What’s next for North Korea?

Following the death of Kim Jong-il on Dec. 17, 2011, all eyes have been on North Korea, anxiously waiting to see what this turn of events will mean for both the country and the world. Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, has been hailed as the “supreme commander” of the military and Jong-il’s successor by the North Korean state media. This change, while not completely unexpected, places North Korea’s elites into the rather precarious position of extending Kim Jong-il’s god-like status onto his son.

A number of foreign policy commentators have noted that it is impossible for anyone, let alone a mere university opinion columnist, to know for sure what will happen as Kim Jong-un steps into his father’s platform shoes. However, it is possible to look at the differences between the conditions surrounding Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power in comparison to his father, when he became North Korea’s “Dear Leader” in 1994.

Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son, was almost unknown until Sept. 2010, when he was made a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. However, the 16 months or so of crash training does nothing to compare to Kim Jong-il’s nearly 30 years of involvement with the Worker’s Party prior to 1994.

It was through these experiences that Kim Jong-il developed his keen ability to manipulate those around him and his flair for the theatrical, particularly through his work as deputy director of the propaganda and agitation department. This gave him the knowledge necessary to obtain the support and adoration of both the party members and the general public, while eliminating those he saw as a threat. Kim Jong-un’s lack of leadership and party experience will almost certainly work against him, leaving him vulnerable to power struggles.

Another factor which must be considered is that there have been few preparatory steps made to convince the population. The appointment of Kim Jong-un in Sept. 2010 was the first indication that Kim Jong-il intended on making Kim Jong-un his successor. Prior to this appointment, it was unclear as to whom Kim Jong-il would name as his successor.

When North Korea’s first leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994, however, there was no confusion as to who his successor would be. Kim Jong-il’s portrait started to appear alongside his father’s as early as 1975 with his role as successor first officially recorded in May 1980.

This allowed the propaganda machines to surround Kim Jong-il’s name with mythical stories – giving him the status of a living god. These stories were instrumental in the development and maintenance of power, allowing the “Dear Leader” to promote himself and achieve the god-like influence he had over the North Korean people. With Kim Jong-un, such strategies have only started in the past couple of years or so, after Kim Jong-il suffered a life-threatening stroke.

Since then, the North Korean state media have tried re-package Jong-un from a shy, nerdy, twenty-something boy into a younger version of the original “Great Leader,” Kim Il-sung.

While he is hailed as “another leader sent from heaven,” according to a Dec. 2011 article in the New York Times, it seems impossible for the young leader to have gathered the support and love enjoyed by his father and grandfather in such a short amount of time.

This fact poses severe problems for the ruling elite, since it is as a result of this cultivated support that the elites have been able to rise above the rest.

However, it is certain that this sudden change of leadership comes with a number of problems for North Korea’s new leader which could threaten his leadership over the ruling party.

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