North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, is setting his own style early on and distancing himself from the distinctly conservative character of his grandfather and father. In a recent public address, Kim Jong-un made an overture for civil relations with South Korea and hinted at economic reform within North Korea that might finally offer some breathing room for private initiative.
It is hopeful that the new regime will be more flexible internationally. Jong-un is showing a propensity for more communication via public media than his father, who famously refused to give speeches or interviews, but rather talked indirectly via press releases. A precedent was offered when Jong-un and his wife made a public appearance together, along with the announcement that the young family grew by one more in the new year.
Information about the ruling elite has come from people who have escaped the regime in years prior, whereas now there is decidedly more openness on what happens in the inner circles. Should the trend keep, we might expect a leader who is more willing towards conversation and compromise with his own public, as well as internationally.
The pressing domestic issue in North Korea will come from the conflict between economic development and prioritizing the army at the centrality of political and public life. It is no secret that North Koreans are living in a paradox: basic nutrition is an issue in what is one of the most industrialized countries in the world. In his speech, Jong-un talked about turning North Korea into an economic giant. One might say that the ingredients are there: an educated society, a homogeneous population to forestall ethnic conflicts, and adequate infrastructure to jumpstart initial development. However, the secrecy does not permit an accurate picture of the available financial capital, but we can assume that foreign investment will be crucial for the further development of North Korea, especially when it comes to food security. Again, the armed forces will be a major obstacle to more liberal economic policies, so it is more than likely that Jong-un is going to take a page out of Deng Xiaoping’s playbook in facilitating China’s economic miracle, by starting to create special economic zones around the country for foreign investment.
In the internal politics, it is doubtful that we can expect a major change in the oppressiveness of the regime against political opponents, and regime purges could continue as well, against army leadership or other potential competitors inside the regime. More unfortunately, the number of concentration camps for political prisoners will probably not go down in 2013.
In the way of foreign policy, changes will be slower and much more incremental. North Korea’s army possesses a varied mix of antiquated and more modern hardware, including a vast industrial base for maintaining that potential. The recent satellite launch puts the country on the list of countries with space programs, and it is in itself an important scientific and technological milestone that will not likely be rolled back. Nuclear weapons are already a part of the inventory and marrying them to intercontinental delivery capacity will be a reality to contend with through 2013 and potentially 2014. Regardless, the change of leadership in Seoul could see the first qualitative development in bilateral relations through the formal end of the Korean war and the lessening of tensions along the militarized border.
An irritant for the new atmosphere on the peninsula will be the traditional exercises between the United States and South Korea, which were always met with hostility from Kim Jong-il, and were probably a determining factor in the sinking of the Cheonan in March, 2010.
Overall, Kim Jong-un has concluded a successful transition of power from father to son, and this stability is going to help move North Korea somewhat out of international isolation. The end of the Korean War would be a nice start.