“Pyongyang and the today’s North Korea is a socialist paradise where all the people have a life with dignity, without poverty and more than ever demonstrate the invincibility and union of the masses around the Leader.”
—Official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
“North Koreans are reportedly unhappy about the prospect that the little-known son of the current leader will become their next ruler.”
This time last month, there were only two or three known photographs of Kim Jong-un, current North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s youngest son. Then, in a flurry of activity surprising even for a regime as unpredictable as Kim Jong-il’s, Kim Jong-un was given positions on both the Central Military Commission and Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, promoted to four-star general, and shuttled around to various high-publicity events. The North Korean propaganda apparatus calls him the “Brilliant Comrade,” and all signs point to a hereditary power hand-off in the near future.
For North Korea, however, much more is at stake. In the last few months, North Korea has made cautious but noticeable steps to increase peaceful interaction with the global community. At last Sunday’s celebration of the country’s 65th anniversary, the DPRK allowed unprecedented (though still limited) media access to the country; high-level talks between the North and South Korean militaries have also taken place recently. The government now tacitly allows the decidedly non-communist “night markets,” evening bazaars that provide a reliable, if expensive, source of food. Kim Jong-un himself is presented as tech savvy, and he reportedly spent several years at a Swiss boarding school. Whether this is a good faith effort, an attempt to smooth over the sinking—allegedly by North Korea—of the South Korean Cheonan, or simply a means of facilitating a transition of power remains to be seen, but it would be difficult to overstate the possible consequences of these recent events.
With the public unveiling of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean ruling elite may have bitten off more than they can chew. It would be reasonable to assume that the majority of North Koreans trust the government’s word, if only because the alternatives are labor camp detention or risking life and limb to flee the state. Yet despite the continual indoctrination, the country is not as unified as its leaders like to advertise. In a culture where age is revered, an absolute leader in his late twenties with no previous leadership experience has raised eyebrows both within North Korea and around the world. Kim Jong-il worked in the North Korean government for decades before succeeding his father; given the elder Mr. Kim’s age and frail health, Kim Jong-un will certainly have far less training before taking the reins of power.
Should his father relinquish power in the near future—through death or other reasons—Kim Jong-un will inherit a nation in a unique position. The last pillar of Stalinist communism, North Korea is home to 23 million impoverished citizens, a rudimentary nuclear program that nevertheless commands the attention of global powers, a standing army of 1.2 million, and a national identity that remains one of the world’s strongest. While his father’s advisors will undoubtedly assist and perhaps even manipulate the young Kim Jong-un, it will ultimately be his decisions and his visage that North Koreans and the rest of the world will see and pass judgment on.
One particular instance offers hope for ordinary North Koreans. According to Kenji Fujimoto, the pseudonym for a former chef for North Korea’s ruling family and a widely-quoted source of information on the younger Mr. Kim, Kim Jong-un has been inquisitive about the living conditions of the North Korean majority. From within the confines of the Kim family’s life of luxury, Kim Jong-un reportedly asked Mr. Fujimoto, “We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding Jet Skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?” Of course, such a comment must be compared to Kim Jong-il’s less promising observation, “that boy is exactly like me,” but the remark to Fujimoto and Kim Jong-un’s alleged foreign experience offer at least some hope that the son will not be quite as egomaniacal as his father.
Change will not happen overnight—or, for that matter, over a month or a year. A communist dictatorship established and strengthened over decades will not be dismantled in any short span of time. (North Korea, after all, is a country where the dead founder is still technically the president and revered as a god and where the official history of the nation and the biographies of its leaders are more myth than fact.) Eventually, though, the status quo will change.
Information about life outside of North Korea is becoming more accessible to the isolated state’s general public, a public already disgruntled with the new heir apparent. The slightly terrifying reality is that the power to shape North Korea’s future, whether a collapse or a rebirth, will rest largely on the shoulders of a chubby 27-year-old.