The closeted DPRK is one of the few countries that foreign policy experts can honestly say they know next to nothing about without appearing silly. Hence it is understandable that the death of Kim has triggered fresh uncertainty and fretting about a regime whose motives are already well nigh undecipherable.
The best guess of most long-time observers is that the authoritarian regime built up by Kim and his father, regime founder and “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-Sung, will endure for some time yet. A sudden collapse is probably not on the cards, given the continued support of China and the regime’s singular lack of compunction about its military-first policy.
Still, some change is likely to be on the cards. The personal hold of the “Great Successor”, Kim’s youngest and twenty-something year old son Kim Jong-Un, will almost certainly be weaker than the late dictator’s, given that the younger Kim’s personality cult has yet to grow roots. His recent emergence in the spotlight only in 2009 means that, unlike his father, who had been anointed Kim Il-Sung’s successor for over a decade and had time to grow into his role, he will face a tougher and more uncertain transition.
Already, there are indications that power has shifted for now to a ruling coterie consisting of Kim Jong-Un and his likely regents – his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-Il’s only surviving sibling and an experienced operator in her own right; her husband Chang Sung-taek, a twice purged figure recently rehabilitated as vice-chairman of the key National Defence Commission (NDC) last year in a move supposedly meant to cement the family’s hold ahead of the transition; and Ri Yong-ho, by all accounts the regime’s top serving general.
Yet it is not known whether that can be a stable equilibrium: the military is by far the most powerful institution, and does not appear to possess strong loyalty to the present generation of Kims. Neither Kim Kyong-hui nor Chang, much less to say Kim Jong-Un, have deep roots in the military, and their influential positions were due entirely to Kim Jong-Il. At present both sides need each other: the Kims need time to consolidate their rule, while the generals would be wary that too sudden a rupture could unravel the regime. In the longer term, the generals may not want to revert to its previously subservient position to the Kim dynasty. Who succeeds the late Kim in his position of chairman of the NDC and when this occurs might be an indication of who has the upper hand.
But for now elite cohesion, at least outwardly, is likely to hold for some time yet. That is why there are unlikely to be changes in the DPRK’s hardline domestic and foreign policy trajectories, which are solely focused on regime survival. While most suspect that the DPRK is economically bankrupt, it is sometimes surprising how long regimes can cling to an insolvent model, especially in a unique entity like North Korea where generations have been steeped in deep isolation and overwhelming propaganda and which also faces declining demographics.
The regime’s reprehensible disregard for the welfare of large segments of its rural population implies that economic enticements mean little to it. Most of what the country produces goes to satisfying the all-important military and political elite, which, coupled with aid from China and occasional infusions from South Korea or aid agencies, may actually be sufficient for their needs.
Hence Chinese attempts to persuade the DPRK to undertake Chinese-like opening up are likely to continue to be rebuffed. The regime has little reason to undermine its control over the populace. In any case China only has a limited influence over the DPRK, which has proved to be an exasperating ally that has complicated China’s relationships with South Korea and Japan with its frequent provocations, but one that the Chinese are forced to upkeep given its strategic interest in maintaining a divided Korean peninsula. The diplomatic equation over the peninsula is unlikely to change much, as none of the DPRK’s neighbours or powers like the US and Russia want to rock the boat when there is considerable uncertainty over the DPRK’s internal transition.
The DPRK is also unlikely to dilute its nuclear deterrent, which it believes is one of the few levers it has against a hostile world. Those weapons will continue to be a bargaining ploy to extract largesse from the outside world. While this means that the DPRK has little incentive to start a nuclear conflagration that will consume the regime itself, this is unlikely to deter its proliferation efforts.
That nuclear deterrent is perhaps what Kim Jong-Il would be best remembered for, a thin if dangerous legacy for a man who presided over a disastrous famine and the deepening bankruptcy of his country over a repudiated ideology. The “Dear Leader” though did not appear to be one for regrets, unlike Willy Loman who towards the end was struck by the realisation that: “Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground.”