North Korea: What Next? – Analysis


By Vyjayanti Raghavan

Kim Jong-il died, unfortunately, just a few months before the centenary celebrations of his father, the late ‘Supreme Leader’ and ‘Founder Father’ Kim Il-Sung, were to take place. The whole nation was gearing up to making North Korea a ‘strong and prosperous nation’ by the centennial year 2012. There were no clear answers as to how they proposed to do this, at least not to the outside world. North Korea had also publicly declared its desire to become a fully functional nuclear weapons state by 2012.

Was it this sort of pressure that resulted in Kim Jong-il’s fatal myocardial infarction, as speculated? Unlikely, North Korean leaders – only two so far – have not really had to deliver on their promises to their people. Indeed, they have always been able to magically turn even dung into flowers for the North Korean people by merely shifting the angle of focus.

However, this has begun to gradually change in the last few years, with globalization leading to a trickling in of information about their well-to-do southern half brethren. As a result, people started becoming savvy by reading between the lines in the information doled out to them about the world outside.

North Korea
North Korea

Kim Jong-il, therefore, might have felt the pressure of having to deliver on some count or the other, whether it was on the nuclear front or on the economic front. His hold on his people was not as total as his father’s and he would not have been able to fool the people all the time.

This raises the question of the credibility of the designated heir apparent, Kim Jong-eun. Will he be able to hold the country together? No one knows anything about him. In fact it is his father’s death that has catapulted him into some prominence. The topmost question on many peoples’ minds when the news of Kim Jong-il’s death broke was this: will the people of North Korea use this opportunity to rise against the establishment as people elsewhere in the world have done recently, fighting for justice?

This thought might have been triggered by the fact that of late, the people of North Korea have been engaging in exercising their will in a small way through some amount of non-state directed buying and selling of goods. The answer came via the outpouring of the people in their praise of the heir apparent.

Many other issues too have to be settled now. For instance, what happens to the six party talks? Whom will the negotiators henceforth represent during talks?

If the military continues to wield power, who will be their frontman? Kim Jong-eun may be a four-star general in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) but he is not even a member of the National Defense Commission (NDC) of which Kim Jong-il was chairman and which is the main organization that takes important decisions regarding the ‘military first’ regime. Also, what is the future of the nuclear weapons and missiles programme in North Korea?

Kim Jong-eun is too young and inexperienced. He has not been built up sufficiently yet to have been indoctrinated into the psyche of the people, nor has he himself had enough time to take over the nuclear weapons programme. His father Kim Jong-il had been handed over the weapons programme by his father Kim Il-sung to raise his standing in the eyes of his countrymen long before he died, and Kim Jong-il inherited the power of the state. Kim Jong-eun has had no such luck.

The first few weeks after the funeral on 28 December will be crucial. Kim Jong-il’s 65 year old brother-in-law Jang Song-T’aek was the vice-chairman of the NDC and the second-in-command before Kim Jong-il died. Now it remains to be seen whether Kim Jong-eun is inducted into the NDC, and if so at what level. In any case, internally, it is this uncle who will be the crucial kingpin, as Uncle Jang could play Shakuni and either become his mentor or take charge completely. Externally, the fact that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons creates an imperative on China to ensure stability. So as long as Kim Jong-eun manages to retain China’s support he should be alright, for the time being.

Vyjayanti Raghavan
Associate Professor, Korean language and culture studies, JNU
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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