Various explanations have been put forward to account for North Korea’s decision to launch another rocket: perhaps it is an attempt to calm internal strife; a way of manipulating the upcoming presidential elections in South Korea; or even, a statement aimed at the international community. Yet one significant explanation has been overlooked. For those of us who once worked for the DPRK regime, we feel such grand motives are not the main impetus for this decision. Instead, what looms larger than life is the North Korean leadership’s nervous state of mind.
It appears what the DPRK wants to achieve through this rocket launch is re-enactment. Whether it is for the North Koreans or for the outside world, it wishes for the Kim Jong-un regime to be recognised an extension of the Kim Jong-il regime. No other scheme could affect this as well as another rocket launch.
For North Koreans specifically, such a re-enactment serves as a forceful reminder that the systematic status quo (authority-by-fear) will continue. In terms of the outside world, and this includes South Korea, the message offered is “business as usual”. In effect, it is a demand that the DPRK be treated with the same ‘respect’ as it had under Kim Jong-il’s rule. North Korea has decided on this rocket launch not based on methodical goal-setting, but to keep itself in the public eye. Moreover, it is most likely that the decision was made not by Kim Jong-un but by the associates of late Kim Jong-il.
Ri Young-ho, Chief of Staff of the Korean People’s Army, was recently purged. Although some suggest that this happened at Kim Jong-un’s instigation, such a view lacks contextual sense. How could Kim Jong-un have had time to reconfigure an old and monolithic structure, being only in his 20s? Kim Jong-un is the avatar of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The men who surround him now are Kim Jong-il’s associates. The reason why North Korea did not disintegrate in 1994 with the death of Kim Il-sung was because he was by then a mere figurehead; real power, every ounce of it, had already been concentrated under Kim Jong-il’s authority.
There is a saying that power cannot be shared among fathers and sons. Those figures who surround Kim Jong-un today are the ones who managed to shove Kim Il-sung and his men out of the way in order to construct a new pyramid of power under Kim Jong-il. In other words, they are political veterans. Moreover, they are decades-old survivors of a brutal and secret world of backstabbing. They continue in the belief that a reconfiguration of the power pyramid, in whatever shape or form, threatens each one of their positions.
These figures, more than anyone else, know how to control Kim Jong-un. In the way that Kim Il-sung was forcibly confined in his last years to conducting on-site inspections and making public appearances when needed, Kim Jong-il’s men have the power to relegate Kim Jong-un to a part of Kim Il-sung history. They knew very well that Kim Jong-il’s distinctive collection of powers had quickly to find new ownership through regents such as Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek.
We can never set foot in the same river twice. Although it may appear on the surface that the Kim dictatorship is repeating itself for a third time, each Kim has come to rule in a different world. The decision for this rocket launch, however, has been made by those who want to forever gaze up at Kim Jong-il’s sky.