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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Official Pleased With Ebola Containment Measure

Official says three-day sensitization effort will help reduce infection rate of Ebola disease nationwide More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As the tumult in the Middle East distracts Obama, shifting American focus eastward appears threatened More

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.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid