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3Qs: What will come from new leadership in North Korea?

Photo by Craig Bailey.

Enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died last weekend at the age of 69, and he will be succeeded by his youngest and untested son, Kim Jong-un, who is largely unknown to the international community.  Given North Korean’s history as an isolated and militaristic state, the transition of power presents many questions about the country’s future. We asked Natalie Bormann, an academic specialist in Northeastern’s Department of Political Science, to discuss how Kim Jong-un is perceived within North Korea and globally, and whether he’ll be able to maintain his leadership of the regime. 

Do you anticipate any significant changes under Kim Jong-un’s rule, and what will it take for him to hold onto power?

As is often the nature with unquestioned, dynastic transfers of power, there is a sense that Kim Jong-un is ill prepared to deal with the domestic and international challenges facing the world’s most repressive and unpredictable regime. The parts of his life that are actually “public” — most are shrouded in secrecy, such as his age — sound as flattering as they are improbable. It would appear that he is not only fluent in several languages, but is brilliant in all things military and strategic. All the same, he only had his political debut just over a year ago and clearly lacks political experience. Considering this, he is merely the figurehead of the existing regime run by members of the military and the ruling party, and thus a significant change in the political tone seems unlikely. Whether or not he can hold on to power remains to be seen. Some point out that he is firmly planted at the center of the country’s powerful elites through key political and military roles he has been assigned. Others, however, say his lack of leadership experience could easily be challenged.

How is Kim Jong-un perceived within his own country, and how is North Korea reacting to this change in leadership?

To us on the outside, the transition of the new leadership may well appear unexpectedly hasty, but to those inside North Korea, not so much. The ruling party has been propagating Kim Jong-un’s rise for a number of years now; even Kim Jong-un’s birthday had already been declared a national holiday, for instance.  There may have been some surprise within his own country regarding the fact that Kim Jong-un jumped the pecking order for succession. His two older siblings would have technically been next in line for the leadership on grounds of seniority. Apparently though, Kim Jong-un emerged as his father’s favorite son, an endorsement that may serve him well. On a subtler, yet equally important note, Kim Jong-un is said to be remarkably like his father — in looks and personality — but also like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, whose popularity is remembered in North Korea to this day. These associations may be of benefit in terms of support.


Given Kim Jong-un isn’t well known on the global landscape, how is the international community reacting to this change in leadership?

Are there any immediate risks or challenges created by this transition?As was to be expected, the change in leadership and the uncertainty that is associated with that change have only exacerbated a sense of concern, if not fear, within the international community. The notion that Kim Jong-un is not ready to be at the helm of a country with a “military first” policy and an uncertain nuclear future is unsettling for many. Both South Korea and Japan have held emergency meetings and are keeping their militaries at the ready. There is also an argument that this change could not have come at a worse time for President Obama. Washington has been in talks with Pyongyang for some time and there had been rumors as to a possible breakthrough coupled with a new round of six-party talks before long.

Lastly, the death of Kim Jong-il is concerning in other, more subtle, ways. We have come to exclusively “access” North Korea through, and reduce it to, its leadership, of which we say it has been irrational and dangerous. However, the focus ought to be more on the region, and less on the individual. North Korea constitutes a buffer in a region of very powerful neighbors who do not trust each other very much. From that perspective, Kim Jong-un is the least of a long list of other concerns.

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