Reflecting on North Korea’s Political Transition, One Month On

This undated picture, released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on January 12, 2012 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting the planned construction site for the Pyongyang Folk Park, undertaken by Korean People's Army service personnels in Pyongyang. (KNS/KCNA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, formerly the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, and Charles Armstrong, Asia Society Associate Fellow and Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, will weigh-in on the North Korean political transition at 6:30pm, Monday, January 23 at Asia Society, New York.  Watch live at and submit questions to

Two days after the death of Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” last December, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley wrote: “How quickly North Korea comes back to the table and whether it picks up where the existing dialogue left off will offer some insight into the transition's effectiveness, the leadership's hold on its population and the urgency of the food situation.” One month on, the stability of nuclear North Korea continues to weigh heavily on the minds of leadership around the world. The country has yet to come back to the negotiating table.      

In the hours following the announcement of the Kim’s death, the East Asian region was thrown into uncertainty. Asian stock markets fell and leaders around the world urged restraint. Could the new regime sustain itself? Predictions abounded. For the moment, it seems power was successfully consolidated under Kim Jong Un, the “Great Successor.” 

Still, many uncertainties remain. Perhaps what is most clear about North Korea’s future is that it remains murky.

Over the past month various commentators, while largely in agreement with the concerns outlined by Mr. Crowley, lack consensus with respect to how the new regime will be able to maintain its power. Speculation toward North Korea’s economic reform and eventual opening to the international community has flourished. Other experts have weighed in on the likelihood of North Korea’s eventual reunification with the south.   

Taking the question of economic reform first, William Pesek at Bloomberg predicts a surmounting cash shortage in the country that will leave just “one growth industry” for the Kim Jong Un: “Diplomacy.” This is partially because the regime’s usual trade partners, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, are undergoing periods of reform, transition, and change. They therefore no longer represent a reliable source of economic support, and China’s patience with the country may be waning.

Pesek goes on to ask whether recent events in Myanmar might be a “catalyst” for economic reform in North Korea. This view is, perhaps, optimistic. In fact, in the case of Myanmar, it wasn’t that international sanctions forced the regime to open up. Rather, Myanmar’s growing skepticism with respect to the intentions of its longtime ally China led the country to seek a more balanced trade portfolio. Myanmar’s opening may indeed make it more challenging for the DPRK to pursue economic liberalization, partially because North Korea is one of the few remaining countries over which China holds almost exclusive sway.  

Which then raises the question of reunification. The situation in 1989 Germany, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, invites comparison, and indeed experts have weighed in on this topic as well. It is clear that the costs of reunification on the Korean Peninsula will be great, given the dire economic circumstances in the north. As the Wall Street Journal noted on January 9, the reunification of East and West Germany, in spite of it being the “‘right thing’ to have done,” continues to bear economic consequences for the country as a whole 23 years onward. This is in spite of East Germany’s wealth being far greater than that of present-day North Korea at the time of its reunification. South Korea’s statistics office reported this week that the south’s per capita income is now 20 times greater than that of the north.    

Still, there are those who remain hawkish and see the present insecurities in transition as an opportunity for more forceful intervention. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton wrote in December, “In defiance of all logic and history, the Obama administration has been negotiating with North Korean diplomats, hoping to trade food aid for more empty promises to denuclearize.” Bolton sees reunification as in “China’s best interests,” but reunification will only come upon the collapse of the military-led regime.

While Mr. Bolton may encourage taking such risks — “risk and opportunity often come together, and Kim's death provides both in ample measure,” he wrote — the reality, according to Assistant Professor Robert Kelly of Pusan National University, is that North Korea’s military is a stabilizing entity. Working with China to engage the regime will be important, as is the continued provision of humanitarian aid. But the international community lacks the energy and resources, and it can't risk the possible nuclear outcome of a larger military intervention.

As Victor Cha commented in the New York Times, “While some observers hope that Kim Jong Il’s death will unleash democratic regime change, China will work strongly against that possibility, especially if such efforts receive support from South Korea or the United States.”  

About the Author

Profile picture for user Andrew Billo
Andrew Billo is Assistant Director for Policy in the Asia Society's New York Public Programs office. He previously worked for six years on migration issues in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.