North Korea: What’s next is off the plan

All states prepare for national emergencies. North Korea is no different. National emergency response planning is universal. State authorities know that one day, sooner or later, a high-impact event will occur. They know that it could potentially have a major impact upon the population, affecting their way of life, their beliefs and their opinion regarding the legitimacy of state authority. Accordingly, state authorities plan and prepare to rapidly respond to and recover from such events.

On December 17, 2011, North Korea experienced such an event. When Kim Jong-Il died it was not unexpected. Genetics and political precedent suggested that at 69 he could have continued to lead North Korea for a substantial period. Kim Il-Sung ruled until the age of 82. Yet since early 2007, reports made it increasingly clear that ill health would not allow this.

During the October 2007 South-North Korean Summit, the South Korean media observed that Kim Jong-Il was "senile and weak", "old and haggard" and "tilted toward the right". Information on Kim Jong-Il's health was both scant and unreliable, but it was a recurring feature of media reports on North Korea. Inevitably it would also have been a major feature in North Korean state planning. It can be expected that North Korean planners spent a substantial amount of time to prepare the response to Kim Jong-Il's death. They were planning for a national emergency.

A standard national emergency response plan consists of four stages: prevention and mitigation; pre-event preparedness; immediate response; and recovery and consolidation. These four interdependent and sometimes concurrent stages of emergency management are universal. While risk-based management processes are adapted to particular national circumstances and specific emergencies, the four stages still underpin the planning structure.

A comparison of how economically advanced states plan for national emergencies and North Korea's planning for the death of Kim Jong-Il provides useful insight. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the United States in August 2005, serves as an unlikely, but useful comparison. It indicates that, contrary to mainstream expectations, we are only now entering a period of heightened uncertainty.

For New Orleans it was expected that sooner or later a high-impact event would occur. Papers and reports had long debated the effectiveness of levees against a high-impact event. Prevention and mitigation in the face of budget constraints and unforeseeable consequence can only do so much. Authorities strengthened and storm-proofed infrastructure; educated the public in civil-defense drills; and continued to monitor tidal and weather activity.

Similarly, for North Korea it must have been accepted that sooner or later, Kim Jong-Il would die. Prevention and mitigation in an authoritarian regime can only do so much. There is no way to prevent death just as there is no way to prevent hurricanes. The authorities followed basic steps - strengthening the regime's support base, educating the public to accept the next leader, and monitoring, restricting and weakening potential rivals.

Preparedness is a more daunting task. In New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina approached this included public communication (warnings), infrastructure preparation (sandbagging and flood gates) and in certain circumstances, enforcement of emergency laws (evacuation).

In North Korea, preparedness would conceivably have been more difficult. Few individuals are willing to prepare for authoritarian transition until they are certain that it will actually occur. In the early hours of March 1, 1953, when Stalin had a heart attack, nobody was brave enough even to enter his room until 10pm. He died four days later, but those around him continued to swing between praise and denouncement, as he opened and closed his eyes.

Despite comparable unwillingness, we know that preparedness had haltingly increased toward the end of Kim Jong-Il's life. Public communication (propaganda highlighting continuity) and infrastructure preparation (increased restrictions on movement) were thought to be in place.

Immediate response is no less daunting. As Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, the authorities implemented plans to undertake rapid assessments and deploy necessary search and rescue services. Plans called for coordination of federal and international resources and ongoing engagement with the public to assure an adequate response was underway. These plans floundered as the scale and the impossibility of implementing them became increasingly evident.

It soon became clear that authorities had failed the public. Communities were left stranded and civil misbehavior, before then unimagined in the United States, was detailed in media reports. Yet, even as all this occurred, in the interests of restoring stability, communities were largely willing to place their faith in the existing structures. There was no uncertainty and surprises.

In North Korea, the immediate response plan was implemented successfully. Well-choreographed scenes of national mourning segued into equally well-choreographed scenes of thankfulness, admiration and respect for the successor. There was no uncertainty and no surprises.

However, it is the final stage of recovery and consolidation that is the most significant. The United States reaction to Hurricane Katrina highlights this point. With the national emergency receding in the minds of all but those still directly affected, wriggle space opened up for blame and recriminations. Reassessments of the plan were inevitable and ongoing weaknesses become evident.

Reviews implemented sweeping changes to how local, state and federal authorities interact. Responsibilities for preparation and immediate response were realigned. Centers of power changed within federal bureaucracies, such as the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Certain politicians benefited from their criticism of authorities and others were blamed for their ineptitude.

In the final stages of the national emergency response plan, it can be expected that a period of relative instability occurs as the emergency ends and recovery and consolidation plans are reassessed. Recovery and consolidation in North Korea are now underway. Is wriggle space opening up for blame and recriminations? Are new centers of bureaucratic power being established? Have other centers of power been weakened or strengthened?

It is at this point, when this comparison highlights an important finding. With the death of Kim Jong-Il, a plethora of pundits came out to announce that there was a risk of instability. It was thought that change could immediately bring out fractures in the North Korea's regime. In fact, we are only now entering a period of potential instability.

The outside world knows nothing of North Korea. This has been aptly demonstrated by the torrent of guesswork regarding the "mysterious woman" appearing beside Kim Jong-eun who was later revealed as his wife; putative expert insights into changes in the military leadership; and the continual reminder that the closest we can get to the current supposed leader's age is "20-something".

But the outside world does know about national emergency response planning. We know that North Korea took steps to prevent and mitigate the national emergency it knew was coming. We know that North Korea took steps to prepare for the national emergency. We know that the implementation of the immediate response plan was well executed and proceeded smoothly.

There are already pundits wagging tails over the potential for meaningful economic reform. It is with great trepidation that one should assume anything with North Korea. But we do know that North Korea should be entering the final stages of its national emergency response plan. Whatever comes next is unlikely to have the same depth of planning. Here lies the risk.

CC photo by (stephan)

"North Korea: What’s next is off the plan", Asia Times, 21 September 2012