Following the death of Kim Jong-il the eyes of the world are on the third generation successor Kim Jong-un. Interest in whether the young inheritor can maintain the stability of a despotic system which has existed for over 60 years through Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il has suddenly intensified. The tears being shed in North Korea for Kim Jong-il are significantly fewer in quantity than those shed for Kim Il-sung.
It seems that Kim Jong-un, following the pattern of the successor, will do as his father did following the death of Kim Il-sung and massively strengthen internal controls. However, the people of North Korea have a well developed immune system to suppression and control after the hardships of the "arduous march" (1994-1997) and the "second arduous march" (1998-2000).
In other words, the North Korean people will find it hard to accept a third arduous march. Given this, there is sufficient reason to expect that Kim Jong-un could seek to divert anti-system tendencies and suppress any resistance by exerting pressure on or launching provocations against the United States and South Korea. Kim Jong-un had as yet not inherited the full mantle of Kim Jong-il's power at the time of his father's death, holding about 70%(see note1). With no experience in the full running of state affairs except during a single month when Kim Jong-il visited China and Russia earlier this year, he is still considered a beginner rather than an experienced "leader".
He is also carrying a weight of expectation ahead of the centenary celebration of Kim Il-sung's birth next year. North Korean citizens expect to see material evidence of his leadership and provider capabilities on April 15th, 2012.
Next year is also expected to bring not just the pressures of possible global economic crises but politically significant transfers of leadership in China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia. North Korea might look around for a guarantor of economic support in vain. In order to prevent popular discontent and to induce absolute loyalty at all levels of the North Korean elite, Kim Jong-un will have to come up with something.
But he is carrying a limited number of cards. The most important factor is China. How China might change with the North Korean elite centered around Jang Song-taek and what choice the military might make are key. And so some kind of international provocation by the North in order to put a stop to internal protest or maintain the loyalty of the elite is possible.
In the short term, Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime must be expected to pursue a militant foreign policy with regard to the South and to massively tighten up its policy of repression and control internally. The risk of repercussions should the regime overstep the mark in its repressive tactics is not great, but it exists nevertheless.
In the long term, the only route available to Kim Jong-un to maintain the regime is a process of reform and opening up. We have to prepare for that time. The best method available is to join hands with China and induce North Korea to follow the path of reform. We cannot exclude the possibility of North Korea collapsing very soon, even if unlikely. But it is not an option to let Kim Il-sung's North Korea, the one man despotism, continue for another century.
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