Kim is dead, long live Kim

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am

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Kim Jong-il was clearly an accomplished character. A photograph I once saw displayed in the North Korean trade mission in Vientiane showed him planting his country's flag on the summit of Everest.

It wasn't that he was the first head of state to conquer the world's highest mountain that impressed me so much as that he appeared to have done it without all the oxygen bottles, cold weather gear and other specialist kit favoured by lesser mountaineers.

Instead, the picture showed him posing atop the 8,848-metre peak, dressed in one of his signature zip-front suits, nonchalantly holding a lit cigarette in one hand, while he flourished North Korea's red-starred flag with the other.

However, it wasn't Kim's unprecedented climbing feats that astonished most analysts, nor his supernatural birth, nor even his miraculous 11 successive holes-in-one in a single round of golf.

No, what really impressed the Pyongyang-gazers was what former United States Central Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Klinger yesterday described as Kim's 'absolute control' over North Korea's ruling party and its vast military machine. Despite a series of disastrous economic contractions and a calamitous famine said to have killed at least 3 per cent of the population, Kim not only maintained but actually strengthened his grip on North Korea's levers of power.

As an aside, Kim is said to have been obsessed with George Orwell's 1984, taking the book not as a satire of life in 1940s Britain as Orwell intended, but as a serious 'how-to' manual for totalitarian dictators.

The concern now is that this absolute control over North Korea's power structure died along with Kim last Saturday. Yesterday's 3.4 per cent fall in South Korea's stock market, and the 1.1 per cent drop in the South Korean currency, reflect market fears that Kim's anointed successor, his third son Kim Jong-un, is ill-prepared for the job, and lacks his father's established power base and hard-headed attitude to governing.

That bothers North Korea's neighbours, because no matter how much they loathe and fear the pariah regime in Pyongyang, they all want it to survive.

The reason is simple: no one wants to pick up the economic bill if the North Korean government collapses. Seoul can't. Tokyo won't. And Beijing fears it may have no choice. All three have a stake in Kim Jong-un's survival in power.

South Korea simply can't afford to pay for re-unification. The cost of German re-unification in the 1990s has been estimated at US$1 trillion over 10 years. But even that huge amount understates the true price, given that the German government is still planning to spend US$200 billion over the next eight years to bring the East's infrastructure up towards the standard of the West.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that the euro-zone crisis is the consequence of German re-unification. The deflationary effect on the German economy of re-absorbing the East kept euro interest rates far too low for the currency's southern European members, leading to excessive borrowing and the current debt crisis. For South Korea, the costs would be far heavier. North Korea is not only much more populous compared with the South than East Germany was with the West. Its people are also far poorer than the relatively prosperous East Germans.

Economic output per head in East Germany was about a quarter of the West's level. In North Korea, it is just 4 per cent of the South's output. North Korea has fewer than 1 per cent of the number of mobile phone users, 1 per cent of the mileage of paved roads, but seven times the rate of infant mortality.

As a result, re-unification following a collapse of the Pyongyang regime would be ruinously expensive for South Korea.

Japan could possibly help, but with net government debt equal to 130 per cent of gross domestic product, Tokyo would be extremely reluctant to shoulder any additional fiscal costs by helping to support a post-collapse North Korea.

And with China's economy slowing, Beijing trembles at the thought of millions of hungry North Korean refugees streaming across the Yalu River into Jilin and Liaoning provinces.

All three of North Korea's main Asian neighbours are therefore desperate to see the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un consolidate power and prosper politically as his father's successor.

Kim is dead. Long live Kim.