Kim Jong-Un is coming of age. What’s next?

29 07 2012

Image(Leonid Petrov, The University of Sydney) The power succession in North Korea has reached its culminating point. Kim Jong-Il, who died seven months ago, left his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, as the successor but appointed a number of high-ranking officials to mentor him and help ensure a smooth transition. Now the training wheels are being removed and the young Kim is about to show the world who he really is and what he is capable of.

After six months of training in the driver’s seat, Kim Jong-Un has decided that he is mature enough to rule the country single-handedly. The sudden ousting of his military mentor, Vice Marshall Ri Yong-Ho, is puzzling and can only be explained by a serious conflict which happened between the regal student and the soldierly supervisor. The hastiness with which the 69-year-old veteran was relieved of his duties in the Army and deposed from the Party was comparable only to the grand purges of the 1960s conducted by Kim’s grandfather, the DPRK’s founder and Eternal President Kim Il-Sung. There are rumours that Ri Yong-Ho defied the dismissal and ordered his men to open fire, leaving some 20 or 30 people dead.

As for the reason why the young dictator would sack his mentor in such a dishonourable way, one may only guess and assume that Kim Jong-Un simply decided to get rid of the last element of guardianship imposed by his late father. In addition to Kim’s numerous positions within the party and military: the First Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party (조선로동당1비서), the Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the KWP (조선로동당 중앙군사위원회 부위원장), the 1-st Chairman of the National Defence Commission (국방위원회 1위원장), and the Supreme Commander of Korean People’s Army (조선인민군 최고사령관); Kim Jong-Un has recently been coronated with the highest military rank of Marshal (공화국 원수). Prior to Kim Jong-Un this rank in North Korea was held by his father and grandfather and, therefore, is an indication of the peerless status associated with the position.

Another dimension of the power succession process can be traced to the cultural performance, which Kim Jong-Un attended a week prior to Ri Yong-Ho’s fall from grace. The newly established light music band “Moranbong” gave its first concert which was broadcasted nationwide. Rumour has it that Kim Jong-Un personally came up with the idea for the concert and selected its performing members. The unusual nature of the show raised the eyebrows of everyone who saw it. Short skirts, revealing tops, and the trendy haircuts of the all-female music band were just the beginning. Walt Disney characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Tiggrer and other symbols of Western animation culture were warmly welcomed by the Mao-suited dictator and his uniform-clad military milieu.

The mysterious lady, who has recently accompanied Kim Jong-Un on most cultural functions, including visits to the elite kindergarten and “Moranbong” concert, turned out to be his wife, Ri Sol-Ju (also known under the name Hyon Song-Wol, a former singer from the Pocheonbo Electronic Music Ensemble보천보전자악단). Conspicuous by her gymnastic posture, short hairdo and trendy western clothes, she looks more sophisticated than her rotund apparatchik-like husband. Nevertheless, it is a new step in promoting Kim Jong-Un’s public image. He is now being seen by North Koreans as a mature man and head of the family, rather than the youngest child of Kim Jong-Il. As a person who has achieved prominent social and political status he now also enjoys the top spot in the military.

These are coded signals designed to reassure the North Korean population that they are being ruled by a powerful, shrewd and caring leader. Kim Jong-Un looks young but prominent; he is conservative in style but modern in heart; he might be ruthless to subordinates but is always benevolent to the common people. The purpose of the recent cosmetic changes and scandalous reshuffles is to diffuse the issue of legitimacy, which Kim dynasty inherently faces with each succession. Many important questions (such as: Who is this clumsy young man parading in his granddad’s costume? Can he feed the nation of 23 million people? Will he bring about peace or war?) are superseded by the bizarre mix of pseudo K-Pop shows, fake Disney parades, and the bloody shoot-outs between vice-Marshals.

Can Kim Jong-Un deliver the many promises which his father and grandfather bequeathed to the population of the Democratic People’s Republic? Relations with South Korea will stay strained until the conservative government in South Korea is replaced by the moderates, who may opt to once again take up the imperfect “Sunshine policy”. Pyongyang’s dialogue with Washington D.C. will remain indefinitely mute or at least until Kim Jong-Un gives up the nuclear program of which he is so proud. Russia is too pragmatic to lend more money to the bankrupt regime. China expects the young leader to embrace economic reform, something that Kim cannot permit due to potentially catastrophic consequences for the DPRK’s political system.

In other words, Kim Jong-Un is left with few choices, none of which seems suitable. Any attempt to liberalise economic life in North Korea would leave Kim’s clan vulnerable to the turmoil of a legitimacy crisis. Moreover, in the process of market-oriented reform, some of the elite groups which are associated with non-productive sector of the economy (the party, the army and state security) will find their role obsolete and their socio-economic status will be predictably worse. Disillusioned masses and angry elites are the best recipe for popular uprising and a collapse of the Kim dynasty. This scenario is the worst nightmare for Kim Jong-Un and his close circle of trusted advisors.

Despite some temporary disagreements and purges, the North Korean leadership will continue supporting superficial change but will resist any attempts at a full-fledged reform. Mickey and Minnie Mouse will continue dancing on Korean Central TV (조선중앙텔레비죤), but the Military-First Politics will remain the cornerstone of domestic politics and the main impediment for economic and political liberalisation. The dynastic system, however outmoded and ineffective, permits the young Marshal to keep his subjects loyal and competing for favours.

North Korea as we know it cannot be reformed. The problem is that the state is a hostage of its own history. So many lies and horrible crimes have been perpetrated during the 65 years of tyranny that the youngest of the Kims cannot open up the country without betraying his predecessors or jeopardising the foundations of his own rule. Any attempt to reform the system will lead to a legitimacy crisis, public unrest, the fall of the dynasty, and uncontrolled unification. Attempts to avoid this scenario will only protract the agony, permitting North Korea to slowly change in form but not in content.

Read this article in Korean here… 김정은 시대가 열리고 있다… 다음은?

Also, read this article here… Kim Jong-Un Comes of Age…


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