News / Asia

North Korea's Sudden Power Shift Raises Uncertainty

North Korea's heir-apparent Kim Jong Un (file photo)
North Korea's heir-apparent Kim Jong Un (file photo)

The death of longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and promotion of his untested son Kim Jong Un as his successor is fueling uncertainty about the secretive and impoverished state. Our reporter looks at how North Korea's leadership transition may unfold and how that process may affect Pyongyang's domestic reforms and relations with regional powers.

Kim Jong Un may be North Korea's next leader, but his influence within the North Korean leadership is not clear.

His late father Kim Jong Il appointed him to several top posts, including four-star general, only last year.

Watch a related report by Laurel Bowman:

North Korean analyst Benjamin Habib of Australia's LaTrobe University says Kim Jong Un did not have much time to earn the trust of power brokers in the military and the ruling Korean Workers' Party.

"Does he have enough support among key figures so that this succession will run smoothly? If we recall, Kim Jong Il had 20 years' apprenticeship to solidify his patronage networks prior to his assumption of the throne in 1994," said Habib. "So there is a big question mark over how smoothly his succession is going to run."

Two prominent figures whose support would boost Kim Jong Un are his father's sister Kim Kong-Hui and her powerful husband, Jang Song-Thaek.

Jang expanded his influence as a key adviser to Kim Jong Il after the elder Kim suffered an apparent stroke in 2008.

Some experts say the older relatives of Kim Jong Un may see him as too young and inexperienced to take the seat of power, at least initially.

"An alternative might be that Kim Jong Un becomes a figurehead leader for a military dictatorship, something like collective military leadership that you would see in Myanmar [Burma], or it could be that Kim Jong Un is discarded completely in favor of a military dictatorship," said Habib.

John Swensen-Wright is a Korean politics expert at Chatham House in London. He believes the North Korean military is unlikely to stage a coup against the younger Kim for the time being.

"I think we are going to see an attempt to consolidate power and to provide reassurance to the North Korean people and most importantly to introduce and legitimize Kim Jong Un in the minds and hearts of ordinary North Koreans. That will take time," said Swensen-Wright.

As North Korea's transition process unfolds, another uncertainty is the fate of tentative economic reforms in the isolated communist state.

In recent years, young North Korean policy makers of Kim Jong Un's generation have boosted foreign investment from China. They also have opened their country to limited mobile phone and Internet services.

Habib says a key question facing North Korea's next leadership is whether to further open up an economy that has struggled to feed its people since the 1990s.

"If yes, that means that the international community has an opportunity to deal with this new government," he said. "If no, and we know that the system is inherently unstable, then that opens the door to possible state failure and systemic collapse."

North Korea's neighbors have long feared that chaos in that nation could send millions of North Koreans flooding across their borders. Tens of thousands of North Koreans already have crossed into China in recent years in search of food.

LaTrobe University analyst Habib says the risk of North Korea becoming a failed state will make regional powers more determined to resume six-party talks with Pyongyang as a way of managing any crisis.

North Korea withdrew from the talks in 2009. They were aimed at persuading Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for diplomatic and economic incentives.

Some experts say North Korea's sudden power transition also raises the risk that Pyongyang may take military action against its neighbors in a bid to rally North Koreans around their new leaders.

North Korean forces shelled a South Korean border island last year, an action Pyongyang credited to Kim Jong Un.

But Swensen-Wright of Chatham House says he expects North Korea to pursue a more pragmatic approach to regional relations.

"It is not a country that I think is prone to intentionally provoke or intentionally seek to destabilize the region. It wants to pursue its national interests, whether that is enhancing its security, or improving access to economic resources, or strengthening its diplomatic ties with its neighbors," he said.

Regional politics could become even more complicated next year, when South Korea holds a presidential election and goes through its own leadership transition.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

800-Pound Man Determined to Slim Down

Man says he was kicked out of hospital for ordering pizza; wants to be an actor More

Australia Prepares to Resettle 12,000 Syrian Refugees

Preference will be given to refugees from persecuted minorities, and the first group is expected to arrive before late December More

S. African Miners Seek Class Action Suit Against Gold Mines

The estimated 100,000 say say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis in the mines More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs