Korea's Third Kim: Will Anything Change?

Article excerpt

The death of Kim Jong-il and subsequent dynastic transfer of power in North Korea caused a spasm of hope in the policy community that the secretive and totalitarian nation might embark on economic and political reforms. As the new leader, Kim Jong-un, was exposed to Western affluence while receiving his education in Switzerland--so the wishful thinking goes--surely he would realize the benefits of opening up his country. In fact, the young and inexperienced scion of the Kim dynasty derives his legitimacy solely from his family heritage. He has every reason to perpetuate the oppressive system built by his grandfather and buttressed by his father. In fact, how much Kim Jong-un's ideas and beliefs matter will remain questionable, at least over the short term. It is reasonable to assume that the untested leader will be guided by guardians or perhaps regents. This means that he may not be the one calling the shots, at least for the time being. The opaqueness of the power structure, meanwhile, has important implications for the outside world. The consolidation of power is likely to be still in progress, and it would take months--possibly even longer--for outside observers to learn how policies are determined. With Kim Jong-il, the world at least knew with whom it was dealing. Under Kim Jong-un, we may not even enjoy that advantage for some time to come.

There is little that is known about Kim Jong-un, apart from the fact that he is the third son of Kim Jong-il, is in his late twenties, and spent some time at a school in Switzerland. His youth and exposure to the Western world have prompted hope in some quarters that he would be more open to reforms aimed at reviving the country's dysfunctional economy. History has shown, however, that foreign exposure does not always lead to liberal policies. Cambodia's Pol Pot, who was responsible for the murder of approximately twenty percent of his country's population, was educated partly in France. Liberian dictator Charles Taylor holds a university degree from the United States--and is accused of war crimes and human rights abuses.

Kim Jong-un was chosen over at least two older members of the family. One is Kim Jong-nam, a half brother who reportedly fell out of favor after being detained in Japan for trying to enter the country on a forged passport in 2001. The other is Kim Jong-chol, a full brother. According to a book by a former Japanese chef of the late Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader complained about his second-oldest son, saying that he is "like a girl." Kim Jong-un had long been his father's favorite, according to the same source, who was the North Korean dictator's chef for thirteen years until leaving the country in 2001. (The Hermit Kingdom is so thoroughly closed to Western eyes that even such anecdotal information is treasured by outside observers.)

For Kim Jong-un, upholding his own legacy means maintaining the hagiography of the Kim family's greatness. He has clearly taken pointers from 1994, when his father took over from his grandfather (and founder of the country), Kim II-sung, and fortified himself by strengthening the personality cult his father had established and portraying himself as a son consumed with the tasks of filial responsibility. Kim Jong-il not only promoted slogans about his father's immortality, such as "The Great Leader will be eternal," but also remodeled the Kumsusan Assembly Hall--his father's living and working quarters--into a mausoleum where his father's embalmed body is preserved. Additionally, he instituted a new calendar-year system based on Kim II-sung's birth year, 1912. He used "Juche," a guiding philosophy for North Korea loosely translated as "self-reliance," as the name of the year. (Under this system, 1912 became Juche 1. According to North Korean calendars and newspapers, this year is Juche 101.) Kim II-sung was named eternal president of the country, and out of deference to his father, Kim Jong-il allowed himself only the title of chairman of the country's powerful National Defense Commission. …