Post Kim Jong-Il North Korea: Possible Changes in Domestic and Foreign Policy

North Korea’s foreign political priorities will consist of rapprochement with China, re-entry into the six-party talks and building stronger ties with Russia. A military conflict on the Korean Peninsula is the last thing Russia needs.

Kim Jong-un has been declared the new leader of North Korea, following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. At this stage, it can be said that the youngest son of the deceased leader is at once suitable and unsuitable for this role.

He may be considered suitable because hereditary succession of power within Kim Il-sung’s family is a tradition that emerged with the establishment of North Korea as a state in 1948.

Hereditary succession is characteristic of rigid authoritarian systems, where power is handed down to the leader’s son. In North Korea, the leader runs the country as well as Korea’s Labor Party, the army and society. From this perspective, North Korea has no other option but to give the seat to Kim Jong-un, because the system does not include elections or any other mechanisms for appointing a leader.

On the other hand, Kim Jong-un is too young and inexperienced to be able to rule a country as complicated as North Korea. The young politician has inherited from his father a tangle of domestic and foreign political problems such as the unfavorable economic situation, the extremely low living standards, as well as nuclear problems (North Korea’s withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and from the six-party talks) and tensions with South Korea, Japan and the United States.

There is no way he will be able to cope with this host of problems alone. Therefore, even as the nationwide mourning ceremonies continue, a certain political backup is taking shape behind his back but with his consent: a kind of unofficial second-tier leadership. This group includes the leading members of the national defense commission, mainly military officials and the leadership of the country’s Labor Party. It is difficult to say how long this group will last – perhaps five to six years. At this point, it is vital for the young Kim Jong-un, to help him avoid mistakes and political crises.

This “collective regency” group that will influence the young leader will also include members of the Kim family. It is important to mention Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, Kim Kyung-hee and her husband, Chang Song-taek. This indirectly suggests that Kim Jong-un is not considered to be a suitable candidate for the national leadership role by the formal criteria of age and experience. Still, taking into account his back-up – the interim leadership group designed to keep an eye out for his mistakes – he will probably become a worthy successor to his father, whether the West likes it or not.

The hopes that his Western education background might influence the country’s policies are hardly justified. He relies heavily on longstanding traditions and hundreds of generals, powerful party activists reared by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Therefore, any deviation toward liberalism will be spotted and corrected immediately.

On the other hand, some changes may occur. Relations between North Korea and South Korea became extremely strained during the rule of Kim Jong-il and the current South Korean leader, who will be replaced in 2012. The same is true of North Korea’s relations with the West. Tensions were triggered by a series of radical moves undertaken by the former North Korean leader, such as missile launches, nuclear tests, withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty and the six-party talks. This makes the challenge of resolving the foreign political crisis a priority for the young leader. His other priorities include normalizing relations with South Korea, the United States and other countries. But these problems cannot be resolved overnight.

North Korea is also likely to continue consolidating and expanding cooperation with its main ally, China, which now has the opportunity to actively and effectively draw North Korea into the sphere of its economic and political interests. This will probably be the most tangible change in the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Kim Jong-il, while maintaining friendly relations with China, still never agreed to borrow China’s experience with regard to political and economic reform.

As for the new leader, he could easily and painlessly adopt a strategy to alter North Korea’s dead-end model, bringing it closer to the obviously more effective model of “socialism with Chinese specifics.” This would also bring far more resources from China in terms of both financing and political support.

It is also possible that, if North Korea were to demonstrate absolute loyalty to China’s foreign policy, China may agree to guarantee North Korea’s national security – in the long run – by offering it a nuclear umbrella in exchange for Korea’s total denuclearization. This is a hypothetical scenario of course, and it is too early to discuss it. Nuclear weapons are the only effective trump card that the North Korean leadership holds that guarantees the country’s national security, especially given the experience of the United States and its allies’ recent military campaigns in the Middle East and the subsequent “Arab springs.”

Therefore, North Korea’s foreign political priorities will consist of rapprochement with China, re-entry into the six-party talks and building stronger ties with Russia.

The Sakhalin-Vladivostok gas pipeline project and its possible extension to the Korean Peninsula in 2013, as well as other energy and transport agreements will help to resume Russian-North Korean economic ties and to raise them to a higher level.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Kim Jong-il discussed the future of the Sakhalin-Vladivostok pipeline and the possibility for North Korea to return to the six-party talks during their meeting in Ulan Ude in August 2011. Transport cooperation could also be intensified, primarily with regard to the Trans-Korean Railway project which could be linked to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway.

It is worth noting that Russian-North Korean relations have remained strong and friendly even during the general political crisis when the world was teetering on the brink of a new war. A military conflict on the Korean Peninsula is the last thing Russia needs.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.