Kim Jong-un (L) and his father, Kim Jong-il (R), watch a parade to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea, Pyongyang, North Korea, October 14, 2010.
Peter Kudjundzic / Reuters

One year ago, the chubby and blubbering soon-to-be leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was seen walking alongside the hearse that carried his dead father, Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un was young, inexperienced, unqualified, and bereft of any of the larger-than-life myths that had sustained his father's and grandfather's rules. And yet, just days later, he assumed power in the only communist dynasty in the world.

Today, the junior Kim can be seen riding high in Pyongyang. And last week, he became the first Korean to launch a domestically designed satellite into orbit on the back of a domestically designed rocket. But more broadly, some analysts see him as pushing his own version of reform. His new ways might not exactly be Gangnam style, but they are undeniably a break from the past. He promulgates high heels and miniskirts for women and commissions amusement parks and (pirated) Walt Disney productions for children. Never too busy to ride rollercoasters and frolic with school kids, the prince of Pyongyang also found time to take on a wife, Ri Sol-Ju, whom the New York Times compared to the British Duchess Kate Middleton. 

Optimists look to these changes and to Kim's years of Swiss schooling—during which he took courses on democratic governance, wolfed down pizza, and came to idolize NBA stars—and declare that North Korea is ready for reform. This past spring, I participated in track-two meetings in New York at which North Korean officials sought out executives from Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken to discuss opening branches in Pyongyong. Rumors that the regime is hatching a new economic policy only fuel speculation that Kim is "distanc[ing] himself from the regime of his father and grandfather," as one article in The Telegraph had it. Some onlookers even predict China-like reforms in Rason (a city near the Russian border) and Hwanggumpyong Island (an island near the Chinese border) that would create the next Hong Kong or Shenzhen, where low taxes, high returns, and reduced government intervention reign free.

Weathered North Korea watchers, however, will remember that similar predictions were made in 1994, when the 52-year-old Kim Jong Il took over after his 82-year-old father died. The journalist Selig Harrison believed that North Korea was signaling a coming transformation by sending officials abroad to learn about market economics. Likening the Kim regime to the Communist Party in China, Harrison remarked that "as Pyongyang gradually liberalizes its economy and opens up to the outside world," the ruling regime and the North Korean political system as a whole will transform. But believers in the irresistibility of Disney, Dior, and Coke have short memories.


North Korea's political system, helmed by a young and unproven leader, faces severe challenges. The regime will not change because the West hopes that it will. 

For optimists in the United States, North Korea's quiescence as the country's leadership changed this past year confirmed that Kim was on the right path. Last week's rocket launch from a snowy facility in the northwest corner of the country poured ice water on those expectations. And with presidential elections in the United States last month and in South Korea this month, Pyongyang is unlikely to be finished. A study I undertook at the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that Pyongyang has usually done something provocative within an average of 16–18 weeks of every South Korean election since 1992. For example, within four weeks of Lee Myung-bak taking the South Korean presidency in 2008, North Korea expelled all South Koreans from the joint industrial complex at Kaesong and tested two missiles. Pyongyang's election antics are not just reserved for other Koreans. In early 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama was welcomed into office with ballistic-missile and nuclear tests. Last week's successful rocket launch is thus only the first in a series of provocations that the Obama administration is likely to see. 

Why? Because even an authoritarian dictator must justify his or her rule to the "selectorate," as the Georgetown professor Daniel Byman and the Dartmouth professor Jennifer Lind have written. Otherwise, they could "find a better deal from a rival leader." The current Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, had revolutionary credentials as a guerilla fighter against the Japanese. And Kim Jong Il had a decade of training and preparation for the job. Without a day of military service, Kim Jong Un was grafted to the top of the power structure in his late twenties. Kim's regime is thus only as strong as his ability to prove to the elites that he is worthy. If he does not affirm his ability to actually do something—say a third and successful nuclear test—he will struggle to justify his rule.

The danger, however, is that decelerating from such a crisis this time will not be easy. In the past, the United States often provided the exit ramp. Based on my research of U.S.–North Korean negotiations since 1984, within an average five months of a provocation, Washington was usually back at the bargaining table. This diplomacy has often been for the express purpose of ratcheting down a crisis. So, after the October 2006 nuclear test, the George W. Bush administration returned to negotiations in January 2007 and reached a deal with the North Koreans the following month. But the Obama administration, having been burned thrice (first by the April-May 2009 missile and nuclear tests, then again in April 2012 by another missile test, and yet once more last week by a third missile test) is not interested in such diplomacy but rather in "strategic patience," or not negotiating with North Korea until it commits to denuclearization. 

Perhaps that explains the Obama administration's relatively muted response to last week's missile test. The White House's bland condemnation of the test was a stark contrast to its stern announcement of a red line against the Syrian regime using chemical weapons, especially since last week's missile test indicated that North Korea's weapons program has come a long way in the last year. By successfully launching a payload into orbit, North Korea joined only China and Russia as non-allied countries that could potentially reach the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile. It is probably just a few years before the country is able to load those missiles with a nuclear weapon.

Like the United States, South Koreans are fed up with negotiations. After North Korea torpedoed a South Korean navy ship and shelled one of its islands in 2010, the South Korean government and public are no longer willing to preach patience and stability, as they had been doing during the previous decade-long "Sunshine policy" toward North Korea. It is an open secret that South Korea has rewritten its rules of military engagement with its northern adversary. Seoul is now prepared to retaliate to the next military act, not just by returning fire but also by going after North Korean support systems and command structures. This escalation would not even require high-level political approval. In interviews with top officials, it was apparent that the military leadership could determine the steps to be taken based on the situation on the ground. Meanwhile, South Korea's newly-elected president, Park Geun-hye, has evinced a mild interest in more engagement with Pyongyang. But if Pyongyang tries to test the new leader, it will be very difficult for her to turn the other cheek.


China might be ready to step in where the United States and South Korea have demurred. Beijing's preferred solution to North Korean rambunctiousness has always been to make it more like China (or Vietnam)—that is, to push a slow process of economic reform that would get North Korea out of its attention-getting cycle of provocation and crisis. But despite all the economic assistance and food Beijing showers on its communist brother, Pyongyang bites the hand that feeds it. Recent high-level meetings between Chinese officials and Kim were preludes to more economic deals between the two countries. They might even presage a visit by Kim to Beijing to meet the newly ensconced Xi Jinping. But the day after the meeting with the Chinese, North Korea announced its rocket launch, which just goes to show that China can neither restrain Pyongyang nor reform North Korean leadership, no matter how much economic assistance it provides or how many bureaucrats it offers to train. 

After all, every time Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, made a visit to China, his Chinese interlocutors urged him to tour factories and cities to see the benefits of capitalism with communist characteristics. Over a decade, Kim willingly walked through facilities that manufactured fiber optics, computers, telephones, lasers, and computer software. With each visit, Chinese and Western journalists and scholars proclaimed a new chapter in North Korea's economic transformation that would inevitably make it more peaceful. And each time, they were proved wrong. Kim invariably made the trips to appease his Chinese hosts (and to receive the requisite aid packages) but had no intention of changing. And all the while, he forged ahead with his ballistic-missile, chemical weapons, and nuclear programs.

China's long-term strategy remains to institute top-down economic reform in North Korea. But faced with short-term failures, China resorted to trying to bribe Pyongyang into returning to the six-party talks and holding off missile and nuclear tests. As last week's test showed, though, this is not sustainable either, so China has recently adopted a medium-term coping mechanism: engage with North Korea economically but solely for the benefit of Chinese economic interests, not as part of a reform agenda.

This medium-term solution is evident in the slew of mining contracts and further agreements to excavate coal, minerals, and other resources from North Korea to fuel China's two poor inland provinces, Jilin and Liaoning. In 2005, China and North Korea cooperated to build a "commercial corridor" associated with the Greater Tumen Initiative, which would connect Jilin Province to the seaport in Rajin, North Korea. China subsequently leased Rajin for ten years in 2010. In 2011, Chinese and North Korean trade reached $6 billion, according to Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies and the director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Meanwhile, in the same year, total Chinese investment in North Korea reached $98.3 million.That might sound like a lot, but this number is dwarfed by Chinese investments in South Korea ($1.2 billion), Vietnam ($437 million), and Mongolia ($890.7 million). In the end, Pyongyang's restrictions and inability to make rational economic decisions have confounded China's hope of seeing North Korean economic reform and peace. Only when the Kim regime decides to prize wealth and growth more than power will this vision be realized.


Even as the nuclear and missile programs continue to grow unimpeded, the domestic situation inside the dark country seems unsettled. Presumably, there is some degree of infighting within the North Korean government, which resulted in the surprise sacking in July 2012 of Ri Yong-ho, the country's top military general. In fact, all of the military generals who walked with Kim aside his father's hearse last December are gone. Some interpret these unceremonious departures as evidence that the reform-minded Kim is trying to usurp power from the hardline military. Others suggest that Kim, in a move to assert his authority, wanted to signal that he is fully able to silence rivals who challenge his power. More likely, Kim wants to strengthen his own patronage network by reclaiming some of the money that the military, presumably including Ri, was making through lucrative business activities awarded to them by Kim's father. This means that there are some very unhappy military generals in North Korea today. 

Perhaps to befriend the military, Kim continues to pay lip service to his father's military-first (songun chongch'i) brand of rule. But he appears to have complemented this with a fundamentalist version of his grandfather's juche, or self-reliance, ideology of the Cold War. It could be that the bankruptcy of his father's rule compelled him to find a better idea to justify the family's continued rule. Fundamentalist juche ideology, or what I call "neojucheism," appeals because it reminds North Koreans of an era of relative economic development and affluence, when production levels outpaced those of the rival South, and Chinese and Soviet money poured into the country. Juche fundamentalism was, and will be, a time of deep ideological indoctrination, mass mobilization, and rejection of foreign influences. Indeed, Kim has made himself the physical reincarnation of his grandfather down to the Mao suit, protruding stomach, cropped hairdo, and hearty laugh. 

But even as the regime's ideology is growing more hard-line, the society that Kim inherited is moving in a diametrically opposed direction. The biggest difference between the hermit kingdom of 1994, when Kim Jong Il took over, and the one of 2012 is the development of a market mentality among the people—something that grew out of terrible food shortages. Official and unofficial markets sprung up as people struggled to cope with the breakdown of the government's ration system. A study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ Marcus Noland and his colleagues Stephen Haggard and Erik Weeks, found that recent defectors admitted that at least 50 percent of total food they consumed in North Korea came from sources apart from the government. That creates an independence of mind that is dangerous in a society such as North Korea's. 

Other elements of modernity are starting to seep in, as well. Over one million North Koreans use cell phones, and more than 4,000 crawl the Web. Daily NK, one of the biggest new sites, attracts over 150,000 hits online per month for its timely insider information on North Korean issues. Thanks to expanded cell-phone access, North Korean "citizen journalists" operating between the Chinese-North Korean border can transmit bits of information more effectively both within the country and worldwide. 

The peculiar part about these advancements in communication technology is that most of them are legal. The North Korean government promotes, to an extent, cell-phone use because it holds a 25 percent stake in Koryolink (the North Korean branch of the Egyptian telecommunications company Orascom Telecom). With the number of subscribers to Koryolink steadily rising, mostly in Pyongyang, phones are quickly finding a permanent place in daily life. 

Where does all this lead? Toward a dead end for Kim, I think, and perhaps a nightmare loose-nukes scenario for the United States. The new leadership is exercising a more rigid ideology that seeks greater control over an increasingly independent-minded society and over disgruntled elements of the military. Meanwhile, its nuclear-bomb- and ICBM-making programs continue. All that is not sustainable. If Kim tried true reform and an opening North Korean society, however, he would immediately create a spiral of expectations that the regime would not be able to control. The young and untested leadership will try to navigate between these two perils. But it may prove too difficult. And if it does, Obama may find his pivot to Asia absorbed by a new crisis on the Korean peninsula.

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  • VICTOR D. CHA is D.S. Song-KF Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Senior Adviser for the Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. This work was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies Grant (MEST) (AKS-2010-DZZ-2102).
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