Santa Monica, California, April 26 – RAND Corporation issued a report about North Korean politics and economics of which Americans interested in the state of the world should take heed. The gist of the report, entitled “Preparing North Korean Elites for Unification,” is that the reunification of the Korean Peninsula may occur fairly soon but planning and understanding of North Korea’s internal politics would be helpful.
North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is unquestionably an absolute dictator in the current power structure of that country. His political dominance does not mean, however, that there are no other political and economic forces that could potentially affect the future of the north. RAND’s Bruce W. Bennett interviewed North Korean defectors, primarily from the general staff and from the highest level of the nation’s medical elite. Bennett concluded from his interviews:
“A number of North Korean defectors have suggested that substantial portions of the North Korean elite are unhappy with Kim Jong-un. His purges and brutality have made many of his senior personnel very scared of him, while at the same time his leadership is largely seen as failing, which apparently helps explain Kim Jong-un’s paranoia that led to the killing of his elder half-brother, Kim Jong-name, in February 2017. There is some discussion in North Korea of the flaws in the process that brought Kim Jong-un to power. Reportedly, there was no provision for dynastic succession in either the version of socialism accepted by Kim Il-sung or in the juche philosophy developed in North Korea. Despite these potentially promising signs of intra-elite splits in the North, there does not appear to have been a significant ROK [South Korean] effort to convince North Korean elites that unification would be good for them in anything other than the most vague economic terms.”
The method of interviewing defectors from Communist countries is not a technique which people should view with skepticism. American and British intelligence agencies have successfully relied upon information from defectors since the end of the World War II and, in some instances, even earlier. The United States gained much of our understanding regarding technological advances inside the Soviet military from extensive debriefings with Soviet defectors, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s after the Pentagon, the State Department, and some external institutions (such as RAND Corporation) had learned more about the subtleties of decision making inside the Soviet bureaucracy.
The purpose of the RAND Corporation report was to provide planning points for possible reunification. Bennett, the report’s author, recommended certain assurances that the South Korean government should provide to North Korea’s military, professional, and business elites in order to make them more comfortable with proposed reunification.
Even the author Bennett has admitted that the likelihood of a peaceful reunification of Korea is unlikely. Even if the Kim dynasty collapses from internal forces within North Korea, it’s likely that civil war within the north would swiftly follow and potentially last for years.
That’s not the important takeaway from the RAND report. Rather, it’s important to understand that North Korea is not like one black ball on a billiard table whose behavior we must follow and understand. There are internal complexities to North Korea of which the United States and its allies should take advantage. It is the military and economic weaknesses of North Korea that have led to the Kims resorting to a nuclear weapons program in order to provide them bargaining tools in international relations. Destruction of the nuclear weapons program alone might result in the general collapse of this “axis of evil” government. Similarly, sending clear signals that powers foreign to North Korea will no longer tolerate further nuclear weapons development might hasten a collapse without the United States actually firing bullets (or cruise missiles).
President Trump’s and Secretary of State Tillerson’s aggressive posture towards North Korea is precisely how the international community should have approached North Korea since 2006 when the Kims announced their nuclear weapons program to the world. President George W. Bush began the effort although perhaps not forcefully enough. Eight years of the Obama administration and the tepid Clinton-Kerry methodology greatly harmed international efforts to utilize diplomacy and the show of military force without the need to resort to the use of weaponry.