North Korea: What Kim Jong-un should do

In the second of our two-part analysis on North Korea following Kim Jong-il’s death, Frank Spring argues that history suggests the time for reform time has come.


In the second of our two-part analysis on North Korea following Kim Jong-il’s death, Left Foot Forward’s Frank Spring argues that history suggests the time for reform time has come

Kim Jong-un is the third generation of leadership in North Korea, and other communist states have generally begun their shift away from hardline government by ideology toward a blended (if frequently tortured) approach of pragmatism and ideology in their third generation of government, if not before.

Nikita Khrushchev and his shestnadsiki (the “Men of the Sixties”) in the USSR, Nguyen Van Linh in Vietnam, and Jiang Zemin (building on the theories of Deng Xiaopeng) in China all attempted, with varying degrees of success, to move toward more practical models of government and away from the totalitarian Marxism of their predecessors.

Kim Jong-un has some inherent advantages if he goes this route – he has a successful and prosperous guide in the form of China to assist with this process, and, if the stories of a purge of the old guard are true, he will inherit/engineer a young leadership hierarchy who may be interested in ruling something other than a desperately poor backwater for the next 30 years.

Countering this, however, is the fact that previous harbingers of change in communist countries were selected through meritocracy (or, rather, a somewhat perverted facsimile of a meritocracy), achieving their posts by being able to both pass as faithful communists and operate as pragmatic politicians.

Kim Jong-un has not had to blunt any ideological inclinations he may possess during a career’s worth of political compromise and manoeuvring; despite whatever preparations his father and he may have undertaken to set him up for power, he has effectively just walked onto the job.

It would be understandable if seeing his two elder brothers disinherited for being dissolute instilled in the young leader a premature sense of discipline and seriousness that mitigates a sense of entitlement, but, as ever, there is too little information to go on.

So, where next for North Korea and Kim Jong-un?

Here are three things he should do:

Let China do the heavy lifting for the moment: If Kim Jong-un is at all reform-minded, China’s leadership should be a godsend to him; here are people who have overseen the transition from Maoism to a more practical form of government.

The Chinese have some credibility with the regime, and are best-placed at the most to bring North Korea into the 21st century – if the new leadership chooses to come along.

Control expectations: One of the reasons progress has stalled on diplomatic initiatives with North Korea has been that the old regime systematically ignored previous agreements, leading former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to say about re-starting talks: “We don’t want to buy the same horse again.”

This might be a different horse; how Kim Jong-un handles economic reform will tell the tale. Even so, relations with North Korea will not change quickly. If China can help guide North Korea toward a more modern economy, previous example suggests a degree of liberalism will flow with this.

The pace of this could be glacial; there is very little anyone can do about that.

Cultivate intelligence assets: This is easier said than done, but times of upheaval and change produce losers of power struggles and bet-hedgers against future ones. Such people are useful, and any opportunity to shed light on the internal workings of the North Korean regime cannot be ignored.

The burden of this rests primarily on South Korea.

We will have further analysis of the North Korea question in the new year.

See also:

North Korea: The challenges facing Kim Jong-unFrank Spring, December 20th 2011

The cost of Kim Jong-IlDaniel Elton, December 19th 2011

North Korea: What is to be done?Frank Spring, November 29th 2010

Is Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads illegal?Capt. Patrick Bury, November 4th 2010

Should killer robots be banned?Andrew Gibson, October 16th 2010

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  7. Stephen Wigmore

    If there’s one thing that right and left in this country should be able to unite on it’s that almost any change would be good change in North Korea. I just hope out leaders are taking this literally once in a generation opportunity to encourage North Korea in the direction of reform.

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