After only the second power transition in North Korea’s history, the government, essentially a Kim family criminal enterprise, appears to be stable. However, the regime’s foundation is weak. Although Pyongyang has begun to loosen economic controls, so far only the elite are benefiting. Washington should be willing to engage the North, but should expect no breakthroughs.
Last December “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il died. His son, Kim Jong-un, tagged the “Great Successor,” was left nominally in charge. However, it remains unclear if Kim fils also is the great decision-maker. A recent report from the International Crisis Group pointed to factors which reinforced “the Kim family cult and concentration of power,” but the ruling elite are invested in the system more than in Kim. And the PR touches applauded by the West—cavorting with Mickey Mouse characters, sporting an attractive wife with a Christian Dior purse—are more likely to be viewed with contempt by old-line apparatchiks.
More important, his father had little time to pass on authority to the 29-year-old in a society that esteems age. The surplus of titles, including most recently “marshal” in the military, swiftly showered upon him actually highlights his inadequacy.