LiNK Statement on Kim Jong-il’s Death and the Future of North Korea
Kim Jong-il’s Legacy
According to North Korean state media Kim Jong-il died on the morning of December 17th 2011, after seventeen years of rule. He leaves behind an impoverished country that is widely recognized as the most repressive on earth.
After two decades spent preparing for power, Kim Jong-il took over from his father Kim Il-sung in 1994 at a time of international and domestic turmoil. The recent collapse of the Soviet Union had removed an important military ally and vital sources of aid and trade, and North Korea was on the brink of a famine that would kill a million of its people. At the time, many thought that in this environment a succession to a leader lacking in the legitimacy of the nation’s ‘founding father’ Kim Il-sung might result in North Korea’s weakening and collapse. However Kim Jong-il and the North Korean ruling elite were able to use brutally effective systems of political control to repress the people and ensure the maintenance of the regime, while under the ‘Military First’ mantra North Korea developed and tested nuclear weapons and raised the status of the military even higher.
The collapse of the socialist economy in the early years of Kim Jong-il’s reign drastically transformed North Korean society. The famine caused immense human suffering and forced people to leave their factories and work units to try to find ways to provide themselves and others with the food and goods that the state could no longer provide. This led to a grass-roots marketization of the economy, and the market eventually replaced the state as the primary source of food and grew to encompass a broader range of goods and services, spreading the profit motive throughout North Korean society.
Grass-roots marketization also introduced avenues for information flows that were outside the regime’s control. Refugees that left the country over the past decade have also contributed to this by staying in contact with family members inside North Korea, sending in money that feeds the markets and information from the outside world that is helping to break increasing numbers of North Koreans free from the propaganda and isolation imposed on them for decades. During Kim Jong-il’s reign, the North Koreans who have made the greatest gains are those who have successfully engaged in market activities in defiance of the regime and North Korean socialist ideology.
Kim Jong-il and the regime used ruthlessly efficient repression and fear to rule out any political dissent, but they struggled to control the changes emerging in the economy and were never able to successfully roll back marketization. One of the last major economic policies under Kim Jong-il was the currency reform of late 2009, which was designed to destroy private wealth and regain state control over the economy. However it caused so much disruption and resentment that the regime had to make unprecedented apologies and backtrack on the policy.
In the days since Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korean state media has made sure to show the world images of North Koreans distraught at the loss of their leader, recalling scenes of the people mourning the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. But this is an attempt to mask the transformation that has happened in North Korean society during Kim Jong-il’s reign. North Korean refugees say that while there was a lot of genuine sadness when Kim Il-sung died, the majority of North Koreans feel very differently towards the leadership now. For the vast majority of North Koreans life was very difficult under Kim Jong-il, and the people’s relationship with the state has been irreversibly changed. According to refugees, many of the outward displays of grief for Kim Jong-il are performed not out of genuine sadness but because of the very real fear that if the required emotion is not displayed then individuals could come under suspicion of being anti-regime and face severe repercussions.
What Next for North Korea and the North Korean People?
Kim Jong-un, the third and youngest son of Kim Jong-il, was marked out as the heir-apparent at a Workers’ Party Conference in September 2010. Since then he has gradually been elevated in the state media, and after Kim Jong-il’s death he was named as the ‘Great Successor’ by North Korean state media to ensure there was not any doubt.
Thought to be just 27 or 28 years old, Kim Jong-un is largely unknown to the North Korean people as well as to the outside world. Recent North Korean defectors tell us that there has not been a lot of propaganda about Kim Jong-un over the past year. What propaganda there has been has presented him as a military figure, as exemplified by his ‘promotion’ to four star general. By contrast, Kim Jong-il was much better known to the North Korean people when he came to power in 1994. The people are now uncertain and anxious for the future of their country, and recent defectors tell us that many North Koreans fear that the son will continue in just the same mold as the father, so that conditions will stay the same or even get worse.
Kim Jong-un has no accomplishments of his own and so his legitimacy depends entirely on his family lineage. This will constrain his ability to embark on new policy initiatives that would represent a break with his father and grandfather. He also still lacks a sufficient power-base of his own to overcome institutional resistance within the regime against bold policy moves. At this point it is still unclear who holds what kind of power behind the scenes in Pyongyang, but at least for the time being power is likely to be more diffuse and shared by a collective leadership, with Kim Jong-un as the figurehead. This new leadership is likely to prioritize unity and stability, again suggesting a continuation of current policies.
It is highly unlikely that there will be any kind of bottom-up ‘Arab Spring’ type revolution in North Korea in the short to medium term, as the level of fear and repression is too high and a lack of civil society mechanisms makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for the people to organize against the regime. Early reports after Kim Jong-il’s death indicated that the regime had moved to restrict cross-border movement and market activity. Coming at a time of already rapidly rising food prices, these restrictions, along with the disruption caused by staged political events marking Kim Jong-il’s death and the succession, mean that life is likely to get even harder for the North Korean people in the short term. This underlines that even with a change in leadership, the regime is likely to continue prioritizing stability and control above all else.
LiNK’s Work Will Continue
While the death of the leader is a significant event, the regime has always been much bigger than one man. We unfortunately do not see any reason to believe that the lives of the North Korean people will improve in the near future because Kim Jong-il has died. It is important to remember that up to 200,000 North Koreans are still detained in political prison camps and 24 million North Koreans still suffer under the most repressive regime in existence today.
After the current news frenzy dies down, the harsh reality of life for the North Korean people will continue. We will maintain our dedication to the North Korean people and make sure that they are not ignored amongst all the concern over regional security issues and nuclear weapons. We will call on the international community to ensure that a focus on the North Korean people, and serious discussions on human rights and humanitarian issues, will be a central part of any engagement with North Korea under the new leadership. We will also continue to pursue strategies that will increase the human security of the North Korean people. We will do this because we believe that making progress towards the kind of North Korea that everybody wants to see depends on taking a long-term, people-focused approach.
Although Kim Jong-il’s death ushers in a period of increased uncertainty, opportunities to help the North Korean people do still exist. We will continue in our work, providing assistance to North Koreans where they can be reached, helping them to escape and find freedom, and pursuing an end to this crisis.