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

    Video For Many US Veterans, the Vietnam War Continues

    More than 40 years after it ended, war in Vietnam and America’s role in it continue to provoke bitter debate, especially among those who fought in it

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    100 immigrants graduated Friday as US citizens in New York, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in cities across country

    Family's Fight Pays Off With Arlington Cemetery Burial Rights for WASPs

    Policy that allowed the Women Airforce Service Pilots veterans to receive burial rites at Arlington had been revoked in 2015

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    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.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora