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Does Kim Jong Un Have Any Choice About North Korea’s Future?

February 18, 2012

There is intense curiosity about the political landscape inside North Korea.  Will the new leader, Kim Jong Un, have any real ability to move his country in a direction that allows for economic growth?  Does he have the mental depth to attempt an exploration of options?  Even if Kim Jong does have the personal capability will the powers that surround him even let new economic experiments be discussed?

What about better relations with the international community?  Will every positive step forward have to be bought with a shipload of wheat to the starving nation?

Time magazine has an insightful cover story about the 29-year-old leader of the most closed off country in the world.

Today everyone in a position of power in North Korea is at least twice Kim Jong Un’s age and vastly more experienced. But they will nonetheless snap off salutes to him. Any deviation has meant at minimum a sentence in North Korea’s notorious gulag and at worst death. Consider one especially brutal case: in the mid-1990s, just as the famine that would eventually kill millions of North Koreans was taking hold, reports of grumbling and dissent in a prominent Korean People’s Army’s division reached Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il, according to an intelligence source, had the unit’s officer corps–several dozen men–arrested and then made the enlisted men watch what happened next. The arrested officers were forced to lie in the middle of a road, their hands and legs tied. Several tanks rumbled forward and ran back and forth over the officers, crushing them to death. This combination of ruthlessness, ideology and isolation leads many observers of North Korea to believe that “there is no question Kim Jong Un will be making the decisions now,” says a former intelligence analyst in East Asia.

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Two issues are critical for North Korea. Will it liberalize its economy, as its chief patron China did more than 30 years ago, and finally allow its citizens to get at least a whiff of the prosperity that surrounds them in East Asia? And will it give up its pariah status as a rogue nuclear state–a choice the other six-party governments practically begged Kim Jong Il to make, to no avail, in return for economic and diplomatic blandishments to help reinvent the country? The time that young Kim Jong Un spent in Switzerland, dressing in Dennis Rodman jerseys, playing video games and befriending Westerners, prompts some to think the young man must know these decisions are no-brainers. He experienced the outside world and then witnessed the abject, criminal poverty of his own country. After all, didn’t Deng Xiaoping, the mastermind of China’s opening, spend time in France with Zhou Enlai when he was young?

Could Kim Jong Un cajole or even threaten the old guard into going along with policies that might benefit the benighted citizens of North Korea? A man who knew his father and who has dealt with the leadership in Pyongyang–and who shook Kim Jong Un’s hand at Kim Jong Il’s funeral–waves the question away. To ask it, he suggests, is to misunderstand the regime. The system needs the dynasty to persist because without it, the entire edifice of power in North Korea could collapse. In that sense, Kim Jong Un is a necessary front man. But the notion that he will pull all the policy strings, stay abreast of palace intrigues and tell senior cadres and military officers what to do is “a fantasy,” says the insider. “He’s just a boy. He is soft.”

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