N. Korea Kim Jong-un and Boris Yeltsin

North Korea has suddenly got a new leader. Predictably enough, people want to make sense of this sudden change and many Pyongyangologists (admittedly, not a large group) look into their crystal balls in an attempt to guess what line the newNorth Korean strongman will take.

When dealing with all of these predictions, one has to keep in mind two things.

First, predictions are based on very little factual evidence – not much is known about Kim Jong Un and merely two years ago, few people knew how his name was spelt in Korean.

Second, for the time being and in the immediate future, Kim Jong Un is unlikely to be a dictator in the strict sense. One should expect that all proper tributes to his wisdom will be paid, but for the next few months (or, perhaps, even few years) he is almost certain to remain a figurehead. It will be his father’s aged advisors who will seemingly decide the policy direction of the North Korean state, at least for the time being.

Sooner or later though, Kim Jong Un will start ruling on his own. When this time will come, which policies should we expect him to follow?

In a nutshell, the young dictator faces a binary choice: he will either launch market-orientated reforms or not, leaving things unchanged.

It seems that Chinese-style reforms are inherently dangerous. Therefore, if Kim Jong Un wants to maintain his position as long as possible, he probably should persist with his father’s set of policies as long as possible. Nonetheless, his eventual choice remains an open question. Unfortunately, for theassorted crystal ball gazers, available evidence seems to point in two mutually exclusive directions.

On the one hand, there are some reasons to believe that the young man will become a reformer. Unlike his father, whose teenage overseas experience was limited to merely one overseas trip to the Soviet Union in 1959, Kim Jong Un spent his teenage years overseas, attending a school in Switzerland. He knows how the world works and he probably understands that the current North Korean system is not going to deliver sustainable economic growth.

He is also believed to be an admirer of computer gadgets – a natural thing for somebody of his age. Not necessarily a sign of reformist mind, it still might be read as an indication.

There are also other, more recent, signs which might point in the same direction. On December 25th, even before the official funeral of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un ordered markets to be reopened. Such an order was inevitable – refusing to allow the resumption of normal market activities would soon arouse mass discontent since most North Koreans nowadays make a living through the market economy. Nonetheless it is remarkable how little time elapsed following Kim Jong Il’s death before Kim Jong Un issued the order.

On the other hand, there are worrying signs which might indicate that Kim Jong Un might turn to be a hardliner. It is widely believed that he was, at least partially, responsible for thedisastrous currency reforms of 2009 which was aimed at the revival of the old Stalinist industrial management system.

The last few years have been a time when the Sino-Korean border, hitherto notoriously porous, became far less so. Border patrols have been dramatically scaled up and cross-border traffic has been significantly curtailed. In the past, one would have to pay a border guard a few dozen dollars for safe passage across the border (and sometimes one could get across for free). Nowadays though, the price is in thehundreds of US dollars. Most of the refugees believe that these measures were initiated by Kim Jong Un.

Another worrying sign is the intensified campaign among the families of refugees left behind in North Korea. In borderland areas, the police have been investigating families whose members have gone missing in recent years. If it is found that a member of the family has left the North, the family left behind may be banished to the countryside (admittedly, they can avoid trouble by bribing local police, but themoney required is not small). Police officials have said in recent months that Kim Jong Un has instructed them to make sure that no one would flee the country.

It is also remarkable that Kim Jong Un dresses like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The tunic he wears (known in the west as a ‘Mao suit’), is clearly anachronistic and is clearly worn for its symbolic significance – because it is exactly what Kim Il Sung once wore. This also does not bode well for those who expect change.

In sum then, things appear to be quite uncertain at the top at present. The situation looks even more complex if we take into account that in the world of politics the personal convictions of a leader are often much less important than frequently assumed. Frankly, in order to take and hold power, a successful politician must be adept at changing his political convictions and policies quickly and frequently. After all, who remembers that Boris Yeltsin, the embodiment of the anti-communist movement in the late Soviet era was once seen as a hardliner, allegedly an uncompromising supporter of ‘Leninist policies’?

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