North Korea: The challenges facing Kim Jong-un

In the first of a two-part series, Left Foot Forward’s Frank Spring looks at where next for North Korea following the death this week of Kim Jong-il.


In the first of a two-part series, Left Foot Forward’s Frank Spring looks at where next for North Korea following the death this week of Kim Jong-il

The death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un, is the most promising moment for regional stability in a generation.

And it’s a shame, really, because that says more about how static and dour the last few decades have been in the region than it does about Kim Jong-un’s real promise as a potential moderniser of North Korea and its relationship with South Korea, Japan, and the West.

The dominant media narrative around Kim Jong-un’s succession is how little we know about him, and for good reason; until very recently, the Western media did not even have a picture of him, and there is still speculation surrounding biographical points as basic as his exact age. The same was true of his father, incidentally, who was either 69 or 70 when he died this weekend – North Korean officials and Western students of the regime differ on this point.

Speculation about the exact trajectory of relations between the North Korean regime and its neighbours is therefore particularly tricky.

There are a few key boxes that someone in Kim Jong-un’s position would want to tick immediately:

Reassure the military hardliners of his strength in the face of North Korea’s perceived enemies: This may have already been accomplished, as it is rumoured the new leader was behind the rocket attacks against South Korea last year.

Whether he was or not is almost beside the point, as long as he is believed to have slapped South Korea and its allies in the face and gotten away with it.

Cosy up to at least one intelligence service: New leaders in despotic states live and die by their intelligence agencies.

Kim Jong-un’s rumoured friendship with the commander of North Korea’s military intelligence, a hardliner of his father’s generation, would, if true, suggest he has made a good start in winning friends and allies in the military hierarchy, and given him reliable control over a powerful intelligence agency.

Out with the old: As with all reports out of North Korea, details are scarce, but it appears the process of purging potential rivals in the old guard has been underway for several months.

Buy time with the West: When Kim Il-sung died, Kim Jong-il observed a three-year period of mourning before assuming control, during which time relations with South Korea and the West were very quiet, allowing him to focus on consolidating his hold on the country.

Assuming his rumoured involvement in last year’s rocket attacks has established his credentials as a belligerent, Kim Jong-un will likely choose to do the same thing.

Those basics covered, the real challenge for North Korea’s new leader, and for everyone with a stake in the region, will actually commence.

Toward the end of his life, Kim Jong-il became increasingly engaged with the idea of economic reform, making several journeys to China to observe new economic models, actively encouraged by the Chinese. Kim Jong-un must decide whether he wants to continue down this road.

You can read part two of our analysis of the North Korea question later this week on Left Foot Forward.

See also:

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

David Miliband: Attacking Iran would increase the risk of nuclear warAlex Hern, December 2nd 2011

Blix says Iran “clearly working towards a nuclear weapon” – yet the UK remains silentAlex Hern, November 9th 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

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