In response to our recent blog on Pope Francis and what leaders can learn from him, Rupert Holderness considers what we might learn from North Korea too. Rupert is an employee of the UK Ministry of Defence, but writes here in a personal capacity and without any access to information that is not in the public domain.
Taking David at his word (though stressing from the outset that I am no specialist in Korean affairs), what lessons can we learn from North Korea?
First, I suppose, one should accept that there may be some. Irrational by Western standards as much of DPRK behaviour seems to be and frankly weird as its ideology and rhetoric appears to many in the West, North Korea has defied the odds since the Inchon landings in September 1950. Though there is much current speculation that the regime may be facing serious and perhaps terminal instability with the spectacular purge in recent weeks of Kim Jong-un’s uncle and his adherents, similar predictions that it could not survive previous calamities, natural or the consequences of its own decision-making, have not come to pass. They must be doing something right.
The first lesson one might draw is to be absolutely clear about your objectives. For North Korea, it is simply expressed – the survival of the regime at all costs. All else flows from, and is subservient to, that goal. The material well-being of the population does not enter into the equation. It is difficult even for seasoned DPRK-watchers to know if there is now, or ever has been, any coherent opposition to the Kim dynasty. But if there is one it is not very effective. The risks to regime survival come from outside – the potential for discontent when North Koreans become aware, as a few do, of what life in the outside world is like, and the risk that outside support will be withdrawn. (One may discount any risk of external attack, however useful that is for internal propaganda, as a real threat to the regime’s existence.)
Secondly, ensure that your workers only get the message you want them to get. DPRK internal propaganda is relentless and apparently effective, however far-fetched it seems to the outside observer. At every breath North Koreans are told that they owe complete loyalty to the regime and its military-first and self-reliance ideologies. There is very little access, it seems, to information from outside the country and means of receiving it are strictly controlled. The upshot is that the workers know what the management want of them.
Third, ensure your support base is broad enough to enforce your will. One man, or one family, cannot alone rule a country or run every aspect of a major business. You need to coopt senior and middle management, and the regime does this with access to perks of various kinds. Of course, as the denunciations of Kim Jong-un’s executed uncle show, the perks can be misused; but the fierce response (a fusillade of machinegun fire) turns even that to the regime’s advantage.
Fourth, ensure there is no external competition. No-one is seeking to contest the territory or resources of North Korea with the regime, but just to make sure the regime has single-mindedly pursued an effective deterrent (no doubt a subject of some genuine national pride) in the shape of various programmes to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them at increasing ranges, however inaccurately. And North Korea’s conventional forces could inflict huge damage on Seoul and other adjacent areas of South Korea.
Fifth, make yourself indispensable to bigger players. It’s difficult to imagine that the current generation of Chinese leaders or their predecessors terribly like the Kims but they know that there is no obvious alternative that is not, at least in the short to medium term, an awful lot worse. Kim Il-Sung played Russia and China off against each other at the time of the Korean War; and one suspects that North Korea’s ability to be a nuisance, if not worse, to the US is sneakily valued by some in Putin’s Russia. And the Kims have made the cost of Korean unification so exorbitantly high even in purely economic terms (far worse than in the German case) that one imagines that many in South Korea rather hope it won’t happen any time soon and would be chary of doing anything to undermine the regime.
Sixth, don’t let others ignore you. I’m not sure what the corporate equivalents of conducting nuclear and ballistic missile tests, sinking your neighbour’s naval vessels and abducting citizens of other countries might be, but they certainly keep DPRK Inc. in the news. (They do not, however, deliver what the regime really wants in this regard – which is the respect of the outside world and treatment as an equal by the US – but you cannot have everything.)
Overall, not a pretty picture. But if success is to be measured by meeting your headline objective – regime survival in this case – it is difficult to deny that the Kim family have played a weak hand pretty well for many decades.