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The Impacts of North Korea’s Leadership Transition

An Interview with Yong-Chool Ha

By David Schlangen and Allen Wagner
January 24, 2012


As North Korea begins to determine its future direction following the death of Kim Jong-il on December 17, 2011, questions remain about the country’s political and economic situation. In particular, will the former leader’s son, Kim Jong-un, be able to consolidate power, and what types of policies might Pyongyang pursue in the near and long term?

NBR spoke with Yong-Chool Ha, the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Social Science at the University of Washington, to help answer some of these pressing questions. Dr. Ha provides background on North Korea’s previous power transition and draws implications for how the United States and South Korea might engage with the North in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death.


How would you describe the differences between the current leadership transition and the 1994 transition, when Kim Jong-il took over after Kim Il-sung's death?

In all respects, the situation is more precarious now than in the early 1990s. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, he was in the process of making adjustments following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kim Il-sung was contemplating diplomatic negotiations with Japan in 1991 and also invited former president Jimmy Carter to North Korea. He concluded a series of agreements with South Korea and was going to host a summit meeting with the South’s president, Kim Young-sam. Additionally, a free economic zone had just opened in the Rajin-Sonbong area. In short, Kim Il-sung, in his own way, was preparing for change. North Korea had some dependence on China, but not as much as it does now.

The current situation is quite different. Although politically unchallenged, Kim Jong-il did not score significant domestic policy success except for the development of nuclear weapons. His “military first” policy and other domestic changes did not bring much success. Under the second Kim’s rule, economic conditions worsened, which led to the regime’s even weaker grip over society. Daily goods became scarce and millions of people starved to death. Right before his death, Kim Jong-il visited China and Russia to make a new effort to reset his country’s domestic and international agenda, but it is clear that North Korea’s dependency on China increased considerably.


Kim Jong-il had roughly two decades of preparation for his succession; Kim Jong-un has had only a fraction of that time and is much younger than Kim Jong-il was when he took over. Does this endanger the transition?

Yes, the new designated leader is too young and underprepared. But most seriously there is little positive for Kim Jong-un to inherit, unlike his father during the previous succession. He is certainly not as familiar with the people in North Korea’s power circle as his father was. He will also feel uneasy dealing with older members of the elite. But, at least in the short term, he will be upheld as the leader of North Korea due to fear at the elite level.

But as time passes, the young leader has to strengthen his weak legitimacy, because all he has right now is that he is from the “revolutionary” family. If he is able to lead the elite and come up with his own vision, he can gain some legitimacy. If he cannot, unlike under his grandfather and father, political divisions may emerge at the elite level. On the one hand, he may keep reshuffling people at the top, and on the other hand, he may manipulate the sense of insecurity of those who remain in positions of power.

The new leader needs to rely on older generals at least for a while because he has not had enough time to cultivate his own group around him. Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, will play a significant role for a considerable period of time. A key question is whether the new leader can establish a power base with his own people. It is not going to be an easy task to launch any kind of purge in North Korea. Only with some policy successes can Kim Jong-un establish his own power and, along the way, possibly begin to eliminate some people in the name of policy failures.

More importantly, Kim Jong-un needs to provide a new vision for change to register some sort of legitimacy with the North Korean people. The foundation of Kim Jong-il’s regime had been its nuclear weapons, and the new leader should go beyond that weak foundation.

The first possibility in this regard is to continue his father’s juggling tactic of waiting until the international situation becomes more manageable. In the short term, this posture will work particularly well, especially with increasing support from China. But if this lasts too long without providing a new vision, Kim Jong-un may not be able to sustain his legitimacy with the North Korean people and could face internal division among the elite.

Second, he could be more proactive and play harder politics with nuclear weapons. Before any domestic reforms, Kim Jong-un may demand new negotiations with the United States and other countries. He may want to secure short-term economic gains while preparing long-term reforms.

The third possibility is for Kim Jong-un to launch domestic reforms. But he must know that North Korean problems cannot be solved simply by tinkering with the current system. This will make him cautious about any radical reforms, given the weak political base in the North. But with his educational background in Europe, he may have reform on his mind.


How much influence will China have on the succession? Did Beijing have much influence in 1994?

The failure of nuclear politics in terms of domestic change (despite North Korean claims that it has become a country that cannot be bullied by any power), has dramatically increased the country’s level of dependence on China. This high dependence is not what was originally intended but, for the time being, China’s influence will only grow, though the Chinese know well to exercise it with much caution. Having failed to use the United States as a counterbalance against China, North Korea recently turned to Russia. Russia can do a lot of things for North Korea, but so far it remains only a potential partner.


How might the succession affect the future of the North's nuclear weapons program, and where does this leave the six-party talks?

Nuclear weapons are the most important source of legitimacy for the North Korean regime right now, and therefore it will use them as much as it can, both politically and economically. The long-stalled six-party talks did not achieve anything except for the actual development of nuclear weapons in North Korea. Now the North will say the terms of negotiations are different and claim more expensive compensation.

The six-party talks were an abject failure in achieving the original goals that they set. The United States is well advised to develop a new framework that is more efficient and effective. For instance, bilateral, trilateral, and four-party talks can precede the six-party talks. One way or another, there is a need for the United States to conduct direct talks with North Korea based on consultations with South Korea, China, and Japan.


What kind of impact will the death of Kim Jong-il and the power transition in North Korea likely have on the April legislative and November presidential elections in South Korea?

Normally, inter-Korean relations do not play much of a role in South Korean electoral politics. But this time it may be different due to new political developments after the death of Kim Jong-il. How the situation plays out will depend on what the new regime in North Korea does between now and election time in South Korea. If the regime makes any new overtures toward South Korea, it will cause intense debate and possibly some finger pointing at the current administration for its failure to develop more positive relations with North Korea. Given that power transitions or elections are expected in virtually all countries in the region, including the United States, and given the insecurity of the North Korean regime, not much in the way of serious change can be expected in inter-Korean relations.


U.S. and South Korean reactions to the power transition in the North have been relatively calm so far. Going forward, what approaches do you see both governments adopting toward Pyongyang?

Both the U.S. and South Korea have taken a wait-and-see approach. In the short term, they appear to believe the power transition is going smoothly. The United States is concerned about the potential for domestic turmoil in North Korea, which could endanger the control of nuclear weapons and facilities there, and the regional tensions that might result. The South Korean government has taken a very cautious approach. It decided not to send a formal delegation to Kim Jong-il’s funeral but allowed two high-profile citizens to attend: Lee Hee-ho, the wife of former President Kim Dae-jung, and Hyun Jeong-eun of Hyundai. It is highly likely that Pyongyang will continue to use anti-American and anti-South Korean rhetoric for domestic purposes, but it will take some time for Pyongyang to formulate new strategies under the new leadership. Given that power transitions and elections are occurring this year in all of the countries involved in the North Korean nuclear issue, real action may take a year or two.


David Schlangen and Allen Wagner are interns at NBR. Recent graduates of the University of Washington, David holds a BA in Korea Studies and Allen holds a BA in Asian Studies and Political Science. The interview was organized by the NBR Alumni Network, which aims to connect the next generation of Asia specialists.




Yong-Chool Ha is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Social Science at the University of Washington.