On Kim Yo-jong — B.R. Myers

“The only rule of which everybody in a totalitarian state may be sure,” said Hannah Arendt, “is that the more visible government agencies are, the less power they carry.” Or as Friedrich and Brzezinski wrote of such systems, the “prerogative state” always takes precedence over the “legal state” of public organigrams and formal procedures. These rules and their corollaries apply a fortiori to the North Korean regime, which is more secretive about its inner workings than Nazi Germany or the USSR.

Unfortunately much of the insight into dictatorship that was gained in the 20th century now goes unheeded. Our technology worship is such that a journalist in search of soundbites on North Korean politics is more likely to call on a nuclear expert than a political scientist. Even Kim Yo-jong’s recent “demotion” was thus widely regarded as a change, however minor, temporary, or hard to interpret, in the actual power structure.

For what it’s worth, the young woman is now said to be First Deputy Director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Her main function in export propaganda, however, is to make plausible the myth of internal hawks-vs-doves struggle, which — as we know from John Bolton — her brother trotted out in Singapore when asking for military exercises to be cancelled. Trump seems to have fallen for it then, but when pressed for a larger concession in Hanoi, he reminded Kim Jong Un who “calls the shots” in the DPRK. (“If I can ignore all my subordinates,” Trump probably reasoned, “why can’t he?”)

According to Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened (2020), the North Korean replied that “even a leader who controlled everything still could not move without providing some justification.” This is a perfectly valid point, and need not have been a reference to the hawks-doves myth; no dictator can flout the ideology from which his legitimacy derives. (This alone is reason to dismiss some Americans’ fantasy about turning North Korea into a second peninsular ally.)

But the Hanoi debacle may well have turned Kim’s attention to the problem of how to restore the hawks-doves myth to the power it exerted over US negotiators a hereditary succession or two ago, when it was still possible to believe that the DPRK was something other than an absolute monarchy.

For such talk to do the intended work in arms negotiations, as the Soviet Union knew, the warlike faction must always be presented as less powerful than the peace-craving leader. Otherwise the enemy will balk at making a concession the hawks will exploit. On the other hand, the hawks may not be posited so low in the command structure that the leader’s professed fear of angering them seems fake. An especially fine touch is needed here, for Kim Jong Un has to project reasonableness southward while projecting to America an undiminished readiness to destroy the ROK if attacked. (It’s thus impossible for inter-Korean relations to get too far ahead of US-DPRK relations, as I’ve said before.)

How to stage a hawks-doves act plausibly in a family-owned state? You make a prominent family member the leading hawk, then formally “demote” her, so as to put just enough apparent distance between her and the leader. Thus has the woman the foreign press touted as “peace messenger” during the 2018 Olympics become the main source of belligerent rhetoric. Her role turns the leader’s notoriously ill health to advantage; we must make a deal before someone less reasonable takes over. If you think such tactics could never work on American officials, you haven’t read Don Oberdorfer’s approving account (in The Two Koreas) of how the Agreed Framework came about.

Source: sthelepress.com

On Kim Yo-jong — B.R. Myers