Generally, the photos and videos released by North Korean state media are meant to uphold the regime’s aura of power and greatness. But in February 2011, state television aired footage of Kim Jong-un holding binoculars upside down as military officials surrounded him, a mistake uncharacteristic of the tightly controlled government. For the then-vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and presumptive heir, the episode proved a setback on Jong-un’s pathway to leadership.
The past year brought remarkable change to the Korean peninsula, and with his father Kim Jong-il’s death last December, Kim Jong-un has assumed control of North Korea. His public appearances have been geared towards shaping the political neophyte into a stately, confident ruler. In terms of actual policy, he has aimed to consolidate power by visiting elite military units and taking a hard-line stance against defectors.
Kim Jong-un’s ascension as Supreme Leader has experts like Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations reevaluating North Korea. Many wonder how the hermit state will maintain domestic stability while asserting itself on the international stage. Yet, the new leader’s role remains ambiguous, with Snyder telling the HPR, “What’s more difficult to discern is whether he is a figurehead or a decision-maker.” The youngest head of state in the world, Jong-un will face immense pressure from military brass and senior advisers to maintain North Korean strength and stability. However, if Jong-un takes brash actions to drum up support and prove his bravado, he risks alienating China and fraying the one relationship that the regime depends upon for its survival.
Weeks into his tenure, Jong-un surprised the world by announcing that North Korea would suspend part of its nuclear fuel enrichment program, halt long-range missile tests, and invite international nuclear inspectors back into the country. Named the Leap Year deal, the proclamation hinted at mutual cooperation between the new regime and the United States. In exchange for these concessions, the United States would provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid to the impoverished nation. As reference points, according to the Congressional Research Service, the United States provided 148,270 and 21,000 metric tons of food aid in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
But the plans quickly fell through after North Korea announced March 16 that it would launch a satellite rocket into space. The United States dismissed this as pretense for another missile test, and the Obama Administration cancelled its $250 million pledge, given that the formal written agreement had not been concluded.
This latest episode suggests that the problems and tensions emblematic of international relations under Kim Jong-Il will persist while the son employs his father’s tactics. Andrew Cobel of the RAND Corporation told the HPR that, “it’s going to be a continuity of his father’s policies.” This affair suggests strongly that Kim Jong-un will act for his government’s self-interest, despite pressure from the West.
A Leader Untested
Since World War II ended, only two other leaders have governed North Korea. While the first transfer of power occurred over many years before the death of Kim Il-Sung, the first North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un’s ascendancy took place over mere months. Consequently, the young ruler has had to operate within the multilateral framework of the Workers’ Party, the People’s Army, and the Central Military Commission. He must navigate these various factions to accumulate the widespread support and faith of the ruling elite that is requisite to maintaining power.
While the media has attempted to craft a cult of personality around the leader, Snyder notes, “concerns over a potential power struggle are unlikely to subside in the near term given the uncertainties surrounding the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un.” For example, despite having minimal experience, Jong-un was promoted to vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and four-star general. He will undoubtedly have to use his powers to project authority over the country.
China’s Strategic Interests
Despite having demonstrated a tendency toward brash actions, Jong-un is likely to consider China’s interests, given that the regional powerhouse is North Korea’s largest trading partner and closest ally. However, the bilateral relationship has weakened over the past few years, as North Korean aggression necessitated Beijing’s reassessment of the alliance. According to Snyder, China’s principal aims are to maintain regional stability and, “ensure that the leadership won’t falter.”
China has previously reined in North Korea when the rogue state threatened the existing balance of power. When North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in fall 2006, China agreed to U.N. sanctions, then an unprecedented move for the regional titan. While the sanctions did not preclude China from trading with North Korea, given that bilateral trade between the two nations actually increased, the policy shift did send a message to Pyongyang that Beijing can pull the plug anytime. According to Scobell, “Pyongyang and Beijing don’t particularly like each other, but they need each other.” China’s willingness to publicly condemn North Korea is likely a harbinger of future economic sanctions.
China must carefully balance between pressuring North Korea and imposing harsh sanctions, which could have the unintended effect of spurring regional imbalance and political retrenchment. Accordingly, North Korea can push the envelope and test Beijing’s patience in tolerating such behavior, but Jong-un must not stray too far. “Although Chinese officials have publicly expressed support for a stable leadership…Kim Jong Il’s sudden death is likely to intensify China’s internal debates on its future North Korea policy,” said Snyder. The Chinese are fully prepared to push back should the situation warrant it.
According to Scobell, Kim Jong-un’s actions are largely explained because he is, “young, and still trying to exert his authority.” To shore up institutional support and retain an iron grip, Kim Jong-un will implement forceful strategies from his father’s playbook. But Beijing is monitoring the situation, and will not stand idly if the North Korean regime crosses the line.
North Korea’s actions remain difficult to predict precisely because the totalitarian state has few parallels. However, its actions over the past decade help paint a clearer picture, and despite a nominal leadership switch, little has changed in North Korea under Kim Jong-un. With its singular self-interest and recent pattern of dealings with the United States and China, North Korea is not likely to change its security policy anytime soon, despite the veneer of the new Supreme Leader.