North Korea’s Unusual Candor

BR Myers analyzes the recent purge of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, noting an unprecedented level of disclosure in the post-purge propaganda:

North Korea had prided itself on complete unity ever since the establishment of a “unitary ideology” in 1967. When the regime warned against subversive behaviors it resorted to cartoons with animal figures rather than admit to actual internal disunity. Power struggles elsewhere were gloated over as evidence that only North Korea had leaders whose greatness stood above dispute. The benevolent charisma of the leaders was said to be so irresistible that even representatives of enemy states, like Jimmy Carter and Kim Dae Jung, succumbed to it. And now the North Koreans find out that Kim Il Sung’s own son-in-law and Kim Jong Il’s right-hand man was engaging in crimes since the 1980s? Yet they are still expected to believe in the infallibility of Kim Jong Il’s choice of successor?

How Myers sees the North Korean regime:

[I]t is a race-oriented, militaristic state with socialization of assets. But the militarization of a peace-time society cannot be sustained without the perception of an ongoing national emergency. North Korea has shown that this perception can be maintained through limited conflicts and crises, without engaging in all-out war. … 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. Once you’ve grasped that, you realize that 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. And that’s when you start to get really worried.

Abraham M. Denmark speculates on the meaning of the purge:

[I]nstability at home could translate to more belligerence abroad. Many North Korea watchers believe that past acts of aggression, including limited-scale attacks against South Korea, reflected Kim’s attempts to demonstrate strength and resolve in the face of foreign opposition in order to burnish his domestic reputation—especially with the military. This suggests that 2014 may be a difficult year with North Korea, with the potential for military attacks and nuclear tests in the offing.