Introduction and History
On December 17, 2011, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, died of a heart attack while on a train outside of Pyongyang. As a result, his youngest son, Great Successor Kim Jong-un, was left in control of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The succession came as no surprise as the Swiss-educated, ambiguously-aged son was “groomed for the top spot from when his father suffered a stroke in 2008.”1Since he has taken over the position, many questions have arisen as to how the young leader will react to taking control of the country and its 1.2 million strong nuclear capable military. In essence, “Kim represents the third generation of a dynastic Stalinist dictatorship that has ruled North Korea since 1948.”2 Analysts across the globe have questioned what this means for the future, and whether the new Jong-un will continue the aggressive stance of his predecessors, or take initiative to change the course of the protectionist state and open up the economy.
Current State of Affairs
The depressing truth is that the current state in North Korea is both oppressive and likely unsustainable. Since Kim Jong-il came into power, North Korea has been dealing with “chronic food shortages and remains locked in a long-running standoff over its nuclear program.”3 The people of the country are starving, while a dwindling number of elites consume a majority of the resources.
In addition, “North Korea remains in a state of war with South Korea and the United States six decades after the Korean War.”4 Currently, “30,000 US troops garrison South Korea,” and an increase in forces is only a few clicks away.5 As a result, Jong-un is inheriting an impoverished nation with a major world superpower breathing down his neck, not one of the most favorable situations for any leader. Consequently, the leader has two choices for future course of action: continue the state’s aggressive, pro-nuclear stance, or help lead his nation into a new globalized age of potential prosperity.
Fears of Aggression
Since he has taken control, there have been many signs that Jong-un will continue the contentious nature of his father. From the start, “Pyongyang has strongly signaled that Jong-un will follow the “military first” and other policies of his father.”6 This stance has been reinforced by “top military officers” who have sworn “fervent pledges of loyalty, vowing to become human ‘rifles and bombs’ to defend Kim Jong-un.”7 Also, Jong-un has a history of provocation while serving as an equivalent general in the North Korean army. In 2010, there were “rumours that he helped orchestrate murderous attacks on South Korean targets.”8
Moreover, Jong-un has shown increased aggression towards his own people in recent weeks to control any possible defectors and naysayers. Namely, “border guards have begun shooting down would-be defectors who try to flee the impoverished nation.”9 Also Jong-Un has promised to prosecute the families of former defectors and has closed the border immediately after the death of his father.
Finally, signs of increased foreign integration were downplayed as the state “banned the use of foreign currency in markets, even the Chinese yuan.”10 While these facts do offer a very bleak outlook, North Korea is already on an unsustainable path. Therefore, to ensure the survival of his regime, it behooves Jong-un to take various steps to ensure his state’s prosperity. For example, it has become clear that the country cannot sustain itself solely on trade with China and the hope for foreign aid. Opening up the economy to the world market could possibly alleviate some of the tension on the regime due to food shortages.
Hopes for Increased Foreign Integration
Despite the discouraging outlook from current actions of the regime, many analysts are still optimistic about the possibility of North Korea opening its borders to the world market. Given the current state of the country, North Korea is headed down an inevitable path of change. However, analysts point to the two separate paths that will lead to this. “North Korea will eventually collapse…the lack of reform is leading North Korea down a dead end…[however] a more open country would surely spell the end of the Kim dynasty.”11 It is clear that change is on the horizon, but the catalyst for this is still up in the air.
As it stands now, North Korea’s only major trading partner is China. In 2010, “bilateral trade between China and North Korea…rose nearly 30% year-on-year, to $3.47 billion, a record high.”12 This is clearly not enough to lift the impoverished nation out of the doldrums. “For many years Chinese leaders tried in vain to convince Kim Jong Il to embrace Chinese-style economic reforms; they might yet choose to push those reforms with renewed vigour.” 13
Currently, China runs a system of “state capitalism”, where the state itself is invested in various industries that are targeted for growth.14 Much of this growth is based on manufacturing exports, China’s major source of income. North Korea would need to open up their economy to the world market to experience growth. While such reforms may not be a panacea, they would still be a great improvement on the current state.
Further actions by other countries, especially the U.S., show that nations are willing to work with North Korea based on significant conditions, namely, denuclearization. Especially with a new leader in power, other states may hope to find a more sympathetic ear to their cause. “[T]he advent to power of “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un may offer North Korea’s uneasy neighbors…an opportunity to defuse many of the peninsula’s dangerous tensions and even begin a process of opening the isolated Stalinist state to the outside world.”15
Before the death of Kim Jong-il, “Pyongyang and Washington met…for talks on food aid and how to restart nuclear disarmament talks.”16 Continuing these talks could see a significant course of action that represents the interests of both states. North Korea would be able to shore up its economic woes while the US could ensure further security across the ocean.
In addition, actions within North Korea signal the opposition of a population that is tired of being cloaked from the outside world. “Perhaps the biggest risk to the regime’s stability comes from the black markets and the taste for freedoms and better living they bring.”17 Through this market, North Koreans are keeping in touch with the outside world and see the injustices that exist in their own society. “North Koreans can use Chinese mobile networks to call South Korea…[and] DVDs on sale on the black market show what life in the outside world, especially South Korea, is like.”18 Greater dissention is growing in the state that paints a picture of mindless followers of a corrupt regime.
Obstacles to Reform
Despite the hope and push for reform in the country, there still exists a small percentage who benefit from the current state of affairs. A Korean analyst, Park Young-ho, stated that “’North Korean elites have a vested self-interest in keeping the current system intact.’”19 There are the few that benefit from the current system in place in North Korea, and since they already hold much of the power, change will clearly be a difficult task.
In addition, other powers, especially China, may fear the emergence of a unified Korean state. A large amount of reforms could possibly lead “to economic collapse and a flood of refugees.”20 So while reform may be beneficial in the long run, the short term effects could have a negative impact on other players in the region. Given these two obstacles, the prospects of major change in the state is clearly uncertain. Despite the obvious need for a new status quo, the current system works for many who are making the crucial decisions.
The situation is North Korea is extremely volatile, and only time will tell what actually will occur. In the meantime, the soft powerPower that derives from persuasion and cooperation rather than confrontation and the exertion of force. being wielded by adversaries may be the best alternative to a more aggressive stance towards a possible nuclear power. However, as stated before, the current path is unsustainable, and as more people continue to starve in a region surrounded by growing superpowers, change is clearly inevitable. How these changes take place remains to be seen, but given the recent Arab Spring and continued protests against inequality across the world, anything is possible.
1 Young-jin, Kim. “Will Kim Jong-un Land Softly or with a Thud?” The Korea Times. January 2, 2012.
2 “North Korea after Kim Jong-il: We Need to Talk about Kim.” The Economist. December 31, 2011.
3 Hyung-jin, Kim. “Prisoners to be freed, seen as bid to build Kim Jong-un’s popularity.” The Washington Times. January 10, 2012.
4 Margolis, Eric. “How to End the Craziness with North Korea.” The Huffington Post. January 3, 2012.
6 Young-jin, Kim. “Will Kim Jong-un Land Softly or with a Thud?” The Korea Times. January 2, 2012.
7 Hyung-jin, Kim. “Prisoners to be freed, seen as bid to build Kim Jong-un’s popularity.” The Washington Times. January 10, 2012.
8 “Succession in North Korea: Grief and Fear.” The Economist. December 31, 2011.
9 Glionna, John. “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Wages Defector Crackdown.” Los Angeles Times. January 5, 2012.
11 “North Korea after Kim Jong-il: We Need to Talk about Kim.” The Economist. December 31, 2011.
12 “Watching North Korea: Mystery Theater.” The Economist. December 22, 2011.
13 “North Korea: Dear Leader Departed.” The Economist. December 20, 2011.
14 “The Rise of State Capitalism.” The Economist. January 21, 2012.
15 Margolis, Eric. “How to End the Craziness with North Korea.” The Huffington Post. January 3, 2012.
16 Hyung-jin, Kim. “Prisoners to be freed, seen as bid to build Kim Jong-un’s popularity.” The Washington Times. January 10, 2012.
17 “Succession in North Korea: Grief and Fear.” The Economist. December 31, 2011.
19 Young-jin, Kim. “Will Kim Jong-un Land Softly or with a Thud?” The Korea Times. January 2, 2012.
20 “Succession in North Korea: Grief and Fear.” The Economist. December 31, 2011.
* Picture of Kim Jong-Un http://www.flickr.com/photos/54050720@N05/6549444309/
* Picture of North Korean Military http://www.flickr.com/photos/54777469@N02/5074558371/sizes/l/in/photostream/
* Picture of North Korean Currency: http://www.flickr.com/photos/panaxy/3796655925/