There are signs that following the death on Dec. 17 of North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, his youngest son Kim Jong Un is consolidating his power as the new leader. But it is unclear what direction his foreign policy will take. Japan should be prepared to flexibly cope with whatever moves North Korea might take.
On Dec. 30, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (North Korea’s ruling communist party) formally appointed him as the Supreme Commander of the military.
Kim Jong Il needed eight years to fully consolidate his power, first becoming the Supreme Commander of the military, then head of the National Defense Commission and lastly the general secretary of the party. But his son now only holds the title of Supreme Commander of the military. Although he is called head of the party’s central committee, this is not an official title.
His grip on power is shaky compared with the case of his father. The latter had about 20 years of preparation to firm his political power by the time his father Kim Il Sung died in 1994. Mr. Kim Jong Un had slightly more than three years at most for such preparations (since his father suffered a stroke in 2008).
If he tries to show achievements to North Korean people in a hasty manner, it could backfire. The direction of North Korea under the new leader can be detected to some extent by looking at the New Year’s Day joint editorial of Rodong Sinmun, the party’s organ, and two other leading North Korean newspapers.
They stressed the importance of loyalty to “Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of our Party and our people” and “the eternal center of its (North Korea’s) unity.” It also said, “We should consolidate the national defense capabilities in every way under the unfurled banner of songun (military first).”
Mr. Kim Jong Un should remember that both his father and grandfather sought a peace treaty with the United States and economic assistance from Japan by normalizing bilateral relations. If he is obsessed with, and pursues, the military-first policy exemplified by the nuclear weapons program, it will eventually destabilize his regime.
The biggest job for him should be to reform the North Korean economy and stabilize people’s lives. To achieve this, he should endeavor to improve North Korea’s relations with South Korea, Japan and the U.S.