Understanding the Dictator

Kim Jong-un is often characterized as a spoiled buffoon. But could the North Korean leader be as cunning as he is ruthless?
photo illustration of north Korean dictator Kim Jong-un
“We have this fuzzy image of North Korea as kind of crazy and a little unstable—the leader, he might go berserk, start a war,” says Sung-Yoon Lee. But “they are very rational and calculating, very crafty.” Photo illustration: Cristiana Couceiro
April 5, 2017

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Kim Jong-un, the 32-year-old supreme leader of North Korea, is well known for his love of a good time—partying with the former NBA star Dennis Rodman and spending more than half a billion dollars one year on alcohol, cars, wristwatches and the like. But it’s not all fun and games with Kim.

The world’s youngest head of state is also famous for controlling a nuclear arsenal, imprisoning and executing his perceived enemies (including his uncle) while much of the rest of the population starves, and menacing South Korea and Japan with the regular testing of missiles presumably capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The nation his grandfather founded nearly seven decades ago is largely isolated from the global community, yet Kim has managed to command the world’s attention.

North Korea was the subject of international sanctions long before its successful test-detonation, in January 2016, of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb. After that, the United States levied far heavier sanctions against the country, and established harsh new penalties for anyone maintaining business ties to its nuclear, defense, precious metals or raw materials industries, or assisting with its money laundering, counterfeiting or cyberwarfare operations.

But can any of this really get North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons and adhere to international standards of human rights? And what’s really motivating Kim? Is he the madman he’s been made out to be, or is the story more complex? To find out, we spoke with Sung-Yoon Lee, F94, F98, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at the Fletcher School, who advised U.S. legislators on North Korea policy during the three years leading up to the adoption of the most recent sanctions.

Tufts Now: The world has imposed sanctions on North Korea before—the U.S. and the United Nations each have their own set. What’s different about the new ones by the U.S.?

Sung-Yoon Lee: They finally bring U.S. sanctions up to the level of those against many other countries. Previously, U.S. sanctions against North Korea were very weak both in kind and degree. The U.S. has been sanctioning North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and we have this perception that there’s nothing more we can do. That is simply not true.

“The state is using hunger, food, as a weapon. North Koreans born after the ’90s, people now in their 20s, are significantly shorter than South Koreans: 10 inches, on average,” said Sung-Yoon Lee. Photo: Alonso NicholsTo give you some examples: The number of North Korean designations—individuals and agencies and entities designated for sanctions by the U.S.—is about 100 now. Until last year it was about 70. The number of Iranian designations approaches 1,000. So just in terms of the sheer numbers, North Korea sanctions are weak.

More importantly, the types of sanctions against North Korea have been, so far, quite weak. A 2014 U.N. study found that North Korea’s crimes against humanity and extreme human rights violations “have no parallel in the contemporary world.” They’re the worst. Yet, until this new legislation, there was not a single human rights-related sanction provision vis-à-vis North Korea, whereas the U.S. has sanctioned Syria, Iran and many countries in Africa for human rights violations.

Most people today take the view that tough financial sanctions are what brought Iran back to the negotiating table [leading to a deal on its nuclear program]. So, if those financial measures work, if they actually enhance U.S. leverage and get your target to at least return to serious talks, why not apply them against North Korea?

How are the U.N. and U.S. sanctions different?

The related U.N. Security Council sanctions are very tough. We’ve had six U.N. resolutions since 2006, and each has been tougher than the previous one. In 2006, the U.N. came out with a ban on so-called luxury goods. Each nation is supposed to come up with a definition and list of luxury goods that they will ban from selling to North Korea. Only 50 or so out of some 200 U.N. member states have done that.

The U.S. has, and the number one item on the U.S. list of luxury goods is luxury automobiles, cars like Mercedes-Benz. The North Korean regime gives out fancy cars to powerful people as perks. In the past, Mercedes-Benz and all these fancy car makers have blatantly violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

International corporations are greedy, and multinational companies, they are not shy from doing business with the world’s worst dictators. Now per the latest U.N. Security Council resolution, as well as the U.S. unilateral sanctions legislation, any car manufacturer that knowingly does business with North Korea will be penalized, and that is a strong disincentive.

It sounds like the sanctions are working.

Well, these U.N. Security Council resolutions and legislation from individual nations—these are somewhat like New Year’s resolutions. At first the will is very strong, and there’s even full compliance. But after a while, the will dissipates. Noncompliance sets in. So it’s very important to not settle for political expediency, not settle for North Korea’s gestures of goodwill. Sustained financial pressure is the key in my view. Also sustained human rights campaigning.

How did you develop your interest in North Korea?

I’m a South Korean citizen. I was born in Seoul, but spent many years abroad. My father worked for the South Korean foreign ministry, so growing up in the ’70s, it was a privilege for a boy from a very poor country to travel outside South Korea, to learn English at a young age. I took no interest in North Korea until I was well beyond the mature years that I should have. I did not study North Korea at the Fletcher School. Instead I studied international history, cultural history, political philosophy. I was interested in Confucianism.

Then, in the late ’90s, I started to read about concentration camps in North Korea. The level of repression in them is probably the worst in the world. Yet very few people know about it. And the prisoners are my brothers and sisters of the same ethnic stock, and I didn’t know enough about this.

So that got me to study as much as I could on the issue. I came to take the view that the nature of the regime, the human rights violations, really lies at the core of the nuclear threat and North Korea’s foreign policy. The regime, unlike China in the ’80s or even Vietnam in the mid-’80s, cannot really afford to open up, because North Korea is really weak, except for military power. The conventional indices of measuring state power, economic power, soft power, the size of your country, territory, population, whatever—North Korea does not fare very well, except in the field of military power.

Which, of course, has motivated the saber rattling that has led to the sanctions. So with all of these sanctions, how does North Korea keep its economy afloat?

The North Korean state is the only country that we know of that counterfeits U.S. currency as a matter of state policy. They’ve been at it since the ’70s. They are the best counterfeiters in the world. North Korea is also the only country that produces drugs: heroin, methamphetamine.

The state operates like a giant criminal syndicate. Fake famous-brand cigarettes are probably its most lucrative source of hard currency. Its “Marlboros” have been found in at least 13 states across the U.S. They use Southeast Asian criminal organizations to move these things all over the world.

Because of its dependence on money laundering, selling of drugs, counterfeit U.S. dollars, fake cigarettes, etc., the North Korean regime in my view is very vulnerable to targeted financial sanctions. The vast majority of international transactions are conducted in U.S. dollars. That gives the U.S. tremendous financial leverage. Most countries of the world, and most corporations, would rather do business with the U.S. than with North Korea.

What are the sanctions trying to achieve?

The legislation spells out its goal: the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. I think very few people believe that’s really feasible. But if North Korea even freezes its nuclear program or dismantles one or two, that’s not insignificant. There are also, for the first time ever, human rights provisions in this legislation.

If North Korea takes sincere action, makes some progress on denuclearization or freezing its nuclear weapons program or freeing political prisoners, then some sanctions will be suspended for a year. The U.S. won’t completely lift these measures until North Korea becomes, as the legislation puts it, an “open, transparent, peaceful society.”

Can the sanctions work with someone as apparently bizarre as Kim Jong-un in charge?

Kim Jong-un is, indeed, weird. We have this fuzzy image of North Korea as kind of crazy and a little unstable—the leader, he might go berserk, start a war. That kind of image, while I completely understand the sentiment, is a misreading of North Korea. In their own perverse way, they are very rational and calculating, very crafty, and have gotten a lot on the diplomatic stage.

By my rough estimation, North Korea over the past quarter-century has reaped from the world’s biggest, most powerful, richest countries—the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea—about $20 billion worth of goodies: cash, food, fuel, medicine, all kinds of things. All for what? For repeated lies, pledges of denuclearization. If you are unstable and crazy, you can’t do that. You have to be pretty smart to be able to do that.

They do strange things, irritating things, even blowing up a South Korean navy ship in 2010. But these are always controlled provocations, lethal at times, but small-scale. There’s never been any kind of military retaliation, because South Korea and the U.S. don’t want to escalate. There’s never been any kind of real biting sanction until this year.

Among the “strange things” Kim has done since taking power after his father’s death in 2011 is ordering the execution of officials he considered a threat to his power.

When Kim killed off his uncle in December 2013, I was not surprised. Being the number two man in a system like that is dangerous. Your life is often short and precarious. You would have tremendous influence and your nephew would listen to you, of course, but after he comes into his own, feels confident, you become the biggest potential threat to the young man.

And if I were Kim’s father—Kim Jong-il—on my deathbed, one major point that I would have driven into my inexperienced, perhaps incompetent, son is, If your uncle steps beyond his boundaries, steps over the line, do it. Dramatically. Make a point. Kill him off. Because that’s what totalitarian states do. And Kim Jong-un has, according to the South Korean Intelligence Service, killed off more than 70 very high-ranking people.

To me that’s more business as usual. It’s how such regimes operate. People said he was perverse. He was crazy. But if you imagine North Korea more as a criminal syndicate—and we’ve all watched The Godfather or The Sopranos—killing your brother even, you know? It’s not personal, it’s business.

Under Kim Jong-un, we have seen provocations, like missile tests, at a far more accelerated rate. In the past four years, we have had two nuclear tests, three long-range missile tests, and an intense border crackdown that has led to a 50 percent drop in the number of North Koreans escaping to the south. Kim Jong-un has proven to be violent, cruel, belligerent. He needs to make a point of his toughness, you know? Externally as well as internally.

How was Kim raised?

Along with his older brother, he spent at least two years at a private school in Switzerland. They lived there under a pseudonym, but with body guards, with chauffeurs, people who posed as parents. He definitely saw the broader world out there. Therefore many people prognosticated when he took over that maybe Kim Jong-un would be a reformer like the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who had studied in France as a young man.

I thought at the time that was a very shallow analysis, because, you know, if exposure to European cosmopolitanism were a cure for totalitarian ways, one wonders how that kind of transformative experience was lost completely on the likes of Pol Pot in Cambodia or Assad in Syria, who both studied in Europe.

I think the more pertinent circumstances would be the nature of the North Korean state, the cult of personality, how the North Korean state needs to keep its people in the dark and be repressive. Why? Because it faces a far more successful, richer, freer Korean state across the border.

Kim was also obsessed with basketball as a young man, right? In fact, he had Dennis Rodman visit North Korea several times in 2013 and 2014. Rodman calls Kim Jong-un a “friend for life.” What do you think of Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy”?

Actually, I’m all for Dennis Rodman visiting North Korea, because whenever he goes there’s a media circus that follows. Along with the silly reporting, there is also a lot of serious reporting that would not have happened if not for Mr. Rodman—on serious subjects, like the hunger, the human rights violations, the political prisoner concentration camps. Awareness on North Korea is raised whenever Rodman goes, so I’m grateful to Mr. Rodman.

Speaking of serious subjects, China, which is North Korea’s main ally and accounts for about 90 percent of its trade, has violated international sanctions in the past. Will China change its ways with these new sanctions?

It remains to be seen.  In my view, the way to get China on board and really pressure North Korea is not through moral suasion. The way to get China on board is to give the Chinese an economic disincentive. Penalize Chinese companies, individuals, banks, corporations that continue to do business with North Korea. The new sanctions legislation not only allows for that, but makes it mandatory.

North Korea is notorious for a preventable famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Is hunger still an issue in the country?

The state is using hunger, food, as a weapon. North Koreans born after the ’90s, people now in their 20s, are significantly shorter than South Koreans: 10 inches, on average. North Korea lowered the height requirement for male soldiers to 4 foot 10. You have an entire generation of stunted North Koreans. They starve to death by the dozens or hundreds now, rather than by the thousands or millions, but most people in the country still don’t have enough to eat.

You mentioned earlier that issues of human rights are addressed in the new North Korea sanctions, which would presumably include hunger in the country. You advised members of the House and Senate who worked on the sanctions legislation. Are you happy with the results?

Yes. And let me emphasize, the new legislation is in no way radical or unfair. It’s actually weaker than U.S. sanctions against Iran. But it is very comprehensive and well thought out. Much care has gone into doing what’s best not to hurt the North Korean people. There are many exemption waivers, including allowing for the continued delivery of humanitarian aid—food, medicine, clothing. I think the odds are that sustained financial pressure, choking off some streams of revenue for the regime, will instill doubt and fear. The diminished ability to pay off your generals and high-ranking people: I think that is the most effective way of pressuring the North Korean regime.

Sanctions are not a silver bullet. They will not cure everything. But sanctions are the most powerful component of a comprehensive policy vis-à-vis North Korea.

Given that sanctions are not a silver bullet, what other strategies should we be pursuing?

You’ve got to have diplomacy, of course. You’ve got to have conventional military deterrence as well. And you’ve got to also give the North Korean regime a way out. If the regime is so squeezed financially that it fears collapse or an uprising—we’re nowhere near that stage at the moment—I think it makes sense to give the Kim regime a way out, an exit, so that war does not become acceptable to the regime.

What exit strategy would you be willing to offer?

The least dangerous, least disagreeable scenario will be for the regime to collapse. And that carries certain risks, of course. Will the regime go down quietly like the Soviet Union, or will it go for a last hurrah? You never know. I think we want to make them feel the pressure, paint them into a corner, and then give them an exit. Not everyone sees it that way, because some people will say the Kim family is responsible for all sorts of crimes against humanity and we have to punish Kim Jong-un. We have to have him stand trial at the Hague. I understand those views, but that carries a much bigger risk of war.

If Kim Jong-un wants to go live in Hawaii, if the U.S. would accept him, or live somewhere in China, I could accept that. It took me a while to come to take that view, because I’m no fan of the Kim regime. But that kind of political compromise, if it leads to the liberation from bondage of millions of North Koreans, I think I can live with that.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stepheson@tufts.edu.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Fletcher Magazine.

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