Future of NK leadership at time when society changes rapidly

2012 shows Kim Jong Un (R), top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and his wife Ri Sol Ju (L) is welcomed before watching a performance. (Photo : Xinhua/KCNA)

The beautiful and charming Ri Sol-ju, the wife of the North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un, has not been seen for quite a while. After few months of frantic activity, she has nearly (but not quite completely) disappeared from the public view. The sudden drop in frequency of her public appearances has been met by tidal wave of rumors, speculation, and conjecture. However, a simple explanations seems to be likely: Comrade Ri is probably pregnant.

It seems that North Korean propagandists have decided not to treat their people to the sight of the gradually enlarging belly of Comrade Ri Sol-ju. After all, such a sight would make the royal couple appear far too human. It is also possible that she has to take more care of herself and hence avoids excessive public activity.

Every decent human being, regardless of his or her feelings regarding the North Korean regime, should wish Ri Sol-ju good luck. We must also congratulate the young couple. But what is the likely fate of their future child? Perhaps it is time to think about the future of this strange and fascinating land, as it might be experienced by the child of Kim Jong-un.

There is little chance that the Child (let’s call him or her in this way) will become successor to his father as ruler of North Korea. It is difficult to imagine how the Kim family will manage to stay in control of the country for several more decades. Times are changing in the North, and these changes are happening rapidly. Information about the outside world is filtering into North Korea in ever growing volumes. At the same time, North Korean people are gradually losing their fear of the government. This does not bode well for the long-term survival prospects of the regime which is saddled with a remarkably inefficient and perhaps unreformable political and economic system.

This does not mean that North Korea will collapse tomorrow, or any time soon, but in the logn run it is unsustainable. If Kim Jong-un and his advisers are sufficiently, prudent, ruthless and brutal, they may be able to keep their people under control for two or three decades. But unless Kim Jong-un dies very young, it is unlikely that his Child will take over from him – the collapse of North Korea is likely to happen well before.

It is also possible that sooner or later Kim Jong-un will take the risk and launch Chinese-style market-orientated reforms. It might be happening right now: for the last couple of months it seemed that this was what he wanted to do, even though recent developments make one somewhat less enthusiastic about such expectations (over the last month or two, the North Korean government has decided to put on the reformist plans that were seemingly in the offing this past summer).

Many observers have suggested that such Chinese-style reforms offer a way to save the country (for the South Korean left, such belief seems to be a near article of faith). However, it is difficult to agree with this optimistic view. Reforms are likely to unleash a tidal wave of expectations among North Korea’s people, and eventually therefore lead to collapse. There is a small chance that the reforms will be so successful as to lead to the emergence of a Chinese-style developmental dictatorship in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, but instability and collapse appears to be a more likely outcome. This might be the reason why Kim Jong-un has recently backpedalled, and decided not to implement the putative reform package.

Therefore if the Kim family is smart, brutal and lucky, they might stay in control long enough – say, until the Child graduates from university. If they unlucky and too kindly to their people, the inevitable disaster may befall them much earlier – perhaps, when the Child is still learning how to read.

If this is to happen, what will be the fate of the Kim family and in particular, the de-facto royal couple? We should not be misled by their current apparent popularity (especially the popularity of Ms. Ri). In 1989, the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu and his wife Elena were summarily executed by firing squad after a trial by kangaroo court. Ceaucescu was the only dictator killed during the democratic revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. However, the Ceaucescu couple in the late 1960s was the most popular of all contemporary Eastern European leaders, enjoying massive support from below. So things do indeed change, and the undeniable current popularity of Ri Sol-ju and her husband do not constitute any guarantee against a sorry end – more so since regime collapse in North Korea is likely to be quite violent.

But let’ s hope for the best. After all, Kim Jong-un was born to be a hereditary dictator, unlike his grandfather, who once had to kill a lot of people in order to rise to the top and stop a board room coup after that. In a sense, Kim Jong-un is a victim of circumstances and therefore one should feel great relief if, when the revolution comes, he successfully escapes to safety (almost certainly, such safety can be found only overseas).

If exile is indeed the (distant, perhaps) future of North Korea’s first family, where are they likely to spend their involuntary retirement? Unfortunately, few countries are likely to accept them. The Kim family is different from most dictatorships in the 20th century developing world in having no great power sponsor.

Throughout the last century, the overthrown dictators often moved to the capital cities of their patron powers – hence Paris, Moscow and London were home for dozens of ex-strongmen. But this is not going to happen to Kim family who had no such patron. No major government is therefore likely to see them worthy of protection. Rather they are likely to be perceived as a burden, a hot potato. Still, there is some hope that they will find refuge in China or perhaps in Macao which has been the major base of financial transactions for the Kim family for a long time.

If this is to happen then we can expect the Child to follow in the footsteps of Kim Han-sol, the son of Kim Jong-nam – Kim Jong-un’s older brother. Due to some unknown political and personal circumstances (perhaps, rivalry between Kim Jong-il’s concubines in Pyongyang), Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, moved out of the country in the mid-1990s. Therefore his son Kim Jong-un’s nephew – Kim Han-sol was raised primarily in China and Macao. He has received a first class education and is currently studying at a school in Bosnia. In due time the smart and intelligent young man is likely to enter a prestigious Western university.

The Child might share a similar fate. It will help, of course, if his/her parents will keep control over the substantial fortune of the Kim family – usually estimated to be in the region of $2-4 billion. However, even if this fortune is lost in turmoil as North Korea collapses, it seems unlikely that the Child will suffer from destitution: I cannot think of single son of a dictator who lived hopeless on the streets of Nice or Berne, let alone Macao or Hong Kong.

So, in all probability, the Child will enjoy the fruits of his highly privileged origins, whatever happens to the Child’s parent’s dynasty. Probably, the Child’s parents should not feel sorry that their first born will not become a North Korean dictator. In fact, being a dictator is actually quite a nasty job – stressful, unrewarding and very harmful for one’s psychological and occasionally physical health. It is much better to be a doctor or engineer (or even a lawyer, I would say).

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