By Peter Drysdale (East Asia Forum, January 16th, 2012)
One of the more momentous changes in Asia that heralded in the New Year was the sudden death of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, and the succession by his son, Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-il’s death had long been seen by some outside observers as portent for the collapse of the North Korean regime and the announcement encouraged much comment that reflected these forebodings, including calls for calm from political leaders who should have been in the know.
Certainly there were anxieties about whether the assumption of the North Korean leadership by a relatively untried and youthful Kim Jong-un would be accompanied by a power struggle in the North and political instability. Cooler heads saw little immediate sign of that.
In this week’s lead Chung-in Moon and John Delury at Yonsei University urge focus on the realities that face North Korea itself and the rest of the world in dealing with the isolated state, not imagined contingencies surrounding the leadership change. Their injunction is timely. Moon was a key adviser to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung on North Korean affairs and heavily involved in negotiations between the North and the South that saw the Sunshine policy put in place. But he is a hard-headed realist.
Delury and Moon point out that there are no signs of political ferment in North Korea. For the moment, the system is quite stable. The regime is ‘unified around the new face of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and, most importantly, the grandson of founding father Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-un does not need charisma. In North Korea’s hierarchic ‘big leader’ suryong system, the young Kim is born to authority. His Baekdu bloodline is sufficient to endow his rule with legitimacy. And his power base is solid’. This is an hereditary system of rule as much as an authoritarian one.
Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy is secured by three inner circles. The first is the ruling family. The key sign of unity within the family is that Kim Jong-un’s aunt and her powerful husband Jang Song-taek both received promotions along with the heir-apparent at the historic Party conference last year. The second is the Korean Worker’s Party itself, which has been going through a period of resuscitation. The revitalised network of Party members — who now carry cell phones and are eager to travel abroad — see their prospects very much linked to the success of the grandson. The third is the military — the Korean People’s Army — which is the logical competitor in the power succession. But even in the army there is no sign of high-level disaffection like that seen in many Middle Eastern states. ‘The military’, Delury and Moon point out, ‘has been the primary beneficiary of the North’s ”military first politics” campaign initiated by Kim Jong-il in 1995′. The military has been co-opted through numerous incentives, and controlled through close confidants. The military has pledged loyalty to Kim Jong-un, whose highest title is Vice Chair of the Central Military Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party.
As for the 20 million or so North Koreans not in the Party, they are likely to take a wait-and-see approach to the new leadership group. Kim Jong-un bears a striking physical resemblance to his grandfather, evoking nostalgia for North Korea’s halcyon days, and people may hope his rule will see a new, better chapter for their country. Whatever the case, those who may wish to rebel have no networks or organisations through which to do so. For now, all signs confirm the state media slogans: Kim Jong-un is the ‘outstanding leader of our party, army and people’ and ‘great successor’ to his father.
In the near term, the chances of political crisis, let alone regime collapse, are remote. In the longer term, however, North Korea faces the same perennial hard choices: the dilemma, Delury and Moon call it, of mutually conflicting goals.
Pyongyang proclaims to its citizens that 2012 marks the year of North Korea’s emergence as a ‘strong and prosperous great nation’ [Gangsong Daeguk]. ‘If Kim Jong-il could claim nothing else’, say Delury and Moon, ‘he did achieve at least one thing for North Korea — the ultimate ”strength” of nuclear deterrence’.
What most outside observers of North Korean affairs miss is the importance of the goal of world standard prosperity. It was set out again post-succession in the New Year’s joint editorial in North Korea’s three main newspapers. There are unmistakable signs of a push to improve the national economy — from growing trade with and investment from China, revived plans for special economic zones and official propaganda promising to improve the people’s welfare.
The issue at stake is whether Kim Jong-un can enhance North Korea’s prosperity without undermining the source of its strength — its nuclear weapons program. ‘Comprehensive economic development will also require foreign investment, trade, and financing; all of which would require negotiation of loosening, and eventual lifting, the sanctions which surround the North Korean economy like a barbed wire fence. Getting that sanctions regime lifted will require substantive nuclear concessions on Pyongyang’s part’.
This, of course, opens opportunity for dealing between Pyongyang, Washington, Beijing and Seoul. As Delury and Moon observe, it will be in that moment, the transition from security-first to security-plus-prosperity, when the unity of the North Korean political system would come under strain. It was perhaps ever thus. ‘Elements in the military might oppose sacrificing their prize possession — nuclear weapons capability. Hardliners will argue it would be a fool’s errand to give up the ultimate weapon, leaving their country exposed to an Iraqi or Libyan fate’.
The path to getting the North over that hump needs to start now, with building constructive relationships with their new leadership, and avoiding the risk of playing into the hands of hardliners, and above all investing in the capacities now that North Koreans will need to run a prosperous and open economy and society. There are signs that this is recognised in Washington and Seoul, though unfortunately not in Canberra which had earlier played a helpful role in prosecuting just this interest — and again is positioned, because of the importance of being unimportant, to do so now.
*Peter Drysdale is the Editor of the East Asia Forum.