NorK “Coup-Proofed” From Both Within and Without

Kim Jong il North KoreaThe Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School issued a useful policy brief on North Korea by Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lynd titled Keeping Kim: How North Korea’s Regime Stays in Power. The authors write:

“Predictions of the Kim regime’s demise have been widespread for many years, particularly in the 1990s. … Decisionmakers and analysts, however, often underestimate the power of tyranny. Like other dictatorships, the Kim regime relies on numerous tools of authoritarian control to stay in power.”

Along with cult of personality, juche (an ideology of the state and people relying on themselves), and use of force, the tool box includes Kim Jong-il’s use of . . .

“. . . perks and rewards to co-opt military and political elites. … Kim Jong-il has co-opted the military by bestowing on it policy influence and prestige, as well as a large share—perhaps 25 percent—of the national budget. … Nuclear weapons provide another tool for cultivating the military’s support. They bring prestige to an institution whose morale has been challenged by hunger [Hunger will do that. -- RW] and by its relative inferiority to South Korea’s military forces.”

Meanwhile, coining an alliterative term (see where emphasized), the authors write that . . .

“. . . the Kim regime has coup-proofed North Korean institutions in ways that deter, detect, and thwart anti-regime activity among these elites. North Korean military leaders are chosen for their political loyalty rather than military competence. Key positions are granted to individuals with family or other close ties.”

Anyone familiar with North Korea knows that states like China and South Korea resist destabilizing North Korea out of fear of war and/or an influx of refugees. The timidity, inertia, indecision, or restraint — call it what you will — may be even more paralyzing than with Iran and constitute another form of coup-proofing. Anyway, Kim has his tools. What tools then are available to those who would seek to moderate North Korea’s policies? Byman and Lind:

“Sanctions aimed at weakening North Korea’s broader economy are unlikely to exert much coercive pressure on Pyongyang; Kim Jong-il (like Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and many other dictators) protects his elite core while shifting the burden of sanctions to the people. A more effective economic lever with which to move the regime would be to directly threaten its access to hard currency and luxury goods, which it needs to bribe elites. Policies such as freezing North Korean assets overseas and embargoing luxury items are thus the most promising options.”

In other words, targeted sanctions, but with pinpoint accuracy. Kim Jong-il is noted for enjoying American movies. Let’s start by canceling his Netflix account and see what shakes out.