North Korea's Choice: Collapse or Reform

Why Demise is the Most Likely Option

The death of Kim Jong Il came unexpectedly this past weekend. Although he has visually aged much in recent years and was clearly in poor health, the news of his demise was almost a complete surprise. Indeed, in recent months, Kim Jong Il appeared to have recovered somewhat; he travelled extensively, seeming to slow the pace of dynastic transition to his son. Obviously, he did so on the assumption that he had more time to groom his heir, Kim Jon Un, to become the new leader of North Korea.

With the transfer of power now at hand, Kim Jong Un finds himself in a challenging and dangerous position without much training. Success, above all, will mean survival -- political, and, perhaps, physical as well.

Kim Jong Un’s most immediate task is to prevent any challenge from members of the top leadership. In most dictatorships, the chief bureaucrats and generals would feel ashamed to recognize a 29-year-old as the Supreme Leader, but North Korean leaders understand that instability in their divided country is likely to bring a crisis which, in turn, could provoke a popular revolution and eventual unification with the South. In such a scenario, the current elite would have no future.

With that fear in mind, North Korea’s top brass is unlikely to threaten Kim Jong Un’s claim to power. Of course, some contenders might emerge, and reports may appear in the coming days and weeks of unexpected troop movements or disappearances of prominent generals and party leaders. But most of the leadership will likely stomach the rise of Kim Jong Un in return for maintaining internal stability, a necessary condition of their position.

Should Kim Jong Un succeed in establishing himself over the next few months, policymakers and analysts will express hope that he will usher in an era of reform. But as long as he wants to remain alive and in control of North Korea, he will have little choice but to continue his father’s policies. To survive, the North Korean state will have no choice but to remain what it is now -- an anachronistic, nuclear-armed dictatorship whose population lives in an abject poverty.

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