|In order to cement his grip on power, Kim Jong-un will have to gain the trust of influential military generals [Reuters]|
The “Dear Leader” has departed, but fear not, his son “the Supreme leader” has been tasked with filling (platform) shoes of governance in the “hermit kingdom”.
The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il in December due to “stress” means his son, Kim Jong-un, will be the world’s youngest leader ever to have a finger on the nuclear trigger.
Untested, Swiss educated and politically inexperienced, observers have no real idea where Jong-un will take North Korea, which has been battered by famine, political ostracism and dictatorship by the Kim family since 1948.
Intelligence officers in the US and South Korea were caught off guard by Jong-il’s death; they only found out when it was announced on state media, meaning virtually no one outside an elite courtier of military generals and family confidantes had any idea of what’s happening among senior members of North Korea’s secretive regime.
The Korean War, technically, is still going on and the shaky legitimacy of a leader like Jong-un is based on his ability to “defend the homeland” from outside forces.
It seems likely that the young Jong-un will continue his father’s “military first” policy, if only to appease influential generals upon whom his power is dependent. China, North Korea’s only real ally, seems willing to accommodate the young Jong-un, meaning he will have at least a few years to cement power and decide where to take the country.
In international relations, Kim the elder had only one real card to play – act erratically and leverage the nuclear threat in order to wring concessions – including food aid and fuel – from neighbouring countries and the US. Because of his nuclear weapons, foreign countries had to take Kim the elder seriously.
In his quest to curry favour from geriatric generals, who might find it strange taking orders from someone who could be a grandchild, young Jong-un will likely continue Korea’s unpredictable behaviour.
Six party talks and power games on the Korean Peninsula underline a broader geopolitical change which happened in 2011 and will accelerate in 2012: Wars in the Middle East since 9/11 will be relegated to a petty sideshow in the looming showdown between the US and China for dominance in Asia.
Under these conditions, the North Korean regime will continue playing its cards with erratic sensibility. If no one can predict their next move, the nuclear-armed generals reason, they will have the element of surprise and larger countries will have to engage them.
The young Kim may surprise observers by opening the country to the outside world, if the family’s former personal chef is to be believed.
“Once when we were smoking, he got this far away look in his eyes, saying ‘we are living like it is a holiday everyday, but what about the ordinary people, how are they living?'” the chef told Al Jazeera.
With rumours of food shortages circling, 2012 certainly won’t be a holiday for average North Koreans, but it seems doubtful much will change for the Kim dynasty and their well-connected friends.