Kim's grip on power weakening?

Every few months, the American media gets excited about reports coming out of totalitarian systems that the Dear Leader in question faces an unprecedented challenge to its power.  Last summer’s demonstrations against Ali Khameini and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were closer to the real deal, but generally speaking, those reports ignore the difficulty of overthrowing an entrenched tyrrany — as we saw in Iran in 2009.  This time, the Washington Post reports that Kim Jong-Il may be losing his grip on power, thanks to a massive famine that has left thousands dead in the streets:

There is mounting evidence that Kim Jong Il is losing the propaganda war inside North Korea, with more than half the population now listening to foreign news, grass-roots cynicism undercutting state myths and discontent rising even among elites.

A survey of refugees has found that “everyday forms of resistance” in the North are taking root as large swaths of the population believe that pervasive corruption, rising inequity and chronic food shortages are the fault of the government in Pyongyang — and not of the United States, South Korea or other foreign forces. The report will be released this week by the East-West Center, a research group established by Congress.

The report comes amid unconfirmed accounts from inside North Korea of a rising number of starvation deaths caused by a bad harvest and bungled currency reform that disrupted food markets, caused runaway inflation and triggered widespread citizen unrest. …

This mix of deadly food shortages, bureaucratic bumbling and rising cynicism presents a potentially destabilizing threat to Kim’s government. It comes at a delicate time, when the ailing 68-year-old leader has launched a secretive process to hand power over to his untested 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Eun.

This conclusion is based in part on a survey taken of North Koreans who fled the country.  While the survey does show some interesting changes in attitudes, the survey has two basic problems.  First, its sample is a self-selected group of dissidents, and second, it doesn’t include the people who are actually living in the DPRK.

Undoubtedly, discontent rises in crises, especially famines.  The Kim regime’s entire raison d’etre is to provide for all of its subjects, after all, which is why Kim has a tight grip on his Stalinist government.  If it can’t deliver, it loses credibility, and blaming the US will only go so far, even in a closed, paranoid state like the DPRK.

However, we have been here before, and more than once.  The massive famines in the 1990s didn’t produce any appreciable resistance from the starving masses.  Kim himself was in better health then, and now has to execute a tricky maneuver to put his son in power when the military leadership may have other ideas.  Any instability in a Stalinist regime is good news, but there is nothing that shows that this crisis has put the DPRK closer to regime change.

In fact, this could be better viewed as a warning.  If the regime really does feel threatened, it’s possible that it will look for a distraction — such as a war — to release some of the pressure on Kim.

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