Will North Korea Attempt a China-Style Opening?

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Probably not under Kim Jong Un, but a Deng Xiaoping-style reformer could be around the corner

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gestures to several generals / Reuters

Not too long ago, a communist despot dominating a closed, nuclear-armed country died. His death caused an outpouring of grief within his society, where his cult of personality was all-encompassing. This despot was replaced by his handpicked successor, who had little experience and was unknown to the outside world. The successor was acclaimed by the people and the party and rapidly assumed all of the top positions and titles.

I'm not referring to recent events in North Korea. The despot in question was Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. The similarities between then and now, China and North Korea, are striking.

On September 9, 1976, the closing of an era came when Mao, who had ruled China since the 1949 revolution he led, succumbed to various illnesses. Mao had always resisted naming a successor for fear of being overshadowed while still alive. Candidates who did emerge such as Liu Shaoqi or Lin Biao met with grisly ends. Future paramount leader Deng Xiaoping spent four years exiled in remote Jiangxi Province as Mao constantly vacillated between the need for competent leadership after his death and his desire to keep down anyone who might outshine him.

Mao's solution came in the form of Hua Guofeng, a regional nabob from Hunan Province. Hua had neither international experience nor a power base in Beijing and posed no threat. After all, he would be completely reliant on Mao for his legitimacy. In 1973, Hua was hastily elevated to the Politburo and only became firmly established as Mao's successor mere months before the leader's death. Sound familiar?

The aura of Mao protected Hua's position for a few years. As party discipline required, Hua was acclaimed as leader and showered with praise and titles. Owing everything to Mao, Hua confidently proclaimed his "Two Whatevers" policy: "We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave." But the ground rapidly shifted beneath his feet as other Chinese leaders realized the colossal scale of Mao's failures. Despite retaining many of his titles, Hua was muscled out of real power by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and died in obscurity as China celebrated the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Deng would go on to usher in China's storied economic opening and transform the country.

Is Kim Jong-un the next Hua Guofeng? If so, could a North Korean Deng Xiaoping and subsequent reform be just around the corner?

The new Kim suffers from the same drawbacks that doomed Hua. He has no independent power base. His military support is not deep. And, unlike Hua, who was at least a competent party official before his elevation, Kim Jong-un has no political experience to speak of. Unless North Korea's generals have bought into the infallibility of the Kim brand, it is nothing short of fantastical to assume that this pudgy neophyte will be able to navigate the treacherous straits of Communist Party politics. The vigorous affirmations of the army, their pledges of loyalty, and the rush to titles are a sham and belie the fundamental weakness of Kim Jong Eun's true power position. Hua Guofeng had titles too. He was the only person in the history of the People's Republic to hold simultaneously the top three posts of party chairman, premier and chairman of the Central Military Commission. The experience of Hua should be instructive: titles matter only as much as the institutions they represent. In a nation like North Korea today or China in 1976 where institutions are immature, don't expect an ambitious general to show deference to any leader on the basis of titles alone.

Of course, Kim will remain physically unharmed throughout his undoing. Like Hua, his position as "the chosen one" will insulate him from the worst of Stalinist purging. Indeed, his bodily safety is especially critical since (in full Louis XIV fashion) he is the state. The cult of personality that envelopes him has inexorably fused the fate of the Kim family with that of North Korea. There could never be any form of public Khrushchev-style renunciation as it would undermine the very raison d'être of the state itself.

However, the absence of public friction should not lead us to believe that serious disagreements do not exist in private. If the Chinese model is any guide, the question of reforms has most likely been simmering for years, waiting for an opening like the one provided by Kim Jong-il's death.

A North Korean opening in the near future is probable for two reasons. First, it can be done. When Deng initiated his reforms in 1978, he was grasping in the dark. It wasn't known how market economics would affect the communist monopoly on power. In 2012, the verdict of history seems clear. China's three decades of economic growth and relative political stability have embarrassed more than a few Western Cassandras. If North Korea were to engage in a Chinese-style opening, it would have the entire Chinese experience as a road map, as well as an eager mentor and trading partner.

Second, Chinese pressure for an opening has increased powerfully in the last few years and likely will intensify with the new leadership. In his twilight, Kim Jong-il took numerous trips to China, and he wasn't just visiting the Great Wall. He was there to see the fruits of China's economic miracle. Beijing would stand to gain the most from a North Korean economic opening. Access to markets, cheap labor and investment opportunities are all tantalizingly within grasp just beyond the Yalu River. China would also benefit from the stability of having its neighbor not perennially on the brink of bankruptcy and famine.

Who could play the role of Deng? The most obvious candidates are those dubbed by The Economist "the troika of regents." They are Kim Jong Eun's aunt Kim Kyong-hui, her husband Jang Song-taek, and Army Chief of Staff General Ri Yong-ho. Their conspicuous presence behind the new king attests to their potential role in shaping the future. But there is room for skepticism.

At the time of Hua Guofeng's elevation to the top job, Deng Xiaoping had been stripped of all leadership posts within the party and had come within a hair's breadth of being expelled. Hua too had "guides," such as Marshal Ye Jianying and Wang Dongxing, Maoists who helped him solidify his position. Though Deng had previously been in positions of prominence, few could have predicted his Phoenix-like return to power in 1977. In assessing North Korea's future, we should be mindful of how little we know. If there is a North Korean reformer waiting in the wings, he may still be invisible to us now, like Deng was in 1976.

North Korea isn't likely to collapse anytime soon. Too many actors, foreign and domestic, have vested interests in preventing that. Nor will North Korea face an internal rebellion such as those presently convulsing the Middle East. North Korea's communication and transport systems are too primitive for effective mass mobilization. Democratic reform will also remain an "End of History" liberal pipe dream. The Chinese economic model should serve as abundant evidence that economic reform and political reform do not necessarily go hand in hand. Yet despite these factors, which would seem to favor stagnancy, change could be afoot. If history does indeed repeat itself, North Korea could be moving toward a new era.

This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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