Kim Jong-un’s North Korea
The year 2011 was better than 2010 in terms of security and stability on the Korean Peninsula. We somehow avoided renewed provocations by the North that many had predicted would follow in the wake of last year’s sinking of a South Korean Navy ship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
What made the year relatively free of security trouble is not exactly known. Perhaps, it is owed to the reinforced and determined resolve of the South Korean military with the full support of the United States. Perhaps, it is owed more to international and domestic pressure that helped prevent North Korea from taking further adventures.
Before Kim Jong-il died, he was preoccupied with a compressed succession plan to turn over power to his son Jong-un. An official announcement of the succession seemed to have been planned for April 2012 on the 100th birthday of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il also had planned to declare his country as a ``strong and prosperous state” in 2012.
Ten days into the mourning period for the demised leader, the power transition to the third generation of the Kim dynasty seems to be going smoothly. The worst-case scenarios of chaotic power struggles or flare-ups of internal armed clashes that several pundits had eagerly predicted have not happened. While the anticipation of violence persists, Kim Jong-un has become the de facto leader by virtue of the traditional dynastic style of succession. The ritual transition has been completed.
As more information becomes available, Kim Jong-un appears like a new leader who is already in control of the North Korean system. Apparently, he is ready to work with his influential relatives ― his aunt Kim Kyung-hee, a four-star army general, and her husband Jang Song-thaek, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission ― and with the powerful military generals spearheaded by army chief of staff Ri Young-ho, who all support him.
The argument that the young, inexperienced Jong-un would launch another long-range missile or conduct a third nuclear test to prove his ``tough leadership” and to gain the confidence of the skeptical North Korean military, or to celebrate a ``strong and prosperous state” is merely a cerebral exercise without a good knowledge of what North Korea is all about. If such provocations occur, it would be more from an external impact than for domestic consumption. .
Under its new leadership, North Korea won’t depart radically from its current course of policy, as they are likely to follow the wishes of their predecessors in the name of ``rule of will.” The North Koreans have been very conservative and consistent to preserve their rigid system over the past half a century despite its faults and limits that they have recognized at times.
Sustainability of the North Korean system comes from Korean history, culture, and the unique traits and thoughts of the North Korean people who have long been isolated from the outside world. Deprived of religious freedom, many people still believe in traditional superstition and mythology that is exploited by state propaganda to support their leaders.
Reflexive cohesion of the elites and their effective control devices may also contribute to successive regime sustainment. However, such a coercive system alone won’t be enough without the influence of the traditional Confucian belief of loyalty to the ruler and service to the right path of a collective society instead of individual interest.
The North Korean authorities are expected next week to lay out their political and policy goals and directions through their annual ``New Year’s joint editorial,” which will probably confirm their priority on economic construction at home and their current effort to pursue negotiations for improved relations with the United States.
Kim Jong-Un has an advantage that his father and his grandfather did not have in seeking to improve relations with the South, in the sense that he is neither responsible for the Korean War nor for several acts of terrorism with which his father was accused.
In short, he can resume North-South relations with a clean slate. The question is whether the North would be interested in dealing with the South, if the Lee government does not take initiatives that are more positive.
In the wake of Kim Jong-il’s demise, the international community, including China, the United States, and South Korea, demonstrated a clear and strong consensus in support of stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula. The Lee administration, which sometimes made unnecessarily inflammatory statements in the past, has acted prudently, minimizing any pretext for the North to explode externally.
We hope that Kim Jong-un’s North Korea after the settlement of transition would be more forthcoming to cooperate with the South and the rest of the international community to make progress toward denuclearization and to improve the wellbeing of its people.
More bumps lie along the road ahead. However, if South Korea and the United States are to seek a successful conclusion to the long saga of the North Korean nuclear issue and a more stable security environment in Korea and the region underscored by the challenge of a rising China, the new generational North offers a rare opportunity to construct and carry out a more pragmatic approach.
The new North Korean leader has a unique opportunity to build on the positive record of his father’s statements or commitments to get rid of nuclear weapons and to live peacefully and cooperatively to reach national unification. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and can be reached at email@example.com.