The death of Kim Jong Il marks a watershed moment between distinct epochs in the history of North Korea, prompting intense debate over the multiple scenarios possible for the anticipated transition.
The current mass expressions of grief in North Korea may seem shocking to foreigners, but certainly cannot be written off as insincere. It is true that collectivism is pervasive in this heavily organized state, and that the arrangement affects the way emotions are displayed, but denying that—in line with the Confucian tradition—the perception of the country leader as the father of the nation is widespread among the population and that people are indeed mourning Kim Jong Il would be unfair. The tendency within the original North Korean political culture to ascribe a special role to the country leader has a legitimizing impact on Kim Jong Un’s claim to power. It is true that he is very young, has a minimal record of involvement in state affairs, and, in fact, has held the successor status for just slightly over a year. Still, he has learned a lot over that period of time, acting as his father’s apprentice and making no blunders in the process. More importantly, the nation actually sees him as the successor. For example, I gathered from conversations with ordinary North Koreans that they feel deeply impressed by the fact that outwardly Kim Jong Un looks very much like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.
Obviously, both Kim Jong Un and the whole of North Korea are at the moment facing a tough challenge. From now on a lot will depend on Kim Jong Un’s aptitude, willpower, and so forth. His elder peers—the stalwarts from his father’s inner entourage—will certainly do their best to help him at the initial phase, but that type of interaction should not be interpreted as evidence that Kim Jong Un will have a purely nominal status. For North Korea, combining the leader’s singular status with collectivism in top-level decision-making is a long-standing tradition, though the balance between the two elements fluctuates. Even Kim Il Sung was not invariably the number one figure in North Korea’s party and administration (in the initial stages) and even at the peaks of their careers, neither he nor Kim Jong Il sidelined such collective governance bodies as the Central Committee of the Labor Party, the National Defense Commission, and so forth.
Predictions that North Korea will shortly plunge into chaos and that a tide of infighting will sweep over its leadership are completely groundless. Any serious expert on this country is fully aware of the North’s robust political stability, with nothing like an organized opposition or public protests of considerable proportions in sight.
It is natural that divisions over individual issues exist in the North Korean administration, as they do in any other country, but in the North, they do not seem to escalate into irreconcilable discord. The constant external threat facing the country further cements its administration. Pyongyang is mindful of its opponents’ strategies focused on inducing regime change and monitors the emergency military planning of the US-ROK alliance, which certainly had its own plans ready to set in motion in the event of a sudden death of the North Korean leader. The developments in Libya and the fate of Muammar Gaddafi made North Koreans realize what kind of punishment the West administers for defiance.
The North Korean elite and the politically active part of society have no illusions as to their chances for survival in the case of a regime change. More than any ideological directives, such concerns encourage full cohesion, a desire to stay loyal to the country’s leader, and a penchant to ruthlessly suppress any tendencies towards internal discord.
At least in the mid-term, we can expect to see complete continuity in North Korea’s foreign and domestic policies, with its young leader likely to emphasize allegiance to his father’s legacy. Pyongyang’s approach to key foreign-policy issues, including its involvement in the Six Party Talks on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, will therefore remain unchanged.
It should be noted that the recent developments in North Korea open up new opportunities to its opponents, and time will show in what form they will seize them. At the moment, US conservatives, such as the Republican’s leading candidate for presidential nomination Mitt Romney, are urging greater pressure on North Korea in connection with the inexperienced Kim Jong Un’s taking charge with regime change as the end goal. On the other hand, now is an opportune time to turn the page on past conflicts and to start cultivating contacts with the young North Korean leader. An expression of condolences is a typical first step under the circumstances. It instills hope that, in contrast to how the situation was handled when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, Seoul sent their condolences (at least to the North Korean people) this time around. No doubt, the biggest role in rebuilding bridges to Pyongyang could be taken by the United States. Washington’s usual foreign-policy planning strategy is to compile parallel scenarios and to constantly be prepared to make political U-turns. The transformation from a condition bordering on war to fruitful cooperation in the wake of Kim Il Sung’s death and the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework provide a vivid example of such flexibility. The Bush administration made a similar maneuver in 2007.
It became known that over the past several days, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged in intense consultations with representatives of the countries neighboring North Korea. In particular, she had several phone conversations with the foreign ministers of Russia and China. The contents of the talks remain undisclosed, but hypothetically Washington could be trying to elicit at least some kind of unarticulated consent to regime change in North Korea out of its partners. If this is the case, the probability that the endeavors produced any results is minimal. To stress the importance of its ties with Pyongyang, Beijing took an unprecedented diplomatic step when China’s leader Hu Jintao and eight other top Chinese officials visited the North Korean embassy to deliver condolences.
Alternative schemes may nevertheless materialize in the game played out between Washington and Pyongyang. Clinton’s visit to Burma, the country that used to draw Washington’s condemnations in unsurpassed quantities as a “rogue state,” was a bold initiative, and an analogous breakthrough in dealing with North Korea may yet be brewing (the precedent being Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000). In any case, today’s situation offers unique opportunities to end the stalemate in US-DPRK and inter-Korean relations.
Overall, the situation in North Korea remains stable, with Moscow and Beijing firmly espousing peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. Washington and Seoul are faced with the dilemma of either boosting pressure on Pyongyang with the aim of irreversibly breaking its resistance (a strategy loaded with extreme risks) or giving their policies vis à vis North Korea a serious facelift.