The Question of Succession

The Question of Succession

The only succession to the highest office in North Korea has been from father to son, and it appears that the next succession will also be from father to son. For a long time speculation revolved around two candidates, Kim Jong Nam (b. 1971) and Kim Jong Chul (b. 1981).

In January 2009, amid rumors that Kim Jong Il had suffered a stroke, news agencies in South Korea reported that Kim Jong Il had named Kim Jong Un (b. 1985), his youngest son by his third wife to be his successor.

The 24-year-old Jong Un was educated in Switzerland under a pseudonym and is said to be Kim’s favorite. He returned to North Korea in his late teens, and since then there had been no publicity about him in North Korea’s completely state-controlled media.

North Korea Today

North Korea in 2009 remained a closed, secretive state, the last country still shut behind the “iron curtain” once said to have hidden the com-munist world from the West. In the 1950s and 1960s sinologists and Kremlinologists in the United States used to sift through government news releases, photographs of wall posters, and the published lists of participants in Communist Party congresses for hints of what was really going on in Red China and Red Russia.

So, today, observers of North Korea study reports of the refugees streaming across the border to China, analyze the shadows in photographs of Kim Jong Il for tell-tale clues that the pictures have been manipulated (signifying that Kim is sick or even dead), and wonder if a show of greater-than-average intransigence in ongoing nuclear talks means that hard-liners are now in control of the DPRK.

Thanks to its desperate economic straits and in particular to the per-sistent efforts of South Korean presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, the door to North Korea was opened just a crack. It is still quite a narrow opening. Two decades after the end of the cold war and the lib-eralization of the Chinese, Russian, and eastern European economies, the amount of serious change in North Korea is astonishingly small.

The South Korean government, in an effort that is surely more political than economic, has encouraged investment in its “lost other half” despite enormous obstacles routinely put in its path by the DPRK and by the U.S. habit of placing restrictions on exports from North Korea. Bilateral trade between the two Koreas was $220 million in 1998 and reached $700 million by 2004.

That year initial construction was completed on the Kaesong Industrial Region, a “special administrative industrial region” built by and run by a South Korean committee, with prominent help from the South Korean chaebol Hyundai Asan. With South Korean exper-tise and financing and extremely cheap North Korean labor supplied by the Korean Workers’ Party, factories in the Kaesong Industrial Region are producing inexpensive goods such as shoes, clothes, and watches.

Joint ventures like these are a high-risk business for South Korean investors. It is unlikely that the investors would make such efforts in a country farther away or less linked by bonds of history. In 2005, when Hyundai wanted to fire an executive accused of embezzling money, North Korea demanded that this man be reinstated and remain Hyundai’s point man in North Korea.

The reason: He had had the rare privilege of meeting Kim Jong Il on several occasions. When Hyundai held its ground, North Korea accused the company of “deception and hypoc-risy” and said it was reconsidering all its business deals with Hyundai.

South Korean business analysts questioned by the International Herald Tribune in October 2005 voiced the opinion that the DPRK, unable to borrow money and desperate for hard currency, just wanted to keep the 1.5 billion that Hyundai had invested.

Four years later the Kaesong Industrial Region still exists, but North Korea has not become a better business partner. Another joint ven-ture between the two countries, the Kumgang Mountain resort on the southeastern tip of North Korea, opened in 1998.

It ran into trouble on July 11, 2008, when North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean housewife, a tourist, who wandered into a restricted zone. South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung Bak, banned trips to the resort until the incident had been investigated.

While campaigning for president, Lee had promised to get tougher on North Korea, and this incident was an opportunity to show it—but in any case his demand for an investigation seemed a reasonable move considering a tourist had been slain. Any normal country would have asked for an investigation; any normal country would have pro-vided one.

The North Korean response was to threaten to expel all South Korean businesspeople from the resort. North Korea is still an extremely difficult place in which to do business, and its leaders give little impression of a serious desire for change. They seem rather to be hanging on from day to day and year to year.