A Choice on the Horizon for North Korea
By Ji Hwan Lee '12E
North Korea is going through a transformation: Kim Jong-il, one of the most hermit-like leaders in the world, is transferring his power to an heir. The youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was crowned with important political posts as Pyongyang wrapped up its largest party meeting in three decades.

Kim Jong-un was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party and also won a spot on the party’s Central Committee. The commission designs the party’s military policies and directs the 1.2 million-strong army, while the central committee functions as the party’s decision-making mechanism. Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, was also made a four-star general earlier Tuesday, a major promotion that would have been impossible without his ailing father’s help.

No one knows what the consequences of this transfer of power will be. There are two possibilities. The first possibility is that Kim Jong-un would be forced to show some military accomplishments to his father’s beloved generals so that the army would accept him as an able new leader. Another possibility is more optimistic. This Swiss-educated heir-apparent might turn out to be another Gorbachev, who endorsed perestroika and glasnost.

If Kim Jong-un chooses to be aggressive, it would surely strain the North-South relationship again. Since the North’s torpedo attack on a South Korean warship killed 46 innocent soldiers on a patrolling mission, all of Northeast Asia — including the United States, China and Russia, as well as the two Koreas — still bears the scars of the Korean and Cold Wars. These five countries have criticized each other as they did during the two wars: South Korea stands with the United States against North Korea and China while Russia acts irresponsibly amidst its claims to neutrality. In this complicated deadlock, if Jong-un starts another military challenge, South Korea’s conservative ruling party does not seem to have many cards in its hand. Although there will surely be no war, the South Korean army will not just accept a situation in which innocent soldiers lose their lives as in the aforementioned attack on the Cheonan.

Yet, if Kim Jong-un chooses to be more open-minded than expected, the Korean peninsula will be able to welcome a new era, during which the unification of Korea might be possible.

In fact, tensions between the two Koreas appear to be softening — of course, this might be another North Korean strategy to help the power transfer be as safe and quick as possible — because they held their first military talks in nearly two years on Sept. 30. South Korea has also announced it will be sending thousands of tons of rice and cement to Pyongyang to help the country rebuild from recent floods. North Korea, at the same time, has been showing a renewed willingness to participate in the stuck six-party talks over its denuclearization, an attitude the country will likely maintain throughout its leadership change. The North had walked away at the end of 2008 from the talks it had with South Korea, America, Japan, China and Russia since 2003.

We should also not forget that along with his third son, the North Korean leader also promoted his 64-year-old sister to be a four-star general and named her a member of the Central Committee’s Political Bureau. She will probably serve as the young leader’s guardian with her husband Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jang was given the three posts of alternate member of the Political Bureau, department director for the Central Committee and a spot on the military commission. These guardians can contribute to the future path of their beloved young cousin, their country and the whole Korean peninsula.

No one knows what this transition in leadership will lead to. However, because of his ailing but not-likely-soon-to-die father, Kim Jung-un might receive training on domestic politics and international politics from his father. For Jung-un it is fortunate to have a time to formulate his own thoughts on macro-level survival strategy and micro-level national security strategy. For the world observing this succession of power, it would be premature to assess that Kim Jung-un would turn out to be another hopeless tyrant. We should stay alert not to bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy on North Korea. We still need more time and patience.

Issue 05, Submitted 2010-10-06 03:02:06