In 1990 the Scorpions release their famous hit “Wind of Change” dedicated to the rapid domino effect-like fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. But while the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain were dealt the final blow, in the far East a regime modeled after a Stalinistic Cult of personality, continued to thrive in North Korea. The word “thrive” does not point to stability, economic success, or citizen satisfaction. It simply implies existence through fear, persecution, a well run secret police, torture etc. (you do not need me to explain how the North Korean state operates to maintain their power). The North Koreans were in their first phases of Nuclear experimentation, and Kim Il Sung’s regime was well consolidated, to the point where he was revered as the country’s father figure. The regime’s tactics allowed no gaps for rivals to maneuver, the western Intelligence had little to no influence in the country, and a good part of North Koreans did not question the success of their Government, as long as they worked and were provided for. But in the 1990s, a light breeze of change would arrive on the DPRK’s borders.
Kim Il Sung dies in 1994, leaving the country in a state of mourning. His son Jong Il, would quickly operate to restore the ferocity of the regime just as his father did previously. The cult of personality now carried over to Jong Il. But in this decade, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s monetary aid from Moscow was cut. To throw salt on the wound, the country was hit by a long drought which exhausted its agricultural resources and food supply. A devastating famine killed more than a million North Koreans, a majority of the population lived in extreme poverty, and mistrust in the government was growing. The international community stepped in to aid the DPRK, with China, South Korea, and the US contributing over 60% of the food. Of course, the regime claimed that this success was due to their extremely well thought economic plans, and their exceptional diplomacy. Credit was given to China, but the United States was not mentioned. Regardless, the Kim regime managed to survive thanks to international intervention, but it was certainly weakened.
During Kim Jong Il’s reign, the state celebrated the success of its first Nuclear test and boasted of other economic and social accomplishments, but the reality was much different. The regime was alive thanks to its secret police, fear, and isolation. Derelict the viciousness of the dictatorship, as a cause of the famine and leadership transition, gaps for the west to operate were finally opened, small yet present. The “communist” aspect of North Korean society also took a harsh blow. An informal private economy arose, defector activities increased, and American and South Korean Intelligence began conducting small operations. The Breeze was slowly getting stronger.
In 2011, Kim Jong Il dies. Leadership is passed to his son Jong Un in despotic style. Kim Jong Un, aware of the slow weakening state, cleansed institutions, eliminated political rivals and solidified power around himself. For a brief period of time, he was able to revert the progress which the west had made in the DPRK. He increased border patrol, cut all ties with the west, and invested in heavy anti western propaganda. The young Kim also dedicated time to portray the image of a strong, healthy North Korean society to the west. His regime continues to conduct Nuclear tests and grows closer to the completion of a missile which poses a threat to America and the west. One could say this is a dying wolf’s last attempt at clinging to life.
Kim Jong Un’s Government is aware of its dwindling influence among the population. In this age of media, footage of the western lifestyle has penetrated North Korea. North Koreans secretly stream American movies, South Korean TV shows etc. They are being exposed to the world outside their borders. As a direct result, the personality cult of the Kims is being debunked. Many North Koreans are aware of their country’s state and of their less than normal lifestyle. The American intelligence, Seoul, and Tokyo continue to smuggle footage, clothing, products etc. North Koreans are waking up.
A good part of the people continue to live in mass poverty, the strength and authority of the regime are being questioned. An erosion of communist ideals is also taking place. 2/3 of North Korean households are involved heavily in the informal private market, thus negating the communist principles of Il Sung. To keep power, the Kim regime allocates a majority of economic funds to the Military, leaving the citizenry to fend for themselves. The North Korean economy is in shambles, only four countries trade with the communist republic, and North Korean imports outweigh exports by 1/3. The economic state of the country is in such grave condition the Government itself issued a warning for a second famine.
For the Kim regime to survive, they need to modernize and reform, which put bluntly, is impossible. The change in the mentality of North Korea’s younger generations is moving at a quicker pace than their regime’s ability to adapt.
The final mistake North Korea continues to make, is testing the impatience of the United States. The Trump administration has expressed their will to act if it deems US interests at threat. Washington is pressuring Beijing to act in its stead. China has halted coal imports from the DPRK and has been considering the option of cutting off oil supply to North Korea. With their only trade partner out of the chess board, North Korea is game over. Aside from diplomatic pressure, news of such events does reach the ears of North Korean people, who grow even more skeptical of their regime as they see their only ally, slowly move away (or at least act with more reluctance). “The Era of strategic patience is over” is what President Trump declared.
No one, whether North Korean or American, desires war, and although that threat hangs over our heads, North Koreans themselves will act before tensions escalate into armed conflict. The Kim regime is playing its final cards, while the deck of the West keeps growing. The light breeze of the 90s has transformed into a full-fledged wind, with the potential of tearing through Pyongyang sooner than later.
By: Rex Nazarko
Image Credit: Fox News