Moon: New Actors and New Demands for North Korea

Propaganda art in the Pyongyang Metro in North Korea, photographed in August 2011. (Flickr/Joseph Ferris III)

Kim Jong Il’s death dealt a blow to the North Korean regime and people. A smooth political transition that places Kim Jong Un, the “Great Successor,” at the helm and consolidates social and political order are Pyongyang’s pressing priorities. No one knows what kind of “order” may ensue.

Many outside North Korea are restless and ambitious to push for change according to their own agendas. That is a natural inclination given that many seek substantive change in North Korean domestic and foreign policy. After all, internal crisis in the North can provide new opportunities, and making demands while a government is weak might seem to offer immediate advantage. But it would be imprudent to let one’s own ambitions or political agenda fly ahead of the realities on the ground in the North. Rather, a time of uncertainty and transition requires patience, restraint and careful planning, rather than quick action and demands that the North is not in a position to entertain.

The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), a consortium of more than 40 human rights groups from around the world, sought global support for their goal of establishing a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea and circulated emails within days of the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death on December 19, 2011.

In South Korea, some North Korean defectors who have become politically active and have formed activist groups are viewing Kim Jong Il's death and the political succession as an opportunity to push for reunification. This group will seek a larger voice in the months and years ahead. They are not a monolithic group — they vie for influence and public funds — but they are intent on speaking for the 22,000-plus defectors who reside in South Korea. They are running for political office and mobilizing to become decision-makers in government. 

The former North Korean elites, in particular, claim that they know North Korea best and that their assessments of activities above the 38th parallel are indispensable to developing effective South Korean policies toward the North. And they tout their anti-Communist credentials through their very act of defection. But they are a small minority who do not share the poverty and marginalization of the large majority of the defectors. And they are used by South Korean conservative and liberal forces for their own respective political gains.

The inclusion of defector elites into South Korean domestic politics will grow, especially since post-Kim Jong Il North Korea is filled with uncertainties and guesswork. Whether these former North Koreans can objectively evaluate and advise on North Korean issues remains a significant question. And whether South Korea decision-makers will take them seriously or use them as tokens or covers for their own agendas remains to be seen.

About the Author

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Katharine H.S. Moon is the Edith Stix Wasserman Professor of Asian Studies in the Department of Political Science at Wellesley College. She is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.