For some reason naïve Westerners expect that every new dictator who takes over just about anywhere in the world will be a closest liberal and a reformer and an all around good guy. Remember in the early 1980s how Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief, was supposedly a jazz-loving Americanophile? Or more recently how Bashar Assad was going to be a breath of fresh air in Syria? Or how Hassan Rouhani would liberalize Iran?
Such expectations have been brutally dashed time and again, and nowhere more so than in North Korea where the ascension of Kim Jong Un, following the death of his father Kim Il-Jong in 2011, was supposed to usher in Chinese-style reforms. For a refresher on such hopes, check out this Time article from 2012, headlined, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing to be North Korea’s Economic Reformer?”
Turns out that Kim Jong Un, far from being a closet liberal, is cast in precisely the same Stalinist mode as his father and grandfather—only perhaps more so. In 2013 Kim Jong Un had his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, who was one of the most powerful officials in the regime, arrested and executed. Now, South Korean intelligence is reporting that Gen. Hyong Yong-chol, minister of the People’s Armed Forces, was executed with an anti-aircraft gun (imagine the mechanics of that) for showing “disrespect” to the new Dear Leader. “Mr. Kim deemed General Hyon disloyal after he dozed off during military events and second-guessed Mr. Kim’s orders,” South Korean intelligence claims.
That’s a pretty severe response for getting a little shuteye. In reality, one assumes, Gen. Hyon was executed for the same reason as Jong Sung-taek—because they were viewed as being potential threats to Kim Jong Un’s absolute power. Young Kim is especially paranoid about the power of the army and determined to make it utterly subservient to his will. But that Kim Jong Un is dealing with potential challengers not by sacking them or even by arresting them but by executing them shows how ruthless and determined he is to consolidate power.
He apparently chooses particularly gruesome execution techniques to make a point—other senior officials have reportedly been killed not just by anti-aircraft guns but by mortars and flame throwers if media accounts are to be believed although it’s unlikely that Jang Song-thaek was torn apart by wild dogs. The good old firing squad has apparently lost its shock value.
Kim is also, predictably, going full speed ahead with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. In fact just recently Kim was pictured smiling broadly over the launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine — the kind of reaction normal people exhibit upon the birth of a baby.
Oh and of course there is no sign of any real economic reforms. Kim’s major economic initiatives are to build ski resorts and water parks where he and other regime insiders can cavort while the ordinary people of his country live in near-starvation conditions.
Bottom line: Don’t expect a princeling like Kim Jong Un or Bashar Assad to transform the system that brought him to absolute power. Occasionally real reformers do rise to the top of dictatorial systems—e.g. Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev. When that happens the West must be prepared to engage. But such instances are rare. The West should stop getting seduced by faux-reformers. Sadly the only way that regimes such as those in Syria or North Korea are likely to change is if they collapse. Our policy focus should be on hastening regime change rather than trying to extend a lifeline to such cruel and capricious rulers.