Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 13

By Gordon G. Chang

Chinese leaders are not as lucky as their North Korean cousins. Beijing’s cadres govern a population that is increasingly mobile, aware, and demanding–and that thinks for itself. The Communist Party’s shameful coverup of the SARS epidemic ended when Chinese doctors told all they knew to foreign media and the World Health Organization. Peasants and workers take to the streets tens of thousands of times a year to voice grievances of every stripe. Ordinary citizens mouth off in Internet chat rooms and surf the Web. Tourists travel the world–and across China itself.

There is a new openness in that country that is the result of many factors. Of most importance, the government stopped much of its meddling in both the workplace and the home after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. Scholars can debate whether the country is a totalitarian state or merely an authoritarian one, but it is beyond doubt that the central government no longer exercises the instruments of control to the degree it did earlier. How could it do so in a society of greater sophistication?

Moreover, the nation’s economy, as it moves away from state control, lessens the dependence of citizens on the government. Even many Communist Party cadres are less beholden to Beijing as their work units are forced to become economically self-sufficient. The central government is losing “state capacity” as it relies ever more on nongovernmental organizations–many of them foreign–to provide essential social services. And as the economy becomes, in the words of the Financial Times, “critically reliant” on foreign trade and investment, foreigners are flooding the country. The Chinese government is being subverted, not only by dissidents and revolutionaries but also by the relentless forces of modernization.

When Chinese are unhappy with their lot, they complain, march, and, as we have seen in the last few years, force change. When North Koreans are unhappy, however, they have no avenues for dissent inside their country. They have little choice but to flee into China. Kim Jong-il does not like his subjects escaping to the Middle Kingdom, but the steady stream of refugees acts like a safety valve for the North Korean government. There could now be as many as 300,000 Koreans who illegally make their home in China (but in a Chinese state that is losing control, we don’t know how many there really are).

If too many North Koreans left for Chinese territory, the Pyongyang regime would fall. Beijing, however, sends refugees back to the North to support its partner in communism. In weakness there is strength. Both China, which is tied to the North by history and ideology, and South Korea, which is tied to it by blood, are particularly worried about what a collapsing regime would mean for them.

Indeed, Kim is fortunate that his three neighbors–Russia, in addition to China and South Korea–all want to see him remain in power. Beijing may be his main benefactor, but many nations keep the flow of funds and food to the North. Aid is essential for Pyongyang. “Marxist economies require constant inputs,” says someone who should know, Dennis K. Hays of The Cuban American National Foundation. Hays believes that America’s embargo on Cuba denies Fidel Castro the resources he needs to strengthen the regime in Havana. Kim, another minder of a failing economy, also needs foreign assistance to keep his government going.

As long as Great Leader Kim can continue to attract aid and avoid mass starvation, he can maintain power for himself–and maybe even pass on his position to his son. For the time being, there is just one group that he must keep happy. “What sets North Korea apart is that it has only one constituency that really matters–the army,” writes Reuters. “Military-first politics” assures the Kim family’s grip over the country. Kim Jong-il is said to have personally picked 1,000 of the North’s 1,200 generals.

And Kim makes sure that the army has first call on Pyongyang’s meager resources. Without giving details, North Korea announced in March of this year that it would devote 15.4 percent of this year’s budget to strengthening the military, up from 14.9 percent last year. The increase in defense spending was in excess of the expected jump in government revenue of 13.6 percent.

Yet the government is not able to provide all that its military needs. The army’s readiness is declining because of decreased training–and because of shortages of both supplies and food. The world may talk about the North’s nuclear weapons program, but we fear the army’s artillery, which can destroy the South Korean capital of Seoul. Yet extremely few of Kim Jong-il’s artillery men are proficient. “There are simply no spare parts to train,” says a former senior North Korean military officer. “The North’s troops look too pathetic to be frightening,” says an aid worker. Morale is low in the lower echelons of the army, reports a recent defector, former army officer Paek Jong-su. The increasing flow of defectors from the officer ranks is a warning sign: In a militarized society in which the armed forces have the first call on resources, the appearance of dissatisfied officers must mean that shortages are serious.

Pathetic or not, discontented soldiers are dangerous to the Kim family. There may have been as many as five coup attempts in the last decade. “It may look strong but inside it’s much weaker than Iraq,” says Lim Young-sam, referring to the North Korean regime. Lim fled Pyongyang and claims to have participated in one of those attempts, called the September 24 incident, which occurred in 1991. The best known coup attempt is one that took place in 1995 in North Hamgyong, a northeast province. It may have been just “a squabble among thieves.” The army’s sixth corps did not want to turn over the proceeds of criminal activities, such as opium dealing, to the leaders of the country. Nonetheless, any disagreement within the military is critically important to Kim Jong-il.

A hungry North Korea is a potentially unstable nation. Did Great Leader Kim manufacture the ongoing nuclear crisis to maintain himself in power? “By keeping the level of hostility high, he can focus the attention of his officer corps on this outside threat rather than the fact that he’s destroying the country,” says Ivan Oelrich, referring to Kim Jong-il.

That tactic can work for a while, and during this period the regime will be strong. Yet Kim’s geopolitical antics provide only short term relief. “It’s clear that to survive it is necessary to change,” says Georgy Toloraya, a Russian expert on North Korea and a deputy director in the Russian Foreign Ministry. And as we have seen since last July, reform can be botched. Botched reform might lead to a new government.

“No totalitarian regime has been able to survive the changes that North Korea has to make,” said a U.S. Army officer to Reuters. So there is trouble ahead for Kim Jong-il. Yet it also means trouble ahead for China’s one party state. Beijing, at one point in its history, was roughly in the same position that Pyongyang is today. Although the Chinese Communist Party has managed to maintain economic growth since Mao’s demise, it is by no means out of the woods.

China’s communist leaders, to save themselves, chose both reform and opening up, but for them that was a mistake. To understand why, we need a little historical perspective. Mao Zedong created an abnormal society. But he was at least enough of a realist to surround his new republic with high and strong walls so that it could survive almost indefinitely on the inside. His successors have sought to create a more modern nation, but they have not changed the Maoist system, where the Communist Party dictates and the people are supposed to follow. Yet at the same time China’s new leaders have successively opened the country. As they do so, all the forces that apply around the world–economic, political, and social–will begin to apply in China as well. At some point in this process this centrally-directed system must fall. It’s as if Mao tried to abolish the law of gravity by decree in his republic. As the country is opened up by his successors, gravity will have to apply in China.

It is too late for Beijing to turn back the clock and close the doors to the outside world–the nation’s semi-reformed society has to cope with the challenges of membership in the World Trade Organization. Accession to the global trading body will result in significant change, and because of the failure to reform quickly in the preceding half decade, that change will be shock therapy for the nation. An economy that is wheezing now and will soon run out of gas will simply not be able to handle the onslaught of foreign competitors. And that means the current regime will not be able to survive the forces of modernization that are remaking Chinese society today.

Will Kim Jong-il choose the Chinese model for his North Korea? Beijing’s leaders have done their best to school the North Koreans in the fine art of reform. But Kim rejects what his communist cousins tell him. Pundits wonder why he is so resistant to “good” advice, but it’s not hard to see why.

The Kim family has retained power by refusing to reform or open up their regimented system. Now that the son is beginning to remake the economy, he has seen the trouble that could lie ahead. The younger Kim, however, has time before reform threatens his rule. Moreover, he will probably not opt for throwing open the doors to his country. “Kim Jong-il knows very well he cannot open up, he cannot change a little bit,” says Norbert Vollertsen, the relief worker. “If he opens up, then the whole regime, the dynasty, will collapse.”

That’s a point that Beijing has missed. Regimes are most vulnerable when they try to modernize, and now China is entering its most dangerous period. All Kim has to do is look across the border into China to see what happens when leaders find themselves too far down the path of change. Kim may be short of almost everything needed to continue his rule, but he still has plenty of the world’s most valuable commodity. Chinese leaders, on the other hand, have everything they need except that one commodity, which is time.

Kim Jong-il may lead a country that is dark, dormant, dire, and desperate, but Washington should not count him out anytime soon. He may not know much about how to run an economy and even less about reforming it, but he’s an expert in maintaining power. Chinese leaders, everyone’s darling reformers, look like they have found the formula for eternal rule, but they are really headed for a tumble soon. History, paradoxically, is simply not kind to authoritarians when they try to change.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.