The recent passing of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il received substantiaily less fanfare from both those abroad and those south of the border than one might have suspected. While North Koreans mourned excruciatingly – a phenomenal display of chest-beating, swooning, and hysterical writhing – for days on end, setting Kim’s petrified body on perpetual display, neither Washington nor Seoul got word of the death until two entire days after it occurred. Much of the world breathed a sigh of relief in hope that foreign-educated heir Kim Jong-un would promote a newfound stability and respect for human rights. Nothing much beyond speculation has foretold the destiny of the hermit kingdom, as the lack of transparency continues under Kim Jong-un’s rule. But I’m willing to bet that the rise of the new leader will not yield a different effect than that of his predecessor: like father, like son.
News media and government think tanks have predominantly been split between two sides: either Kim Jong-un will lead with a first of iron like his father (he reportedly has a “ruthless streak”) or his study in Switzerland will cause him to reminisce of brighter times in a less repressive country which he will seek to emulate. The great majority of responses from international leaders touted sympathy and hopefulness that this could be a time of change and progress for North Korea. However, it is critical to note that in a country ruled by a radical political system, especially one in which a very specific amount of deception is required to keep it from crumbling, “change” and “progress” imply something entirely different than what we think of here outside of Pyongyang.
The most important question to answer, then, is this: What exactly motivates Kim Jong-un to run North Korea any differently than his father? There is no doubt that he was raised with just as much privilege as the rest of his esteemed family: catered to, serviced, revered, and imbued with his father’s ideological beliefs and values. It is unusual that Kim Jong-il would approve of his son’s education in a democratic and open nation such as Switzerland, but he probably would not have done so if he was not certain of his son’s absolute loyalty to his nation. If you were born into a family that could eat to their heart’s desires while everyone else starved, had access to anything you wanted, and were treated like a deity, would you ever jeopardize your well-being by changing the system as it stands?
The possibility also exists that Kim Jong-un might not have a significant enough amount of influence with the promotion of Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, who now holds a top position in the Worker’s Party and could make most of the decisions while Kim settles into his position. It’s also been prophesied that the new leadership could remain a “guardianship rule” wherein the North is ruled by a collective group of regents, rather than Kim Jong-un alone. The power struggle this would entail could be detrimental, and the system has already begun to “show cracks;” moreover, several high-ranking members of the Worker’s Party who were stationed in China or other parts of Asia at the time of Kim Jong-il’s death have reportedly refused to return to the motherland.
There have existed enough communist regimes in the history of the world that it is not difficult to compare and contrast North Korea’s potentialities with others. The Soviet Regime? That one didn’t work out. Cuba? Not much progress on that front, either. China? Well, at least it’s continued to thrive, but not without an enormous export market and a little private ownership hiding beneath the guise of totality. Indeed, perhaps the most important factor dividing China from North Korea, other than size, is that China makes an effort (on the surface, at least) to employ/feed its 1.3 billion people and actually exports some highly-educated students and workers along with McDonald’s toys and dime-store doodads. North Korea, on the other hand, can’t feed its paltry 24 million at all, exports nothing (and imports almost nothing as well), and considers the military its primary form of industry.
Needless to say, North Korea’s prospects for transitioning into anything but what it currently is are less than promising. In order to transition to a state such as China’s, for example, the country would need to build the infrastructure necessary for such industry, even if it’s domestic. Kaesong Industrial Complex, a collaborative between the North and South, is a start, but suffers occasional shutdowns in its administration when the North instigates a threat and is impeded by economic sanctions from the United States that prohibit imports to the North. Export-driven industry would, of course, require North Korea to cultivate transparency, at least with South Korea, a risk that the party might not yet be willing to take.
But, for a moment, let’s don the glittered gown of idealism and assume that Kim Jong-un actually was inspired by the Swiss and that he eventually assumes the majority of power (Jang Song-taek is, after all, already in his 60s). As the direct blood spawn of his elders, North Koreans will likely continue to gruvel at every word that comes from his lips and feeding them an entirely new brand of propaganda – though still propaganda, nonetheless – would be highly plausible. Getting the entire Worker’s Party to back him up might also be possible, but that’s only considering that the communist elite believe the Kim dynasty diatribe out of blind, not genuine, faith. For if the party truly stands by its principles in complete solidarity, this would not only mean a lack of progress for Kim Jong-un, but a direct upheaval of his power in the form of an inner-party cataclysm, a coup, or even an assassination.
How much interest Kim Jong-un will rally from both the party and the people is still unclear, and his influence may not come as easily as that of his father, who had nearly 20 years of “training” for his post. As his predecessor died suddenly, Jong-un has had less than three. In order to gain support from the party, he will need not only time, but also a precise list of the benefits of reform and how that reform will ensure the financial and occupational security of the elite. If what Amnesty International reports is valid, Kim Jong-un’s supporters have already “eliminated” hundreds of officials considered a threat to his succession, a move that generates hope for a unified leadership but definitely not a placid one.
A Bleak Future
On the bright side, neither collapse nor nuclear meltdown is in the cards for North Korea. Kim Jong-un has thus far been allegedly successful in rallying support and a nation under a stable, albeit callous, dictatorship is not likely to jeopardize this position with a war it knows it cannot afford. My prediction is that most of Kim Jong-un’s rule will follow in the footsteps of his father, and that reforms will be few and far between.
And what of reunification with South Korea? No one in the Worker’s Party has expressed any more desire for it than granddaddy Kim Il-sung did. Reunification would cost South Korea billions of dollars it doesn’t have right now as the country continues to endure the social, political, and economic ramifications of their free trade agreement with the United States that has prompted nation-wide protests and all-out violence in the parliament.
In any case, momentum towards international dialogue, improvements in human rights or economic development will require some degree of pretense on the part of the new NK establishment. In other words, it will need to stop pretending to act in control in the face of its hypnotized citizens and admit that it desires structural support from its neighbors, rather than just arbitrary monetary aid. It is unlikely that Kim Jong-un will take on such a heavy responsibility, especially without good reason…for North Korea has proven to the world again and again that millions of starving people are simply not a good enough reason.