One should never take something complicated – like a nation-state of 24.9 million – and reduce its fate to a single personality. Caesar may be fat, incestuous, and even downright evil, but that does not mean the Empire will fall (and there are plenty of cases where bad leaders still led good states).
That being said, a leader can be emblematic of the health of a state. And in North Korea, the supreme leader’s sudden disappearance from the public stage is one of those things that nobody should be all that shocked by.
We’re all a product of a time and place, and those of us who grow up spoiled also tend to grow up stupid, indolent, or both
You know these people. You went to school with them. They should have had everything sorted for them, but they have gone and ruined everything by being such stupid fucking brats that you wish you could take them to a room and yell at them for hours. But what’s the human process by which those overindulged kids of wealth and power end up being so crap? And how does it factor into geopolitics?
Say hello to Abu Zeid Ibn Khaldun, one of those past intellectual badasses the Islamic State will never produce
Ibn Khaldun noticed something in the Islamic Empire; the dynasties kept falling to outsiders after relatively predictable amounts of time after relatively predictable behaviors. Perhaps there was a pattern? In his work on assabiyah, or social cohesion, Ibn Khaldun noticed that dynasties go through phases of rise, complacency, and then fall, based upon generations behaving as they should from their time and place of birth. The cycle goes like this:
- Legendary god-king emerges from nowhere and overthrows some corrupt regime, heralding a grand golden era of whatever
- He dies, as men do, and his son takes over determined to preserve what God-Dad accomplished, but not bringing much new stuff into the mix for fear of changing too much
- The son dies, and the grandson takes over, never knowing the hardship of grandpa’s obscurity and used to having things handed to him; a spoiled shit, he runs the dynasty into the ground until…
- A new god-king comes from the shadows outside of the dynasty to overthrow the spoiled little shit and start the process anew
It boils down to how generations behave in response to the generation before them, since we all end up rebelling in ways that make sense to us
For the founder of the dynasty, what matters most is perfecting his hard-won gains. He grew up in a time where innovation, courage, and action brought great reward, and those traits characterize him throughout his life. Those traits also characterize his government, which came to power with him, and so the most talented generals, soldiers, and officials of the regime are around his age. They are all pragmatic because they remember the bad old days, and they do their damnedest to make sure sonny boy, the next great leader, knows that to deviate too far from their ways will result in destruction.
And sonny boy tends to listen. He’s not an innovator but an imitator; if it was good enough for Dad, it’s good enough for everyone else. Using the residuals of Dad’s advisors to keep the state in shape, and recruiting like-minded peers who worship the past and hold onto tradition far better than they actually create anything, he keeps the state together and stable. Nobody thinks of challenging him because he’s just carrying on Dad’s good work. He doesn’t see the need to compromise much; the book is already written and everyone can read it, so why bother discussing anything?
Then comes his useless son. Always aware he’ll take absolute power and growing up safe and secure with none of the nagging insecurities that plagued his dad about being good enough, he lacks the ability and ignores talent. For him, power is his by birthright, and he tends to exercise it by whim rather than reason. As a palace brat, he purges those who don’t worship him, which unfortunately costs him his best advisors. As for Grandpa’s stories about life in the wilderness, well, Grandpa’s dead, isn’t he? To make his mark, he embarks on irrational schemes that go against the rules set up by Grandpa and codified by Dad. His advisors are as dumb as he is; all the traits of his Grandpa’s generation are shunned, hated, and even criminal. The best and brightest go underground and wait for opportunity. When something goes wrong, his enemies close ranks to overthrow him.
Now apply all that to Kim Jong Un and his rather terrible reign, even by North Korean standards
Kim Il Sung led North Korea from its creation to his death in 1994. During that time, he played by the rules of the Cold War, avoided a second Korean War, followed orders from Moscow, and even cleverly started up a nuclear program to buy security for his state. One of his last acts was to make a deal with the West to end the program in ’94 until a sudden heart attack killed him.
Remembering the hard days of being out of power, Kim Il Sung played by the hard limits of the world around him and ruthlessly purged North Korea of enemies, copying Stalin’s playbook to the letter. He succeeded and died still in charge.
Kim Jong Il was not about to the rock the boat too much. He learned that his father’s brinkmanship had earned North Korea some blackmail cash. He perfected this system, breaking promise after promise and keeping North Korea afloat despite his disastrous attempts to reform North Korea’s economy. Still supported by dad’s remaining advisors, Kim Jong Il might have seemed mad, but played just hard enough ball to keep the regime alive when the odds were not in its favor.
When he died, it can be assumed common sense in the dynasty went with him. Kim Jong Un has accomplished little in his time besides having bizarre photos ops and gaining weight. He has failed to have the skill of his father when it comes to brinkmanship, instead succeeding in cutting the country off even further from the rest of the world, while being forced to resort to absolute terrorism to cow his people by apparently butchering his uncle in the most wretched way possible. It all reeks of a spoiled prince unable to keep pace with the demands of the state; having ignored his tutors for years, knowing they could do nothing to him, the prince now finds he doesn’t know how to do anything.
And under him is no doubt the same rot throughout the state
The original leaders that built North Korea are dead or dying throughout society. Those who are left are the men of Kim Jong Il’s age, capable of preserving but not innovating. That preservation has left North Korea further and further behind. Those of Kim Jong Un’s generation are deeply ignorant of how to do much beyond survive; it wouldn’t be shocking to find a vast education gap among officials of his age group if ever an honest skills assessment could be taken. All of this follows the dynastic patterns laid out by Ibn Khaldun; the first generation of leaders has passed on, the second generation of preservers is dying off, and the third generation of brats and incompetents are now spoiling their gains.
So unrest is coming to North Korea, if it hasn’t already
There are some big factors against North Korea, the first of which that it agrees it shouldn’t exist. Both Koreas seek unity but disagree about the system they’ll be under. A wobble in North Korea is far more likely than in South Korea, where politics might get ugly at times, but the basic functions of the state can still perform. North Korea increasingly can’t pay its bills, has few blackmail cards left, and has lost its best and most united generation of leaders to old age. Now all it has left are man-children like Kim Jong Un, who is apparently so sick that he can’t even lead.
Some defectors are already saying North Korea is having something like a civil war, with whole appendages of the state refusing to take orders from Kim Jong Un. The system as was always implied that everyone you worked with would betray you to the Leader; should whole units suddenly close ranks against the central government, everything could come apart. Suddenly, the fear that underpinned North Korea vanishes, and it becomes every man for himself in the chaos.
Survival will boil down to China’s willingness to bail Pyongyang out
If China rides the rescue with cash, arms, troops, or all three, Kim Jong Un may yet live to see another day, and his regime, terribly run as it will be, could be propped up so long as Beijing remains patient. But with protests in Hong Kong now threatening China’s own social order, it’s entirely possible Beijing will be too overwhelmed to support its mad ally any longer. China’s debt crisis bubbles and nobody pretends that won’t have consequences. China may decide it’s better to let South Korea pay for fixing North Korea and let them take on the burden that follows a collapse. Such a decision would seem easier should China get mired in a debt crisis.
The bad times are over; let the wretched times begin
It’s been a rough ride for North Korea since 1991. But things are about to go from bad to worse. There aren’t many in the country who can now save it. The smart ones will either run or stockpile what they can while there’s still stuff to stockpile. The process may (and probably will) take years to unfold, but unfold it will. The cycle continues; now must come a new dynasty.