Some analysts have been speculating that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wants a total revolution in North Korean policy — a revolution in which he would push China even farther away and either join an American-led alliance outright or attempt to play off China against the United States.
Kim does have poor relations with China, as shown by the lack of visits and contacts. And there are the anonymous sources who say he was alerted to a plot by Uncle Jang Song-taek to enlist China’s help in kicking him out of office and putting his half-brother Jong-nam in power instead.
That certainly would explain why Kim Jong-un saw the need to kill both his uncle (execution) and his half-brother (assassination), and why he hasn’t warmed to China. And if he had such a revolutionary intention as switching from the United States to China as his great power protector, that would likewise explain his sudden peace offensive and reported offer to meet US President Donald Trump.
All that said, however, and as intriguing as those notions are, we need to remember just who Kim Jong-un is.
We have it from his father’s Japanese sushi chef that Jong-un was the meanest and most belligerent of the late Dear Leader’s three sons. My guess is that he was chosen precisely on that account. You have to be a mean son of a bitch to be a dictator in the Kim family mold.
If, in fact, he’d been a secret reformer, Kim had time after his father’s 2011 death to show that. I’ve seen little evidence that he differs significantly from his father, who never could pull himself far from the policies instituted by his own father, the first-generation head of the dynasty, Kim Il-sung.
We cannot know for sure how a true reformer would be greeted domestically. Still, I think it’s reasonable to assume that military/security hardliners would resist a major turn away from the militarism that the eldest Kim unveiled with the 1950 invasion of the South, and then developed further from the 1960s on.
There are some indications that the reaction of secret dissidents among the elite as well as the long-suffering population of ordinary people might be positive This is the possibility I imagine in the plot of my new novel Nuclear Blues.
But Kim must also bear in mind that his claim to legitimacy as one-man ruler depends mainly upon his fidelity to family policies. In other words, even if we posit that some other North Korean from another family, coming to power afresh, could afford a major, Dengist break with the past, Jong-un has to question whether he, as the designated Kim heir, could get away with it.
As for the reports that Kim Jong-un has quoted his father and grandfather on their goal of denuclearlizing the peninsula, we know very well that definitions of denuclearization differ widely.
My guess at this moment is that Jong-un is trying yet another hustle in the tried and true Kim family regime tradition. I hope I’m wrong, and I will keep watching eagerly for evidence that I’m wrong. But just look at young Kim’s retinue.
Who represented the regime at the opening ceremony of the Olympics? Answer: Kim Yong-nam, 90 years old, the same official who had been trying for four decades to con the Americans into leaving their South Korean ally to fend for itself. (He sat me down in Pyongyang in 1979 and had me listen to his spin for five hours.)
Meanwhile, Jang Song-taek, the most likely Dengist figure we’d seen since Kim Dal-hyon enjoyed an all-too-short run near the top of the power structure in the 1990s, is dead at the hand of his nephew. (Kim Dal-hyon took his own life in despair after hardliners got him sidetracked.)
If you’re going to revolutionize your own regime, normally you’d want to align your personnel more in that direction, I’d say. Unfortunately, another DPRK con job — if that is what Kim’s current diplomatic outreach represents — may be coming at precisely the wrong time: It would be music to the ears of Washington’s most reckless hardliner, the newly appointed national security advisor Ambassador John Bolton.