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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
John Hemmings is a WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum, CSIS.