The Dawn of the Kim Jong Un Era: Challenges and Opportunities for the Rest of the World


The Korean peninsula is without doubt the most militarily fortified spot in the world, with over 2 million well trained uniformed forces on either side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), coupled with some 75,000 U.S. ground forces stationed in South Korea and Japan.

The level of hostility shown across the border was clearly evidenced by a number of incidents during the last two years in which North Korea tested nuclear bombs and launched numerous missiles despite international sanctions.

Last year alone, there were two serious military incidents on the disputed waters on the west coast that could have easily escalated into major wars. Another war in Korea would create devastation of an unprecedented scale. 

The death of Kim Jong Il from natural causes at the age of 69 at this unsettling historical junction has left the world shrouded in uncertainty regarding his successor – the “Dear Leader’s” youngest son, Kim Jong Un (KJU), 28. 

As the youthful, inexperienced, and untested man takes control, the world anxiously awaits some indication of his direction for leadership. Yet, if one knows the intricacies of North Korean politics and belief systems, little is mysterious and unpredictable.

There are certain principles and imperatives to which Pyongyang must adhere, and there are established patterns of policy goals and strategies. These make a reasonably convincing analysis possible.

When it comes to foreign policy, one must understand that Pyongyang’s foreign policy conducts have been and will continue to be determined by actions and policies taken by the surrounding governments towards it.

Therefore, it is imperative for us to analyze Pyongyang’s foreign policy behaviors in the dynamic system of interactions among major players including the United States, China, Europe, and other Asian and global systems, as well as the Seoul government.

The present essay intends to analyze the likely course of policy development in the Kim Jong Un era both proactively by the new leadership and reactively to a series of hypothetical or likely policies of the neighboring governments towards the DPRK.

Three generations of leadership in the DPRK

Since the inception of the state in 1948, its founding leader, Kim Il Song, established a clearly discernible system of characteristics for the DPRK with the creation of the Juche or self reliance ideology. Juche’s core value was national sovereignty, and its main policy goal was to establish a legitimate system of governance.

The long period of the first generation (1948-1994) coincided with a period of the “legitimacy war” between the two political systems across the border to claim the right for control over the entire peninsula following the brutal massively destructive war (1950-1953).

As the South became grossly dependent on the United States and external assistance, Kim Il Song aspired to and pursued a policy of Juche, which eventually isolated and alienated the North, and often left it ridiculed by the US-dominated West.

However, national solidarity and political integration (rather than divisiveness) resulted from the policies and politics of Juche, which helped the political system muddle through at a time when the Soviet Union along with all its satellite systems in Europe and elsewhere went down the drain.

By the end of Kim Il Song era, the world was swirled by the tide of American supremacy. Under the doctrine of the Washington Consensus, America intervened in the domestic politics of many sovereign states with the intention of regime change in line with liberalization and “democratization.”

North Korea quickly became the target of the sole military superpower on the planet that manipulated its traditional alliance states including South Korea and Japan at will. The United States has also exerted substantial control over the world financial system.

At a time when Washington became obsessed with not only denuclearization of North Korea but also with the desire to change the regime characteristics of North Korea, Kim Il Song passed away abruptly and unexpectedly in 1994. When he died, the world expected the DPRK to collapse.

Then, came the second generation of leadership with the power and authority succeeded by the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il (1994-2011). Despite having been “groomed” or prepared for leading the country, the consensus view that emerged was that his government was not durable, and would be certain to collapse within months, not years.

The new leader had to make sure that neither implosion from within nor aggression from without could threaten the sustenance of the system. These challenges were formidable, indeed. The landmark events and developments that posed external threat (hostility) include:

  • Washington planned military operations on nuclear sites in 2003, as in 1994;
  • U.S. Congress adopted and President Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Legislation in 2004, which encouraged critics of North Korea, especially the defectors and their activities;
  • Successive sanctions by the United States and Western international organizations, which exacerbated food shortages which had initially been caused by severe flooding in successive years in the mid-1990s;
  • Washington used the DPRK as the most fitting and convenient scapegoat for beefing up the defense industry, especially the Missile Defense System;
  • The security alliance between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo intensified;
  • The continuation of US-SK Joint Military Drills on the disputed waters along the West coast;
  • The Arab Spring provided further hostile “talking points” to the critics of the DPRK;
  • The Rise and Fall of the Sunshine Policy from the South;
  • Hostile South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak government (2008-date)

What did Kim Jong Il do?

To address the concern of external threats, the Kim Jong Il (KJI) leadership advanced the development of nuclear weapons culminating in underground tests of nuclear devises in October of 2006 and long-range missiles. North Koreans believe (which is not farfetched by any means) that it was their nuclear weapons capability that deterred certain aggression from the United States.

Simultaneously, the KJI government also aggressively pursued reaching out to the Cold War adversaries including the United States, Japan, Europe, as well as South Korea. Despite repeated economic sanctions by the United States and US-backed international organizations such as the United Nations,

Pyongyang’s persistent efforts to directly engage in talks with Washington were seldom deterred. In order to engage with Japan, KJI even admitted the abduction of Japanese citizens and apologized to the visiting Japanese Prime Minister, Koizumi, of Japan in 2005.

This action suggests that KJI was committed to improving relations with Japan. With respect to relations with the South, KJI accommodated all policy gestures of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun leading to the successful historic summits with both South Korean presidents in 2000 and 2006.

Although South Korea’s Sunshine Policy was designed for rapprochement, the degree and speed of inter-Korea cooperation and collaboration on economic and social exchanges were remarkable, culminating in the developments of Kaesung Industrial Complex and the Kumkangsan Tourism project.

The 6.15 Declaration of 2000 and the 10.3 Agreements were adopted during the KJI tenure. In addition, the KJI era produced tangible results in the area of economic cooperation with European countries, especially the Nordic countries in the area of sustainable development.

To address the domestic concerns for possible sources of instability and to cope with the wellbeing of the people, two distinct measures were advanced: Songun politics and Controlled Economic Reforms. Indeed,Songun was the backbone of the KJI leadership. Its creation was credited to KJI himself. It would be not only too simplistic but wrong to understand this doctrine as a political strategy to put the military “first” in order to provide it with privileges and power.

Rather, Songun is a comprehensive system of values and norms designed to lay out a roadmap for politics and society. This doctrine is predicated on the principle of the militarization of the civilian; and the civilianization of the military in which the civilian is mandated to be “combat ready” at all times and the military is charged with the obligation and responsibility to be and to work for the civilian society.

Thus, there will be no distinction between the two sectors. The two sectors are not only closely coordinated but they are often embodied in a same person. Without understanding this, outsiders will find it “nonsense” that a military general is also simultaneously a member of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, and holds a position in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

With this doctrine pervasive in the society, the political system achieved and maintained a solid foundation of political integration and power solidification, and was able to survive the external adversities alluded to above. In the economic arena, the KJI era witnessed the market mechanism, though limited. KJI’s North Korea did not undermine the incentive system on the part of the citizens and citizen groups.

Kim Jong Un Emerges in Particular Contexts

Before one speculates about the nature and character of the man, one must understand the historical and political contexts that were presented to Kim Jong Un and his confidants.

As one attempts to forecast the direction and orientations of policies in both the domestic and international arenas, one tends to pay almost exclusive attention to the person, and if what is being discussed about the post-Kim Jong Il era is any indication, North Korea is not an exception.

As much as the leader himself is important, the contextual characteristics within and surrounding the country are very important, and they hold a great deal of explanatory and predictive power. The domestic, inter-Korea, and international contexts may be observed as follows:

The domestic context is clearly one of economic shortcomings, with food shortages as the most pressing need. In this situation, the Kim Jong Un (KJU) leadership is fully expected to build its policies on economic expansion by first continuing the same outreach policy strategies carried over from the KJI era.

In order to ensure national security from external hostility, KJU will be left with few options outside of strong militarization which includes nuclear preparedness. At the same time, in order to ensure political stability and national integration, Pyongyang is fully expected to maintain Songun politics.

As for the context of inter-Korea relations, Kim Jong Un is faced with a South Korea that is undergoing a profound change in its political dynamics and public sentiment. A presidential election will take place in December of this year, preceded by a general election for the legislative body.

If the election of non-politician, Park Won Soon, as the mayor of Seoul in late 2011 and the swirling political wind surrounding the popularity of yet another non-politician, Professor Ahn Chul Soo is any indication, South Korean politics most likely faces a great change and profound transformation: the politics as usual may not last very long!

The grassroots and youthful intellectuals increasingly reject aspects of politics as usual and suggest that:

First, political maneuvering organized by established politicians and political parties which often involves secrecy and the illegal transaction of slush funds will only be counterproductive;

Second, the conservative agenda of protecting and promoting the interest of the wealthy and established through the control of the conventional media outlets (newspapers and televisions) will be effectively challenged by the myriad of today’s information technologies that facilitate alternative means of mass communication.

These new “media” will continue to be utilized by the younger segments of the population; third, the “ideological color card” will not work any longer.

For decades now, the incumbent leadership has frequently used this card’s tactic whereby political opponents are framed as North Korea sympathizers to influence public opinion on certain politicians; fourth, the public will not accept any policy toward the North that could bring about a military clash with North Korea as evidenced by the recent regional elections.

The public sentiment in South Korea is shifting away from accepting the status quo to rejecting the current stalemate and costly tension in inter-Korea relations.

In dealing with inter-Korea relations, one must not forget that there is still the Kaesong Industrial Complexopen and running. This was a remarkable achievement by President Kim Dae-jung and continued by President Roh Moo-hyun.

It was so grand and visionary that even the Lee Myung-bak government could not completely shut it down. The Kumkangsan Tourism project is yet another joint venture that is closed at this time but most likely to be reactivated.

The international and global context that the KJU leadership will confront is also fluid and changing. Following the implosion of the Soviet Union and the demise of the “Second World,” the United States emerged as the only superpower and the center of hegemonic power in the post-Cold War world order for the last two decades.

But the American hegemony faced a fateful limitation as the world became a totally interdependent “global village” where no one state is allowed to stay in a hegemonic status.

The world is an integral and complete system of mutual interdependence. The interdependence spans across many sectors including the global market system, communication and information technology and mechanisms, and a shared interest in the ecological and environmental system.

Despite these areas of mutual interest and dependence, we have seen increasingly volatile interactions among ethno-national self-centeredness, diverse cultures and civilizations. Information technology advancements that penetrate all corners of the world give voice to the resentments and frustrations of people belonging to certain echelons of the social and economic strata that have led to mass uprisings that toppled a string of governments in the Arab world (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and possibly Syria).

The Arab Spring was preceded by US and Western military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. The turmoil in the Arab world, especially Iraq and Libya, led the North Koreans to strengthen their resolve to hang on to their nuclear capability which Pyongyang believes is the only deterrence against US-led military strikes in the last two decades.

The mutually dependent world has helped China to become a “super power” that can undermine the supremacy of the United States. Yet, because of mutual dependence, especially in the area of economy, China and the United States are not expected to come to the terms of hostile confrontation.

The rise of China has great implications for the DPRK (This point will be elaborated on later).

Kim Jong Un’s Priorities and Anticipated Strategies

Historically, if the Kim Il Song era is identified with Juche, and the Kim Jong Il era is seen in terms of the politics of Songun, Kim Jong Un’s era may be given the system identity as a system for Kangsong Daekuk (Prosperity). Now that the DPRK has accomplished a solid basis of military capability, this doctrine of Kangsong Daekuk is to be realized in pursuing economic prosperity. The domestic context into which Kim Jong Un’s leadership arrived is one of rather serious economic difficulties especially with food shortages.

Yet, contrary to fashionable speculation around the world, there is little room in the North for collective dissent from the grassroots, nor is there much likelihood for a power conflict from the leadership circles. Kim Jong Un is challenged by the unenviable task of achieving economic development without risking national security or regime stability.

Will Kim Jong Un’s North Korea be able to induce economic development while, at the same time, maintaining the military and security strategies that it has inherited from the previous two generations of leadership? What kind of economic development and how would (should) he pursue it?

One might say that, as a very late comer, North Korea has a long way to go to catch up with the Asian tigers, especially South Korea. I would suppose that North Korea is not, nor should it, pursue the course of economic expansion that was employed by South Korea. Pyongyang has valued distributive justice by maintaining socialist system, and it is expected not to deviate from it.

In the last two decades or so, North Korea has placed an enormous emphasis on sustainable development whereby it hopes to avoid the environmental pitfalls that the Asian Tigers have created.

By doing this, North Korea tries to be different, not necessarily inferior to, the economic achievement of the South. To what extent will North Korea’s development strategies be in the interest of sustainability? No one knows for sure but I am certain that it will continue to wage concerted efforts in this area.

The world is anxious to find clues that might indicate the direction and orientations of the KJU leadership. Much of the answer to this question depends on how the neighboring governments and the international community will treat the new leadership. A few scenarios may be crafted:

  • If the United States maintains the current policy in which Washington demands denuclearization and reforms towards more open and liberal policy measures as a condition of dialogue and negotiations, Kim Jong Un will have no choice but to stick to hard-line policies. If, however, Washington shows a willingness to include the issue of security threats to the DPRK in the dialogue agenda, the road to peace treaty and diplomatic normalization might be a distinct possibility. If Obama should be re-elected, the chances for this development could be within sight. Washington’s instinctive desire is to avoid yet another military tension when is fighting two wars in the Middle East and involved deeply in conflict situations around the world.

As a young leader with high expectations within the population and mounting suspicions from the external world, KJU cannot afford to show any appearance of weakness which may force him to be more risk-taking. Thus, it is so crucially important that Washington change its approach to Pyongyang from hostility and alienation to engagement and cooperation.


  • The Seoul government can also go either way. If it continues with President Lee Myung-bak’s policy measures toward the North, the future of inter-Korea relations might become even darker than the time under the Lee government. For instance, if the Lee government brings up the demand for an apology for the Cheonan Boat incident and Yeonpyeong incidents as a condition for any other topics of discussion, there will face nothing but a deadlock. It is vital for South Korea’s future leadership to have a coherent and consistent policy toward the North, which has to be predicated on the premise of mutual development and non-interference in domestic affairs for both systems. It is clear that no political circles or individuals opts for military confrontation as a method of reintegration; it must be through cooperation and collaboration grounded on mutual acceptance and respect. The two sides must first reaffirm their agreements (6.15 and 10.3) by their heads of the state, and move on implementing them. The KJU leadership should be amenable to it. It is already unfortunate that the Lee Myung-bak government decided not to allow even civilian individuals or groups, let alone the sending of government officials, to the funeral of Kim Jong Il.


  • Japan has a legitimate reason to be concerned about North Korea’s nuclear capability. The very inception of the DPRK under the leadership of Kim Il Sung was based on the widespread anti-Japan sentiment. Japan has always been regarded by the North Koreans as the primary villain due to its vicious colonial rule. To this date, North Korean public attitudes are pervasively negative toward Japan. The fact that some old guard military personnel kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s was not entirely unrelated to their collective memory regarding Japan. Although those civilians apprehended by the North Korea soldiers were personally innocent indeed, the reality is that the level of animosity on the part of North Korea is such that even kidnapping Japanese citizens may not cause an unbearable sense of guilt for some North Koreans. Japanese public sentiment today overwhelmingly rests and hinges on the abduction issue. Demands for a resolution to this matter as a precondition for any diplomatic improvement is the single most crucial obstacle to rapprochement between the two countries. In fact, there is a huge discrepancy between the two governments in the number of abductees, and this issue must be dealt with through bilateral dialogues specifically on this issue, rather than as a part of the Six Party Talks which was exclusively designed to address the nuclear issue. It seems obvious that if Japan insists on the abduction issue as a precondition for further bilateral dialogues, the prognosis is extremely bleak.


  • Then, there is China. China’s position bears huge implications for North Korea’s new leadership. What does China want from North Korea? It wants the KJU government to be stable and capable of succeeding the legacies of the previous leaderships. There are solid bases for compatibility between the two traditional allies. First of all, the DPRK is a Communist system like China itself. When the world is seemingly turning away from one-party systems, it is crucially important that China maintains a neighboring ideological ally. Second, as difficult as North Korea’s economy may sound, China sees a great deal of economic benefit from cooperating with North Korea in the economic sector. For one thing, North Korea may have already decided to develop its economy through a strategy patterned after the Chinese model. For Pyongyang, it is comforting to know that “controlled” capitalism in the economic sector can go along with political communism with one party at the center. China has demonstrated “the odd marriage” between economic capitalism and political communism can be sustained for a long period of time and in the process generate an extremely productive in economy. Of course, there are specific conditions in the contexts of the culture and global economic system that made China’s rise possible. In this regard, North Korea seems to be endowed with the same cultural and exogenous economic system. In providing technical and economic assistance and through participating in selected facets of North Korea’s development programs, China could benefit greatly. From the KJU leadership’s perspective, China does not pose any security or ideological threat. Third, there is the military or security interest on the part of China itself by keeping the DPRK as its ally that can be a buffer against the United States and the West. This aspect is particularly important to China because North Korea is a formidable military power of the world. With these multi-facetted interests in North Korea, China will continue to expand its economic and political presence in North Korea as the KJU leadership is committed to developing its economy. China will make attractive offers to explore economic opportunities in such areas as setting up “special economic zones,” developing infrastructures including roads, airports, and developing human capital through exchange and training programs. There appears to be no major barriers for China to move ahead with aggressive programs, and North Korea’s level of dependence on China is likely to escalate in the months and years ahead.


  • As American superpower policies are weakened, the European countries are likely to explore opportunities with North Korea with or without endorsement by Washington. One area in which a North Korea-Europe nexus is likely to expand is in sustainable sources of energy. This is particularly the case with the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, as well as the Netherlands. The DPRK has shown a great interest and made tangible efforts in the last two decades in developing alternative and renewable energy sources by expanding interaction with selected European countries.



The KJU era has dawned. There are abundant speculations regarding what will happen to the DPRK and how should the rest of the world respond. As one American scholar who has maintained sustained interest in the country and worked to develop expertise with a scholarly conscience, I have seen the three generations of leadership, the third one just dawning on the horizon. I have put together a few thoughts on the nature and course of the KJU leadership. The above discussion may be summarized in a few words as below:

  • The leadership succession has been and will continue to be stable for convincing reasons;
  • The policies pursued by the two preceding generations will be pursued without interruption;
  • Juche and Songun will continue to be the supreme principles of governance and policies;
  • Pyongyang’s foreign policy will be conducted in such a way as to facilitate the continuation of the policy goals established by the first two generations, which include security, national identity and sovereignty, and economic and social prosperity; yet, it will largely respond to other countries’ actions toward itself.

Initial Draft

By Han S. Park

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