The death of Kim Jong Il has been splashed across the headlines of the world. While the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) “mourns,” questions about his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, will keep those interested in Pacific affairs on edge. The only honest answer is that we have no idea which direction North Korea will go and any danger that was present during Kim Jon Il’s reign most surely remains.
There is not much that is known about Kim Jong Un. The generously proportioned son of Kim Jong Il is in his late 20’s, but has stayed almost entirely out of the spotlight. He attended boarding school in Switzerland for awhile, but returned to North Korea in 2000. It was only in 2010 that he was put into position to be the successor to Kim Jong Il, given several high-ranking positions in the military and the Workers’ Party of Korea. Whereas Kim Jong Il did not take power until he was 53 and had many years of experience within the DPRK system, Kim Jong Un has had very little experience, and a transition period that was likely supposed to take years is now taking place only months after it was begun.
The biggest question is whether or not Kim Jong Un will be able to control the military, or whether the military will control him. North Korea is the world’s most militarized nation, with the Korean People’s Army (KPA) comprising about 20% of men ages 17–54. The needs of the KPA have always come first, whether it is food or money for research into the development and production of ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry. The KPA is controlled by a handful of generals, and it is likely that some of them are bound to be unhappy with the thought of their commander being an inexperienced 20-something. Whether or not these generals are able to dictate North Korean military and foreign policy is one that will keep analysts of the Hermit Kingdom awake for the near future.
Further, the situation does not necessarily become any brighter for the citizens of the DPRK. Since so very little is known of Kim Jong Un, we have very little clue as to what his economic policies will be. This again goes back to who has control over the military, since the enormous amount of funding that goes into the KPA is a direct drain on the livelihoods of the average North Korean citizen. One telltale sign will be what Kim Jong Un does about the thriving black markets throughout the country. Kim Jong Il disastrously tried to re-evaluate the North Korean currency in part to stamp out this practice, but all this did was emphasize its importance to both the average citizen and North Korean elite. If Kim Jong Un allows the black markets to continue on a quid pro quo basis, then there may be hope for a least minimal growth in the North Korean economy.
Overall, however, don’t expect too much to change. The DPRK is still a totalitarian Communist state run through a combination of an unquestioned military and a cult of personality surrounding the “great leader.” While the youth and change of leadership that is brought with the change may give hope to some, we must also temper our expectations, realizing that this is still a state ruled by an iron fist, with the elite having a vested interest in maintaining something similar to the status quo. The same desire to avoid change can also likely describe the position of China, by far the largest supporter of North Korea. While we all certainly hope for greater openness and less economic distress for the citizens of the DPRK, we can by no means guarantee it.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons