Kim Jong Un’s youth makes him a wild card

It’s been two years since Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father at the helm of the Hermit Kingdom. Yet, contrary to hopes for positive change, North Korea remains as much of a problem for its neighbors and the international community as it ever did. Kim Jong Un’s move to power seemed promising at first. Whichever birth date to which you subscribe, official or surmised, Kim is young – around 30. He almost certainly spent part of his youth abroad, most likely in Switzerland. He’s said to enjoy many accoutrements of the Western lifestyle. Kim’s passion for basketball is unbounded, as self-appointed diplomat Dennis Rodman would be the first to confirm.

In contrast to his introverted father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un has made himself widely visible, even appearing with his wife. He may not be South Korea’s Psy, but he presents a hip image that held the promise of a new era.

Nothing of real substance, however, has changed. We have not seen a single sign of serious economic change – the kind of reform that could lift North Korea out of penury and reverse decades of unimaginable privation for its more than 23 million people (all except the privileged elite, that is).

To the exasperation of the United States and even China, North Korea’s increasingly ambivalent ally and primary benefactor, Kim has been belligerent in his posture toward Seoul. He continues to thumb his nose at international opinion by trying to have his isolated nation accepted as a nuclear power – one with the boasted ballistic potential to hit targets in the United States.

Of course, one could interpret this as harmless saber-rattling on the part of a leader eager to polish his military resume, appear strong, and consolidate his authority. But it’s hard to be philosophical about a defiantly nuclear North Korea that has repudiated its 1953 armistice with South Korea and proved its ballistics delivery capabilities by successfully putting a faulty satellite into orbit last December.

Worse still, Kim’s youth makes him something of a wild card. Is he a risk-taker who might turn rhetoric into potentially catastrophic action? Or will he opt for business as usual – the kind of unsatisfactory status quo that makes the prospect of a peacefully unified Korean Peninsula at best a distant dream?

The latter is arguably more likely, because even an inexperienced leader like Kim must know that in the context of a dictatorship, radical shifts of policy, external or internal, can have unintended consequences. Even if he were serious about economic and social reform, Kim would have to reckon with opposition from those who see it as a threat to their privileges.

If China were willing to cut North Korea loose, it would put real teeth in the series of U.N. resolutions designed to bring Kim to heal. But as much as the people in Beijing and Pyongyang resent each other, the collapse of North Korea would be unsettling for China, as it would hold the prospect of a flood of refugees and a U.S.-backed South Korea on its border. Nor would China willingly give up its privileged access to North Korea’s considerable mineral resources, which it currently extracts in predatory fashion.

For the Chinese, then, it’s a delicate balancing act. They have an interest in keeping North Korea afloat, but they don’t want Pyongyang to think it has a blank check.

Any thought right now that change might bubble up from within would be fanciful. The hyper-paranoid Kim dynasty has always been afraid of its own people and quashes any hint of dissent with Stalinist brutality. After years of systematic brainwashing and isolation, the North Korean people accept the Kim leadership with quasi-religious obeisance. They’ve been taught to blame their ills on the outside world. There’s not going to be a North Korean Spring any time soon.

That said, tiny cracks are opening. Cellphone use, though severely restricted, has been growing rapidly in North Korea. Foreign business interests want access to modern communications technology, including the Internet, and the result is increasing information penetration from the outside. Once it’s started, it’s hard to shut down.

The more people in North Korea who start to grasp what’s really going on, the greater the prospect for change. We can only hope it will be accomplished peacefully – but where the current regime is concerned, all bets are off.

Victor Cha is the former director for Asian affairs in the White House’s National Security Council. He holds the D.S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and is director of the Asian Studies program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington. His latest book is “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.” This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2013, on page 7.




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