Charisma vs. the Power Grid: Calculating Priorities and Hallucinations in Kim Jong-un’s Speech

By | January 03, 2013 | No Comments

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un delivering New Year's addresses.  Resemblance intended.  Charisma transferred.  Leadership secured.

Kim Jong-un (L, 2013) and Kim Il-sung (R, 1994)  delivering New Year’s addresses. Gardener employed, resemblance intended; charisma transferred, leadership secured. Picture via NK Leadership Watch

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On January 23, 1961, Kim Il-sung made his famous statement to a meeting of organizers in Pyongyang that “If we reach a point in which we can eat rice and meat soup, wear fine clothes and live in tile-roofed houses, that is paradise.”  For men like Kim Jong-un who are seeking to frame the jarring dislocations of the North Korean future in the most orthodox possible terms, Kim Il-song’s statement on the primacy of living standards over ideology appears to be a godsend.  

The legacy of the first two Kims in power, however, is always more complicated, and the men more protean, than the present has a use for. What everyone forgets is that Kim Il-song went on to make another promise in the same famous speech: There would be rabbits raised in every rural household, and rabbit-skin coats provided for every child in the DPRK. It was an absolute dream, without basis in reality; a hallucination that only a man presiding over a planned economy could make. Kim Jong-il inherited this rabbit-skin economy, and he also inherited the DPRK founder’s hostility at what Kim Il-song (again in January 1961) called “rogues who…try to restore the feudal landlord and capitalist systems in our country and drive the whole nation into imperialist slavery.”  Is the future one of meat soup that can be chewed and tasted, or is it a fantasy of rabbits and phantasm landlords that will never be seen?  There are giant obstacles confronting any leader approaching the task of economic reform in North Korea — and chief among them is the tendency toward unbridled fantasy. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Charisma vs. the Power Grid: Calculating Priorities and Hallucinations in Kim Jong-un’s Speech

by Roger Cavazos and Adam Cathcart

While English-language media have dissected Kim Jong-un’s January 1 speech using multiple views (we recommend Jang Jin-sung’s parsing of the verbiage), the Chinese media has been more sanguine and even credulous.  On January 2, the Huanqiu Shibao appeared to suggest for the first time that, in the eyes of the North Korean people, Kim Jong-un’s obsession with high-tech military power might have some economic application,  harkening back to the days of Kim Il-song.  This essay takes the Chinese analysis as a point of departure and aims to steer attention toward some of the relatively neglected semi-technocratic issues which Kim Jong-un raised in his speech.

Kim Jong-un’s return to delivering the New Year’s speech was in keeping with the finest traditions of what the scholars Heonik Kwon and Chung Byung-ho  call  “routinizing charisma.”  (See North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, a remarkable contemporary Weberian text.) In other words, the most important part of the speech was that Kim Jong-un delivered it.  He’s secure in his position and by appearing on television reaffirmed that every part of the land upon which airwaves alight is political territory.  Along with his solo appearances surrounding the missile launch, the very fact of the speech was intended to suggest that Kim Jong-un is in control and calling signals so that North Koreans can follow along with his vision. But to go another layer deeper, what technocratic skill sets are needed to transform this vision? Without the necessary skills or resources, to indulge in parsing of Kim Jong-un’s words alone would be tantamount to indulging in a Songun-induced hallucination.

Kim Jong-un conspicuously unaccompanied in a meeting with North Korean rocketeers, December 2012 | Image via KCTV, edited by Adam Cathcart

Kim Jong-un conspicuously unaccompanied in a meeting with North Korean rocketeers, December 2012 | Image via KCTV, edited by Adam Cathcart

Overtures Spoken and Unspoken  |  Kim Jong-un made some welcome overtures toward South Korea, but these were nothing new.  What he truly offered was an appeal to South Koreans to open their wallets.  While it was certainly better than some of the tremendously colorful yet very confrontational language North Korea has been using (Lee Myung-bak as “a corpse” worthy of being ground into vittles for North Korea’s population of state-fed German shepherds),  it amounts to the same tired formula:  If South Korea would simply give up being South Korea, then there would be no fight and the whole Peninsula would be united – under DPRK.

This, it goes without saying, is a wild fantasy.

That being said, while neither the US nor China has taken it on as official policy, it probably is time for South and North to hold direct talks.  This idea also reminds us how quickly all the talk about a DPRK-dependent China can evaporate in the event that North Korea can remain autonomous and get what it wants from non-Chinese parties, a relatively large amount of borderland infrastructure and a Chinese lease on North Korean territory until 2062 notwithstanding. The DPRK makes it clear they feel like both China and the US are getting in the way, i.e. frustrating the path to reunification.

Something to keep in mind

Something to keep in mind

Remaining verbally unconfrontational, Kim Jong-un took the Chinese approach of using mostly innocuous euphemisms for countries:  alluding to China, the United States likely Russia and other countries obliquely by saying all Koreans should “reject any moves for domination, intervention, aggression and war by outside forces.” He also saves a special place for the United States when he refers to “moves of the imperialists to interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign states.”  However, these are greatly softened from the normally bombastic and caustic rhetoric.  The overture is about as public as can be expected from someone in his late 20s surrounded by folks who make Machiavelli and the Pazzi family look like upstanding, genteel citizens.  The overture should meet with some low-cost, reversible, good-faith reply.

Kim Jong-un never raised atomic weapons in his speech because he didn’t have to.  The country belongs to Kim Il-sung.  The bomb belongs to Kim Jong-il.  The missile – now, that’s Kim Jong-un’s claim to fame in perpetuity.  He knows his bargaining hand is now strengthened, although a missile even with a miniaturized warhead actually accords little real military value.

Building an economic giant |  Perhaps a quick recollection of Kim Jong-un’s “Disney moment” is apropos: As the Moranbong Band strings can attest, North Korea’s theme song really should be “I did it my way,” and they make sure everyone knows it. In the January 1 speech, the specific words are, “The road of Juche is the only path for our Party and people…”  There will be no stones in any river North Korea crosses, or at least that is what they will tell everyone.  It also means that any changes North Korea makes will have to be couched in Juche terms which is exactly what he does a few short paragraphs later.

The Moranbong Band, Kim Jong-un's handpicked symbols, wear military uniforms while promoting a high-tech leap forward | Image via KCTV

The Moranbong Band, Kim Jong-un’s handpicked symbols, wear military uniforms while promoting a high-tech leap forward | Image via KCTV

The (new) Juche path should lead to “building of an economic giant is the most important task that comes to the fore in the present stage of building a thriving socialist country.” The verbiage sounds new especially when laying out the specific industries to target.  However, there is no mention of economic reform a la Deng Xiaoping.  Recalling that Kim Jong-un was frequently evoked during the 2009 “speed campaigns,” it appears that some modified call for a “Great Leap Forward”-style mobilization of mass labor under Kim Jong-un will probably commence.  How could this end but badly for the majority of DPRK citizens? If the leadership misplays its cards or continues to use hunger as a weapon of fragmentation and demoralization for its would-be domestic enemies, the possibility remains for  more mass starvation peaking over the next 2-4 years.

But what if this leap forward is actually to occur? What technocratic skillsets and programs will be required?  And what new opportunities for engaging the DPRK to enable North Korea to develop these new skillsets with “Juche-characteristics”?

Present Condition of Springboard | In order to develop the national electric grid to function as a springboard, we must first examine its present state.  That Google’s Eric Schmidt is soon to visit DPRK is an indicator North Korea wants to give impressions of seriousness.  North Korea’s going to need to manage and catalog their information in order to develop a fact-based approach and successfully build themselves into an industrial giant.  At the minimum, inviting Schmidt buys DPRK some precious time and goodwill on the international stage.

There are few solid figures for the exact state of North Korea’s electricity grid as it exists right now, but the best are available via the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. Nautilus did some serious number-crunching and data aggregation on the relevant question.  Peter Hayes and David Von Hippel (both PhDs) compiled the Foundations of Energy Security for the DPRK: 1990-2009 Energy Balances, Engagement Options, and Future Paths for Energy and Economic Redevelopment, wherein is provided as in-depth a look at the North Korean grid as one can find.

The North Korean power grid is basically broken and a patchwork of local, not even regional grids:

DPRK energy grid as of 1990.  We expect some things have degraded since then. Via Nautilus Institute, p 64

DPRK energy grid as of 1990. We expect some things have degraded since then. Via Nautilus Institute, p 64.

 This are the best available figures for DPRK electricity demand.  We can expect industrial demand to increase greatly if vision is to escape hallucination.  If the rail lines are also increased, we can expect transport demand to go up, especially as the DPRK tries to move mountains of minerals to its ports.  Efficiency can do a great deal, but even halving residential/public/commercial demand only frees up around twelve percent.  Will the military be asked to go without?

Electrical engineers can help grown and maintain the grid.  Hydrologic engineers can increase the number and productivity of the hydropower.  They will also be handy in reclaiming many of the tidal flatlands and demonstrate mastery of  the elements as a source of regime legitimacy.

Pity the agricultural sector that still has to make quota.  And pity those who will have to survive on what the agricultural sector can eke out of mountainous slopes and a meager supply of electrons.  Many will  not survive and it will get worse before it gets better.

The DPRK industrial sector already had a higher demand than the military and transport sectors in 2009. Expect residential use to get squeezed even more. Via Nautilus Institute P. 174

The DPRK industrial sector already had a higher demand than the military and transport sectors in 2009. Expect residential use to get squeezed even more. Via Nautilus Institute, p. 174

Sustainable (non-nuclear) Energy Profile for a DPRK Industrial Giant | If North Korea wants to become an industrial giant they’re going to need something on the order of 1+ Petajoules a year. (Haggard and Noland’s dictum: never trust a number with a decimal point in North Korea).  The only times in the past three decades they’ve been able to pull that off were when the Soviets still supplied them with fuel and materiel. Based on a mixture of energy efficiency (using less energy input per unit of output) and energy creation (making more units of energy) there are ways for North Korea to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Herein lie many opportunities for the international community to engage with North Korea to set the conditions required to do those things – without resorting to nuclear energy sources.

Sample energy usage of a sustainable North Korea development.  Via Nautilus Institute. P 243

Sample energy usage of a sustainable North Korea development. Via Nautilus Institute, p. 243

How, exactly, is North Korea going to pay for all this development?

North Korean Alchemy: Ground to gold |  North Korea sits upon a tremendous wealth of minerals.  Digging the ground and finding gold is their clear plan.  However, mineral extraction is tremendously power intensive which is why they have to develop the grid first.  Having a CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) lathe doesn’t do any good if there’s no electricity to run it.  And instead of a lathe, minerals are going to require some seriously heavy equipment made by US, Australian, Chinese, Russian and Swiss companies, as is discussed around the 20-minute mark in a Huffington Post Live Roundtable.  Scott Bruce covers the matter in great detail when he asks whether North Korea sits upon a prosperous fundament or is engaging in an expedient sell  off.

North Korea is going to need plenty of project managers to oversee the numerous projects.  They will also need a whole new generation of mining engineers to ensure safe working conditions for the miners.  A bevvy of geologists can help find the richest veins.  There is also a place for labor rights and even a (very remote) possibility for unions.

However, China may be less than thrilled to see their near monopoly on rare earth metals challenged by their sometimes prickly neighbor.

DPRK mineral deposits

Conclusion | Everyone reading this is fortunate enough to be in position to witness  – but not be directly affected by – the tremendous shear forces developing within North Korea as youthful drive and gerontocratic institutions collide.  How North Korea retains power while resolving the contradictions of a split peninsula where one people have taken two very different paths with two widely divergent results will require ingenuity and lots of brute force.

Even though Kim Jong-un inherited a rather robust missile and rocket program many years in the making, there is no magic path between the moribund economy that Kim Jong-il drove into the ground for the past seventeen years and the economy that Kim Jong-un wants to create.  Kim Jong-un laid out his vision for transforming his father’s economy, but it’s going to take whole new skillsets beyond invoking Stakhanovite exhortations to prevent delusions of development.

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  1. Bravo! If SinoNK ever pens a book on this subject, let us call it Delusions of Development.

  2. Not “Arrested Development”? In any case, thanks for the comment and the manuscript idea!

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