Will Kim Jong-un land softly or with thud?
Analysts divided over new NK regime after death of Kim Jong-il
By Kim Young-jin
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then images of North Korea’s chosen successor Kim Jong-un last week during funeral services for his father, Kim Jong-il, may fill an entire book with uncertain premonitions regarding the Stalinist state.
Wearing a black coat buttoned to the neck and, at times, a grimace on his face, he looked much like what one would imagine of a twenty-something about to inherit a troubled state of 24 million.
As a year that promises only ambiguity gets underway all eyes are on his new regime to see whether it will sink or swim, a question with implications for a region nervous over its estimated stockpile of several nuclear weapons.
Analysts are divided over the ability for the Kim Jong-il regime to make a “soft landing.” The odds seem to hinge on whether Kim Jong-il, who died Dec. 17 of a heart attack, made the correct and sufficient preparations for his son to consolidate power.
Jong-un’s grip on power?
“The first question is whether Kim Jong-un’s leadership, under the guardianship of his aides, can take root,” Park Young-ho, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said. “We’re watching to see whether the system can hold.”
Thought to be in his years old, the Swiss-educated Jong-un has reportedly been groomed for the top spot from when his father suffered a stroke in 2008. Two years later, he was made a four-star general and given a high party post, signaling his eventual succession.
Some close watchers say during that time he came to take considerable power over the state, especially in security affairs. Foreign diplomats said he was credited for masterminding a deadly attack on Yeonpyeong Island.
But his time learning statecraft pales in comparison to that enjoyed by his father, who had decades to build a power base before taking power after the death of his own father, country founder Kim Il-sung.
The senior Kim likely had this scenario in mind when he elevated a handful of established regents to usher the young man into "supreme" leadership.
Most notably they include Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who holds military posts and has influence in the military as well as Ri Yong-ho, chief of the armed forces.
“The elites placed around him seem to suggest a soft landing is possible,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst with the Sejong Institute. “And Kim Jong-un had been learning a lot from his father, even receiving reports from the party and military before they were passed.”
Pyongyang’s propaganda machine has gone into full gear to elevate Jong-un’s profile, dubbing him “Supreme Leader” and making him commander of the impoverished country’s 1.2-million strong armed forces.
Experts say his shepherds are tasked to guide him towards two key titles ― chairman of the National Defense Commission and head of the ruling Workers’ Party ― that would cement he’s the man in charge.
Signs of struggles could include friction between the powerful National Defense Commission and the party, influential figures stealing the media spotlight from the heir and jostling between individuals such as Jang and Ri.
Upcoming opportunities to gauge Jong-un’s leadership include his birthday, which falls Jan. 8 and at which time celebrations could hint at the extent of his power; and the Feb. 16 birthday of Kim Jong-il by which time some expect the junior will have taken on additional titles.
Are policy changes possible?
In recent days, Pyongyang has strongly signaled that Jong-un will follow the “military first” and other policies of his father, highlighted by a site inspection of a tank division Sunday.
“North Korean elites have a vested self-interest in keeping the current system intact,” analyst Park said, explaining that under what’s dubbed a “politics of will,” the new regime will carry out Kim Jong-il’s blueprint at least in the short term.
But some say there’s pressure on the regime to show improvements to the populace to prove Jong-un’s leadership abilities during a year in which it has promised to become a “strong and prosperous state.”
“Kim Il-sung received support from the people as they were relatively well fed, while Kim Jong-il separated himself from the people. It seems Kim Jong-un needs now to improve the lives of the people,” analyst Cheong said.
Many argue opening up would threaten the regime’s need for absolute control, saying it is more likely to muddle through by beefing up cooperation with China, relying on international handouts and wielding its nuclear weapons as leverage.
Some suggest modest reforms are possible under Kim Jong-un in the medium-term under its push to develop its “Computer Numerical Control” in the name of the heir. The computer-aided manufacturing, they said, is code for modernization.
In its annual New Year’s message, the state’s leading newspapers said the food situation was a “burning issue,” a sign Pyongyang could continue to seek aid from the United States. The two countries had reportedly negotiated a deal for massive food aid in return for suspension of its uranium enrichment program just before Kim’s death.
Improvement in the food situation is thought to be important as the regime gears up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. The United Nations recently estimated up to a quarter of the North’s population is in need of food aid.
Will it provoke?
The prospect of Kim’s death has long prompted concerns over further provocations on the South to consolidate Jong-un’s standing among military brass.
Those would follow the 2010 sinking of the warship Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong that killed a total of 50 and sent tensions soaring to their worst point in decades; on top of what was a second nuclear test a year before. Experts believe Pyongyang is inching closer to developing a working nuclear missile.
The incidents highlighted soured inter-Korean relations during the term of President Lee Myung-bak, who ended a decade of unconditional engagement by linking aid to denuclearization steps.
Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group said the North’s focus on internal affairs lessened chances for provocation.
“Pyongyang is likely to show good behavior in the short term. But it is difficult to say. It may want to embarrass the Lee administration as its term winds down,” he said
Towards the outside world, experts said the North was likely to wage an all out peace offensive in a bid to secure aid. Meanwhile it could continue to slam Lee for his hard line policy to meddle in the South’s affairs as it gears up for presidential polls.
Regional players such as the South, the United States and China seem highly motivated to maintain stability, engaging in vigorous diplomacy to revive stalled six-party talks on the North’s denuclearization. Each is said to be seeking a relatively quiet 2012 as Seoul and Washington will hold presidential elections while Beijing undergoes a leadership change.
But skepticism over the talks, which swap massive aid for denuclearization, remains high as experts say the North is unlikely to relinquish its best bargaining chip. The pessimism was reinforced by Pyongyang’s state media, who posthumously lauded the late Kim for working to build a “nuclear state.”
Despite this, Pinkston suggested the South and other players engage the North to the extent possible.
“There is an opportunity to begin on a new page and reconvene exchanges that increase the inflow of information into North Korea. In the long run that is the best way to generate change,” he said.