Friday, September 24, 2010

The North Korean succession

Kim Jong Il may be preparing to hand his luckless country over to his luckless son

NORTH KOREANS are by and large hungry, oppressed, cloistered and treated as infants. But they have one powerful stimulant to keep them going: the outsized cult of hero worship surrounding their pot-bellied ruler, Kim Jong Il.

That is why outsiders will strain next week for a glimpse into the hermit fief to see if Mr Kim uses the Korean Workers’ Party’s first gathering in 30 years to designate his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir. Whatever he does, the issue of succession is likely to escape the secrecy in which it has been wrapped for decades. For all the peephole excitement of watching a real-life “Dynasty” in one of the world’s darkest places, the transition could produce some dangerous moments—and not just on the peninsula, but also for China, North Korea’s sole remaining protector.

The older Kim, who has been in power since 1994, may be frail, but it is not clear that he is yet ready to anoint his twenty-something, basketball-loving boy, even though he has been called a chip off the old block. Unlike the father, who was groomed as dictator-in-waiting for over a decade, his third son’s existence is still officially unacknowledged. Reportedly there is a trite song, called “Footsteps”, in his honour, and a glowing published tribute to his “excellence both in the arts of pen and sword”. But his qualifications for running a derelict country with a nuclear arsenal and one of the world’s five biggest armies are seriously in doubt.

It is thus possible that the conference may pass with barely a word about succession. Yet even in a country as batty as North Korea, it would be odd to throw a lavish get-together of the main party hacks for no reason. Even if it is a charade of a ballot, it is probably sensible to assume that the stated purpose of “electing” (read rubber stamping) a “supreme leadership body” is important, and that some sort of profound, if hesitant, handover of power is under way.

Playing the China card

If this is true, North Korea’s neighbours should brace themselves for a rough ride. The omens for a seamless transition are not good. Since last year the regime has imposed, then swiftly abandoned, draconian currency reforms. The torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March, which the Seoul government blamed on the Pyongyang regime, caused an international outcry that led to further efforts to isolate it economically. Earlier this month the party conference was mysteriously postponed for a few weeks. Behind these events some detect a power struggle between or within the party and the army that has been going on ever since Kim senior suffered a suspected stroke in 2008. If this ever turned into open hostilities, the consequences could be devastating—which is why, however much outside powers want regime change in North Korea, they are right to fear civil war still more.

A collapse in North Korea could leave South Korea and China, its immediate neighbours, facing a refugee crisis. The entire region’s economic boom could be thrown off course. There is even a risk that China and America would find themselves supporting opposing sides in a conflict that could involve nuclear weapons. Against that risk, the appointment of a clueless dauphin as the next leader might not be so bad, if his membership of the Kim clan enabled him to hold the country together. He may anyway be put under the stewardship of his powerful uncle, Chang Sung Taek, to ensure continuity. But if such a transition is to do anything for the region’s long-term health, the outside world needs to rethink its approach.

Awkwardly for the West, China has the greatest leverage, thanks to its unseemly haste to invest in North Korea’s mines and ports. But China seldom uses it. On the older Kim’s two train trips to China this year, it pointedly refused to criticise the regime over the sinking of the South Korean ship. The Chinese put stability above all else, which gives Pyongyang an excuse to maintain the repressive status quo. That could prove dangerously short-sighted if the inflexible regime ever snaps.

Other countries, including South Korea, America, Russia and Japan, must also prepare for the worst. But they might also consider the possibility that a young Kim would be more open to reform. They could again promise cash in exchange for meaningful nuclear disarmament, and make every effort to engage him. It would be based only on a tiny hope, because it would take a miracle for the son to step out of the father’s shadow. But if he does not, North Korea is ultimately doomed. And the grandson of the Great Leader and son of the Dear Leader would deserve nothing but a woeful sobriquet: Dear God. The Economist

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