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A peek into North Korea’s ‘black box’

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image Jonathan Pollack and You Ji on the TDM Talk Show

There is still very little known about this very important man. Kim Jong-un was proclaimed North Korea’s Supreme Leader at his father Kim Jong Il’s funeral around two months ago. The young and inexperienced Kim is now in charge of one of the world’s most oppressive and secretive states. Brookings Institution US scholar Jonathan Pollack and International Relations Professor at the University of South Wales, Chinese academic You Ji appeared on the TDM Talk Show to shed some light on the erratic North Korea ‘black box’.

Kim Jong Un: Profile

Both Seoul and Washington had to wait 50 hours before they were notified about Kim Jong il’s death. And the fact that Kim Jong-un’s age continues to remain a mystery symbolises more uncertainties for the United States. “Well, I think the best informed estimate is that we don’t know. We can say that the succession process at least thus far seems to have come off quite smoothly,” said US Scholar Jonathan Pollock.

But Pollock stressed that Kim Jong-il’s youngest son is different than his father. “He has assumed a quite active profile in the weeks after his father’s death, which suggests a very different pattern when his father assumed power upon the death of his father Kim Il- sung,” said Pollock. So for the US, what are their expectations on the new leadership?

“I think that there is a willingness now, to at least test the proposition to see if behavior will be different, if attitudes will be different, perhaps even if there could be some kind of a resumption of relationship or negotiation of one kind or another,” Pollock continued, “But I would say most of the early statements from the new leadership have strongly reiterated past policies identifying with his father.”

And what does Kim Jong-un’s new leadership mean to China? Chinese academic You Ji shared his point of view: “It is very important for Beijing to maintain the status quo and the stability in the peninsula normally through supporting Kim Jong-un’s regime. So giving him economic aid, military support if necessary and political support as a kind of defector ally."

Kim Jong-un: a puppet ruler?

Some speculate that young Kim may be serving in a kind of regency, in which the real power is wielded by military officials like 65 year old Jang Song-taek, who was Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and confidant. But Pollock said these speculations are not true – at least not yet.

“I must say despite frequent speculation, to our knowledge none of these worst case outcomes have materialized in a significant way,” Pollock continued, “We need to remember that one person has died, the system persists, a structure of power that supported Kim Jong- il as his health declined is now in place (...) to support the young Kim in this role. (...) And that there would be substantial incentives to at least make it appear that he is fully consolidating his power.”

Pollock added that Kim’s uncle Jang Song-taek was never a military official – not until recently when he appeared in a general uniform for the first time. But it’s no doubt that he wields a great deal of power in the regime. But Pollock said his role, at least on the surface, won’t surpass young Kim’s just yet. On the other hand, You Ji said the late Kim did lots to prepare his youngest son to take over.

“Kim Jong-il has made some preparations for his son (to) transfer power. For example, on the 8th of October 2011, he ordered to transfer the position of Commander in Chief to his son, and just a few months before his sudden death,” said You.

Kim Jong-un’s power transfer package

And according to You, young Kim’s power can only be consolidated with three mechanisms – which his late father prepared for him ahead of his death. The first thing Kim Jong-il included in the ‘power transfer package’ is to have young Kim’s Uncle and Aunty pass on the family’s legitimacy to the young king. The second element is to have top general Liying Hao in place to command both the central military commission and so called Pyongyang Command – or in other words, Kim’s family army.

The third and final part of the package is to appoint family friends of his senior to be his so called ‘personal protectors’. “If the three mechanisms really work, that could help the younger king to consolidate (power),” said You. “And if history gave him about three to five years he could see through this most difficult period of time, then history may repeat itself (...) the transfer of power can be relatively easily arranged.”

Kim Jong-un’s challenges ahead

All in all, Pollock said young Kim’s job ahead will be a hard one. “This is a system potentially under a lot of stress. You have acute economic problems, you have a population that is being denied many opportunities of advancement, and slowly if not surely, information does seep into North Korea, (...) the system may find itself confronting some real challenges in terms of the control of information and therefore the control of people,” said Pollock.

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