A year after the death of Kim Jong-il and the ascension of his son Kim Jong-un, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea appears to be more stable than many had predicted. The new leader has consolidated his authority and rebalanced power among key institutions, but his reforms have not gone nearly far enough if North Korea is to escape its poverty trap.
While the nation remains impoverished as a whole, the capital shows some signs of prosperity, and a successful rocket launch on 12 December further strengthened Kim Jong-un's hand. Yet internal contradictions and increasing isolation could portend trouble. External assistance will be further out of reach if he doubles down on the missile launch by conducting a third nuclear test.
The death on 17 December 2011 of North Korea's second leader, Kim Jong-il, triggered an immediate transfer of authority to his third son, then aged 28-29. When the death was announced two days later, Kim Jong-un was immediately appointed 'supreme commander of the armed forces'. Within four months he held the de jure titles of head of the army, party and state. This pace of succession was much faster than when Kim Jong-il inherited the mantle from DPRK founding father Kim Il-sung in 1994, with no formal titles passed on until three years later.
Many analysts predicted a rough ride for the inexperienced Kim Jong-un, who had a far shorter time to prepare than the 20-year grooming period enjoyed by his father. A continuing shuffle of senior military officials might be an indication of unrest among their ranks. The newfound prominence of leaders of the state security services suggests an unusual need for muscle. Further evidence of muttering in the ranks may be found in an October speech in which Kim Jong-un declared that the nation did not need soldiers who could not be absolutely loyal to the party.
Yet for now the succession has to be ruled a success. In consolidating his power, Kim Jong-un has replaced the top tier of the military officials who were in place at the time of his father's death. He purged Ri Yong-ho, chief of the Korean People's Army (KPA) General Staff, in July, and elevated a family crony, the civilian Chae Ryong-hae, to lead the KPA's political branch. In late November, Armed Forces Minister Kim Jong-gak was replaced by Kim Kyong-sik, who had commanded forces responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010. Kim Jong-gak had taken up his post only seven months earlier. What he did to displease in that short time is unknown. Two other top military officers have gone unseen, for months in one case, and have probably also been purged.
To what extent the young leader has singular authority is unclear. On the one hand, he is unquestionably the face of the regime, having made many more public appearances in one year than his father made in his first three years in office. Yet despite Kim Jong-un's aura of confidence, he does not have the acquired wisdom or expertise to manage the country on his own. It is widely presumed that the power behind the throne lies with his uncle Jang Song-taek, who received a royal welcome during an August trip to China, and Jang's wife (Kim Jong-il's sister) Kim Kyong-hui, who is said to be ailing.
Kim Jong-un has hastened a rebalancing of power among the key pillars of the regime that had already been under way in the last years of his father's reign, by bringing the formerly dominant military into a position of greater equity with the Korean Workers' Party and state governance institutions. During Kim's public appearances this year, he has been accompanied much more frequently by party officials than by military officers, a reversal of the practice seen during his father's reign. Meanwhile, at least two military enterprises that had brought hard currency to the KPA by selling bituminous coal and gold to China have been placed under state control.
The rebalancing of power is only relative, however. 'Military first' remains the guiding principle of the nation. More than a slogan, 'military first' sets the direction of both the economy and foreign policy. The military, with the world's fourth-largest standing army at 1.2 million personnel, commands about 23% of North Korea's GDP. Talk about the 'people's economy' has yet to produce any significant shift away from military-centred production.
A militaristic orientation was evidenced in Kim Jong-un's decision to hazard another space launch on 12 December, eight months after a failed lift-off on 13 April and in the face of stern warnings by China and every other state of note. It was a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, adopted after previous missile and nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, that prohibit North Korea from any activity related to its ballistic-missile programme. Whether or not the satellite is wobbling in orbit, the successful launch and three-stage separation of the Unha-3 missile demonstrated power and resolve to a jubilant population. The launch also signalled a strong deterrence posture to a watching world; North Korea now has something that can hit American shores, though any functioning nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile is still at least several years away.
The launch had to be carried out this year to meet the goal set by Kim Jong-il that 2012 would herald North Korea's coming of age as a 'strong and prosperous nation'. The timing also served to commemorate Kim Jong-il's death and to cap Kim Jong-un's successful first year at the helm. State media credited him personally with issuing the launch order. If the rocket also serves to influence the outcome of the South Korean presidential election on 19 December, this would be the icing on the cake. To the extent that the election was a factor in the launch timing, DPRK leaders might have calculated that nervous South Korean voters would now have more reason to choose the North's favoured candidate, opposition party standard-bearer Moon Jae-in, who was seen as more likely to resume South-North engagement with vigour. But the provocation might have the opposite effect and tilt South Korean voters towards the right.