By Ruhee Neog
‘Dear Leader’ passed away on 17 December this year, making much space for speculations on the business of succession in a nuclear North Korea. In this difficult time of transition, the most important job for the new leader would be to secure the support of his masses whether by force or appeasement. It can be expected that the focus, for the moment, is going to be directed inwards. Three key, interrelated aspects with one common denominator – food shortages – will be proposed for the domestic emphasis: military and public support and food aid.
Consolidation of power
Both the military and the North Korean populace will have to be appeased or forced into submission. Mass approval of Kim Jong-un, who is a relatively unfamiliar domestic figure, will have to be established, whether by a directive through him or his designated mentors (apparently Jong-il’s sister, Hui, brother-in-law, Thaek, and a Worker’s Party official, Hae, have been assigned as guardians), through propaganda or militaristic big brother-like tactics, or both.
The regime, centred on any one Kim depending on the period in history, has derived its legitimacy and power through its hold on the North Korean people (apart of course from the possession of nuclear weapons in recent times). The transition occurs in an increasingly dangerous climate of cross-border activity and defections in North Korea, where external goods and information have become more readily available. With the rise in black markets around border areas due to acute food shortages, there is the apprehension, not entirely unfounded, that this encourages the uncensored seepage of outside information – which is obviously a threat to the maintenance of the regime.
In the context of the military, Jong-un was appointed a four-star general in 2010 during Jong-il’s tenure without any previous military training. With Jong-il gone how is the military going to react to the succession of a relative unknown to the highest post in the North Korean regime? If a struggle or opposition is anticipated or feared, attention will necessarily be focused internally. This will be compounded by reports that even the military, the regime’s foremost instrument of authority who should logically be kept satisfied at all times, are dangerously falling prey to food shortages.
What will be the tactics?
‘Big Brother’ will be keenly watching. After Kim il-Sung’s death, the display of grief was minutely observed. Those who seemed not to display the general standard of hysterics were watched by the inminban (civil policing squads built around the community); whose reports eventually reached the Department for the Protection of State Security. Propaganda expounding the god-like virtues of Jong-un will probably go into overdrive. This will be heightened by the regime’s fears of a replication of the Arab Spring – 200 migrant workers from Libya were not being accepted back to North Korea in fear of the spread of such potent information. Heavy crackdowns, though not an unusual occurrence in North Korea, are likely to intensify further.
North Korea has been subjected to food shortages since the 1990s and foreign aid is imperative for the survival of the country. Although the regime has never been known to pay much heed to the needs of its people, investing in and focusing on its Songun or ‘military first’ policy in the face of one humanitarian crisis after another, it must also be noted that these are exceptional circumstances. A sufficiently-fed populace is less likely to give in to deviant machinations than one that feels it has nothing left to lose or one that has begun to doubt the efficiency of the system. To ensure this, therefore, the regime will have to make the international community amenable to its tactics for procuring humanitarian aid, which may be negotiated in return for nuclear concessions.
In this light, North Korea’s willingness to resume the six party talks has already been well-documented; steps will perhaps be taken to strengthen this exercise. Interestingly, Kim Jong-un is to be henceforth referred to as the ‘Great Successor’ which is in the fashion of his forebears, the ‘Supreme Leader’ and ‘Dear Leader’. Apart from elevating him to mythical heights in the absence of religion, it is also symbolic of continuity. The process of looking favourably upon the six party talks for the greater good of the nation was initiated by Jong-il, and Jong-un will probably follow suit.
Jong-il assumed complete control as head of state in a matter of years, and not directly upon the death of his father in 1994. This was despite the years that went into his training. If such is the case, Jong-un, who reportedly has had little training, will first have to learn the ropes of statecraft before he can indulge in activities that may catapult him into the global limelight. In this period, domestic compulsions will trump external factors.
Research Officer, IPCS
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