One way to look at the leadership transition in North Korea, and the prospects it holds, is to put a Chinese generational template over it. China’s new leadership that will be taking over from next year comprise the fifth generation since Mao’s revolutionaries. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un represents only the third generation of leaders, and, because of his young age, its vanguard, perhaps even only the forward scout of the vanguard.
It is the second generation–Kim Jong Il’s generation–that rules North Korea. The Dear Leader was only 69 0r 70 when he died, so there is still wind in his contempories’ sails. They are what any Chinese would recognize as princelings, the privileged offspring of the original revolutionary leaders–and overwhelmingly the sons in North Korea’s case. Like their Chinese counterparts, while they will have factional interests, they have a much greater vested interest in maintaining the status quo on which their position, power and privilege depend. Any interest in economic or political reform is subordinate to that.
The second generation of North Korean leaders bear some similarities to China’s third generation of leaders in that they were all Soviet or Soviet bloc educated, but unlike China’s third generation, and their own fathers, they neither fought against the Japanese in the 1940s nor against the Americans and South Koreans in the early 1950s. Nonetheless the military holds greater sway over the civilian elite than it did in China. The National Defence Commission governs the country and the industrial-military complex is pretty much the economy.
Like celebrities who are famous for being famous, North Korea’s second generation ruling elite is primarily interested in maintaining its position as the ruling elite. The third generation that Kim Jong Un’s succession may usher in is an unknown quantity. Many of its members have been schooled in some part in Western Europe and the U.S. (Like Kim Jong Un they study abroad under assumed names and pass themselves off as the children of embassy staff.) Whether that gives them a different world view to their predecessors and whether, if it does, the elite Kim Il Sung University to which they return snuffs it out, is anybody’s guess.
They are too young–with one obvious exception–to have risen to positions of power in the military or the Workers Party of Korea yet. They may be the best long-term bet for changing the focus in North Korea from the poverty of socialist self-sufficiency to economic reform along Chinese lines, but this Bystander, at least, wouldn’t bet the bank on them to do more than ensure their own positions are secure. That may be the bargain that Beijing will have to strike to nudge its neighbor towards the economic development that China, and most everybody else, sees necessary for regional stability.
Nor, as far as we know, is there a North Korean equivalent of Deng Xiaoping waiting to make a political comeback and launch economic reform. When the Dear Leader purged, like his father before him, he purged for the generations.