Most North Korea experts said after Kim Jong Il’s death that North Korea’s future would be uncertain because the new leader, Kim Jong Eun, is still very young. Kim Jong Eun just turned 30 this year, and being young in the political world can be a problem. Bringing the Workers’ Party or military cadres into tune with the young leader is not an easy thing to do, and so this analysis has some validity.
Looking back into history, youth does not necessarily correlate exactly with whether a regime is a success or a failure, however. Kim Il Sung established the North Korean regime with the help of the former USSR when he was only 36. Kim Jong Il was only 32 in 1974 when he emerged as successor. They both came into power at a young age. But Kim Jong Eun is the youngest at 30 and he is already the supreme leader.
Among a total of 27 Chosun Dynasty kings, 13 were in their teens when they became king, 4 were in their 20s and only 11 became king in their 30s. King Sejong, who is still much lauded for his governance, was enthroned at the age of 21. King Sungjong, who ruled in an age of peace, was crowned at 12 and ruled until he was 37. Elsewhere, Colonel Qadafi took power in Libya when he was just 29 years old. Looked at that way, Kim Jong Eun’s age is not an absolute variable in the future stability of North Korea.
The thing about power is that, regardless of age, people who want power gather around those who have it. As when Kim Jong Eun greeted the guests at his father’s funeral, even those in their 70s and 80s bowed 90 degrees to the young leader. Power brings flattery and loyalty.
Hopes that Kim Jong Eun will rule in a different way to his father have subsided. North Korea has adopted Kim Jong Il’s “last instructions” as the root of current governing legitimacy. Kim Jong Il, who symbolized hunger and tyranny, is gone, but Kim Jong Eun is showing no signs of change. Kim Jong Eun has been making political decisions for two or three years, but problems such as nuclear weapons, North-South relations and control over the people have not gone in any kind of positive direction.
The South Korean government sent a New Year’s message to North Korea that the window of opportunity will always be open. The South Korean government is hoping that the new leader Kim Jong Eun will enter and bring change to North-South relations and peace on the Peninsula and also in the lives of the North Korean people. However, the young leader’s prelude has not been a good one. Just a few days ago North Korea criticized the Lee Myung Bak administration for not accepting condolence calls and said it would never associate with them again. The strong and prosperous state and ‘military-first policy’ and Jang Sung Taek wearing a military uniform; all show possible signs of political tyranny.
According to the Ministry of Unification, there were a total of 60 public executions in North Korea last year as of September, three times more than in the previous year. Since August of 2011 there have been vicious units in border regions strictly controlling defections, smuggling and use of Chinese mobile phones, all under Kim Jong Eun’s command.
Since the Party Delegates’ Conference in 2010 Kim Jong Eun, with Kim Jong Il, attended public activities in the military sector 26 times, in the economic sector 25 times, in the foreign sector 10 times and in other areas 39 times. The Cheonan ship sinking and Yeonpyeong shelling both occurred while Kim was reorganizing Workers’ Party’s operations. Appointing Byun In Sun in place of General Kim Kyuk Shik as commander of the 4th Division is Kim Jong Eun’s way of stepping away from the provocations.
There is no doubt that a military backdrop is the key to stability in the beginning stages of a regime. However, if Kim Jong Eun is to reject change and depend only on the military and continues with the existing distorted system, North Korea’s economic crisis will become more severe and eventually it will hit the military too. If all power is concentrated in Kim Jong Eun, the repulsion of those who are alienated will become greater. The military cadres who have disguised themselves as loyal to Kim Jong Eun are bound to reach the limits of their patience.