Interview: Charles Armstrong on the Fallacy of North Korean 'Instability'

What does the future of North Korea hold? (Taylor Sloan/Flickr)

Kim Jong Il’s passing a month ago reminded the world yet again how little it knows of North Korea and its “Dear Leader.” Now the torch has been passed to the volatile leader's youngest and least-known son, Kim Jong Un who has publically declared to carry on his father’s “songun” or “military-first” policy, much to the chagrin of the United States. There has nevertheless been much debate as to whether Kim, Jr. is currently being groomed by his father’s loyal cadre of officials, what implications this may have on the stability of the transition and how instability might affect North Korea's relation with its neighbors and with Washington.

This evening, Asia Society will answer some of these questions at the discussion panel event, “North Korea's Political Transition and Implications for Engagement,” featuring Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth, formerly the United States’ Special Representative for North Korea Policy, and Charles K. Armstrong, Asia Society Associate Fellow and Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. They will discuss North Korea's political transition, U.S. engagement, and the threat posed by the country's nuclear program. (Please note: The event is now sold-out but will also be available live via a free video webcast on at 6:30 pm ET. Online viewers are encouraged to submit questions to before or during the webcast.)

Armstrong is a frequent commentator in the U.S. and international media on Korean, East Asian, and Asian-American affairs. A specialist in the modern history of Korea and East Asia, he has published several books on contemporary Korea, including The Koreas (Routledge, 2007), The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Cornell, 2003), Korea at the Center: Dynamics of Regionalism in Northeast Asia (M.E. Sharpe, 2006), and Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (Routledge, second edition 2006), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. His current book projects include a study of North Korean foreign relations in the Cold War era and a history of modern East Asia.

Armstrong recently spoke with Asia Blog via email, helping to demystify some of the questions surrounding a North Korea in transition.

Upon learning of Kim Jong Il's death you pointed out that it was difficult to know what type of leader Kim Jong Un would be. Has anything happened over the past month to change your view? In particular, how damaging are Kim Jong Nam's remarks about his half brother — that he is simply a figurehead and that North Korea is highly unstable at the moment?

It's hard to take Kim Jong Nam's statements very seriously, as he has been away from North Korea for some time and is not part of the inner circle of leadership. There is no indication so far of any instability in North Korea; on the contrary, the successions appears to be going smoothly. We still don't know how much control Kim Jong Un really has or what kind of leader he will be, but he appears to be rapidly consolidating his hold on power.

Charles Armstrong
Charles Armstrong

What do you think North Korea will do about Kim Jong Nam?

Obviously Kim Jong Nam's statements are an embarrassment to the regime and they would prefer that he keep quiet, but there's not much Pyongyang can do as long as he remains outside North Korea.

What benefit to the North Korean government was there to keep Kim Jong Un so shrouded from the public? How does the current transition compare with the one from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il in 1994?

Kim Jong Il was apparently chosen to succeed his father around 1974, so he had 20 years to prepare for power by the time Kim Il Sung died. I don't think Kim Jong Un was so much deliberately hidden, as chosen quite late so that his public rise didn't begin until 2009, after Kim Jong Il's health became an issue. Therefore the current transition is going much faster, but then the regime has the experience of doing this before.

How might North Korea's persistent problems — the Korean Peninsula, conflicts between its nuclear ambitions and its reliance on foreign aid — destabilize North Korea during this time of transition? What are the possible scenarios that could arise as the new leadership grapples with these issues?

There's a lot of talk about "instability" with regard to North Korea but I really don't see it. The nuclear issue has become stuck, no longer an imminent crisis but not close to being resolved either. Similarly, the economic situation is grim but reasonably stable, not good but not a catastrophic famine. But there are a number of things that could happen that could have unpredictable consequences. One is a renewed crisis over North Korea's nuclear program, triggered perhaps by another North Korean nuclear or missile test, that leads to a clash with the U.S. Another is an escalating conflict with the South, such as the one we saw in November 2010 with the North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. That time the crisis was contained, but it could have escalated to a much more serious clash. A third possibility is if North Korea really open up and tries to reform its economy, it could lead to social unrest and political instability despite the regime's efforts to control the process.

It seems that if there are any constants in North Korea's foreign policy, they are unpredictability, opacity and brinkmanship. How might this continue to be North Korea's doctrine and how might it change? Can North Korea afford to continue isolating itself?

It's hard to imagine a country in the 21st century, especially one that claims to want to be "powerful and prosperous," remaining as isolated as North Korea is now. It would be better for all of us, especially the people of North Korea, if their current Western-educated leader took the country on a new path of modernization and reform. Of course the regime is extremely cautious about opening up, but even the most isolated of regimes can change — as we've just seen in Burma.

You have said that it is in China's best interest to keep north Korea stable. How can China help North Korea do so?

China certainly seems to believe that, although others may argue that in reality North Korea is more of a problem than an asset. China is by far North Korea's greatest economic benefactor and trade partner, and the most vocal supporter of the dynastic succession. The Chinese seem to think that their economic and political support will help keep the regime in place and deter the possible economic, political and even military consequences of instability in neighboring North Korea. So far the strategy appears to be working.

When you were in North Korea last summer you said that you were surprised by the number of people who had mobile phones and who were allowed to listen to foreign broadcasts. Why do you think Kim Jong Il allowed for a seeming "loosening" of control?

It's not so much an official loosening as an inability to control the population as tightly as before, due to changes in technology and resource restraints. For instance, listening to foreign broadcasts is still forbidden, but the authorities no longer enforce the ban as strictly as they once did. Over time this control will continue to erode. It's not possible to make advances in information technology, as North Korea has often said it wants to do, if people are not allowed access to the internet. And even if cell phones cannot contact the outside world, just the fact that North Koreans are able to communicate with each other in such numbers — there may be over one million cell phone users now — can have important social effects. Trying to balance political control and technological modernization creates a difficult dilemma for North Korea, and it will be interesting to see how this develops going forward.

About the Author

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Rebecca is a reporter for Asia Blog. She is also currently a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.