In the Korea Times (20 May 2010), veteran North Korea–watcher Andrei Lankov asks, What’s going on in Pyongyang.
In recent years the North Korean government has begun to do strange things. In the past, the actions of the regime frequently hurt the populace, but the rulers have been very careful in guarding their own interests. This is not the case anymore.
Let’s start with the Cheonan affair. Obviously the operation was revenge aimed at massaging the ego of aging admirals who were hurt by the recent defeats in previous naval clashes. However, revenge is a purely emotional category and as such it should have no place in a truly Machiavellian mind.
From a broader perspective, the affair will greatly diminish Pyongyang’s chances to receive more aid from both South Korea and the U.S. This will make them even more dependent on China, and this is not what Pyongyang rulers want.
Another potentially self-damaging action was their attempt to assassinate Hang Jang-yop, a former top ideologue of the regime who defected to the South in 1997. Upon his arrival in Seoul, Hwang was not very prominent.
The old man in his 80s has largely been a figurehead, presiding over some defectors’ groups, but, frankly, lacking both charisma and practical influence. It did not help that he frequently insisted that juche (self-reliance) ideology is basically a good idea, to be restored to its initial glory.
Hwang is very different from such opposition leaders as, say, Aung San Suu Ky of present-day Burma or Lech Walesa of communist-era Poland. However, had he been killed, he would have become a martyr, a symbol of the resistance movement.
The North Korean diplomacy of the last two years is full of mistakes and miscalculations. They began in late 2008 when North Korea decided to employ the two-stage tactics which it used for decades.
In the first stage, Pyongyang creates a crisis and drives tensions high, while in the next stage it extracts concessions for its willingness to restore the status quo. This time, however, the usual (and well-rehearsed) play was performed badly.
In spring 2009 North Korea launched a long-range missile and tested a nuclear device, while driving the rhetoric bellicosity to unprecedented heights.
However, those excessive efforts backfired. Prior to 2009, a considerable part of the U.S. diplomatic establishment still believed that there would be some ways to bribe and press North Korea into denuclearizing itself.
By now everybody in Washington, D.C., has come to understand that it is not going to happen (they should have realized this much earlier). For North Koreans, this is bad news….
The list of mistakes can easily get longer. But why did the quality decision-making in Pyongyang deteriorate so suddenly and to such an extent?
The most likely explanation seems to be related to the nature of the North Korean state, a personal dictatorship run by one individual who has to approve all major decisions. Dictators tend to micro-manage, and this tendency seems to be very pronounced in the case of Kim Jong-il.
One should notice that the first unusual signs emerged in late 2008 when Kim suffered from a serious illness, in all probability, a stroke. Strokes do not sharpen one’s mental capacity, so it is quite possible that his ability to analyze and judge has been damaged.
It is also possible that now Kim simply has to work much shorter hours, unable to sort out all the important details.
At any rate, Pyongyang is becoming less calculating, less rational and less Machiavellian than it used to be. And this is not good news.