The journal Asia Policy has published a “book review roundtable” with essays about Jonathan Pollack’s excellent book No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, followed by a response essay from Pollack The Elder.  I contributed one of the essays, as did  Toby DaltonSue Terry, and Sung-Yoon Lee.

Both Toby and I raised a similar question about the possibility of politics in North Korea, which I thought might temper ever so slightly Pollack’s stark but ultimately compelling conclusion.  You can read the reviews, as well as Pollack’s response.

For the purposes of a blog post, I wanted to pick up on a question posed by Pollack to illustrate why politics might matter.

Then I want to share a picture of Kim Jong Un wedged into tank.

In his response to the essays, Pollack notes that “There has been very little commentary in the immediate post–Kim Jongil period on the nuclear weapons program …”

Although Pollack is primarily interested in what drives the DPRK to possess nuclear armaments, I’ve been wondering about the impact of the post-Kim Jong-il period on what’s been called “onward proliferation.”

I wrote  a short op-ed for Kydodo News on this very topic, which also came up at a meeting I attended recently.   And, while Kim Jong-il was still alive and kicking, Joshua Pollack — Jonathan’s son – considered carefully the question of why North Korea sells what it does to whom for the excellent blog, 38 North.

In the United States, politicians openly compete, often using specific policies to distinguish themselves from their opponents. A perfect example is Mitt Romney’s sudden hostility to the use of a mandate to expand access to health care.  If President Obama is for something, chances are that Republicans need to be against it.  It works the other way too, of course.  Contrast is such a good thing that candidates may actually exaggerate their degree of disagreement, despite the fact that Robert Gates could quite comfortably serve both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In North Korea, competition is not open and, as far as I can surmise, concerns competing patronage networks more than ideological groups.  This is not an unusual state of affairs.  Political parties in  the United States used to be more ideologically heterogenous, or so I am told,  especially in the machine politics that dominated urban areas.  Even today, the role of interest groups preserves some ideological heterogeneity within political parties and the political beliefs of one’s parents remain an excellent predictor of partisan affiliation.

Proliferation in North Korea, as far as I can tell, is a family affair conducted by one of these patronage networks.  This blog has taken a special interest in one Jon Byong-ho and his son-in-law (maybe) Yun Ho-jin, who Josh Pollack described as the “dynamic duo” of North Korean proliferation.  It was Jon who is alleged to have written that letter to AQ Khan.  And it is Yun who seemed to be in charge of procurement for North Korea and its clients. These two characters, along with a few others, appear responsible for many of North Korea’s more objectionable activities involving ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Jon is also a senior figure in the DPRK regime, among the ten most influential North Koreans, as far as DPRK-watchers can infer from issues of protocol, including pictures of who gets to stand with Kim Jong Un, committee memberships and laundry lists like the  funeral committee for Kim Jong Il.  North Korea’s proliferation activities are more likely structured to support Jon’s machinations in Pyongyang, not the other way around.  Whether Jon sees proliferation as a source of hard currency to buy influence or strategic technology to impress fellow hawks, or both, is difficult to say.

That makes it very difficult to imagine how the  leadership transition could affect proliferation.  At least two sources (one , two) describe Jon as an ideological conservative, especially compared to someone like Chang Song-taek. (By the way, I know my Romanization of Korean names is inconsistent and am open to suggestions about fixing that.)  Chang may emerge as a sort of regent being married, as he is, to Kim Jong-il’s sister.  But Jon, too, is reportedly cl0se to the Kim family and is a part of the so-called “1980 Group” that rose to power with Kim Jong-il.  Whether Chang and Jon will act as allies or enemies is not clear to me — and, in North Korea’s opaque system, it may not be entirely clear to them, either.    There are people who follow such things very closely who certainly will have plausible answers to such questions, but I think it is important to understand that the internal politics of an authoritarian system are almost certainly opaque to the participants, as well as the outside world.  There will be an inevitably jockeying for influence in North Korea, even if only within the context of the preservation of the Kim regime. But many will play their cards close to vest.  We should not expect to do better than the participants in handicapping the horse-race.

North Korea’s approach to proliferation, therefore, may be determined by factors that we simply cannot see and that are, to a first approximation, not “strategic” in any geopolitical sense.   We can not predict them, I suspect, based on a “rational” model that places international interests ahead of domestic ones.

It is perhaps the case that better informed North Korea watchers could do much to answer some of the questions sketched here.  They are certainly invited to do so.

***

Ok, enough of the intellectually heavy stuff.  Let’s look at a pictures of Kim Jong-un wedged into tank.

“Yo, I am stuck.  If you don’t get me out of here, I am going to open a can of juche on your asses.”

There is also, I have been told, a picture of him wedged into a fighter jet — but the images released from his only visit to a KPA Air Force Unit that I could find didn’t deliver.  There is, however, a picture of him looking at a giant fish.

“Yo, what are the rest of you guys gonna eat? Just kidding with you.  It’s all good.”