Features | Politics | East Asia

New Year, New Kim, Same Policies

Kim Jong-un is too weak to expect a shift in North Korean policy. The only question is whether 2012 will be a year of provocations.

By John Hemmings for

Events surrounding the death of Kim Jong-il have revealed a country in transition, and an elite apparently shifting seamlessly from one ruler to another. Yet the funeral list, the promotion of Kim’s youngest son as ‘Great Successor’ and ‘Supreme Commander,’ and the political movements around Kim’s sister Kim Kyung-hee and her husband, Chang Sung-taek have underscored the shifting balance of power between the Kims and the National Defence Commission, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP).  

Now, following the remarkable rally that transferred power to Kim Jong-un, the question of most interest to Seoul, Tokyo and Washington is whether we will we see more of the same in 2012, or can we expect some sort of change? And if Kim Jong-un is going to shift North Korean internal and external policy, will it be for the better or for the worse? 

While many point to the fact that Kim Jong-un briefly lived overseas and attended an international school in Switzerland as evidence that this may lead to more open-minded rule, it’s not clear that Kim Jong-un is in any way an improvement on his father. Nor are there any signs that he would move the country towards economic reform or a policy of engagement with the United States and its Asian allies. There are two main reasons: first, the fact that Kim was chosen by his father over two elder brothers indicates that he had something they apparently lacked. Second, he is politically weak and inexperienced. From the first, we can infer that his father favoured him over his brothers because of certain character traits deemed necessary to exert rule in the North Korean system. These are likely to include a willingness to use force in achieving objectives, strong-headedness, and a strong ideological allegiance to the system.  

Yet most analysts agree that Kim Jong-un’s hold on power is bound to be weaker than that of his father. While his father will have begun to prepare him soon after the recovery from his stroke in 2008, this left little time to master the political intricacies of a complex country like North Korea. His father had nearly 30 years in various party posts and agencies before gaining power. In addition, Kim Jong-il was able to use his time in the propaganda and agitation department in the 1970s to build his father’s cult of personality, which ultimately enabled him to build one around himself.  

In contrast, Kim Jong-un’s has a number of weaknesses. 

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Unlike his father, who had a cadre of peers his own age when he gained power, Kim Jong-un’s peers are far below him in the hierarchy and it would be impossible to promote many to senior posts without causing discontent. That means that he may lack what many Western political leaders take for granted by the time they gain power: a wide network of contacts, associates and connected friends, who act as both informants and political actors. Kim’s youth may also tell against his ability to rule. While the ability to rule others isn’t necessarily aged-based (think Octavius or Alexander the Great), experience is certainly helpful in avoiding the many pitfalls that political leadership brings. If this is true in the West, it must be even more so in an authoritarian system, where political gains and losses are so much greater. There is, simply, less room for mistakes. 

While his titular authority, his family heritage, and the regency centred on “Uncle Jang” will alleviate some of this, there’s a serious danger that the overall weakness of Kim Jong-un’s rule will push him toward tougher policies, translating perhaps into an internal crackdown and more bellicose foreign policy action. Certainly, past Communist systems have used purges and political repression during times of policy weakness or transition to strengthen their position. A number of arrests of party officials and military leaders over corruption in 2010 may have been the first wave in a Kim Jong-un purge. Given the country’s continued food deprivation, it’s difficult to see how the North Korean elite may react to further hardships. 

And then there’s the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s weakness will translate into more provocations of the type witnessed in 2010. Kim Jong-un’s father changed North Korean power dynamics after the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Seeing how Mikhail Gorbachev, a political reformer, had emerged from the party system, Kim Jong-il elevated the KPA to the supreme position in North Korean politics (known as Songun), shunting the KWP to one side. The fact that Kim Jong-un’s entrance into Korean politics and the public eye took place at a party conference in September 2010 doesn’t indicate that the party is making a comeback, but it will be interesting to see if the young leader continues to favor the military over the party. At the funeral, seven men stood out next to the young Kim: They included Jang Song-taek, Kim’s uncle and a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission; Choe Tae-bok, the party secretary in charge of external affairs; Kim Ki-nam, Secretary of the Central Committee of the KWP; Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, head of the military’s general staff; Kim Yong-chun, the Minister of Defence; U Dong-Chuk, head of North Korea’s intelligence aparatus; and Kim Jong-gak, a 4-star general. Given the slight edge of military officials in that listing, it might suggest a continuation of songun. 

Unfortunately, the inscrutability of North Korea’s shifting internal politics and the traditionally opaque nature of its foreign policy making instruments mean that all of this remains tea reading. But given the general weakness of Kim Jong-un within his own capital, and his likely desire to prove himself with the military, it’s difficult to imagine reform or engagement anytime soon.

John Hemmings is a WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum, CSIS.