NK kremlinology is even harder than the real thing was, but here is my guess about what is going on now, and I have been kicking this around with my PNU political science colleagues. The hyper-belligerence of the regime in the last year reflects an inner split at the top over the impending succession to Kim. (Lots of others have interpreted similarly, so this is not a great insight. But there are other possibilities, so I will plant my flag here.) We know from previous experience with communist systems that they tend to move from a stalinistic cult of personality toward ‘interest group pluralism’ within the politiburo. This happened after Stalin, Mao, and now with Kim. The interest groups in communist systems are quite a different breed of course from the NRA or AIPAC. Usually post-stalinist communist states have a balance of power among institutional-bureaucratic interests: the party (the ideologues usually bent on continuing the stand-off with the West and defending the ‘utopia’), the secret services (whatever the local version of the KGB is called, mostly focused on informally blackmailing the rest with personal secrets to insure a good budget and nice western goodies), the military (clamoring for ever more armor, artillery, and nukes, but also more realistic and less reckless about western power than the party), industry (groaning under the weight of the military’s demands, desperate to avoid the introduction of market reform, or if so, to control it for themselves), and the state bureaucracy (terrified of the secret police, cowed and browbeaten for falling to meet mythical quotas and keep the electricity on).
As these groups jockey for control of the ever-diminishing budget, the conflict can get pretty sharp, complete with purges, external belligerence, and biting ideological pronouncements. The general will is lost as no one can aggregate these parochial interests into a leadership that can serve the country as a whole. As Brezhnev declined, the Soviet ‘interest groups’ overwhelmed the state, leading to the disastrous excesses of the military-industrial complex – the roll-out of new MRBMs (the SS-20) and the invasion of Afghanistan. These short-term interests of the military undermined the whole Soviet project, as they re-galvanized NATO, turned Jimmy Carter into a hawk, and paved the way for Reagan. This is my read of current belligerence from NK. Kim is like Brezhnev, the declining central representative of the general will, slowly losing control as factional conflict rises.
Kim Jong-Il’s biggest fear today has to be his own bodily integrity. He is sick and weak, and were NK to collapse, SK conservatives would be out for blood, and he knows it. Indeed much of the regime elite (party, military, everybody) would probably suffer (deservedly) harsh treatment in post-unification courts because of man-made famine of the 1990s. The blood of somewhere between 500k and 3m North Koreans is on the hands of the Korean Workers Party, who wouldn’t even accept food aid when rural people were eating dirt and tree-bark. Capital punishment is legal in SK.
Kim is sick, so is his country. He knows this. He also knows that his third son, the newly anointed successor, doesn’t have nearly the charisma of his grandfather or the regime connections of his father. Kim Jong-Un looks like he will be a figurehead, much like Andropov and Chernyenko, in the early 80s, covered increasing factional infighting in the USSR.
Prediction: An external strike on SK or Japan is unlikely. The regime knows it will lose a war with the ROK and US, plus Japan on the side. My guess is the handoff will occur as Kim slowly expires; the son will slowly move into dad’s shoes. After his death, the real infighting will begin, but again, I don’t think it will spillover into an external strike. The regime elite is not that stupid. If we are lucky, in a few years a military coup will occur, with Kim III replaced by a general or junta along the lines of that ruling Burma. Generals would be more likely to deal and almost certainly less brutal. This is hardly ideal, but in NK, a military, rather than party, dictatorship would be progress.