[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-un’s ‘footsteps’

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[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-un’s ‘footsteps’

Since the announcement of North Korea’s heir to the throne, the communist regime has established a transition team for the leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un. The lineup of the team is as bizarre as the sudden ascension to power by a twenty-something son of North Korea’s omnipotent leader Kim Jong-il. None is close to the age of the younger Kim and instead he is encircled by the old guard, inner circle and reliable cronies of the Kim family.

It makes sense that the designated successor should be surrounded by the king’s loyal stewards, considering the fragility of young Kim’s power base. After all, he is still a “prince.” It is as important to a king to finish his reign with majestic authority as it is to hand over power to his son.

But the king has to make sure he designates men who will be as loyal to his son as they were to him. He can only rely on those in the leadership hierarchy who will be equally faithful to both the king and the prince. The promotions included Kim Jong-il’s favorite sibling Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek. They will be perfect mentors and caretakers for their nephew.

The transition team, scrupulously honoring the incumbent king’s authority, works without a formal mission, but in essence prepares itself to handle Kim Jong-il’s titles of general secretary (leader) of the Workers’ Party, chairman of National Defense Commission, and commander-in-chief of the military. The younger Kim has become second in command in the Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, but more or less co-chairs the transition committee with four other key members. Kim Jong-un’s aides are probably working under the senior members of the committee.

On the facade, Kim Jong-un is expected to keep a low profile as an apprentice under his father’s guidance, yet at the same time work hard to solidify his power base. He has already been anointed with the crown. There is no need to overplay anything and risk irking his father or the old echelon.

Kim Jong-un will likely assist his father on mending the shattered economy until 2012, the deadline Kim Jong-il has promised his people to complete a “strong and powerful nation.” The North Koreans have said a strong nation refers to a stronger economy. The ailing leader will have to exert all his powers to fix the economy over the next two years to keep his word and make a grand exit.

He will want to be remembered by his people as a great leader who created a strong nation. In his New Year’s address, Kim pledged to improve the lives of working people, placing priority on promoting light industry and the agricultural sector. His field trips have been mostly centered on economy-related sites. The heir’s legitimacy will strengthen when he plays a key role in fulfilling his father’s last wish.

Kim Jong-un also should want to see the economy repaired for his own motives. He has no experience. He is mostly regarded as a “chip off the old block.” He will have to prove his capabilities. He may have been named successor to his father as leader of the regime, but he needs backing from the common folk. The most effective way to win the hearts and allegiance of the people is to improve the country’s economic conditions.

But that mission is not so easy. The impoverished nation cannot get out of the intensive care unit unless the insular regime embraces major changes. Neither the ailing Kim, who has to leave a strong socialist legacy, nor his young heir, with such an insecure base of power, would want to risk such a change. Therefore the father-son co-leadership and transitional authority will undoubtedly retain their current systems while seeking as much cooperation and aid from outside as possible to compensate for the production deficiencies at home. Pyongyang will rely more on China and offer conciliatory gestures to Seoul. North Korea will likely continue to imply it wants to resume the six-party talks. It will do so at least to buy time until 2012.

But the regime cannot go on like this forever. The young leader must boldly depart from his grandfather’s Juche (self-reliance) legacy and his father’s Songun (military-first) philosophy. He must pronounce an end to the obsessive isolation of Juche and instead give his people a (figurative) escape from the Hermit Kingdom in order to attract capital to build a functional economy. He must ax the military-first policy, which directs scant resources to developing weapons, and instead concentrate resources on reforming and resurrecting the economy.

A musical paean to Kim Jong-un entitled “Footsteps” ends the following lyrics: “Forward march to a bright future.” A new song entitled “A Strong Nation Ahead” has a line that says, “The general opens the door to the world.” The song hits the nail on the head. Without opening up, only darkness awaits the heir and his nation.

North Korea’s transition committee has its work cut out for it. It should not wait until the king retires or passes away. A radical opening and reform are the committee’s coming historical role and will be the “footsteps” to a strong country.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

By Cho Dong-ho
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