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S.M. Kim: North Korea after Kim Jong-il


Address to the International Leadership Conference, Seoul, Korea, January 2012

The opening of the Kim Jong-un era

The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il left behind an untested young successor and an economically crippled North Korea. Many North Korean watchers doubted whether the young successor would be able to consolidate power and run the country.

After Kim Jong-il’s funeral, Kim Jong-un, a son of Kim Jong-il, was installed as the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army at the meeting of the Politburo of the Korean Workers' Party on December 30, 2011. This was the latest sign that Kim Jong-un was solidifying his power. No other contingency plans were made after Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, and it was confirmed that only those from the Mt. Paektu bloodline, Kim Il-sung’s lineage, are entitled to be the supreme leader of North Korea. The North’s dynastic political culture made this hereditary succession possible. No resistance against Kim Jong-un’s succession to power has been detected yet in the North.

Then, can Kim Jong-un, the third-generation successor, maintain power? Because top North Korean officials believe that political confusion would lead to their collapse and no alternative can be found to the younger Kim, they will unite centered on Kim Jong-un. The North will concentrate on consolidating power behind the third-generation successor with the support of top officials, those who benefit most from power. In order to secure the legitimacy of the third-generation successor, Kim and top officials will focus all their efforts on internal affairs for a while.

First of all, North Korea will step up the propaganda campaign to idolize Kim Jong-un. The North’s state-run television praised Kim Jong-un as “an outstanding leader and a great sun.” Second, North Korea invested multilateral efforts to solve its economic difficulties. However, the North’s economy cannot be revitalized without substantial outside help. The North will turn their attention to foreign relations in order to secure foreign aid when their internal affairs are addressed.

Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea through the decision-making systems of the official party organizations, whereas Kim Jong-il reigned over the country under an emergency system which gave priority to the military. Due to the "military first" policy, the political standing of the Politburo of the Korean Workers' Party declined while the status of the military rose during the Kim Jong-il era. However, as soon as he appointed his successor, Kim Jong-il reorganized the party and reshuffled the leading officials at the Conference of Party Delegates in 2010. Kim Jong-un was named a four-star general and vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission. Old-timers in their seventies and eighties retired from their positions, and a new elite of people in their fifties and sixties emerged. Among the new elite, many are children of former and current top officials. This showed Kim Jong-il’s intention to secure loyalty to Kim Jong-un by forming a group bound together by a common destiny with his son and the children of top officials.

The key players for the Kim Jong-un era are Kim Kyong-hui (his aunt, Director of the Light Industry Department), Jang Song-thaek (his uncle, Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission), Kim Yong-nam (President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly), Kim Ki-nam (Party Secretary), Choe Thae-bok (Party Secretary), Choe Ryong-hae (Party Secretary), Ri Yong-ho (Chief of the Korean People’s Army), Kim Yong-chun (Defense Minister), Kim Jong-gak (First Vice Director of the General Politburo of the Korean People’s Army), and U Tong-chuk (First Vice Minister of State Security). In addition, many second-generation descendants of former and current top officials have been appointed to working-level posts in order to support the top officials. These are the backbone of Kim Jong-un’s power.

Regarding state affairs, Kim Jong-un is likely to follow the policies of the late Kim Jong-il. It is anticipated that the junior Kim will retain the policies of oppression and control while pushing for better economic conditions for North Korea's impoverished people. According to the government's official New Year's editorial, “it is the steadfast determination of our party that it will make not even the slightest vacillation or concession in implementing the instructions and policies he laid out in his lifetime and that it will allow no change in this process.” The editorial also stated that the urgent task is to improve people’s living standards. North Korea is facing a severe economic disaster and chronic food shortages. But their methods to achieve this goal are battle formations, military-style campaigns, mass labor mobilizations, and socialist competitions.

These methods have already proved to be failures. With its political mobilization and ineffective distribution of resources, North Korea cannot revitalize its economy.

Prospects for the North’s relations with China, the United States and South Korea

Relations with China

The Chinese policy toward the Korean peninsula can be summarized as maintaining the status quo, increasing political leverage, economic cooperation with South Korea, and preventing North Korea's collapse. Basically, China hopes to stabilize their surroundings while they immerse themselves in developing their economy; they do not want sudden changes which break the status quo. Therefore, China does not want military tensions to build up in the Korean peninsula and will not sit by idly when the North is on the brink of collapse. China regards the North as a buffer zone between them and the power of South Korea and the United States. If the North collapses, China would be confronting these two countries at the Yalu and Tumen Rivers. In light of its strategic importance, China would never abandon North Korea and would provide food and oil to sustain its regime.

North Korea's policy toward China in the Kim Jong-un era is likely to follow Kim Jong-il’s policy line. China is the lifeline for North Korea, which is isolated diplomatically due to its nuclear ambition and its lack of commercial relations with South Korea after the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak government. Even if the top Chinese top leadership changes in 2012, the amicable relations between China and North Korea would continue for quite a long time for two reasons: the unique characteristics of the relations between two countries and China's desire to reduce US influence in Northeast Asia. However, if it becomes too dependent on China, North Korea may seek alternatives to reduce its dependence, such as boosting economic ties with Russia and expanding trade with South Korea.

Relations with the United States

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s brought drastic changes in international relations. While South Korea normalized diplomatic relations with Russia and China, two pillars of the former Communist bloc, the North was preoccupied with mending relations with the United States for the sake of its national security. To improve relations with the US, North Korea put priority on drawing America’s attention by developing nuclear weapons. After much meandering, the Six-Party Talks resulted in a Joint Statement on North Korea's Nuclear Programme on September 19, 2005. In this, the North committed to abolishing all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, and the United States and Japan committed to improving relations with North Korea; economic assistance was promised to the North. Although the six nations agreed upon the principles and goals for addressing the North’s nuclear programs, the other parties suspended implementation after North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions on the North. In spite of such international sanctions, North Korea has disclosed its uranium enrichment facilities and demonstrated its capacity for nuclear development.

Recently, Rodong Shinmun, the official party newspaper in the North, referred to satellites [long-range missiles] and nuclear weapons as Kim Jong-il's best legacies. This message means that they will not give up their nuclear ambitions. North Korea’s ultimate goals are to gain recognition as a nuclear power without giving up its nuclear weapons and to normalize diplomatic relations with the United States.

North Korean policy toward the United States in the Kim Jong-un era will likely focus on improving relations, as Kim Jong-il tried to do. The North’s strategy toward the United States has two goals, one positive and one negative. The negative goal is to make the US abandon its hostile policy toward the North, and the positive goal is to establish full diplomatic relations with the US.

Relations with South Korea

The relations between North and South Korea have been strained since the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak government. The Lee government’s attitude toward the North is "ours is the right principle; therefore, you should accept it." Former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun poured a lot of money and goods to the North hoping the North would change its attitude and system, but according to the Lee government, North Korea not only never changed but even acquired new bad habits. Therefore, the Lee government has tried to correct the North’s bad habits through applying pressure and sanctions. However, these methods have not worked, and they resulted in strained relations between North and South Korea. After much trial and error, the Lee government has recently been showing a flexible attitude toward the North. The Lee government allowed citizens to pay a condolence visit after Kim Jong-il's death and announced its intention to discuss with the North the possibility of resuming tours to Mt. Keumgang and implementing the agreements between North and South Korea.

The opening of the Kim Jong-un era brings a new opportunity for South Korea. If South Korea makes full use of the North's focus on resolving economic difficulties in order to stabilize Kim Jong-un's regime, then inter-Korean relations would improve. The South should not provoke the North but rather acknowledge the North as it is.

North Korea’s New Year editorial harshly criticized the South for its confrontational policy toward the North, claiming that the South’s “traitors” neglected to acknowledge Kim Jong-il's demise and hindered South Koreans who wished to make a condolence visit. The editorial reveals that the North will not deal with the Lee Myung-bak government and will await the next government in the South. [Presidential elections are scheduled for December 2012]. The North is likely to put more weight on relations with other countries than the South.