Go to Contents Go to Navigation

(News Focus) N. Korea after Kim Jong-il's death: different leadership, same 'military-first' policy

All Headlines 08:30 December 09, 2012

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- When North Korea announced the death of its long-time leader, Kim Jong-il, nearly a year ago, the world's eyes were on his heir-apparent and third and youngest son -- believed to be in his late 20s -- Kim Jong-un.

In the run-up to his confirmation as the new leader of the impoverished state with a population of 24 million, outside watchers worried that the transition could ignite a power struggle.

Last month, however, South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said that, at least for now, the new North Korean leader has made a rather smooth transition into power, and is apparently following in the footsteps of his father's military-first policy.

In a sign of flexing its muscles, the North in April had attempted to launch a rocket to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the leader's late grandfather, and the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, but the much-hyped test was a failure.

This failure, nor international warnings, have deterred Kim Jong-un from attempting to launch a long-range rocket later this month, close to the anniversary of his father's death on Dec. 17.

North Korea claims that this rocket launch is to put a satellite in orbit but South Korea, the United States and other regional players suspect it is a disguised test of the North's long-range ballistic missile technology.

In the year since given the helm of North Korea, what is different compared to his father is the personality cult that has developed around the Swiss-educated despot.

Before Kim Jong-un became the leader, there was only one picture of him from his childhood available outside of North Korea. Now, his photos are everywhere in the country.

In a sharp contrast to the austere, reclusive image of his father, the state media have shown the pudgy-faced leader visiting fun fairs, speaking in public and applauding at a rock concert. What has become clear now is that the junior Kim has a new leadership style.

The reclusive state in July broke the mystery surrounding a young woman who was seen in several public events together with the leader, saying that she is actually his wife, Ri Sol-ju.

The former pop singer was seen accompanying the leader, wearing trendy outfits, sometimes wearing pant suits in cheerful, casual demeanor, drawing media attention on her fashion style.

What is less clear is whether the new leader will take bold steps to reform the moribund economy or will just dabble in Chinese-style economic overhaul.

In August, Kim called for building a "prosperous country" in a major policy guideline, a day after he told a visiting Chinese delegation that he was focused on "developing the economy and improving people's livelihoods."

There were increasing academic publications and reports calling for the need for North Korea to overhaul its centrally controlled economy through financial reforms.

Pyongyang in 2002 introduced limited economic reforms but its efforts lost momentum three years later, apparently because of the fear in its leadership that such moves could unsettle the regime.

Most recently, North Korea unsuccessfully pushed to re-denominate its currency, the won, in 2009, but the botched attempt caused massive inflation and exacerbated food shortages, according to analysts in Seoul.

"Considering that Kim Jong-un is a young and inexperienced leader, he has shown his willingness to develop the nation's economy and improve livelihoods of its people this year," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said. "(The North) may proclaim a new economic policy on collective farms next year."

But so far, experts say the communist state has not shown any significant changes that may help jump-start its staggering economy.

According to South Korea's central Bank of Korea, the North Korean economy grew 0.8 percent on-year in 2011, compared with a 0.5 percent contraction a year earlier.

While the support of the nation's 1.2 million-strong military is crucial, Kim has shown signs that he is more concerned about cementing his grip on power through a series of military reshuffles this year.

During his father's funeral procession on Dec. 28 last year, Kim Jong-un walked alongside the hearse through Pyongyang, a moment that provided an early glimpses of those who would serve as his guardians during the power transition.

Most prominent among those behind Kim were Jang Song-thaek, Kim's uncle and a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, and Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of the general staff of the Korean People's Army.

In the first year, Jang, widely seen as Kim's most trusted guardian, played a key role in foreign relations. Accompanied by a delegation of 50 officials, Jang visited China in August, during which he met with President Hu Jintao and senior Beijing officials.

Ri, however, has since disappeared from public view. Pyongyang announced that he was relieved of all public posts because of "illness." Outside experts suspect that he was purged.

Most recently, in October, Hyon Yong-chol, chief of the North Korean military's general staff, was seen wearing a uniform bearing four stars on the epaulet.

The picture raised speculation that Hyon, who was promoted to the rank of vice marshal in July, might have been demoted, possibly taking responsibility for a series of North Korean soldiers defecting to South Korea earlier this year.

Since Kim Jong-un took power, North Korea's reliance on China has deepened as international sanctions have tightened and outside aid has dwindled following the country's nuclear and long-range missile tests in recent years.

China's trade with the communist state grew rapidly in the past several years as Pyongyang expanded trade with Beijing to make up for losses in trade and aid from countries like South Korea and Japan.

Experts call for keen attention on the North's moves to reform its economy and strengthen diplomacy with neighboring nations next year. The United States and China have installed new administrations, while South Korea and Japan are to pick new leaders through elections this month.

"There is a sense of change in North Korea, where the American movie 'Rocky' is shown, which is quite different from the days of the late leader Kim Jong-il," said Cho Bong-hyun, a senior researcher at IBK Economic Research Institute. "It is likely that the North may give shape to some visions, which were not actualized this year."


Send Feedback
How can we improve?
Thanks for your feedback!