Hoping for good news from Pyongyang

Fireworks over Pyongyang. Photo Korea Friendship Association

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address earlier this week drew international attention both because it was the first in nearly 20 years that any North Korean leader had delivered in person, and because of its conciliatory tone towards South Korea. Kim said it was time to ‘remove confrontation between the North and the South’.

The new tenor has to be welcomed, given the vile invective that North Korean state media have heaped upon Seoul, and particularly President Lee Myung-bak, during the past five years . Whether the kinder words represent any real chance, however, remains to be seen. Like the North Korean agricultural reforms reported last summer, one waits for meaningful implementation.

The wait may not be long. Just a day after Kim took the high road in his speech, North Korea’s highest organ, the National Defence Commission (NDC), reverted to form in a threatening statement that condemned the ‘Lee Myung-bak group of traitors’ and called the South Korean president a ‘rat and an idiot’.

In language clearly directed towards President-elect Park Geun-hye, who takes office on 25 February, the NDC statement said ‘inter-Korean relations now stand at a crossroads’, and that ‘south Korean authorities would be well advised to make a responsible choice’.

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Engaging Kim Jong-un’s North Korea

© Korean Friendship Association

By Carolyn Mullen, Research Assistant and Programme Co-ordinator, IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

When I learned of Kim Jong-il’s death last December, many questions came to mind. Perplexed by the spectacle of Pyongyang’s public mourning, I wondered how his successor could hope to fill the shoes of the ‘Dear Leader’. Relatedly, would the power transition in North Korea be a stable process? If not, what sort of unrest, internal and external, could be expected? Or, if the transition did go smoothly, what impact might a new leader have in terms of the DPRK’s foreign policies – should we expect more of the same petulant behaviour, or prepare for something worse? Something new?

Since ascending to power 11 months ago, it has become apparent that Kim Jong-un – Kim Jong-il’s son and North Korea’s new ‘Supreme Leader’ – rules with a distinctly different style than his reclusive father did. He has given multiple public speeches, hobnobbed with soldiers and students, and even openly acknowledged the failure of the 15 April rocket launch – a concession that would have been unthinkable under his father’s purview. Kim Jong-un, sometimes accompanied by his fashionable and photogenic wife, Ri Sol-ju, has attended events that feature Disney characters, Rocky Balboa and Frank Sinatra – Western cultural icons that the DPRK’s leaders have never fully approved of. Last summer, analysts fixated on photos of women in Pyongyang wearing short skirts and high heels instead of their more traditional grey, drab outfits.

What are we to make of these colourful changes?

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All change in Korean politics

A screenshot from Park Geun-hye's Smartphone AppBy Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant

This is a year of political flux on the Korean Peninsula. In the final days of 2011, Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as North Korean leader; now new MPs are in place in Seoul after parliamentary elections this month. In December, South Koreans will chose a successor to their current president, Lee Myung-bak.

Analysts have been surprised by the new type of regime in North Korea, delegates at this week’s Asan Plenum in Seoul were told. Experts had anticipated three main scenarios: a new, unchallenged supreme leader; the emergence of a collective leadership; or a fractured, unstable leadership following the loss of the strongman who held it together. In fact, speakers said, Kim Jong-un seemed to have consolidated his power, while also relying on a support network of Kim family members and close supporters.

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