Reform hopes for N.K. leader fading

By Korea Herald

Experts say Kim might find it difficult to overcome structural constraints

  • Published : Mar 7, 2013 - 20:20
  • Updated : Mar 7, 2013 - 20:20
When Kim Jong-un took up the helm of North Korea upon his father’s death in December 2011, there was optimism that the Swiss-educated successor would bring about positive change in the impoverished, isolated state.

But that appears to have been wishful thinking and things are worse off now with the international community, including its only major ally China supporting harsher sanctions for its recent missile and nuclear tests.

Experts said the fledgling ruler, who came to power after only several years of grooming, could be more adventurous and reckless than his father, as shown in the North’s recent statements that threatened to scrap denuclearization efforts and the armistice agreement.

“It was wrong from the very start to presume that because he studied abroad, Kim would lean toward more open, democratic governance. Many dictators in the Middle East or Africa, who once studied overseas, continued their despotic rule after all,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University.
Kim Jong-un, the first chairman of the National Defense Commission, offers an instruction to his troops during artillery drills last month. (Yonhap News)

“Kim came back to the North, received North Korean military education and trained to live as the heir apparent to the dictator. He might have broader horizons, but his overseas experience did not appear to influence the country’s policy direction.”

Last April, Pyongyang provoked Washington by backing out of the so-called Leap Day deal and launching a long-range rocket under the disguise of a satellite launch. Under the deal, the North agreed to put a moratorium on its missile and nuclear tests in return for 240,000 tons of “nutritional assistance.”

Referring to the breach as an indication of “deeper problems,” Christopher Hill, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said in an interview with The Korea Herald, “it does suggest some disarray at the top or some lack of clarity on who does what in North Korea.”

The frustration over the breach of the breakthrough deal slowly subsided with another glimmer of hope for change as the 20-something leader highlighted his interest in Western culture, which his father would have dismissed as an “evil influence.”

To the surprise of many here, the North’s state broadcaster aired a flamboyant performance last July, in which characters symbolizing American capitalist culture such as Mickey Mouse appeared.

But the latest sign of change dissipated as it successfully launched another long-range rocket in December, which invited another U.N. Security Council resolution expanding and strengthening sanctions on the communist state.

Last month, the leadership in Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test, which thrust it deeper into international isolation. But it bragged about the test, calling it an achievement to strengthen deterrence against U.S. hostility.

Experts said that even though Kim had some desire for reform and openness, it would be difficult to overcome the constraints stemming from the governing structure, based on which the Kim dynasty and ruling elites have maintained their vested interests.

“North Korea has the dynastic, communist and dictatorial ruling system, which has been consolidated over the past nearly seven decades. It appears that Kim’s personal capacity has yet to overcome these structural constraints,” said Huh Moon-young, a senior fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

Huh also pointed out that North Korea’s debilitated economy coupled with the unfavorable external environment contributed to his difficulties in steering the country on the right track.

“The stability of the regime is the foremost task for him, but he could not solve the economic challenges. Instead, he pushed for a nuclear test, which helped strengthen national unity and pretended to achieve (his father’s pledge) to open an era of a strong, prosperous nation,” he said.

“On top of that, as the East Asian order is undergoing some readjustment with the new Tokyo government showing features smacking of its past militarism, the overall external environment was unfavorable for Kim.”

China’s change of stance toward the North could be another factor that influenced Kim’s governing style, experts noted.

As the North continued to launch provocations despite Beijing’s efforts to prevent them, China appeared to have recalibrated its approach to the wayward ally. Earlier this year, Beijing joined the international condemnation of the North’s rocket launch.

Analysts said that although Beijing might not change its basic policy line toward Pyongyang, it could feel that the North would be a liability in the long-term rather than a “strategic asset” that could serve as a buffer zone amid the increasing Sino-U.S. rivalry.

“I think the recent strong position of the North indicates that it seeks to send a strong message not only to South Korea and the U.S., but also to China,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center.

“It appears to seek to readjust its relations with Beijing, insinuating that it would no longer rely wholly on China and live in its own way. With its successes in its missile launch and nuclear test, it appears to seek direct negotiations with the U.S., not China.”

By Song Sang-ho (