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Update No: 103 - (26/01/12)

North Korea: The Kim Jong-eun era begins
After months of nothing much happening in North Korea, it was just our luck that the period when NewNations decided to take a break for the Christmas and New Year holiday proved exceedingly eventful. As all readers surely know by now, Kim Jong-il, who had ruled for 17 years since the death in 1994 of his father, the DPRK’s founding ‘great leader’ Kim Il-sung, in his turn succumbed to mortality on 17 December. North Korea now enters a new era, led –at least ostensibly – by a third generation: the young Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong-il’s third son. It is thus appropriate at this juncture to take a broad look at the various issues now in play.

Preserving tight security as ever, the dear leader’s demise early was apparently completely unknown to the governments or intelligence services of South Korea, the US or Japan – until a tremulous KCBS announcer uttered the sombre news in a special broadcast at noon local time on 19 December, 52 hours later. (China may have found out or been informed sooner, although this is not certain.) When Kim Il-sung died on 8 July 1994, the delay was 34 hours. Neither wait is especially long by the standards of so secretive a regime.

According to the official account, Kim “suffered an advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated with a serious heart shock, on train on December 17, Juche 100 (2011) for a great mental and physical strain caused by his uninterrupted field guidance tour for the building of a thriving nation.” The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) added – as it had never done in his lifetime, though rumours abounded abroad – that “Leader Kim Jong-il had received medical treatment for his cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases for a long period.”

Conspiracy theories at once sprouted, as they had about his father’s passing. Kim Il-sung’s heart attack, aged 82 in a palace far from Pyongyang and the best doctors, is rumoured to have followed a row with his son about economic reform. Yet Kim Jong-il, though younger – officially 69, but probably 70 – had been visibly frail since a suspected stroke in 2008.

The principle of cui bono? – who gains? – also appplies. In 1994 Kim Jong-il was already 53, champing at the bit after decades as dauphin. Kim Jong-eun by contrast is only 27 or 28; like his father, his exact age is not known for sure. First appearing in public just 16 months ago, Jong-eun has had two years at most to prepare for the poisoned chalice now suddenly thrust upon him. His father was a micro-manager to whom everyone ultimately reported: the only man who knew all that was going on. His sudden death thus leaves a gaping hole at the top in the command structure of a regime built upon command. Given North Korea’s dire straits on all fronts, it is hard to imagine that Kim Jong-eun or anyone else in Pyongyang’s nomenklatura would imagine they might do better without the Dear Leader. The tears of the “Great Successor”, as he was swiftly dubbed, though politically de rigueur for him as for all other North Koreans, looked real enough – and may have been shed for his own fate as well.

One Kim after another
North Korea is peculiar, but the strengths of its system should not be underestimated. On the surface at any rate, Kim Jong-eun’s first month has gone smoothly. Given his inexperience, one might have expected (and many predicted) that a collective leadership would take over, at least at first. An obvious candidate would be the National Defence Commission (NDC): the topmost state executive body, which outranks the Cabinet. Even if this were portrayed as a regency on behalf of Kim Jong-eun, it could have raised hopes of movement towards a less personalised mode of rule in Pyongyang: more in keeping with the rest of the modern world.

That was the road not taken. Rather, Kim Jong-eun was immediately pitched – ready or not – into at least the symbolic role of full leaderhood, like his father and grandfather before him. This ramping-up was startling, and can be measured. Since Kim Jong-eun was first unveiled in September 2010, KCNA had printed his name 225 times as of 18 December 2011, with only four mentions in December so far. Yet from 19 to 27 December his name was cited 253 times: that is, more often in nine days than the preceding 15 months. By 25 January he had clocked up a further 220 mentions, usually prefixed with the sobriquet “dear respected”.

Previously Kim Jong-eun had never appeared in a headline. Now he often is the headline. At once from 19 December onwards KCNA began featuring articles with titles like “We Are Under Respected Kim Jong-un”. The same day, a notice issued jointly by all of the DPRK’s most important organs of party and state – the Central Committee (CC) and Central Military Commission (CMC) of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK); the NDC; the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA, the rubber-stamp parliament); and the Cabinet – unmistakably instructed “all party members, servicepersons and people” (in that order) that “standing in the van of the Korean revolution at present is Kim Jong-eun, great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche and outstanding leader of our party, army and people.”

The message could not be clearer. Similarly, foreign messages of condolence that flooded, or trickled, in were all reported by KCNA as addressed to Kim Jong-eun personally, in his role as vice-chair of the CMC (a job specially created for him) – with one exception. China, first off the mark or at least reported first, sent its sympathies to the above-listed top organs, from Beijing’s equivalent bodies. It would be nice to see this as a hint, but overall China was swift to state its support not only for the DPRK but for its new leader in particular. Already on 20 December President Hu Jintao visited the DPRK embassy to give condolences. Foreigners in general were not invited to the funeral on 28-29 December, but by some accounts China’s ambassador in Pyongyang was made an exception. (For a detailed account of the nuances of the PRC-DPRK relationship, based on a close reading of Chinese sources, Adam Cathcart’s new website is indispensable; not least for its dossier of coverage since the death of Kim Jong-il, available at

‘Generals’ galore
Returning to events following Kim Jong-il’s the death, Kim Jong-eun’s build-up continued with his prominent funereal roles: receiving mourners, and then first in line of four civilians walking beside the 1970s Lincoln Continental that bore the casket – flanked on the other side by four uniformed vice-marshals or generals of the Korean Peoples Army (KPA). Kim Jong-eun is nominally a four-star KPA general, but he has yet to be seen in uniform – unlike his uncle Jang Song-taek, who walked behind him by the hearse in civvies, but who elsewhere was pictured (just once) for the first time in general’s uniform; thus gaining the rank granted a year ago to his wife Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister. (What the real generals really think of these phoney ones is just one of the many question marks in Pyongyang now.)

Due process kicked in on 30 December, when the WPK Politburo named Kim Jong-eun as KPA commander-in-chief – at the supposed behest of Kim Jong-il on 8 October. The press had already cited him as CMC chair rather than vice-chair. Still to come are the two further key party and state positions that his father held: WPK secretary-general and NDC chairman. Kim Jong-eun was not yet even a member of either the Politburo or NDC, but as “supreme leader” he will be catapulted into those posts too: if not now, then as part of the celebrations marking his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s centenary on 15 April. North Korea has long set this as its target to become a “great and prosperous nation”, which sounds a hostage to fortune.

On 1 January Kim Jong-eun made his first inspection visit in his own right: to the 105th Tank Division, also known as Seoul Ryu Kyong-su after the commander who led it to capture the Southern capital at the onset of the Korean War in 1950. No olive branch for South Korea there, yet in fact such new year visits to this KPA unit are routine. Mass rallies hailing Kim Jong-eun followed: in the northeastern city of Hamhung on 2 January, and in Pyongyang a day later. Similar events continued throughout the month, with a notable emphasis on visits to military units – five, as of 22 January. Kim Jong-eun’s other reported activities included hosting a banquet on 24 January for Lunar New Year, a visit to Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, and a tour of a machine plant. He is stepping straight into his late father’s shoes.

No change here
Kim Jong-eun’s assumption of power was reinforced by two turgid treatises. The usual New Year joint editorial of the three main dailies – party, army and youth league – gushed that “the dear respected Kim Jong-eun is precisely the great Kim Jong-il”, calling on everyone to “become human bulwarks and human shields in defending Kim Jong-un unto death.” A day earlier, an even longer joint document of the CC and CMC issued hundreds of slogans, such as: “As long as we are with the dear respected Comrade Kim Jong-eun, joy and sorrow and hardships of all descriptions are an honour.” Another slogan simply reads: “At a go!” Both texts are unremittingly hard-line, repeating old nostrums with no hint of new thinking at all.

Depressing as these screeds are, their tenor is unsurprising. At so delicate a time, the regime had to send two clear messages: stressing continuity to its own people, while warning the rest of the world to keep its nose out. (Libya’s lessons were not lost on North Korea, which drew what must look to them the logical conclusion: give up WMD, and you are dead meat.)

Yet first words are not necessarily last words, nor can Pyongyang’s carefully choreographed political theatre be taken at face value – especially now. Succession was ever dictatorships’ Achilles heel. With Kim Jong-il gone, cleavages and conflicts which he was able to control will now flare up: certainly behind closed doors, and possibly spilling out into the open.

Expect purges
These conflicts are of several kinds. One is the sheer struggle for power. A timely new book by a veteran student of authoritarian leadership – North Korea Under Kim Chong-il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change by Ken E Gause – reprises details of the purges which followed Kim Jong-il’s accession in 1994. It will be no different this time. According to the Seoul online paper Daily NK on 26 January, purges have already begun: the Party is coming down hard on anyone who dares to doubt Kim Jong-eun’s genius, or his fitness to rule.

The first family itself is not free of rivalries. Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-chong (22) was seen mourning. But there was no sign of their elder brother Kim Jong-chol (30), supposedly rejected by his father as too effeminate – much less of their older half-brother Kim Jong-nam, on record as opposing hereditary succession and who lives in quasi-exile in Macau. That suggests he has China’s protection – which he may need, now that a Japanese journalist has published a book based on interviews and correspondence with him, in which number one son speaks very frankly about many contentious issues. Space forbids a detailed account here, but see for instance .

Kim Jong-eun’s inability to rule unaided creates a second set of rivalries: among would-be regents. One such, Ri Je-gang, a senior party official, died in June 2010 in a car crash widely blamed on Jang Song-taek. Jang, himself purged in 2003-6 by his brother-in-law for getting above himself, has another rival in Choe Ryong-hae: a former youth league leader (now 61; Jang is 65) who in 2010 was made a 4-star general despite no known military experience.

Rivalries can be institutional as well as personal. A recent book by a US government analyst, Patrick McEachern – Inside the Red Box: North Korea's Post-Totalitarian Politics – claims that the party, military and cabinet are separate bureaucracies, with different and sometimes clashing interests and views. Seeming contradictions in DPRK behaviour are thus real, rather than a deceptive ruse designed to hoodwink foreigners. If this is true, then one would expect to see such divergences become more overt now that Kim Jong-il’s controlling hand is gone.

This shades into a fourth area: policy. All governments face choices, not least North Korea. If Kim Jong-eun, or whoever is pulling his strings, really means the hard line heard so far since his father’s death, this will be opposed by Cabinet technocrats who are desperate to bring in long-overdue market reforms. The latter have an ally in China, which will expect a quid pro quo for its political support in the form of moves towards a more sensible economy, such that Chinese investors in mining and elsewhere may hope to turn a profit. (Loose talk of North Korea ‘opening’ tends to mix up market reform with denuclearisation, or assume that these come as a package. But they are quite distinct. Nuclear progress is far less probable.)

Divergent neighbours: China wins
A fifth and potentially ominous site of conflict lies outside North Korea, in the competing interests of its neighbours and other key powers such as the US. Naïve western assumptions that the nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT), which ran – or limped – from 2003 to 2008 but have not met for three years, were a united global effort to bring a malefactor into compliance are no longer sustainable. In fact, in a crucial shift China took a strategic decision by early 2010 to grit its teeth and prop up North Korea come what may, rather than – as a much-touted but deeply misleading WikiLeak alleged in November 2010 – accept the possibility of a unified Korea which would be today’s pro-US South Korea extended north. After all, the famously reclusive Kim Jong-il visited China four times in the last 20 months of his life.

This changes everything. As the rising regional and indeed global power, China has both the motive and the means to make its wishes stick. If Beijing embraces Kim Jong-eun, warts and all, there is nothing much Seoul or its allies can do about it. Having already undermined UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions imposed after Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests in 2006 and especially 2009, China is starting to invest in infrastructure and in two border joint economic zones: the long-established but hitherto sleepy Rason (formerly Rajin-Sonbong, a special zone since 1991) in the DPRK’s far northeast, and Wihwa- Hwanggumphyong, two small islands in the Yalu river near Dandong on the opposite side of the peninsula. Beijing reportedly sees the latter as pointless, but agreed to it as the price needed to gain a foothold in Rajin, Asia’s most northerly ice-free port. China is upgrading the road from Rajin to its own border, but even in its old unmetalled and precipitous state it was still worthwhile – given northeast China’s infrastructure bottlenecks – last January to truck 20,000 tonnes of coal from Hunchun in Jilin province down to Rajin for shipment on to Shanghai.

Not that China’s support for North Korea is unconditional. Despite its refusal to criticise the North’s two attacks on South Korea in 2010 – or even to accept Pyongyang’s culpability for the first, the sinking of the corvette Cheonan on 26 March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives – it will not be so reticent were Kim Jong-eun to show his mettle with another such provocation. That would be third time unlucky. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, criticised for not retaliating for the Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeong island eight months later, would be under strong pressure to react forcibly this time, with unpredictable consequences. China would also deplore any third North Korean nuclear test, as it did the two previous ones. To that extent Beijing will exercise more of a restraining influence now than formerly, for two reasons. It has already won the North’s trust by taking its side in 2010, thus gaining clout in Pyongyang. And Kim Jong-eun is weaker than his father, so he needs China more. Beijing is also better placed now to press – but in private, unlike the West’s grandstanding – its own bilateral concerns. These include six DPRK chemical weapons factories close to the border, towards which Sarin gas reportedly drifted on two separate occasions in 2008 and 2009 (as claimed at ).

Seoul sidelined
China’s gain has been South Korea’s loss. Lee Myung-bak’s termination of Seoul’s former ‘sunshine’ policy of engagement – just when it was about to move from one-sided aid into win-win business cooperation, in the several concrete and mutually beneficial plans agreed to by his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun at the second Pyongyang summit in October 2007, such as joint mining – was sorely misguided. However reasonable in theory, in practice the idea that Pyongyang would soon – or perhaps ever – give up its nuclear weapons was a non-starter. For Lee’s advisers to imagine that eventually the North would fall into their lap was delusory. They seemed to forget that Pyongyang had, and has, other options. It simply chose China instead. And without at all condoning vicious aggression, knowing the nature of the beast a Northern riposte such as the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong was only to be expected.

In September Lee appointed a new unification minister, his close ally Yu Woo-ik. This, and Lee’s enthusiasm for the idea of a gas pipeline from Siberia to South Korea via North Korea, suggest a slight softening in Seoul. Lee also allowed two (but only two) Southern mourners for Kim Jong-il to go North, in each case because the North sent a condolence delegation for their respective husbands. The lucky pair, who became the first South Koreans to meet Kim Jong-eun – if only for a few minutes of formal small talk – were Lee Hee-ho, redoubtable widow (now 89) of the late Kim Dae-jung, who as president (1998-2003) had launched the sunshine policy; and Hyun Jeong-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai which under its founder, her father-in-law the late Chung Ju-yung, pioneered tourism to and joint ventures with the North.

But if Seoul saw this as an olive branch, Pyongyang by contrast professed fury (though it can hardly have been surprised) at the South’s refusal to let others come North, and reiterated an earlier vow to have no further dealings with Lee and his “rude political gangsters.” That may be a sincere threat, given South Korea’s two elections this year: parliamentary on 11 April – just before the North’s big celebrations – and then presidential on 19 December. Lee Myung-bak’s ruling Grand National Party (GNP) looks set to lose its majority in the first, and Lee himself is history after the second as presidents may serve only a single five-year term. He is already a lame duck, so it would be pointless and risky for an insecure Kim Jong-eun to have any truck with him. Better to wait for his successor, whoever it be. Leading GNP contenders like Park Geun-hye (who once dined with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang), as well as the liberal opposition Democratic Unity Party (DUP), have all pledged to resume engagement with the North in some form. Currently there is scant political mileage in the South for taking a hard line against the North, although such sentiment is volatile and could change again.

2012 is also a year of elections, or leadership change, in three other concerned powers. One is China, whose expected next president, Xi Jinping, has made clear his support for North Korea. In Russia, the expected return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin also signals policy continuity; although Moscow’s post-Soviet interest in the Korean state which it founded in 1945 has been much more sporadic than Beijing’s, and hence less successful. In 2000-2002 Putin and Kim Jong-il had met annually: in Pyongyang, Moscow, and Khabarovsk. But then there were no more summits till Kim’s famous train rolled into Ulan Ude last August to meet President Dmitry Medvedev, another enthusiast for a trans-Korean gas pipeline. Russia’s ambivalence reflects the fact that North Korea still owes it US$10 billion from the Soviet era, so it is reluctant to invest more. But Moscow has upgraded its dual-gauge crossborder railway line to Rajin port, where it looks askance at China’s growing role. In future it is quite possible that Russia may decide to get back in the Korean game in earnest, and seek to rival China for influence in Pyongyang as it did for three decades during the Sino-Soviet dispute.

US: bottom of the in-tray?
If Russia has chosen to sideline itself on Korean peninsular issues, one would hardly have expected the US to follow suit. True, Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak get on famously. With the much-delayed KorUS free trade agreement finally ratified by both countries, the ROK’s founding alliance has rarely been in better shape. But this has come at a price. In March Lee and Seoul will host the second Nuclear Security Summit. Despite Lee’s deluded hopes, Kim Jong-eun will not be there, any more than his father would have been. Overtly or not, the question will be asked: why has the DPRK been so low a priority for Obama? – far more than it was for either Bill Clinton or George W Bush. Both those US Presidents began hostile – in May 1994 Clinton considered bombing the Yongbyon nuclear site, while Bush’s “axis of evil” jibe is notorious – but came round, sooner or later, to the need to engage.

Widely expected to follow suit, Obama opted instead for “strategic patience”: doing nothing much, in effect. True, he had a full and urgent agenda at home and abroad, and North Korea greeted him rudely with missile and nuclear tests in short order in 2009. Yet its revelation to a leading US scientist in November 2010 of a highly advanced uranium enrichment facility surely underscores the need for urgency. If Iran is today’s top nuclear worry, North Korea has to be tomorrow’s – and tomorrow may not be far away. Yet Obama’s State of the Union address on 24 January did not even mention the DPRK: the first omission of it since 1995.

This silence is puzzling. If Obama is re-elected, he might have more time for North Korea in his second term – or be forced to by events. But if a Republican takes the White House, even a pragmatist like Mitt Romney will be constrained by his party’s visceral hatred of a regime which some regard as virtually Satan incarnate. That would put Washington out of step with a by then re-engaging Seoul, as in 2001-02 when Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel peace prize did not save him from being rudely scorned by the cocky and newly elected Bush.

Japan: out of the loop
If Japan has not yet been mentioned, this is because there is sadly little to say. Even before the Tohoku earhquake and tsunami devastated the country and turned it inwards, and before the Democratic Party came to power only to dissipate hope by a succession of short-lived prime ministers, Tokyo had tied itself in a knot on North Korea (under pressure from public opinion) by focusing exclusively on a real yet unwinnable issue: namely, insisting on the full truth about DPRK abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

Painful as this issue is, realpolitik should have acknowledged that then-premier Junichiro Koizumi’s breakthrough in 2002 – extracting a unique guilty plea and apology from Kim Jong-il, plus the return of five survivors two years later – was the maximum success that was realistically feasible. Yet Japan pressed on. It now bans all trade with North Korea, and like South Korea has wilfully lost the access it once had in Pyongyang – for decades in Tokyo’s case, thanks to regular visits despite the lack of formal relations by left-wing politicians who dutifully reported afterwards to the foreign ministry. Meanwhile the more urgent threat of DPRK missiles was drowned out by the clamour over abductions. While the death of Kim Jong-il may prompt a re-evaluation, it is hard to imagine Japanese policy toward North Korea changing soon – meaning that Tokyo will have little influence on whatever transpires.

2012: a year of wary watching
Taking all this together, North Korea’s likely introversion (for the April festivities, and to cement Kim Jong-eun’s succession), combined with anticipated regime change in so many of the DPRK’s interlocutors, suggest that 2012 may be less a year of diplomatic initiatives than of all concerned watching one another warily. In particular all eyes will be focused on Pyongyang, wondering if this past master of politics as theatre can bring off what would be its most stunning and implausible production ever. Will a hungry populace really rally round the latest Kim? – trusting him to improve things, and swallowing or tolerating the lies that are even now being manufactured to buttress his feeble claims to rule? Or will Pyongyang’s nomenklatura, hitherto united mainly by Benjamin Franklin’s dictum – fear that if they do not all hang together, then they may well hang separately – finally split into rival factions, on the basis of personalities, policies, or both? Will some prefer Beijing, others perhaps Seoul? Amid all this, will Kim Jong-eun survive even as a figurehead, or be brusquely tossed aside?

None of these questions can yet be answered. What can be done, and urgently should be, is to ensure that an already potentially difficult situation, if the DPRK regime were to collapse, is not compounded by great power involvement. At present the US and ROK have one set of contingency plans, as is only prudent, for various possible eventualities in North Korea that may entail intervention. Just as legitimately, China has its own separate plans in such a case. Quiet coordination between Seoul, Washington and Beijing, long desirable, is now urgent..

But it may already be too late. If China is confident of making North Korea its protectorate de facto, and if Pyongyang goes along with this – as opposed to reviving its old games, by inviting Seoul and Moscow to join in and be played off – then there would be no ground for anyone else to intervene in any circumstances, and much peril if they did. That is galling for South Korea, whose shibboleths (not always sincere) about wanting reunification may thus be postponed – if only for a generation or so: Koreans do not take kindly to satellisation.

For now, all the attention is on Kim Jong-eun: rightly, as this is a moment of truth for North Korea. Yet at another level, this transition may count for less than China’s earlier tacit but firm decision that it will prop up the DPRK, no matter what – or who. If Kim Jong-eun does not measure up, there is always Kim Jong-nam: a known reformist despite his dubious mores and unprepossessing demeanour. To pre-empt such a fate, Kim Jong-eun’s best hope may be to promise prosperity to his people by fully legitimising markets, in return for massive aid from China which has been urging such a course for 30 years. Should the “great successor” prove recalcitrant on that front, then he in turn may have a successor sooner than he expects.

Yet for now all seems stable in Pyongyang, although it is early days yet. The US satirical magazine The Onion caught this wittily with a spoof story on 24 January, whose headline read: “North Korea Returns To Normalcy With Synchronized Disco Jump-Rope Gala.” Not that far from the truth, if the Arirang mass gymnastics festival is held as usual this summer. Foreign tour operators have been assured that all is normal, and their tours will go ahead as planned. Such a smooth transition is remarkable. The question is whether the calm will last.

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