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12:28 26 January 2012

FOCUS: Kim Jong Un faces challenges of developing economy, managing elites

By Ko Hirano and Cho Kyung Wook
BEIJING/SEOUL, Jan. 26, Kyodo

One month after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the new leadership in Pyongyang appears to be running the country with no major troubles, though some observers still doubt whether Kim's young and untested successor can lead the nuclear-armed North with 24 million people.

While Kim Jong Un, 29, appears to be consolidating his authority as the new leader and ensuring domestic stability with the help of his relatives and aides, who are close confidants of his late father, some dismiss speculation that the younger Kim runs the country under collective leadership.

The appointment of Kim Jong Un to supreme commander of the Korean People's Army in late December, a call made in a joint New Year's Day editorial by three major North Korean newspapers -- considered Pyongyang's policy guidelines for the new year -- to rally behind him and defend him ''unto death,'' and visits to military units show the new leader is in control of the country, said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

''It may be true that the new leader seeks advice from his close supporters such as Kim Kyong Hui, Jang Song Thaek and Ri Yong Ho,'' Yang told Kyodo News. ''But North Korea is a country that has been governed by a unitary leadership. I don't think North Korea is run by collective leadership.''

Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il's sister and a member of the Workers' Party of Korea's Political Bureau, and her husband Jang, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, are seen as guardians for Kim Jong Un. Ri is chief of the General Staff of the KPA.

The joint editorial said the new leadership will maintain Kim Jong Il's ''Songun,'' or military-first, politics. Mirroring such a statement, Kim Jong Un visited a tank division of the KPA on Jan. 1, making it his first reported activity after the funeral and memorial service for his father in late December.

So far, Kim Jong Un appears to be faithfully following his father's policies, leading analysts to believe the new leadership is unlikely to make major policy changes -- at least in the short term.

Maintenance of the status quo under an inexperienced leader would be the best choice for senior party and government officials and military leaders wishing to keep their vested interests, and such thinking was part of the reasons for a smooth transfer of power since Kim Jong Il's death Dec. 17, the analysts said.

''Kim Jong Il became general secretary of the party after a three-year mourning period (for his father and state founder Kim Il Sung). But Kim Jong Un is likely to assume the post at an early stage,'' said Atsuhito Isozaki, an assistant professor of North Korean politics at Keio University in Tokyo.

''Senior aides are aware that consolidation of the successor's power and stabilization of the new regime will ensure maintenance of their vested interests,'' Isozaki said. ''It is hard to imagine the Kim Jong Un regime would alter domestic and foreign policy with new, original orientation.''

Yu Tiejun, an associate professor of East Asian security at Peking University in Beijing, argues that Kim Jong Un faces two major challenges -- how to balance economic development and military build-ups and how to treat and distribute power among the existing elite group.

''Economic development is the biggest challenge for the new leadership, especially when North Korea vows to 'open the gate to a thriving nation' this year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung,'' Yu told Kyodo News.

The North's joint editorial called for increased efforts in North Korea to address food shortages, which it said are a ''burning issue in building a thriving country.'' It also identified addressing power shortages and promoting light industry and agriculture as the country's priority areas.

The second challenge for Kim Jong Un, according to Yu, is how he will manage the existing elites, or people with vested interests, including his group of advisers, especially how to put those in the old generation in key positions.

Based on China's experience in the past three decades, Beijing's leadership is likely to ''encourage North Korea to move toward opening up to the outside world and carrying out economic reforms,'' he said.

Daniel Pinkston, deputy project director for the North East Asia Program at the International Crisis Group, argues that to reform and open North Korea would require three fundamental changes -- abandoning the its command economy and restructuring its economic system, renouncing its leadership principles based on the ''Juche'' and ''Songun'' ideas, and abandoning its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile programs.

Advocated by Kim Il Sung, ''Juche'' is a North Korean ideological term loosely translated to mean ''spirit of self-reliance'' or ''independent stand,'' while ''Songun'' is the policy of prioritizing the military.

''These steps are necessary for delivering economic recovery, but they would require a complete rejection of the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il legacies, which are the only sources of political legitimacy for Kim Jong Un,'' Pinkston wrote in a blog. ''Therefore, we expect to see little or no policy changes for the foreseeable future.''

==Kyodo

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