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The Peninsula

Danger Behind the Veil of Transition in North Korea

Published December 22, 2011
Category: North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

The death of Kim Jong Il has put the focus and pressure on Kim Jong-un and the rest of the North Korean leadership elite. The spotlight will be even more intense as previously scheduled events in North Korea approach in the next few months. These moments will provide North Korea with an opportunity to appear united behind Kim Jong-un’s leadership. At the same time, the international community will also have a public glimpse into North Korea and will be looking for any signs of uncertainty. However, after April 2012, there will likely be fewer opportunities for the outside world to publicly track the transition process, but there could be more occasions for internal maneuvering for power amongst the North Korean elite.

After coming onto the scene at the Party Conference in 2010, and then accompanying his father on inspection tours around North Korea, Kim Jong-un will now be the public face of the regime in upcoming events. We have already seen him at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace paying his respects to his father Kim Jong Il. Moreover, he greeted the foreign dignitaries stationed in Pyongyang that came to the Palace to pay their respects as well. Next week, the funeral will likely be another opportunity to see how the young leader is handling his new duties.

Two other public events in early 2012 can possibly offer some insight into the new leadership formation. The first would be Kim Jong Il’s birthday on February 16. As mentioned at KEI’s event on North Korea after Kim Jong Il, the main question will be how North Korea chooses to celebrate this event. So soon after Kim Jong Il’s death and coming within a possible one hundred day mourning period make it unclear on what exactly North Korea would do on February 16. Nevertheless, any type of event on this day would potentially provide another public look into how the leadership structure is shaping up around Kim Jong Un.

The big event people were anticipating even before Kim Jong Il’s death was April 15, the one hundred year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday and the start of North Korea’s efforts to fulfill its pledge to become a strong and prosperous nation. The pressure for Kim Jong-un increases even more here, as he has to try to demonstrate some areas where North Korea is a strong and prosperous nation in addition to appearing in control of the new regime. The North Korean government has let foreign press into the country for previous celebrations, and this occasion was likely a reason the North Korean government gave permission for AP and Reuters to have increased video and news access in their country. Thus, the public expectation for the 100th year anniversary celebration and being four months on the job for Kim Jong-un make the appearances at this event vital for demonstrating control under his new leadership.

While these public events may allow North Korea to demonstrate support and unity around Kim Jong-un, there is still the likely possibility that maneuvering for power is occurring behind closed doors. It would take a real strong feeling of uncertainty and disbelief in the leadership capabilities of Kim Jong-un and the direction of the country for the public face of leadership in North Korea not to be Kim Jong-un through April 2012. Yet after April, the public events subside and even more jockeying of power could begin.

Additionally, pressure for stability in North Korea will start to increase from China as it moves closer to its own leadership transition in October. Chinese concerns that its own leadership transition not be disrupted and its continuing support for the regime in Pyongyang would have to be a factor for any consideration of leadership change from  Kim Jong-un, or if true, a collective leadership committee.

Over the days and months ahead, speculation will abound on how Kim Jong-un is faring as leader. His upcoming public appearances, from the funeral through April’s one hundred year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, will provide a public presence for North Korea to appear united behind Kim Jong-un and for the rest of the world to see if that is true. There will likely be positioning for power behind the scenes before the public events, but after they conclude, our public lens could decrease and the jockeying for leadership could increase, creating uncertainty and instability before the leadership transition in China and the elections in the United States and South Korea.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Expert Infantry’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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