Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A new kid in charge of the North Korean toy box

News yesterday that North Korea's hereditary leader Kim Jong Il had passed away began to filter through to Twitter in the morning and newspapers were quick to follow up as people around the world quickly began to speculate as to what this event might mean for them. Share markets fell, most notably in South Korea, and regional militaries went on alert. Australia's foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, took the initiative and was soon on TV talking down fears and voicing his government's hope that relations with neighbouring states would remain peaceful. There is that much bruited-about figure of 1.2 million regular troops maintained by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and there is the official government policy of "military-first". Ears around the world listened in to the broadcast of the official TV channel as the news was made public.
We must hold high the flag of songun [military-first] policy, strengthen military power a hundred times and firmly defend our socialist system and achievement of revolution.
Kim's successor is in his late-20s. Kim Jong Un has received the paternal imprimatur but there is little information about his personal qualities, his beliefs, his aspirations for the people of DPRK. Will they be allowed to experiment with free markets, and thereby work to improve their tenuous existences? We just don't know. There was no significant change when Kim took over in 1992, for example.

The image used with this post is almost a meme, used commonly to indicate the dire state of the country's economy. It's the kind of image that tells a story. It's a photo from space of the region at night. There's Japan on the right with the big white dots showing Osaka and Kobe. The isolated glow surrounded by black is South Korea, with the bright spot of Seoul prominent near the top. On the left lies China, the Asian dragon that has developed economically while still holding fast to its one-party political structure. How long China can remain Communist is, of course, a huge question. So many anxieties derive from this single fact, and these anxieties contribute largely to driving government policies in other nations, especially those of the United States.

There are tens of thousands of US troops stationed in South Korea and tens of thousands more stationed in Japan. But noone in the US, bar the looniest of far-Right loonies, would welcome a military face-off with the DPRK. Certainly the Japanese fear this outcome more than most things, and the South Koreans too. Along with nationals in those countries, Australians watch the DPRK make its transition from an untrustworthy leader to the unknown quantity of Kim Jong Un, with curiosity and concern.

After the initial notices of Kim's death, Twitter quickly took to relaying the anxieties of nationals everywhere in the form of humour. The jokes ran thick and fast. A number of terms trended as a result of the announcement. Some of them still trend this morning. We are still coming to terms with the succession. No doubt the people of the DPRK are coming to terms with it as well, just as the PRK military will have to come to terms with Kim Jong Un. And he with them.

This is a huge development in the political arena in Asia. It will have a major impact on relations between Asian nations for decades. There are a number of options available to the Great Successor. Let's hope that Kim Jong Un takes a Chinese path toward economic development rather than remaining resolute within the climate of fear and distrust maintained by his father. Economic development is essential as it improves the likelihood of social cohesion, thus diminishing the importance of the state apparatus, especially the military. It also delivers more-normal relations with nation states globally. And it would provide access to global cultural products that could serve to diminish the rigid ideological machine that has been put in place to ensure stability in the DPRK. China is changing almost despite itself, as a result of its policy change under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. I hope that the Great Successor will take his political cues from that diminutive giant rather than from his brittle and unreliable father.

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