After the announcement of the death of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, on the 17th of December 2011, the world looked on with bated breath.
There was, and still is, much speculation about the effects of the transfer of power to Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Although few expect any change to happen quickly, numerous possibilities exist, including a change within the Pyongyang regime itself, a revolution within the nation, a Korean reunion or even the possibility of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons programme.
The third successor of the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-un, faces a difficult task: he must ensure the power of the elite, protect the recently acquired prosperity of the middle class and improve living conditions of the majority of the 24 million inhabitants. At the same time Jong-un needs to emphasize the political continuity of his predecessor and thus ensure it as his source of legitimacy. Only time will tell whether he will develop into a strong leader in his own right, or instead become a puppet of the Pyongyang elite, the Korean Workers’ party and the army. North Korea needs Kim Jong-un to be a different leader from his father and introduce policies that could encourage reform and negotiation, and furthermore, give hope to the suffering population. However, one of Jong-un’s first political acts, the release of numerous detainees, mostly political prisoners is not a step towards a new political future, but rather an exercise in propaganda.
Neither a military coup nor a popular revolution seems likely in the near future. The military is not an independent political force, but an instrument of the state and thus controlled by the party and the Kim family. The North Korean people are brainwashed and have no alternative source of information besides government propaganda. Despite the arrival of the first mobile phones in 2009 and with them an increase in the potential proliferation of information throughout the population, revolutionary behaviour doesn’t spread.
Mobile phones are only available for the elite and North Korea only has one radio channel and one TV station, both state owned. There is hardly any postal or telephone communication, and definitely no internet. Pictures of sobbing citizens and soldiers were published to illustrate North Korea’s grief at the loss of its former leader.
However, few of these feelings seem real. Perhaps they are simply a fear of the uncertain future or government propaganda. Bad policy decisions by Kim Jong-il, poor agricultural and climate conditions and an inefficient economic system lead to chronic malnutrition and famine for the majority of the population. However, compared to the late 90’s people are better off. According to official sources the health system is good in Pyongyang, literacy rate is very high and officially there is zero unemployment. Nevertheless, most of it only applies to a small group of people in the capital who live a much better life with more freedoms and opportunities. At the same time, people in the province are very poor. Currently the people of the elite feel safe and economically confident, which gives Kim Jong-un no reason to initiate any reforms. Hence, the bulk of the population will remain poor in the foreseeable future.
It is unlikely that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear deterrent. A nuclear weapon is the only way to protect the state and bargain with the West. Nevertheless, US and North Korean officials will meet in Beijing for talks on the country’s nuclear weapons programme. The results of the talks remain to be seen.
The relationship with South Korea is marked with an unpredictability which seems likely to continue in the near future. Several attacks have been launched since the Korean War, which was not brought to an end by a peace treaty, but by an armistice. Technically, the Korean peninsula is still at war. These tense circumstances were especially noticeable in 2010, when North Korea bombarded the island of Yeonpyeng in response to a South Korean artillery exercise that used live ammunition. South Korean military drills on front-line islands on the 20th of February 2012 further provoked North Korea and almost led to retaliation. Despite the seriousness of the latest clashes the situation is unlikely to escalate given the high stakes involved for all parties. China and the USA have an especially high interest in avoiding renewed hostilities.
The year 2012 is a significant one for North Korea to announce itself a strong and affluent state in time for the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. Despite this, the people still suffer from famine and are very poor in the provinces. Yet having a new leader entails no change. For the coming period Kim Jong-un remains the supreme leader of a communist state until the elite decides that a change and some sort of reform is in order. Relations between North and South Korean remain tense and North Korea is likely to hold on to its nuclear weapons program.
The West’s hope for revolution in North Korea faded away as quickly as it emerged. To this day, the people remain as powerless hostages of their own state. There is still no hope for the hopeless.