Even by the standards of North Korea, the execution of Jang Song-thaek – uncle of the dictator Kim Jong-un and a senior member of the gang that rules this unfathomable nation – was extreme. Given a brief show trial, Jang was dragged out and machine-gunned, his demise accompanied by rhetoric in which he was described as “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog”.
North Korea is the world’s last Stalinist state, and this episode confirms that its Swiss-educated ruler (and basketball fan) is not living up to early Western hopes that he might introduce even a modestly humane and progressive agenda. Jang, it is reported, wanted North Korea to follow the model of reform that has been pursued in China over the past three decades to that country’s great economic advantage. Clearly such an approach is not going to happen in North Korea, and the people of this benighted land will carry on living in abject poverty, menaced by outbreaks of mass starvation and cannibalism. Vicious political repression is the norm. Thousands of North Koreans endure appalling privations in gulags. George W Bush may have been excoriated for coining the term, but North Korea deserves a place on anyone’s “axis of evil”.
But for how long? Longer than many in the West care to suppose. Chinese diplomats tell Westerners that their influence over North Korea is sadly exaggerated, and that they too find the Democratic People’s Republic a bit of a handful. They still, however, prefer the status quo to the prospect of an American-aligned united Korea, which would have US troops within easy reach of a Chinese border. This reluctance on the part of Beijing to lean harder on its wayward neighbour is certainly part of the problem. They may privately worry about the bombastic threats, the nuclear tests and the strikes at South Korea, but in the end China does not seem inclined to exercise much moderating influence on Kim.
Even if the Chinese did try to exercise their influence, the regime is stubborn enough to ignore them, and there is one good reason why it can do so. For the biggest single fact about North Korea’s “politics” – and an extremely uncomfortable reality for Western observers and critics of the regime – is that the Kim family is astonishingly popular. When Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather died, their subjects (there is no better term for them in this hereditary dictatorship) shed real tears and felt a personal sense of loss. They genuinely believe that American “imperialist dogs” are conspiring to destroy them, and that their country is the greatest in the world.
That is not to justify the regime, but merely to point out one obvious reason why it has not so far fallen. Its population, even more so than those in the old Soviet bloc or in Cuba, is much more sheltered from foreign influence and the possibilities of a better life. A few DVDs smuggled in from China is about the extent of North Koreans’ window on the outside world. A North Korea-only version of the web is the limit of the internet’s reach.
The world seems fated to have to live with this awkward, unpredictable and cruel rogue regime for a while longer. And it awaits Kim’s next move with interest, not to say trepidation.