Thursday, May 20, 2010

Did Kim Jong Il order the torpedo strike?

Which interpretation of the (not-so-shocking) news that North Korea sank a South Korean warship is more troubling: that Kim Jong Il ordered the torpedo strike, or that he didn't?

Ruediger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna, says it's the latter:

The “cornered tiger” scenario is the only condition, beyond mental illness, under which Kim Jong Il would choose this option. One possible interpretation of the sinking of the Cheonan is that the situation in North Korea is so bad and the regime so desperate that it believes risking annihilation is its only option. But while it is hard to regard the situation in North Korea as rosy, it has been through worse times. With the currency reforms of 2009, the regime was able to win some time in its otherwise hopeless fight against the inevitable transformation of North Korea’s society when it expropriated the growing wealth from the newly emerging middle class and tried to partially demonetize the economy again. And as far as we know, prior to March 26, there was no intelligence pointing to unusual troop movements; no increase in communications that might have signaled something out of the ordinary was about to happen or signs that a change in the military’s alert status was about to take place.

Of all the possible scenarios for why North Korea would have been involved in the Cheonan incident, the one that should worry us the most is the possibility that it was NOT Kim Jong Il who gave the orders. While in 2008 one could have imagined, under certain circumstances, that a young recruit overreacted and shot a South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumgang, it is much less likely that the captain of a North Korean submarine had a short fuse and sank that corvette. He must have done so upon receiving orders, or at least a “go ahead” from someone above him. The higher up we move in the command chain, the stress motive becomes less likely. A lieutenant commander in his sub might think twice; a rear admiral will think ten times before pulling the trigger.

If the North Koreans torpedoed the ship, and if it was not done after a self-destructive order by Kim Jong Il, this may be proof of a destabilization of the current leadership in Pyongyang. Sinking the Cheonan without consent by the top leader would be an open act of insubordination. An autocratic leader who does not have his lieutenants under control becomes a liability to the system. It is fear and the unchallenged authority of the top that keeps an autocracy together. Many of us have argued that such considerations had allowed Kim Jong Il to take over power from his father so smoothly despite his very different personality: the elite knew that regime stability depended on a strong and undisputed leader, and he was the only realistic candidate for the job.

Yet, years have passed since 1994, and North Korea has changed substantially. A famine, a set of failed economic policies, and Kim’s obvious health issues have created a situation of frustration, insecurity, and nervousness. The Pyongyang elite will be holding their breath and watching closely how Kim Jong Il reacts. What if he does not succeed in creating the impression that sinking the Cheonan was his idea? Even if so, this is a catch-22 since it invites a potentially destructive counter reaction by South Korea and the United States. If it wasn’t done on his command, will Kim Jong Il conduct a major purge of the culprits like his father did in 1956, when a trip to Europe was used to launch a coup against him? If he doesn’t, then the vultures will get more courageous.

Frank worries most of all about a rapid and messy regime collapse, leading to "a humanitarian disaster, a last-ditch effort at a military solution, or the active involvement of superpowers like China."

There are clearly a lot of folks in the region who are also worried about this scenario. But it's worth noting that North Korea already is a humanitarian disaster. At some point, Kim Jong Il's regime is going to have to end before that situation changes. I don't see any signs that outside players, save perhaps China, have any hope of micromanaging some sort of smooth transition to a more decent government.

No comments: