Features | Politics | East Asia

Getting Ready for Kim Jong-un

The Diplomat speaks with Korea analyst Scott Snyder about the North Korean leadership succession and what to expect under a Kim Jong Un regime.

The recent appointment of Kim Jong-un as a general and his attendance at a major military parade this month seemed to further confirm his status as the likely heir to Kim Jong-il. Do you expect the next North Korean leadership to be as centralized as it was under Kim Jong-il?

What I took away from the party conference in September was the impression that there was a relatively careful balancing of institutional interests and individual roles across the party and the military bureaucracy. There’s been a lot of focus on Kim Jong-un as a successor to Kim Jong-il. But if we look overall at the appointments, there have been a variety of balancing mechanisms put in place. One is the refurbishing of the party as an institution, which suggests that the next leader might not have a military-first policy. Another aspect is actually in the appointment process – Chang Sung-taek (Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and vice chairman of the National Defence Commission) – didn’t get as much attention in terms of any special party roles.

So I think what all this suggests is a structure that’s going to require some of the key power holders to work together in some way — it necessitates a kind of collective approach to leadership. You could look at a collective leadership as a means for managing some kind of regency, or it may simply be characteristic of a third-generation leadership. So I guess I’m questioning whether we can expect the same kind of one-man rule in a successor regime.

How stable do you think this kind of arrangement could be?

I think that what we’ve seen over the past few months has been an attempt to shore up the capacity for longevity, certainly. But what we just don’t know is whether that effort will succeed or whether this structure might lead to competing power centres in the absence of Kim Jong-il. Clearly, it was intended to bind the bureaucracy to the will of the family. But we don’t know, because everything in North Korea is organized around Kim Jong-il, how the new structure will take in his absence. Is he the foundational stone that if you pull it away the whole regime collapses? Or is there now a supporting infrastructure that would allow the leadership to be stable in his absence?

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Is there any indication about how this transition is likely to be viewed within North Korea?

If you’re one of the North Koreans that has been named to a position, then it may well depend where you are in the hierarchy. If you’re not involved in that particular process or not affected immediately – if you’re one of the regular citizens – then based on the interviews with foreign journalists there’s no appetite for identifying oneself as dissatisfied with the new arrangement. That said, I’m sure that there is a lot of dissatisfaction, especially after the currency devaluation. The question is if that will matter and how it could potentially be expressed.

Is it possible that a new leadership might be more willing to engage with the international community, for example over the Six-Party talks?

It’s one of the possible options. It can’t be ruled out, because clearly there are practical pressures that are going to affect the regime’s sustainability. And in fact some of them are already visible in terms of the need for foreign currency for example. But it’s not clear yet whether this kind of transition process might also be used to justify a policy departure. So the likelihood isn’t high, but I don’t think it can be ruled out. There are a lot of people that believe that the vested interests of the parties concerned, and the key leadership that has been appointed, suggests that there’s an inherent inability to make a change in policy direction. But I’m not willing to make that pre-judgment and I think the international community needs to probe for the possibility that there might be a desire for a shift in direction.

South Korea and China are probably the two countries with the most immediate vested interests in the transition. What kind of role do you expect the two to play?

It’s complicated by the fact that it’s not clear that China and South Korea share the same interests in how they’d like to influence the new regime. I’d say that as a transition period, this does represent a period in which there may be opportunities to directly influence the posture of the new leadership.

It’s hard to say what form those opportunities might come in, because the prospect for a change exists but isn’t necessarily particularly high. So this makes it difficult for either country to have confidence about how its policy might influence the new leadership. But I think in both cases, there are forms of engagement and there are clear priorities that each side has put forward to the North Korean leadership.

I think on the Chinese side, the meeting in China between Hu Jintao and Kim Jong-il in Changchun in August suggests to me that the Chinese are willing to take a more active role in promoting and enabling an environment for North Korea to pursue greater economic reform and openness.

On the inter-Korea side it’s a more complicated situation now, because on the one hand there’s an immediate political need for President Lee Myung-bak’s administration to hear from the North Koreans some kind of statement of admission — or at least condolences — for the sinking of the Cheonan. And I think to a certain extent that immediate need makes it more difficult to consider a broader strategy on how to influence the policy positions of the North Korean government in the context of the transition. The broader framework is there. The Lee Myung-bak administration has made it clear that it’s willing to help North Korea, under conditions where the leadership shows a renewed commitment to moving forward on the denuclearization path.

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Scott Snyder is director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and senior associate of Washington programmes in the International Relations programme of The Asia Foundation. His latest book, ‘China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security,’ was published by Lynne Rienner in 2009.