Update: This essay was written before this week’s execution of North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-Chol. The sheer brutality of that execution – for the 'crime' of falling asleep in public, and by anti-aircraft gun – supports the contention in the essay below that Kim Jong-Un skipped his recent Moscow trip for fear of a coup when out of the country. REK
Update II: AFP is casting doubt on the execution story, though it seems the defence minister was 'purged'.
A few days ago, President Vladimir Putin hosted several world leaders in Moscow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany (and it really was the USSR that did the heavy lifting; stop watching Saving Private Ryan). Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, was invited. For months there had been speculation, unrefuted by North Korean state media (the Korean Central News Agency, KCNA), that Kim would attend.
In the kremlinological curiosity that is Pyongyang tea-leaf reading, KCNA's silence was taken as approval by many observers. North Korea has often allowed Chinese officials to tacitly communicate its positions. If KCNA does not refute Chinese commentary, we often take that to mean silent approval. Given the recent warming of Russia-North Korea ties, observers thought that when Russian officials repeatedly spoke of Kim's attendance without a refutation by KCNA, that meant that the North Koreans had agreed.
Then suddenly last week, Kim apparently discovered a 'scheduling' conflict. China and Russia were caught flat-footed. The excuse that a sun-king leader, whose personality cult claims a semi-divine status for his family bloodline, could not change his plans is transparently preposterous. Instead North Korea sent its nominal, irrelevant head of state, 87 year-old Kim Yong Nam. One can only imagine Putin grinding his teeth.
The whole bizarre episode illustrates North Korea's uniquely dysfunctional characteristics, the sorts of permanent structural issues that inhibit smooth relations with neighbours and put off all but the most intrepid or politically connected foreign investors:
There is no 'policy process' in the way most countries, even authoritarian ones, have. It is often said that North Korea is erratic and unpredictable, and this episode nicely illustrates why.
Putin himself invited Kim. North Korea-Russia ties have been warming recently. Due to the Ukraine crisis, Russia needs friends not aligned with the West. Conversely, North Korea wants to avoid over-dependence on China, and since relations with Beijing have soured of late, a Kim visit would have been a nice culmination of a partnership useful to both.
On the other hand, China is rising, it has the world's second-largest economy, and is a proximate neighbour in force. And Kim Jong Un hasn't visited Beijing yet, as his father did on seven occasions because he knew he needed the money and support. Visiting Moscow before Beijing would likely have been read as snub in China, which takes such diplomatic pomp and circumstance seriously.
Normal countries would have wrestled with these tough trade-offs in some kind of systematised way, with some of that debate reflected in the national media. In time, a reasonable choice balancing raisons d'etat would have emerged. But in North Korea, major decisions like this routinely come out of the blue, frequently with disruptive effects. Because everything takes place behind closed doors, there is little openness to new ideas or thinking. Information is politically distributed, so relevant arguments from experts do not enter the process early and shape choices. Personalism and ideology routinely trump merit in the North Korean hierarchy, as the Kim family and Korean Worker's Party have long since subverted state organs. And the final decision-maker is given to bizarre episodes, such as the Dennis Rodman affair, and lacks any serious training in relevant disciplines in social science, the military and so on.
In short, even if North Korea wanted to be more predictable and less wayward, it likely could not be. The very structure of its elites encourage internal power struggles and rash decision-making, creating dysfunctional outcomes such as this very public snub of Putin or 2009's botched currency reform.
The Russia episode also illustrates how badly North Korea communicates with the outside world. Needless to say, KCNA is widely distrusted, often given to ideology and bombast, and not widely read. This credibility problem means that when Chinese officials speak on North Korea, we often assume it is more accurate than what we hear from Pyongyang itself. That logic applies to Russia in this case. Because North Korea practices Stalinist media centralisation, there is little debate in an open media that can signal credible information to foreigners about policy debates. Hence we lean on sources from North Korea's allies.
Yet this time even those secondary sources proved to be inaccurate. Indeed, Russian and Chinese officials who spoke with such surety for so many months suddenly look foolish. So, to whom can outsiders look for reliable policy statements? The North often complains that it gets a bad rap at the UN or in South Korean and Western media. But as with the dysfunctional policy process, this is the logical endpoint of North Korea's media shenanigans. If neither KCNA, nor North Korea's friends can reliably speak to North Korean preferences, what other choice is there?
Besides illustrating the kinds of structural deficiencies that make North Korean integration with foreign states and firms well-nigh impossible, the Russia episode suggests two further vulnerabilities that likely swayed the last minute about-face.
First, North Korea is permanently dependent on foreigners. The big problem for North Korea in the long-term is economic near-failure. North Korea simply cannot stand on its own. Its economy has stagnated for decades; its people survive on the edge of malnutrition and corruption has exploded since the partial marketisation of the economy in late 1990s (as a response to the famine).
So North Korea has always needed external subsidisation. In the past, Pyongyang managed to scratch out aid variously from the US, South Korea, Japan and the USSR. But those days are over. The democracies will not provide aid until (highly unlikely) progress is shown in the nuclear talks, while Russia is weak and increasingly isolated. This leaves China. I would imagine that at some point in the mismanaged, corrupted 'policy process' sketched above, the realisation dawned that visiting Moscow before Beijing would anger the latter too much, and China today is vastly more wealthy and influential than Russia. If North Korea must have a patron, swapping China for Russia is a terrible choice.
The other likely reason Kim skipped the trip is fear of a coup. His father rarely went beyond China. To do so was too risky. For this Kim, the risks are probably even higher. Kim Jong Un's crackdowns and executions since taking power almost certainly indicate that his grip on power is still shaky. He took over less than four years ago, and he was all but unknown, even within North Korea, at the time. A foreign trip is rare, enticing opportunity for elite dissenters in a regime like North Korea to act, and so I predicted earlier this year that he would not go.
In short, this strange episode illustrates many of North Korea's isolation-creating constraints: its unpredictability, an inability to clearly communicate preferences, the elite's fear of itself, its dependence on China, and the reluctance of its leader to travel abroad. It is a recipe for stagnation.