SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s newly-minted
leader faces a steep political learning curve: His doting father Kim
Jong Il is now officially gone, memorialized this week in a state
funeral where hundreds of thousands of mourners flailed in sadness along
the snowy streets of Pyongyang.
Quietly standing at the head of the solemn
procession, the youthful Kim Jong Un, boyish looking in his
close-cropped haircut and chubby cheeks, must now set upon the task of
leading an impoverished and vilified regime that in recent years has
failed to adequately feed its own people.
The 28-year-old Swiss-educated successor has the
mature guidance of two players from his father’s old inner circle: his
uncle Jang Song Taek and his wife, Kim Kyong-hui — the late dictator’s
Yet experts predict that many perhaps-competing
interests will be whispering into the ear of the young leader in the
coming months as world leaders ponder whether he will follow in the
footsteps of his father’s take-no-prisoners diplomacy or set his own
For days, the state-controlled media has bestowed one
new title on the young Kim after the next, including the “great
successor,” “supreme leader” and “sagacious leader.” The coming months
will tell which of those words hold water, North Korea watchers say.
Many expect the younger Kim to maintain the old
military-first policy, finding his way into the hearts and minds of
military leaders old enough to be his grandfather. That means
prioritizing their funding needs and playing out old agendas of nuclear
arms building and off-the-leash attacks against South Korea.
“After the funeral, the first thing Kim Jong Un has
to do is shore up his power with the military with a title that will
legitimately give him power,” said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at
the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.
South Korean residents alive during World War II and
the 1950s Korean conflict worry that Kim’s youth and experience might
bring warfare back to the Korean peninsula.
“Looking at his youthful face, I feel a chilling fear: Will I be facing the third war in my life?” wrote one blogger.
But some scholars expect the North under Kim Jong Un to step back from its aggressive policy toward the South.
“I would expect the North is going to continue its
smile offensive and good behavior at least until April 15, 2012, (the
100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung) and possibly beyond
then,” Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based
nonprofit research institute, wrote in a recent essay.
Other experts agreed.
“North Korea’s internal resources have dried up. To
solve the biggest problem, which is the economic issue, they will have
to reach out to the nearby countries,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean
studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“They are unlikely to carry out military
provocation,” added Koh, who said he expected North Korea to return to
the six-party talks aimed at convincing the regime to drop its nuclear
Others, including some of the 20,000 defectors who
have fled their homeland for South Korea, hope that Kim Jong Un helps
foster an economic recovery that will mean less deprivation and hunger
for the nation’s 24 million residents.
“Right now the food shortage is severe, and in order
to reduce the civilian discontent he will have to focus on bettering the
economy,” said Moon.
In China, Pyongyang’s longtime ally, even a
commentator on the official CCTV television broadcast referred to North
Koreans’ desire for a change of course.
“I hope the new leader will lead the country to a new
era with better living conditions,” said Su Xiaohui, research fellow at
the Chinese Institute of International Studies.
But a vice chairman from the China’s Central Military
Commission seemed to leave open the door to the North Korean military
remaining the regime’s top priority.
“We cannot be more sad. Comrade Kim Jong Il is a
close friend of the Chinese people and military,” he told the Xinhua
Many people want Kim Jong Un to become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping and open up the economy.
“It would be so great if he would open North Korea’s
borders and develop its economy like China,” said Pak Chun Ok, 61, a
Chinese citizen of Korean ethnic roots.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Out of curiosity, Pak had stopped by the North Korean
embassy on Wednesday. She said she was mourning Kim Jong Il but doubted
that many others felt genuine grief.
“Definitely, they are all faking, except for those who are directly related to him,” said Pak.
Although her father was North Korean and a loyal
member of the Communist party, she had long lost faith in the unbending
ideology that had hobbled the North Korean economy.
“When I was a kid, North Korea was richer than China.
Many intellectuals, professors left China for North Korea,” recalled
Pak. “After China’s reform and opening, it switched.”
In recent years, the North Koreans she met were
starving women who’d sometime come to her home begging for food and
shelter for themselves and their children.
Zhang Lianghui, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, predicted people will be disappointed by the younger Kim.
“People are assuming because he is young and studied
in Switzerland, he will focus on reform and the economy, but I think his
background is less important than the position he occupies now,” said
Zhang believes Kim Jong Un will continue the
“military first” policy of his father, unwilling in a tenuous political
position to challenge the powerful military whose support he needs to
While it remains unclear how much the Kim Jong Il was
actually beloved by his citizens, the regime’s state-run media whipped
up a frenzy of propaganda for the late “Dear Leader.”
“Even the snow has come to say goodbye to the
General,” North Korean television announcers reported on a blizzardy day
Another added: “It is the last stage of your life, but not of your ideology.”
And now it will be up to the son to guide the nation.
And if he’s asking, Pak Chun Ok has some no-nonsense advice for the Kim
clan’s third-generation leader.
“Kim Jong Un has to go among the people and see how
they are really living,” she said. “It is not right for the (North
Korean) leaders to have all the food while the common people are
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