20 December 2011
Jiyoung Song
(Former Chatham House Expert)


Who is now in control of the North Korean regime? Will there be further military conflict in the Korean peninsula? Will relations between the Republic of Korea (ROK) or US and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) change under the new leadership?

North Korea faces massive internal problems. Uncertainty surrounds the young and inexperienced new leader, Kim Jong-unThere will be a harsh succession process within a fractured internal system and there are no solid external relations to sustain its economy. Kim Jong-un is unlikely to last long as leader.

Appointed as a 4-star general and Vice Chair of the Party's Central Military Committee last year, Kim Jong-un is too young and inexperienced to lead the country. He is already trying to establish leadership over the military and is believed to have supported the Yonpyong shelling in November last year, which was criticized by his half-elder brother Kim Jong-nam. 

His aunt and uncle, Kim Kyong Hui and Chang Song Taek, are acting as his patrons. Chang Song Taek, a pro-reformer, is known to have strongly backed Kim Jong-nam as North Korea's next leader and was ousted by Kim Jong-il for his growing power concentration and push for reforms. Furthermore, Kim Jong-un's mother, Koh Young Hui, was Korean-Japanese (Ch'ongnyon) who, in North Korean political culture, is 'no pure blood' to establish a family legacy or legitimacy.

Kim Jong-il laid the foundations for his succession at last year's Party's congress. It was highly manoeuvred; Kim Jong-il distributed power strategically among his key relatives willing to - and capable of - running the country. 

For now, the DPRK will go on, headed by Kim Jong-un under direct patronage by Chang Song Taek and Kim Kyong Hui. However, Kim Jong-un's leadership could be challenged by Kim Jong-nam, the first son of Kim Jong-il. 

It is unclear whether Kim Jong-nam, who lives in Macau and Beijing, will now return to politics with his father gone. He was the heir apparent until he was caught by Japanese authorities with a fake passport. Before then, he held a senior position in the Ministry of Public Security, proving his secretive and manipulative qualities, and Director of the DPRK Computer Committee, leading the country's IT industry. He repeatedly expressed that he would not be interested in DPRK politics or succession, but, at the same time, was one of the main sources of cash for his father and the regime. With his father gone, has his time come? Temporary collective power sharing to keep the country going is foreseeable. But in the meantime, the population of North Korea is suffering from a lack of food. 

Can neighbouring states do anything? The DPRK and the US recently held successful meetings in Beijing. AP reports suggested that the North not only agreed to halt its uranium programme but also its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, invite IAEA officials and resume the inter-Korean dialogues. These meetings should continue. The current ROK government should seek to mend the broken inter-Korean relations. Japan should try to ease tensions with the DPRK for greater peace and security in the region. 

Most importantly, multilateral cooperation from all to denuclearise the North and attract the new leadership to join the international society is much needed. It is time for more dialogue with the North not another destructive fight.