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     Jan 5, 2012

It's not all change in Pyongyang
By Andrei Lankov

It is often amusing to be a North Korea specialist. Most of the time, the international community ignores this tiny, if interesting and unusual country. But once or twice a year, North Korea suddenly finds itself on the front pages of all the world’s newspapers - only to slip back into obscurity a few days later.

These outbursts of interest are not merely short-lived and, frankly, shallow but are also driven by events that are in the long run not that significant - usually it is another twist in North Korea's nuclear program, some clash between North and South and the perennial succession question that attract media attention. At the same time, some important trends (usually related to the internal situation in the North) usually remain un- or under-reported.

The past two weeks, one could see such an outburst of interest in

things North Korean. The death of Kim Jong-il has become a media sensation. The sudden death of the dictator not only attracted a surprising amount of attention worldwide, but was often presented as a possible turning point in North Korean history. The Dear Leader purportedly died of a heart attack on December 17 while on a train to Huichon, Jagang province.

It was nice to see this outburst of interest, but one has to be skeptical about the significance of recent events. The succession was bound to happen anyway, and for the time being it is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the country's future.

The optimistic expectations about coming change are not completely unfounded - in the long run, Kim Jong-eun's rise might pave the way for some positive change. Nonetheless, it seems that the sudden demise of Marshall Kim Jong-il will probably have relatively little impact on the immediate future of his country. Things are likely to start changing eventually, but not too soon (and, perhaps, not too fast).

Kim Jong-il died suddenly with a carefully planned succession process incomplete. It is often overlooked that Kim Jong-eun was not officially proclaimed as the successor to his father in Kim Jong-il's lifetime. When Kim Jong-eun officially entered North Korea's political elite in October 2010, he was made a four-star general (perhaps the youngest holder of this military rank in the entire world) and also given a deputy chairmanship of the Party's Central Military Commission, a relatively obscure entity, which should not to be confused with the powerful National Defense Commission.

It seems that initially it was planned that in 2012 Kim Jong-eun would be given some additional high-level jobs and would perhaps be proclaimed a "successor to the great juche [self-reliance] revolutionary cause" and second-in-command to his father.

This scenario is neither new nor original. The blueprints for Kim Jong-eun's ascension are quite old: North Korea's policy planners are merely repeating the old pattern of the 1970s, when Kim Jong-il himself was promoted to succeed his father Kim Il-sung.

All these plans were interrupted by the cruelty of fate. Nonetheless, it seems that immediately after Kim Jong-il's death, Kim Jong-eun was recognized as the only heir to his father. In a mere few days, he was promoted to supreme commander of the armed forces, and became the object of a personality cult (his official sobriquet is "Supreme Leader").

Transitions are always fraught with instability, so it remains possible that somebody will mount a challenge to him, but this does not appear too likely.

The North Korean public has become used to hereditary transfers of power. Therefore, the promotion of Kim Jong-eun appears to be natural to the average North Korean. Regardless of whether he is qualified or not, General Kim Jong-eun, by virtue of being Generalissimo Kim Il-sung's grandson and Marshall Kim Jong-il's son, has a measure of legitimacy. This is important, as North Korea's elite understands the need for all legitimacy they can master.

Many among North Korea's top brass might even be happy that the new dictator is so inexperienced and embarrassingly young - he is said to be 29.

Over the past few years of his life, Kim Jong-il had managed to arrange a kind of support system that was meant to assist his son in the initial, especially difficult, years of his rule. This system had to be activated a bit prematurely, but it seems to be firmly in place and working fine.

For those North Korean generals and bureaucrats who are lucky to be a part of this quasi-regency structure, Kim Jong-eun's inexperience hardly constitutes a problem. It will be easier for them to manipulate the young ruler, to influence his decisions, and with some luck, to control his policies from behind the scenes.

Currently, it appears that the most powerful figures in the emerging power structure are Kim Kyong-he and Chang Song-taek, who are Kim Jong-eun's aunt and her husband. The couple, in their mid-60s, have seemingly been chosen by Kim Jong-il (or perhaps by the entire Kim family), to become regents to Kim Jong-eun. A major role is also played by Yi Yong-ho, the actual leader of the North Korean military.

Right now, one cannot be sure whether the Chang-Kim-Yi troika will be able to able to maintain its expected position as supreme regents. One would expect a great deal of power struggle and conspiracy in Kim Jong-eun's entourage. Kim Jong-eun himself seems to be relatively secure for the time being, since he is protected by his origins and perceived legitimacy.

That said, we might soon witness advisors and officials jockeying for power behind the throne and their struggle may become quite violent.

At any rate, there is little doubt that for the next few years, North Korea will be run by the same people who ran it over the previous decade (minus Kim Jong-il naturally).

This alone implies that the policies of Kim Jong-eun will not be very different to those of his father, at least initially. The chances of a dramatic change in the political course of North Korea appear even lower even if we take into account the rather advanced age of virtually all Kim Jong-eun's actual and potential advisors. They are people in their sixties, seventies and even eighties - not a time in one's life known for its love of innovation and bold experiments.

The era of regency rule will not last forever. Sooner or later, Kim Jong-eun will send the old guard packing and will start to rule on his own. When this happens, he may change political course, but even this is by no means certain - it is quite possible that Kim Jong-eun will studiously try to avoid making any significant changes in North Korean society, economy and politics.

Even if things were to change, it may take a few years before these changes will become noticeable.

For the moment however, we have a country that is run by the same people. They are likely to follow their old line, so the only change right now which can be seen is a new face at the apex of power. Admittedly, even this new face looks very similar to the face we have seen for the past 17 years. So, the change is important - but perhaps less important that the entire outbreak of media interest might indicate.

Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.

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