[Column] Kim Jong-un’s dream to be ruined by nukes

2023. 3. 29. 20:18
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Kim cannot turn the country into a normal state with nuclear weapons. He cannot hand down his gargantuan power to his children, either, not to mention withstanding economic hardship for over a decade.

Kim Byung-yeon

The author is a professor of economics and head of the Institute for Future Strategy at Seoul National University. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un dreamed of changing the country into a normal state. The 39-year-old leader wanted to become a head of state in a normal country by wiping out the image of North Korea as a rogue state. To take the novel path, he abandoned his father’s “Military First” policy and attempted to run the country through the normal governance system based on the Workers’ Party and the Cabinet.

That’s not all. Kim defined himself as head of the State Affairs Commission, not the chairman of the National Defence Commission his father was. In a bold move to turn the off-track country into a normal state, Kim brought his wife to various events at home and abroad like other heads of state. He instructed his subordinates to include education on climate change in training programs and even submitted a report on the sustainable development of the country to the United Nations in 2021. In a report to a Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea, he declared out of the blue that the share of female delegates was 10 percent.

But even if Kim changed his job title, brought his wife to ceremonies and lifted the share of women in party events, that doesn’t make his country a normal state. A normal country exchanges and trades with the rest of the world. But North Korea’s nuclear weapons isolated the country from the world. Shortly before the North’s fourth nuclear test in 2016, a university in Europe admitted a North Korean student on scholarship. But the school had to return the student after it turned out that he had sent some of his scholarships to his fatherland. The university made the decision because the act violated UN sanctions that banned the inflow of foreign currency to North Korea.

Kim’s nuclear weapons deprived young North Koreans of their right to learn overseas. Otherwise, they could have acquired new knowledge to help their impoverished motherland. A number of experts and bureaucrats also could have built experience and acquired the capability to carve a better future for their country. If trade is cut off due to its nuclear programs, its people will suffer for a while, but if the government fails to foster promising talents, its future will be ruined.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was briefed about the development of a small tactical warhead called “Hwasan-31,” as seen in the right side of the picture, from a nuclear weapons research institute, said the Korean Central News Agency Tuesday. [YONHAP]

A normal state ensures the survival of its people without aid from outside. But Kim’s nuclear ambition shattered the livelihoods of his people. Before the economic sanctions, there were very few, if any, North Koreans who were starved to death. Though the food was not sufficient, they could have three meals a day. Today, however, many die from hunger. Even when the international community offers food aid, North Korea does not accept it. The regime even rejects an offer for Covid-19 vaccines from the rest of the world. If it receives grains or vaccines from the West, it only proves the regime’s failure to feed or care for its people. Under such circumstances, what country would recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state?

A normal state does not threaten other countries. In his New Year’s speech from 2013 through 2019, Kim Jong-un extended his greetings to his “compatriots in the South” while still developing nuclear weapons. In 2022, Kim even legislated a preemptive use of nuclear weapons and threatened to use “super-large multiple rocket launchers capable of carrying tactical warheads to attack all parts of South Korea.” He went so far as to blackmail his own people. After public discontent over a scarcity of food deepened fast, he started controlling their words and actions to block the inflow of outlandish ideas and cultures. A draconian guideline enacted in 2022 enforces capital punishment for propagating ideology and culture from enemies. Such a purge is an offshoot of his wild nuclear dream.

Kim’s nuclear ambition even hurt his power succession plan. He certainly would want to hand over his powers to his offspring. But that possibility is getting slimmer due to his politics of fear aimed at keeping his seat and nukes. The reign of terror helps maintain power when dictators are alive, but it hampers the power succession. When Joseph Stalin died, the likelihood of Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the Soviet Union’s secret police, succeeding him grew bigger. But the power elites who witnessed Stalin’s politics of fear joined forces to drive Beria out and seated Nikita Khrushchev, a moderate, as general secretary of the Communist Party.

An anecdote testifies to the extremity of Stalin’s politics of fear. One of his bodyguards found him fallen on the floor of his bedroom, showing signs of feeble movement. But the guard reported it to the Soviet Politburo out of fear instead of checking his condition. Four core members of the Politburo had a meeting and decided to send two — No. 2 Georgy Malenkov and No. 3 Beria — to the bedroom. When they walked to the room, Malenkov’s footsteps made a loud noise on the wooden floor due to his new leather shoes. At that moment, Malenkov took off his shoes and held them under his armpit to approach Stalin stealthily. In the meantime, his condition became irrecoverable. Would North Korea’s nomenklatura heartily accept an heir Kim points to?

Kim cannot turn the country into a normal state with nuclear weapons. He cannot hand down his gargantuan power to his children, either, not to mention withstanding economic hardship for over a decade. What choice is the North Korean leader left with? Decision time is approaching fast for Kim.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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