April 14, 2016


The Future of the North Korean Regime: A Conversation with James Church and Jennifer Lind : 38 North recently talked with author James Church, and Jennifer Lind (Assistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College) about the future of North Korea.   (38 North, 4/06/16)

38 North: We've seen a great deal of North Korean bellicosity--missile tests, nuclear tests, and of course the Cheonan sinking. Can we make any inferences from these events about the domestic political strength of the Kim regime?

Church: Nothing that would make much sense, as far as I'm concerned. Interesting question, though, to the extent it gets things off on the wrong foot. Why is a North Korean missile test defined as "bellicosity" while one by other countries is not? Maybe the reaction to some North Korean actions tells us something about the domestic politics in, oh I don't know, say South Korea. 

Lind: True, the same actions that someone might call "bellicosity" might be seen by more sympathetic eyes as the desperate, defensive acts of a threatened state. Although a deliberate torpedoing of another country's warship, if that's indeed what happened, is clearly bellicose behavior.

When North Korea engages in these "provocations" or whatever you want to call them, North Korea analysts lately have been saying that they are intended for a domestic audience. I think this perspective is a useful contribution--people who study international security tend to highlight external, strategic motivations (such as signaling toward the ROK or the U.S.). North Korea analysts remind us that jingoistic nationalism is part of North Korea's identity and is one of the regime's tools for staying in power.

At the same time, I think people speak more confidently than their actual evidence would permit--when I hear commentators assert that "Kim did this because of succession," or "this is an act to placate the military," I wonder what this argument is based on--aside from a guess. 

Church: There is usually an explanation de jour, and analysts flock to it like small birds zeroing in on breadcrumbs scattered by an old woman from a bench in Hyde Park. These days it is "succession." A few months ago, everything was pinned on the currency redenomination.  [...]

38 North: People have speculated that the successor will be Kim's third son Kim Jong Un or perhaps Jang Song Taek as a sort of regent. How should observers feel about this? Will the personality of the successor play an important role in shaping Pyongyang's policies? 

Lind: Of course it will have some effect--everyone thinks the personality of the ruler has important effects on a country's foreign policy. The only ones who don't seem to think it matters are political scientists! - at least, judging from the literature. Because it's hard to theorize about individuals, scholars regrettably tend to neglect the influence of individual leaders.

In this particular case we don't know much about these men, and even if we did, it's hard to make reliable predictions about how they will behave. As I've written before, however, what we should do is always keep the regime's own interests in mind when we think about which foreign policies Pyongyang is likely to adopt. 

Church: "Observers" should relax and drink a beer. Over-analysis based on thin air is the bane of my existence. I think that's exactly what Professor Lind said earlier, but with more finesse than I can muster at the moment.

Lind: After the "birds in Hyde Park" gloriousness, I think you're far ahead in the finesse department. I'm just trying not to use words like "dependent variable."

Church: Please don't. It scares the horses. 

Posted by at April 14, 2016 6:27 PM