Guest Blog

North Korea: new leader, new opportunities

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Tuesday, 13 March, 2012

“The year 2012 might be a great opportunity for the West to dramatically improve relations with North Korea. We should give Kim Jong Un a chance. What do we have to lose?” Rudiger Frank, Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna, argues that the West should seize the opportunity to actively engage the new and unencumbered leader in Pyongyang who will make economic growth his top priority and who feels uneasy about China’s influence.

Three months after the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il, the problems and concerns involving the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) remain unchanged. But there is a new leader, and this might open up new opportunities.

He is said to be inexperienced. This might not be a bad thing. It means that he had no chance so far to do anything that would disqualify him as a partner for dialogue. He has inherited a country with many grave issues, but he is not yet responsible for them. Western politicians might for good reasons have been reluctant to talk to Kim Jong Il. However, as yet, there is no reason not to talk to Kim Jong Un.

Furthermore, he has a severe legitimacy problem that might induce him to explore new approaches. Unlike his father, he was not groomed long and intensely as the heir. He is lacking the ideological legitimacy that would arise from such a process. In a way, he finds himself in a similar situation as his grandfather 67 years ago, when the 33 year-old Kim Il Sung entered Korea after liberation from the Japanese in 1945. He is young, unknown, untested. He has got a head start but now must prove that he is the right man at the helm of his country.

Focusing on economic success

How can, how will he do that? It is yet too early to tell but there is some evidence. His first much publicised action, right after the announcement of his father’s death and his proclamation as successor on 19 December 2011, was to distribute fresh fish to the citizens of Pyongyang and take care of hot drinks for mourners. Ten days later, during his first public appearance, slogans were reading “Improvement of the People’s Living Conditions” and “Light Industry First”.

In the 2012 New Year Joint Editorial, published by the KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) and the three main state-run newspapers and outlining state policies for the upcoming year, agriculture was assigned top priority in the economic field. In February 2012, three laws related to foreign investment and trade were revised to improve conditions for international economic cooperation. Meanwhile, Egyptian company Orascom reported that the number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea has reached 1 million.

These early signs seem to indicate that Kim Jong Un will try to build his legitimacy on economic success. This is not an easy task in an economic system that suffers from chronic inefficiency. It is also politically risky, like any change. Stakeholders of the old system must be calmed; the legacy of his predecessor must be preserved; expectations of the masses must be raised carefully as these can easily get out of control.

China’s support will play a big role, but at the same time, the growing dependency on the big neighbour is unpleasant for North Korea. The West will be more than welcome to provide a counter weight. The North has created special economic zones and a legal framework for international economic cooperation; it is not in the West’s interest to leave all this exclusively to the Chinese. In 2011, 83 per cent of North Korea’s trade was conducted with its neighbour.

A year of opportunity

I do not know what way Kim Jong Un will choose, who will support him, and whether he will succeed. But the year 2012 might be a great opportunity for the international community to dramatically improve relations with North Korea and its new leader. This will affect all those issues that are of importance - human rights, the humanitarian situation, and even the nuclear question. While diplomats in Pyongyang and in other capitals are still weighing the options, independent groups like The Elders can play an important role as ice-breakers.

The world should give Kim Jong Un and his suffering population a chance. What do we have to lose?

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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