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What Next for North Korea?

It comes as no surprise that Kim Jong-Il died at a relatively young age of a heart attack over the weekend. Having suffered from ill health for a number of years (cancer and, more recently, a stroke), he was well known for his pleasurable excesses, and his father, Kim Il-Sung, also died of a heart attack. Kim Jong-Il knew his end was near, which prompted him to catapult his youngest son — Kim Jong-Un — believed to be just 28 years old, as his named successor. Assuming that a behind-the-scenes battle for succession does not occur, Kim Jong-Un should become the leader of the world’s most secretive and dangerous nuclear state.

It should be remembered that even when Kim Jong-Il assumed power as the named successor to his father in 1994, with all his grooming, it took him three years to fully consolidate his power. Like many other countries, the North Korean political landscape is fraught with competing interests between the elite and military. Whether young Mr. Kim has the skill to ultimately become the leader of North Korea must of course be determined. It has previously been reported that Kim Jong-Un will be mentored by his uncle, Chang Sung-Taek, until he is deemed experienced enough to take the reins of power himself.

Little is known of Kim Jong-Un, other than that he studied at a private school in Switzerland and that he has a fascination for basketball. But Kim Jong-Un was chosen to be his father’s successor because he was more like Kim Jong-Il than any of this other sons. Given this, his youth, and that he likely to be ‘nurtured’ for several years by Kim Jong-Il’s closest and most senior allies and advisors, there is little reason to believe that Kim Jong-Un — or those around him — will implement policies that divert in any way from those adopted by his father.

Indeed, it could certainly be argued that any attempt on his part to implement policies that are radically different than what North Korea has known for decades would be viewed by his minders as a sign of weakness and prompt a palace coup that would install someone more predictable and likely to promote the interests of the existing power structure.

More likely, in his initial year of leadership, Kim Jong-Un will attempt to strengthen the cult of personality that has always accompanied his family’s rule. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth, and Kim Jong-Il had intended to use the occasion to formalize Kim Jong-Un’s rise to power. Now, Kim Jong-Il has been robbed of that opportunity, and along with it, any hope that Kim Jong-Un may avoid a difficult path to leadership. In the absence of an alternative, it is presumed that North Korea’s military will support the younger Kim, unless he demonstrates that he is stepping out of line.

As for what happens next vis-à-vis the nuclear question, there has not been any meaningful progress in the six-party talks with North Korea for many years, and it seems extremely unlikely that any such progress will be made in the near or even medium-term. Kim Jong-Un will certainly have his hands full simply making the transition to becoming North Korea’s leader. The talks will not be a priority, and if they are resurrected in the near-term, it would probably be for some other reason — such as placating China, which has been pressuring North Korea to resume talks — rather than any inherent desire to find a solution to the problem. And, given how elusive progress was under his father, no one should imagine a breakthrough will occur any time soon. It could also be argued that North Korea knows that its nuclear capability is its ultimate bargaining chip. It would be hard to believe that Kim Jong-Un and his minders would wish to remove that chip from the table at a time like this.

Similarly, no one should imagine that Kim Jong-Il’s death is going to result in a sudden embrace of an Arab Spring-like movement in North Korea. Apart from being brainwashed and starved for decades, which has beaten the people down, so little information flows freely in North Korea that few people even know about the Arab Spring, and it is believed that there are fewer than 400,000 mobile phones in the entire country. North Korea seems like the last place on earth where a spring-like event may occur.

The bottom line, then, is that the world should expect no change from North Korea, which is, arguably, the world’s worst country. The old guard and elite are firmly in control, and they will in all likelihood throw their weight behind the family that has ensured their hold on the country. It would be nice to believe that young Mr. Kim would somehow transform his youth, access to information about the world, and brief orientation to the west into something that will end the enslavement of his people, but this will not happen. Expect more of the same.