By Sangsoo Lee
2012 will be a critical year for the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has large-scale domestic political events such as the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and the pronouncement of the strong and prosperous nation. Meanwhile, South Korea will hold a presidential election this year. All these upcoming events in 2012 could have a great impact on the security of the Korean Peninsula.
Challenges for Kim Jong Un’s Leadership
Although Kim Jong Un seems to be managing normal operations so far, North Korea faces an uncertain 2012 regarding the question of whether Kim Jong Un’s leadership will be domestically successful or not. This year is a critical time for Pyongyang to achieve its stated objective of becoming a “powerful and prosperous nation” by 2012. Kim Jong Un is now under internal pressure to show his capacity for dealing with the current economic and food crises. However, time is running out and the new leader is likely to distribute food and essential goods during the national festival in April to show minor signs of progress, instead of seeking a solution to fundamental economic problems and the improvement in people’s living conditions. However, if the regime cannot not figure out a long-term solution, there could be an outburst of social unrest.
In fact, North Korea is faced with a dilemma. The regime cannot afford to push for liberalization or reform of its economy without politically threatening the regime itself. As a result, Kim Jong Un will consider economic aid from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan as an efficient way to revive its economy quickly. In this sense, North Korea this year will continue to pursue a resumption of the Six-Party Talks in exchange for economic aid. Thus, Kim Jong Un is likely to continue to use its nuclear weapon with a combination of tough and soft strategies as his father has done—one to threaten and deter the outside world and the other to try to gain as much aid and assistance as possible.
Power Elites in the New Era
During the funeral procession with the Kim Jong Il’s hearse, Kim Jong Un walked at the head of the right side of the hearse, followed by Jang Song Taek, Kim Ki Nam and Choe Tae Bok. Military Generals walked on the other side, led by Ri Yong Ho, followed by Kim Yong Chun, Kim Jong Gak and U Dong Chuk. These seven selected figures are expected to play a important role in stabilizing the new leadership, supporting and guarding the new leader, Kim Jong Un, and they are connected in a complex web of power dynamics.
Jang Song Taek is crucial in helping Kim Jong Un manage the country’s affairs and promoting political elites who are supporting him. In fact, Jang, a brother-in-law of Kim Jong Un, is the most powerful and trustworthy guardian for the young Kim as he is an influential figure not only in the Workers Party but also in the military. Kim Ki Nam, director of the Party’s Propaganda Department, led a North Korean delegation that visited Seoul and met President Lee Myung-bak to pay respects after the death of former president Kim Dae Jung in August 2009. He will continue to play a legitimizing role for the new regime.
Choe Tae Bok, chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, has worked in education and science. His responsibility is likely to be promoting North Korea’s technological development as a new national priority under the Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho is Kim Jong Un’s most senior military advisor and chief of the Army’s General Staff, one of the highest-ranking military officers. He is expected to play a protector role for Kim Jong Un and also provide an ideal balance to the power of Jang Song Taek. Kim Jong Gak is the first deputy director of the Army’s General Political Bureau, which monitors every movement of North Korean Army officers and he is in charge of military personnel management, ensuring the military’s loyalty toward Kim Jong Un through the promotion process. Meanwhile, U Dong Chuk, the first deputy director of the State Security Department and a member of the National Defense Commission, is responsible for national security. Kim Yong Chun is a vice chairman of the National Defense Commisson. He is a powerful man in the military although he remained a member of the party’s Central Military Commission under Ri Yong Ho.
Possible Provocations against South Korea
Under the Kim Jong Un regime, which has a weaker power base than the Kim Jong Il regime had, the positions of the military and hard-line anti-South factions will be stronger than before. Thus, the military-first policy is the only option for Kim Jong Un to consolidate his power, including a change of the existing power structure, within the military. In fact, the rise of members of the so-called “new military leadership” or “new military hard-liners” has been accompanied with the relative decline of the elderly military group. The newly emerged military leaders are guardians intended to protect Kim Jong Un, such as Generals Lee Yong Ho and Kim Gyong Sik. In this regard, new leader might involve North Korea in act of provocations, including a third nuclear test, most likely shortly after the centenary celebrations to bolster his credibility as a leader.
In South Korea, elections for the National Assembly will be held in April 2012 followed by the presidential poll in December. The recent result of the opposition party’s victory on the election for the Mayor of Seoul in October, 2011 showed that of dissatisfaction with the current government’s policies and its failure to make any tangible results in relations with North Korea. Due to North Korea’s uncertainty, there is a high expectation in South Korea that the next government will be capable of dealing with North Korea. In this regard, North Korea will try to affect the elections in April and December in South Korea through some degree of provocation to create a positive atmosphere for the opposition party’s victory. To achieve its goals, Pyongyang may see carrying out a third nuclear test as its best option rather than military provocations such as the Cheonan or Yeonpyong incident which created a bad feeling about North Korea. In fact, after the North’s provocations in 2010, the South Korean public has shifted to demanding that the government take more a hard-line policy against the North.
Dr Sangsoo Lee is a Research Fellow with the project on Conflict Management and Energy in Northeast Asia at the Institute for Security and Development Policy. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Northeast Asian Studies from Peking University.