t possess, but would redound to China’s benefit. For you see, Chinese are largely indifferent to the sort of humanitarian issues North Korean leadership has wrought on their people, but which are “big deals” to the western world. Only Trump can lay this in Xi Jinping’s lap.
Working in tandem, or, just reading each other’s signals, (a means of communication Chinese people admire in adversaries and friends alike) each can play his role relying on the other to play his. Trump can rush to the border beating his chest, and China can beat its own chest in reply while holding the Koreans back…but at the same time probe forces inside North Korea to quietly move against Kim and his inner circle; carry out a coup, a throwing down of the zealots, while tangentially securing the rice bowls of not only those inside the gate, but increasing those outside the gates…this second component an act of generous compassion the Chinese would not ordinarily include and do not instinctive respond to.
Everyone understands ending the nuclear threat, but throwing open the castle gates to the 50% locked outside,? Only Trump is sensitive to this benefit. But it is the Chinese who would benefit by it most.
I don’t know who “they” are inside Korea that Xi can prod into action, but I do know they are there. And I suspect President Xi knows who they are. And I think Donald Trump knows he knows.
The social and economic benefits (recovery) will take time, but so long as the nuclear risk is ended and the people see a chance at more food and better hovels, and being able to wear better Chinese-made sneakers, it’s a time well worth waiting for. Food and relief shipments will begin quickly.
In the 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping set China on a course of economic rediscovery, as if opening the national dream-box, things got much better in the minds of China’s people long before it actually ever got better. But it has gotten better and better, with many great things yet to come. There are many fixed stars in China’s heaven today that did not exist in 1976 when Mao gave up the ghost.
But who ever dreamed that a Chinese president could ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for averting a war and as an unintentional by-product liberating a peoples, giving not only himself but the Chinese state, the greatest “face” that country could ever attain as a nation?
I’d like to think that Donald Trump can make this happen.
Publications: Famous Common People I Have Known and Other Essays
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