Tag Archive | "Kim Jong-Il"

The Eternal General Secretary Makes Way for Other Political Changes in North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

After holding its Fourth Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea now has an eternal president and an eternal general secretary. Kim Jong-il was named Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and Kim Jong-un was given the title of First Secretary of the WPK. These initial changes and those suspected to come in the next few days will give some indications on how North Korea will try to structure its leadership under Kim Jong-un.

After his death, it was likely that North Korea would try to honor Kim Jong-il in some way. The Kim family lineage being an important aspect of the young Kim Jong-un’s power, it was anticipated that Kim Jong-il would be given a special recognition along the lines of Kim Il-sung. There were some predictions that Kim Jong-il would be given an eternal title in connection with the National Defense Commission (NDC). Now with Kim Jong-il posthumously given the title of Eternal General Secretary, it will be interesting to see if this move further indicates a renewed emphasis leadership on the Party instead of the military.

For Kim Jong-un, he officially becomes head of the party through the new position of first secretary. After the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korean media labeled Kim Jong-un as head of the Party and supreme commander of the military. Even in the story announcing Kim Jong-un’s new title, KCNA said Kim Jong-un as the “supreme leader of the WPK and the people of the DPRK” was elected “as first secretary of the WPK, true to the behest of leader Kim Jong Il.” With him as the head of the party, the question now is Kim Jong-un officially the chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC)?

A week after Kim Jong-il’s death, the Rodong Sinmun apparently said Kim Jong-un was leading the CMC. Yet, the AP’s Jean Lee recently saw signs in North Korea saying “”We will defend vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Comrade Kim Jong Un to the death.” According to the Party’s constitution updated in September 2010, it states the “general secretary” (총비서) is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, compared to Kim Jong-un’s new title as first secretary (제1비서). KCNA did say that the Fourth Conference of the WPK discussed “revising WPK rules,” so possibly this is where changes will occur to officially connect Kim Jong-un’s new title with the chairmanship of the CMC.

Further evidence of Party strengthening can be seen with Jang Song Taek and Kim Kyong Hui, uncle and aunt of Kim Jong-un, moving into prominent positions in the WPK. Jang Song Taek now joins the Political Bureau while his wife becomes a secretary in the Party Secretariat. Ri Myong Su, the Minister of Public Security, joins Jang Song Taek on the Political Bureau and was named a member of the CMC. Ri Myong Su, the Minister of Public Security, joins Jang Song Taek on the Political Bureau and was named a member of the CMC.

Choe Ryong Hae and Hyon Chol Hae, members of the CMC and the NDC respectively, were both awarded the title of Vice Marshal in the Korean People’s Army. These military promotions probably helped with their new positions in the WPK. Choe, a relatively young leader at 61 and appears to have close ties with Jang Song Taek, was given big promotions to Vice-Chairmen of the CMC as well as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. Hyon Chol Hae is now part of the CMC in addition to his role in the NDC.

For leadership changes, we will wait to see if any other announcements are made on moves stemming from the Workers’ Party Conference. With the WPK having a lot of changes during its last recent meeting in September 2010, it is possible few other changes will occur. The Supreme People’s Assembly is scheduled to meet on Friday, April 13, so more news could follow. The main question still remains if Kim Jong-un will officially be the chair of the CMC and the NDC, despite North Korean media basically describing him as the supreme leader of the Party and the military. All of these meetings and moves, along with the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday next week, are meant to illustrate North Korea’s ability to smoothly transition to Kim Jong-un.

Early indications suggest a strengthening of the Party as key members of the North Korean leadership gain positions. If Kim Jong-un will indeed rule more through the Party than his father, he will likely need people like Jang Song Taek, Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Gak, and Ri Myong Su to help him. Their new positions, along with the promotions of Choe Ryong Hae and Hyon Chol Hae give some indication on how Kim Jong-un and the leaders around him plan to maintain power and begin a new era of Kim family leadership in North Korea.

For more info on Kim Jong-un, Jang Song Taek,  Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Yong Chun, and Ri Myong Su, visit  10 People You Need to Know for Transition in North Korea on The Peninsula blog.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Zennie Abraham’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.


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Wrestling With Diplomacy in North Korea

By Chad 0Carroll

Rewind to April 1995, just one year after the death of Kim Il Sung, a nuclear crisis that nearly brought about war, and a time of biting economic hardship.  After such a long period of mourning, probably the last thing you would have expected to see taking place would be an international wrestling tournament in Pyongyang, attended by the likes of boxing champion Muhammad Ali and World Championship Wrestling’s (WCW) Rick Flair.  But that’s exactly what happened, and bizarrely, all in the name of international peace and friendship.  If the post Kim Il Sung period is providing the template for North Korea after Kim Jong-il, might Pyongyang now seek to repeat history through another major wrestling tournament at some point this year?

Having organized a number of similar events in Beijing, Moscow and Baghdad, event director Antonio Inoki evidently saw 1995 as the perfect time to help improve the DPRK’s relations with long-time adversaries Japan and the USA. As a well-known wrestler and former Japanese politician, Inoki was in a unique position to put on an event like “Collision in Korea”.  Having been trained by the legendary Korean wrestler Rikidozan (much admired in the DPRK), Inoki’s popularity in North Korea gave him the capacity to convince authorities there about the benefits of his prospective tournament.  And as owner of New Japan Pro Wrestling (a well respected international wrestling promotions company), he had good connections to wrestling communities in both Japan and the United States.

Former WCW President Eric Bischoff wrote about being approached for the tournament in his biography, Controversy Creates Cash. Recounting Inoki’s initial proposal to WCW, he explained:  “When I got that phone call and the opportunity to go to a place that [was] off-limits to Americans, I jumped at it. I said, “Ab­solutely, no problem”.  With support from an American wrestling promoter secured, agreement from the North Koreans to host it in their mammoth sized May Day Stadium, and access for foreign visitors approved, Inoki scheduled the tournament to form the main pillar of the 1995 Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace.  He was even able to persuade Muhammad Ali to attend, having fought against him in a special event in 1976.

Recorded in history as the largest ever professional wrestling event, the North Koreans packed a record breaking 320,000 spectators into Pyongyang’s May Day stadium to watch proceedings over the course of two days.  But compared to the raucous crowds commonly associated with American wrestling events, the Pyongyang crowd appear subdued in video recordings of the event.  Given North Korea’s isolation at the time, this should come as no surprise.  And as Bischoff recalled,  “I wondered what they could possibly be thinking when they saw Ric Flair come out in his flowered, sequined robe as the 2001 Space Odyssey theme blared through the speakers.”

While the audience was mainly local, some 15,000 Japanese, Chinese and overseas Koreans were reported as also having attended the event, with even a handful of Americans joining.  This foreign presence led to some unforeseen consequences for the hosts, with one post-event news article drawing attention to the plight of the hundreds of ethnic Koreans who had ostensibly attended for wrestling, but really in hope of connecting with lost family members.  Obliged to attend the tournament by night and tour the country’s official sights by day, all requests for family reunions were turned down – even when relatives were known to be living in the center of Pyongyang.   The heartbreak was reportedly too much for one 75 year old woman.  When the tour bus happened to visit a site just a few miles outside her hometown, where her sister still lives, she looked up at the sky and cried out: “Mother, Father! Your daughter has come home!”

Walter Keats, manager of Asia Pacific Travel, was one of the few American tourists allowed to go on the trip, in what marked one of the first opportunities U.S. nationals ever had to visit the DPRK.  Entering the country by train (now impossible for Americans), his group took in a nine day tour of the country that centered around the two day wrestling event. Talking to The Peninsula, Walter recalled the tour as being extremely restrictive, but that the group unexpectedly got to see well beyond the capital, taking in sites deep in the country – all just months before the onset of the countries’ worst-ever famine.

In the final match of the event, Antonio Inoki fought against Rick Flair, winning (predictably) after just 14 minutes to roars of excitement from the North Korean crowd. Even if they didn’t understand wrestling initially, they did know that Flair was an American and were happy to see his demise in the last stage of the event. With Inoki’s victory, one of the most bizarre examples of sporting diplomacy came to an end, bizarrely then kept off American TV screens until one year later, when WCW turned it into a Pay-Per-View for its domestic audience.

As far as sports diplomacy goes, the nature of North Korea makes it hard to see if Inoki’s wrestling tournament helped foster a better understanding of the Japanese and Americans even one iota.  While other sports might strengthen people-to-people relations through team-work and collaboration, by its very nature, wrestling was never going to do much to change North Korean opinions towards two traditional adversaries.  And if the event was at all meant to improve American understanding of the DPRK, it looks to have failed miserably on this front.  Recounting his departure from Pyongyang, in his autobiography Ric Flair describes kissing the ground on arriving in Japan, so “glad to be back on friendly soil”.  And as for Muhammad Ali’s reaction, well, due to expletives it cannot be published here. Suffice to say, he didn’t get a very good impression of North Korea.

While the 1995 wrestling tournament may have had some lofty objectives related to peace and friendship, they sadly went by unachieved. And if anything, the tournament may have even contributed to worsening international opinion of North Korea, such was the nature of the feedback from much of the wrestling community. So while there may be some sense in repeating as much of the past as possible to help bolster Kim Jong-un’s leadership credentials post Kim Jong-il, North Korea would now be ill advised to host another major wrestling tournament.  Instead, a drug-free and constructive participation at the London Olympics offers a much better opportunity for the DPRK to improve its standing and contribute to an environment of international peace and friendship.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Kim Jong-nam’s Views on the DPRK – a KEI Q&A with Yoji Gomi

By Chad 0Carroll

Kim Jong-nam made headlines last week with reports suggesting he was not comfortable with the third generation succession to his brother, Kim Jong-un.  It wasn’t the first time Kim Jong-nam’s name made the news, with previous reports showing his desire for reform, his unhappiness with DPRK military first policy, and even his prediction that the country would collapse soon after a transfer to brother Jong-un.  This time though, the latest spate of stories connected to Kim Jong-nam’s outspoken views relate to his conversations with Tokyo based journalist, Yoji Gomi.

As the most public of Kim Jong-il’s sons, Jong-nam has long been regarded by the mainstream press as the careless playboy who enraged his father through an attempted visit to Japan’s Disneyland with forged documents in the early 2000s.  But a new book by Yoji Gomi suggests that while a heavy drinker, much of the initial speculation on Jong-nam’s character and predicament may actually be incorrect.  Basing the book on an exchange of over 150 emails, Yoji Gomi paints the picture of a “well-read,” “intelligent,” “sensible” and in some respects “ordinary” individual, deeply concerned with his home country.  And if what Kim Jong-nam said was true, then his exile might not have been quite to the extent that some had assumed, with him speaking to his father by phone regularly before his death.

While Kim Jong-nam has long made a habit of speaking to media, until the publication of Yoji Gomi’s book it had appeared that most of his conversations had been through chance meetings with foreign correspondents at airports and other public locations.  Few would have suspected that he would be in such regular contact with the press as it seems he was with Mr. Gomi.  As such, his conversations raise lots of interesting questions for Korea watchers, some of which we managed put to Mr. Gomi in a recent interview.

1. How did you happen to meet Kim Jong-nam and why was he so trusting in a stranger like yourself at first?
I happened to meet him at Beijing airport. We have exchanged more than 150 emails since meeting. We met two times last year and I persuaded him to take an interview with me – and he basically agreed with my plan. I suppose he wants to appeal to the public that the DPRK should make economic reforms as soon as possible.

2. Did Kim Jong-nam offer any insight into the practical way he hopes the regime could make reforms without upsetting the internal balance of power too much?
He believed that the Chinese way is the best for the DPRK. It is possible to invite capitalism while maintaining socialism. For him, the most important thing is to protect foreign investors, including those from South Korea.

3. Why do you think Kim Jong-nam has been so vocal with media, when traditionally the Kim family has been very averse to speaking with foreign media?
Good question. The motivation for contacting media, including myself, is to protect himself. When he feels that his life is in danger, he tries to get in touch with media and expose the secrets of the DPRK.

4. Do you think Kim Jong-nam has much concern for his own personal safety? He claims to be protected by China, but as we know, North Korea has the capacity to make people go missing overseas quite easily.
Yes, he is concerned about his safety. My source said that he has been protected by someone in Macao.

5. How does Kim Jong-nam feel about the forthcoming book you are publishing? Was he on board with its publication?
He is not happy with my book. So has stopped sending me emails.

6. Has Kim Jong-nam ever expressed much regarding unification to you? If so, what was his position on this?
He never referred to unification. But he does hope for economic development of North Korea.

7. What is Kim Jong-nam’s estimation of the current South Korean government led by President Lee Myung Bak?
The relationship between South and North Korea will be difficult for a whole because neither government recognizes each other, he said.

8. Has Kim Jong-nam expressed any thoughts about what a North Korea would look like not ruled by one of the Kim family? Or at least, one not ruled by his brother.
He opposed the power succession to his brother. But he did not elaborate on who is suitable to be the next leader.

9. In a WSJ report with you, Kim Jong-nam said that he spoke regularly to his father by telephone, despite media reports that he was “cut off” from Pyongyang. Did he ever reveal much about the type of conversations he had?
He said he and his father talked about the nuclear issue and power succession by phone. But he never elaborated on the details of their conversation.

10. While reports have indicated that Kim Jong-nam doesn’t know his brother Jong-un, has Jong-nam ever revealed any personality details about his younger brother to you that he picked up from other family members? If so, what were these?
Kim Jong-nam said noting about his brother, as he has never met Jong-un.

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12 Things on the Korean Peninsula to Watch for in 2012

By Nicholas Hamisevicz, Sarah K. Yun, Chad O’Carroll, and Troy Stangarone

Last year saw significant changes on the Korean peninsula. While 2011 ended with the surprise death of Kim Jong-il and the beginning of succession to Kim Jong-un, last year also saw Korea become one of only nine nations to surpass $1 trillion in total trade, the passage of the KORUS FTA, and a surprise election for the mayor of Seoul. With even more change set for 2012 in both Northeast Asia and on the Korean peninsula, here are twelve economic and foreign policy issues that are worth following in the coming year:

1.      The Transition and Public Events in North Korea: Kim Jong-un has been declared the successor to his father. The North Korean government is working hard to illustrate the unity of the nation and the loyalty of the elites to Kim Jong-un. There will likely be a formal meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea where titles and positions will be made and adjusted. Kim Jong Un possibly has an advantage with the early schedule of public events where his new leadership will continue to be highlighted, such as the one hundred year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in April and the start of North Korea’s development as a prosperous and powerful nation. However, after those events, there could be more room for maneuvering if other North Korean elites do not like the direction of the country.

2.      Political Change in South Korea: While North Korea may have got the jump on political change in 2012, South Korea will conduct elections for both the National Assembly and the presidency this year. With South Korean presidents limited to a maximum term of five years, Lee Myung-bak will be ending his term in December.  Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) has Park Geun-hye at the forefront of potential presidential candidates. However, she will likely face a significant challenge from Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of anti-virus software company AhnLab.  Although yet to declare his candidacy, there are growing signs that he will run as the opposition candidate – and recent polls suggest that he has strong support polling at 49.7 percent, some 7 percent more than rival Park Geun-hye.

Additionally, in April, all 299 seats of the National Assembly will be up for vote, with 245 in single-member districts and 54 seats determined through proportional representation. The ruling GNP has fared poorly in local elections recently and developments indicate that progressives may be uniting under a unified banner for the April elections that could seriously compound difficulties for the GNP.

3.      Kim Jong-un and China: In the early days of the transition, China has thrown its support behind Kim Jong-un. Who from China visits North Korea, and especially if Kim visits the new leadership in China, will likely provide clues to the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, as well as how secure the new regime feels in its position. Given that China will undergo its own leadership transition this year, 2012 will likely set the tone for both sides going forward.

4.     The Role of Social Media in South Korean Politics: Social media, including Twitter, are playing an increasingly prominent role in Korean political discourse. A recent Hankyroreh and Korea Society Opinion Institute poll showed politics to be one of the most retweeted topics by users in South Korea this year. This suggests that the conversations that take place on Twitter in 2012 will play a significant variable in this year’s presidential election.  South Korea’s Twitter community has an active user rate that is some two times higher than the world average, with nearly 10% of the nation signed up.  The important role Twitter plays in politics can be seen in a campaign that was credited with a higher than expected voter turnout among young voters during the during the April 2011 by-elections.

The team behind the one of the world’s most listened to podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, may have a key role in determining the outcome of elections in South Korea this year.  Specializing in political satire, their podcast has to date taken a vehemently anti- Lee Myung Bak and Grand National Party position.  They have also developed a number of investigative stories that have attempted to highlight mis-steps by the ruling government, often with significant media interest.  Their feature on Na Kyung-won’s alleged visits to a luxury skin care clinic is said to have contributed to her loss of support in recent Seoul mayoral elections.

5.   The Euro Crisis: Strictly speaking, this isn’t about Korea, but with Korea heavily dependent upon trade for growth and Europe a major trading partner, the euro zone matters for Korea. If Europe is unable to restore market confidence and avoid a deepening of its debt crisis, a steep economic decline in Europe or the unraveling of the euro could hit the global economy hard. While Europe has managed to consistently fail to address the debt crisis in a comprehensive manner, there may be some tell tale signs early in the year regarding whether Europe has turned the corner or not. If France is able to maintain its AAA credit rating and Italy and Spain are able to roll over nearly $200 billion in debt in the first quarter of the year, Europe will likely have passed the most immediate dangers. When it comes to Korea, the stats to think about are this, the EU accounted for 10.2 percent of Korea’s exports and 9.6 percent of its total trade through the first 11 months of 2011.

6.    U.S. Defense Budget Cuts: The U.S. Department of Defense budget is expected to cut $260 billion over the next five years and more than $450 billion over the next decade. In the new budget strategy announcement on January 5, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta presented a revamped U.S. military strategy with an emphasis on Asia and space and cyber capabilities, and preservation of missions in the Middle East.

With a reduced defense budget, partner relationships will become more important. Although the 5% increase in the 2012 South Korean defense budget may offset the potential challenges in the U.S.-Korea military alliance, uncertainties continue as both countries enter an election year. Despite reassurances from Obama and Panetta, the future shape of United States presence in Korea and Asia is still to be determined. With both nations preparing for op-con transfer in 2015, how the budget and strategy changes in the U.S. play out could play a role in the future force structure of the alliance.

7.    North Korea’s Interaction with the United States and South Korea:  Despite its current turn inwards, North Korea will likely turn its attention outwards at some point in 2012. North Korea and the United States seemed to be on the verge of a deal over food aid and possibly moving forward on nuclear talks before Kim Jong-il’s death, and there are early indications these may start back up at some point. As for South Korea, Pyongyang has said that it will not deal with the current administration in Seoul, but 2012 will also bring fresh elections for the National Assembly in April and the presidency in December, key points to watch for in North-South relations.

8.    Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: Seoul will be hosting the second Nuclear Security Summit in March with participation from over 50 national leaders. The agenda will consist of mainly three issues: international cooperation against nuclear terrorism, prevention of illicit transaction of nuclear materials, and protection of nuclear materials, nuclear power plants and other nuclear related institutions.

The appointment of Korea as the chair of the second NSS is both practical and symbolic – practical in that Korea is a close ally of the U.S., enabling smooth coordination; and symbolic in that Korea has been an active member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with advanced nuclear energy capabilities, yet facing a serious nuclear threat from North Korea.

Whereas the hosting of the G-20 in 2011 elevated Korea’s status as a world economic power, the Seoul NSS will elevate Korea as a world security leader. The NSS will be even more significant in light of Kim Jong-il’s death. President Lee Myung-bak had previously extended an invitation to Kim Jong-il to attend. It will be interesting to see how the new regime responds to the summit.

9.    The Implementation of the KORUS FTA: Now that the United States and Korea have passed the KORUS FTA the two governments are looking to implement the agreement. The agreement should come into force early in the year, but might slip until after National Assembly elections in Korea for political reasons.

10.  The Politics Around the KORUS FTA and U.S.-Korea Relations: Speaking of the politics of the KORUS FTA, prior to the death of Kim Jong-il, the opposition in Korea was turning the FTA into a major campaign issue, calling on Korea to renegotiate certain provisions such as those relating to investor-state dispute settlement. Some had gone so far as to suggest Korea should withdraw from the agreement. Korea’s relationship with the United States is a complex one, and anti-Americanism has played a role in previous elections. While North Korea is now likely to become the major campaign issue, look for the FTA and Korea’s broader relationship with the United States to remain caught up in domestic politics for the time being.

11.  South Korea-China FTA: China has become South Korea’s largest trading partner by a significant margin, with the two countries doing more than $200 billion in trade in the first eleven months of 2011. With the EU and KORUS FTA now concluded, Korea will look to start negotiations with its biggest trading partner in the next few months.

12.  World Expo 2012 – Yeosu, Korea:From May to August, Korea will host the 2012 Expo in the port city of Yeosu. Under the theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast,” the Yeosu Expo will share knowledge in maritime cooperation, marine science, and the proper use of ocean and coast. Korea is anticipating an international recognition of Korea as a leading maritime nation.

Hosting the Expo can be seen as a completion of Korea’s campaign as a world leader – the 2011 G-20 on economic issues, the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on security issues, and the 2012 Expo on cultural and soft power issues.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs, Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues, Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications, and Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Rachael Towne’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korean Leadership Chart – Abridged

By Luke Herman

Updated January 11, 2012.

With the passing of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leadership transition is being formally put into place. Here is a quick abridged graphic highlighting the leadership on the National Defense Commission and the State Party’s Political Bureau and Central Military Commission. Below are links to expanded graphics for the Korean Workers Party, the military/security hierarchy, and North Korea’s state organs.

Expanded North Korean Leadership Charts:

Korean Workers Party

North Korean Military/Security Hierarchy

North Korean State Organs

Luke Herman is a Masters student of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego and former KEI Intern.

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India: The Other Emerging Power’s Reaction to Kim Jong Il’s Death

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

In Asia much of the pressure and focus from the transition in North Korea after Kim Jong Il’s death is now on China, its neighbor and chief benefactor. As a rising power that provides both economic and national security assistance North Korea needs to survive, China is in a difficult situation with new leadership emerging in North Korea and new leadership scheduled to take over China in October. For the other major emerging power, however, India possesses more ability to monitor the situation in North Korea and react in its best interests to any changes on the Korean peninsula.

Ties between India and North Korea are growing. The two sides had a few diplomatic connections in 2011 that suggested an improvement in bilateral relations. Pak Ui-chun, North Korea’s Foreign Minister, visited India’s embassy in Pyongyang on January 26 for India’s Republic Day event. India’s ambassador to North Korea was then invited to a dinner with North Korean officials. India also provided food aid to North Korea by donating $1 million to the World Food Programme. Moreover, prior to donating food aid, India’s ambassador to North Korea was permitted to visit some of the countryside between Pyongyang and Nampo to see areas in need of economic assistance. The Indian ambassador then toured Nampo. North Korea also sent a delegation to India in May 2011 to examine India’s history with special economic zones. Although engagement with North Korea is often along these smaller interactions, the momentum in India – North Korea relations seems to have a positive trajectory.

Yet India’s relations with North Korea are still hampered by India’s concerns over North Korea’s relations with Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, Burma. Both of India’s neighbors have a history of dangerous interaction with North Korea. Pakistan and North Korea previously traded missile and nuclear technology. Moreover, North Korea’s insistence on keeping its nuclear weapons reminds the international community of A.Q. Khan, one of the fathers of Pakistan’s nuclear program and his network of illegal transfers of nuclear material, especially the connections to North Korea. North Korea represents the negative example of a country outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, in contrast to the positive image India is trying to project for itself to the international community. For India, the rumors over North Korean assistance for Burma’s own nuclear weapons program, along with previous military cooperation, feed a sense of insecurity in the region. During her recent visit to Burma, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Burmese leaders that they must end their illicit activities with North Korea as part of the reforms they are trying to undertake.

North Korea provides some more immediate security concerns for countries recently enhancing their relations with India. South Korea, Japan, and the United States are more immediately impacted by the leadership transition after the death of Kim Jong Il and whose own policies can also more directly influence the outcomes on the Korean peninsula.

India has a strategic partnership and important economic relations with each of these countries. These new connections, along with India’s emergence as a rising power, will bring issues regarding transition in North Korea more deeply into India’s strategic portfolio. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan was in India the last week of December and called on India to support and understand Japan’s position on North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell testified in March 2011 that the U.S. has discussed issues regarding North Korea with India. South Korea will also likely use its strategic partnership  with India to discuss approaches to North Korea in the near future.

The China factor is an important aspect in India’s foreign policy calculations. China’s reactions and responses to North Korea’s new leadership will demonstrate its confidence level toward Pyongyang. China would prefer a stable North Korea to prevent the burden of an uncertain government in Pyongyang and the possibility of major action toward North Korea during China’s own leadership transition in 2012. India probably would not mind if the uncertainties in North Korea kept China more preoccupied; some even suggest North Korea moving away from China would be beneficial to India as well.

India will have some benefit of not being directly impacted by the leadership transition in North Korea. However, the transition to Kim Jong-un will have an affect on India’s neighbors and its growing relationships with its strategic partners. India will be looking to see how the new North Korean leadership will approach their interactions with Pakistan, Burma, and China. South Korea, Japan, and the United States are likely to concentrate their efforts on the Korean peninsula, but will look to India for support as a regional and emerging world power. With the ascendance of Kim Jong-un, India’s development as a rising power will likely include more connections to issues regarding North Korea and the future of the Korean peninsula.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Sonal And Abe’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Kim Chong-un and Pyongyang’s Signaling Campaign

By Ken E. Gause

Three sets of messages have emerged from the North Korean media in the days since Kim Chong-il’s death on December 17. The first two sets of messages are tied to the leadership configuration that is rising up to take over the reins of power, namely Kim Chong-un supported by a collective group of close aides and regents. The third message is that the regime will continue to adhere to the policy line set down by Kim Chong-il, namely the Songun (Military First) Policy. Together these messages support a regime plan for a smooth transfer of power, which by all indications appears to have taken place. Going forward, what does this mean for the regime and the young man who would be king?

With regard to Kim Chong-un, the regime appears to have launched a blitz campaign to portray him as the legitimate successor to his father, removing any doubt within the mind of the public and elite alike over who is in charge. Particular emphasis has been placed on Kim Chong-un’s bona fides as the leader of the Party and, just as important, the military. On December 24, the 20th anniversary of Kim Chong-il’s assumption of the post of Supreme Commander in 1991, Kim Chong-un visited his father’s funeral bier for a third time. Accompanying the young successor were members of the KWP Central Military Committee (CMC), the National Defense Commission, major commanding officers of the KPA, staff members of the KPA Supreme Command, and commanding officers of the KPA’s large combined units. In other words, it was a ceremonial gathering of the high command. On the same day, the Party daily, Nodong Sinmun, ran a commemorative political essay calling Kim Chong-un the “supreme commander” of the military. Two days later, the same source referred to Kim as leading the KWP CMC, although he only formally holds the title vice chairman.

What seems to be happening is that the regime is using the mourning period to rapidly move through the third phase of the succession, a phase in which the heir apparent would be adorned with the titles of power. In the coming months, if not weeks according to some sources, we can expect that a formal meeting of the Korean Worker’s Party will be convened to convey at least the title of CMC chairman on Kim Chong-un, which, according to the recently revised Party Charter (Article 22), carries with it the title of General Secretary of the Party. On 30 December, the Politburo passed a decree formally transferring the post of Supreme Commander to Kim Chong-un in accordance with his father’s will. Now all military units are required to obey Kim Chong-un’s orders.

The role of Supreme Commander (Choson inmin’gun ch’oego) raises an important question. Will Kim Chong-un be made chairman of the National Defense Commission, a post that is responsible for commanding the armed forces (i.e., the Supreme Commander)? Although the North Korean media called for Kim Chong-un to assume the role of Supreme Commander, it has been mute on the post of NDC chairman. The regime may choose to leave the NDC post vacant. Much as Kim Il-sung became the eternal president, Kim Chong-il might become the eternal head of the NDC, an organization that embodied his leadership era. This scenario might have been tipped by the fact that at least one, if not more, of the funeral events have been handled by Chon Hui-chong, the protocol director for the NDC. This suggests the possibility that the NDC apparatus is already acting in the service of the Party’s CMC. In addition, the key members of the NDC, such as O Kuk-yol and Paek Se-pong (head of the powerful Second Economic Committee), who do not also sit on leading Party bodies, have been integrated into the funeral lists among the government leadership, not singled out, as in the past, as part of the NDC.

These clues aside, Kim Chong-un has already been proclaimed the Supreme Leader (ch’eogo ryo’ngdoja), a title that is currently constitutionally linked to the NDC chairman (Article 100). If Kim Chong-un does not assume this post, the constitution will have to be revised (via the convening of the Supreme People’s Assembly) to separate the posts of Supreme Leader and NDC chairman.

As the funeral ceremonies have played out, the leadership configuration around the Kim Chong-un has come into focus. It is made of several rings and is based in the Party, but largely tied to the high command. The inner core will serve as gatekeepers and most likely be involved in decision-making.

  • VMAR Yi Yong-ho, as director of the General Staff Department, has operational control over the armed forces. A long time associate of the Kim family, he oversees one of the key support groups within the military that is supporting Kim Chong-un. This group is made up of officers in their 50s and 60s generally considered the rising stars among the field commanders and high command. VMAR Yi through this network will be instrumental in keeping the military in check during the transition period.
  • Gen. Chang Song-taek, who has oversight of the internal security apparatus and the economy portfolio, is well situated to support Kim Chong-un in the running of the daily operations of the regime. He is versed in both policy execution and in the machinations revolving around personnel appointments that will be critical for Kim to consolidate his power.
  • Gen. Kim Kyong-hui in the period between her brother’s death on December 17 and the final mourning ceremonies jumped from 14th to 5th in the formal leadership rankings. She will likely play an advisory role and serve as a key arbitrator within the Kim family as well as the larger North Korean leadership.
  • Gen. O Kuk-yol is a long time Kim family loyalist. He, too, jumped within the power rankings from 29th to 13th. His primary responsibility will be to ensure regime stability. His input into decision-making will be limited, but his opinion could carry weight in deliberations involving tradeoffs between reform and security.

The outer ring of this leadership configuration is centered in the Party’s CMC, which is made up of key second and third generation military and security officials from the across the regime. Kim Chong-il’s reinvigoration of the CMC at the Third Party Conference has placed this body on par with the NDC in terms of reach and influence. Under Kim Chong-un, the CMC will most likely replace the NDC as the command post of Military First Politics. It will be responsible for crafting the “great successor’s” image, gathering loyalty toward the new regime, and running the country. In terms of Kim’s relationship with the military, three CMC members are particularly crucial during the transition period. All accompanied Kim Chong-un as he escorted his father’s hearse through the streets of Pyongyang.

  • VMAR Kim Yong-chun, as Minister of People’s Armed Forces, oversees the logistics and training of the military. He will serve, along with Chang Song-taek, as a key conduit to the NDC. In addition he has past service in the KWP Organization Guidance Department and the KPA’s General Political Department, which give him invaluable experience in sniffing out potential disloyalty within the armed forces. It was reportedly his surveillance in this regard that contributed to the staunching of the Sixth Corps incident in the mid-1990s.
  • Gen. Kim Chong-gak is the acting head of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, a responsibility he assumed with the death of Cho Myong-nok. According to North Korean leadership protocol, the director of the GPB, which is the lead agency for ensuring Party control over the military, is the de facto third ranking member in the high command behind the heads of the MPAF and GSD.
  • Gen. U Tong-chuk, as first vice director of the State Security Department, oversees the country’s powerful secret police. Gen. U is a leading member of a key support group to Kim Chong-un composed of general grade officers within the security services. Presumably other members of this group include Gen. Yun Chong-rin, commander of the General Guard Command, and Gen. Kim Won-hong, the commander of the Military Security Command. These organizations form the inner ring for internal security insideNorth Korea.

Other individuals with military portfolios bear watching, such as O Il-chong (director of the KWP Military Department), Kim Kyong-ok (first vice director of the OGD for military affairs), and Choe Ryong-hae (KWP Secretary for Military Affairs). They have important roles to play in monitoring the loyalty of the armed forces and ensuring a smooth transition. They will also be critical to creating and facilitating a unified and centralized Party guidance system that invests the “great successor” with the ideological authority he will need to rule. Media coverage, however, does not suggest they will be within Kim Chong-un’s inner circle, at least initially.

The final set of signals being sent by the regime in the days following Kim Chong-il’s death is tied to policy. KCNA proclaimed on 26 December that under Kim Chong-un, Military First Politics “will be given steady continuity at all times.” This was seconded by an editorial in Nodong Sinmun entitled “Korean people will accomplish the cause of Songun (Military First) under leadership of Kim Chong-un.” This adherence to the policy line set down by Kim Chong-il was emphatically reiterated in a NDC statement on 30 December, which ruled out any policy change with regard toSouth Korea as long as the Lee Myong-bok administration is in power. Given the sensitive nature of the inter-Korean relationship, the new regime’s decision to opt for hardline continuity is not surprising since it will give Kim Chong-un a year to consolidate his position before having to take on the entrenched interests within the military that balk at dialog with Seoul.

But is this initial hardline stance a harbinger of a regime that will remain entrenched and unmoving? Currently, it is hard imagine a radical shift. Authoritative statements have no doubt linked Kim Chong-un’s name to a go slow approach toward the South (even before the NDC announcement) and an embrace of the country’s nuclear weapons capability (“a victory through songun politics”). These will likely remain lines in the sand for the regime for the foreseeable future. As noted in numerous articles, Kim Chong-un is “endlessly loyal to the idea and cause of the great general [Kim Chong-il].”

In the coming days, possibly after a 100-day mourning period, Kim will likely receive the formal positions befitting his position as Supreme Leader. As this process plays out, North Korean policymaking will probably remain firmly within the boundaries set down by Kim Chong-il. This was made clear in the Joint Editorial proclaiming the regime’s goals for 2012. For those looking for radical shifts, either on the domestic or international fronts, only time will tell if that is in the cards.

Ken Gause is the director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a research organization located in Alexandria, VA. He is the author of the book North Korea Under Kim Chong-il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change, which was published by Praeger in August 2011. He also authored a paper in November entitled North Korea After Kim Chong-il: Leadership Dynamics and Potential Crisis Scenarios, which can be obtained on CNA’s website. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Zennie62’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Unity Under Songun: A Look Into North Korea’s New Year’s Editorial

By Sarah K. Yun

North Korea’s 2012 New Year Editorial had a few highlights with ample unsharpened messages. The overall objective was to emphasize strength and unity under the new Kim Jung-un leadership. In doing so, however, the editorial portrayed an undertone of crouching inwards with a few sprinkles of the typical rhetoric of criticism against the United States and South Korea. The editorial implied that North Korea would be focused mostly on the internal tasks of solidifying the Kim Jong-un leadership with interspersed moments of looking outwards.

Keywords & Phrases

Some of the keywords from the 2012 New Year Editorial included Songun; unity; bequeathed; great, prosperous and powerful country; opening the gates of a thriving country; prosperous and powerful nation; light industry; and food. These keywords give insight to North Korea’s current and future policies.

The largest emphasis was placed on unity under Kim Jong-un’s bequeathed Songun leadership. Songun was used 14 times, bequeathed ten times, and unity nine times to stress the continued struggle towards a unified Songun revolution, which was bequeathed by Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il and now to Kim Jong-un. This implies that the three Kims are one in mind, ideology and leadership, and also shows a window into North Korea’s dire need to stabilize the new regime under the young leader.

“The first and foremost national power of Kim Il Sung’s Korea was, is and will be the might of ideology and unity. The year 2012 is a year of single-minded unity, a year of burning loyalty, when our political and ideological might which has been consolidated generation after generation following the great leaders and the great Party, will be given full play.”

“We must develop our single-minded unity without interruption into the solidest one which is carried forward generation after generation. Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of our Party and our people, is the banner of victory and glory of Songun Korea and the eternal centre of its unity. The dear respected Kim Jong Un is precisely the great Kim Jong Il.”

The phrases “opening the gates of a thriving country” (kang-sung-boo-heung) and “prosperous and powerful nation” (kang-sung-gook-gah) were new terms and each used ten times in the editorial. However, the well-known phrase of “great, prosperous, and powerful country” (kang-sung-dae-gook) was only used five times. This indicates that North Korea is trying to lessen the emphasis on its goal of achieving a great, prosperous, and powerful country under the new leadership. The change in phrase is all the more interesting given that kang-sung-dae-gook never had specific landmarks in the first place. The change also shows a glimpse into the quick adjustments that North Korea is attempting to make in order to maintain legitimacy of the leadership.

Contrary to what some predicted of Kim Jong-un to be a more enlightened economic reformist, the economic development section was noticeably shorter compared to previous years. This suggests that Kim Jong-un will not likely experiment with revolutionary economic reform policies in the first year of his rule. Some of the economic areas specified included light industry, agricultural or food industry, the electric-power industry, and the coal-mining industry, among others, which boil down to North Korea’s weaknesses in energy and food needs. It will be important to see North Korea’s food and energy policies develop throughout the year.

Other Implications

Besides the keywords and phrases, there are other noteworthy implications from the editorial that point back to the consolidation of Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

First is the potential for a mass political purge in order to reduce ideas of rebellion within the collective political leadership.

“It is important to radically improve the way of work of officials and their leading abilities as required by the era of great upsurge.”

“What is important today for our officials is to actively learn from the militant temperament of the commanding officers of the KPA, who carry out the intentions of Kim Jong Un in a most swift and thoroughgoing way. Officials who buckle down audaciously and without any delay to what the Party is determined to do, who carry out any challenging task at lightning speed in a three-dimensional way and who finish any thing to be impeccable even in the distant future as a thing of lasting value-the current age of great upsurge demand such officials.”

Second is the potential for an inter-Korea engagement strategy. Although there was no mention of inter-Korean cooperation projects, it explicitly mentioned the fifth anniversary of the October 4 Declaration and June 15 Joint Declaration, signaling North Korea’s potential willingness to talk to South Korea. The importance of inter-Korean communication was also emphasized.

“Solving the problems of inter-Korean relations by rejecting aggressive foreign forces and pooling the efforts of our nation itself is the demand of the June 15 reunification era. All the fellow countrymen in the north, south and abroad should open a broad vista for national reunification with the conviction that our nation should be of the first and foremost consideration and that they will have nothing they cannot do if they maintain the thoroughgoing stand of national independence.”

“All the Korean people in the north, south and abroad should unite closely under the banners of the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration and give further spurs to the reunification movement. By doing so, this year they should make a breakthrough for independent reunification.”

Last, is the absence of nuclear issues throughout the editorial. Perhaps this was to leave room after the recent series of meetings between North Korea and the United States on denuclearization.

Overall, it was a lackluster New Year’s Editorial with a dominant theme of unity under Songun. However, even a lackluster editorial reveals the potential for conflict and engagement with North Korea. Perhaps these engagement points could be found in light industry, food needs, and nuclear negotiations, as indicated in the editorial.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from John Pavelka’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What to Make of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral?

By Chad 0’Carroll

Hundreds of thousands of mourning North Koreans lined the bitterly cold streets of Pyongyang today to say goodbye to their leader, Kim Jong-il.  How real the tears were is impossible to say, but the images were nonetheless extremely reminiscent of what was seen at Kim Il Sung’s funeral  – aside from the fact that today’s  winter setting contrasted greatly with 1994’s summer funeral.  But beyond the surface similarities, one key difference remains – Kim Jong-un has only had a fraction of the time his father had to prepare for his role as the new leader of North Korea.

The plan had been to mirror Kim Il Sung’s funeral exactly – both Kims underwent an initial mourning period of ten days and the start of today’s two day funeral was meant to kick off at 10am, just as it did sixteen years ago.  However, things kicked off four hours later than planned today with heavy snow meaning additional time was required to clear the roads, a task in which mourners in Pyongyang were only too happy to help with.  And just as it has been doing over the last few days with other natural phenomena, North Korean media pounced on the snow as further evidence that nature itself was mourning Kim Jong-il: “the feathery snowfall reminds the Korean people of the snowy day when the leader was born in the secret camp of Mt. Paektu and of the great revolutionary career that he followed through snowdrifts”.   The purpose – to remind North Koreans of the almost supernatural qualities of their leaders – Kim Jong-un included.

In contrast to the funeral of Kim Il Sung, when most of the mourners were dressed in Western style suits, the initial scene outside the Kumsusan Palace was extremely militaristic.  Pictures showed a large military procession walking behind the hearse, with thousands of soldiers lining the streets on either side of the road to downtown Pyongyang.   Prior to the live feed going out, KCNA also repeated footage of Kim Jong-ils achievements that included video clips of North Korea’s controversial long-range missile launches.  This was likely in one part due to Kim Jong-il’s former role as chairman of the National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, and in another part to reaffirm the importance of his focus on “songun” (military-first) politics during his tenure.  This increased emphasis on the military will have also been to help cement support for Kim Jong-un’s credentials, having been named a four star general himself just fourteen months ago.

As the convoy left the Kumsusan memorial palace, the hearse was accompanied by a small delegation of walking mourners, led by Kim Jong-un.  Mirroring his father’s role in Kim Il Sung’s funeral sixteen years ago, Kim Jong-un could be seen walking at the front right of the hearse, dressed in a long black coat and dark Mao style outfit.  With Kim Jong-un already having been styled to look closely like his grandfather Kim Il-Sung, this will have been a calculated move to help underscore the significance of Kim Jong-un as the “great successor”.  Broadcast throughout North Korea, this powerful imagery will make it difficult for any potential rivals to try and take power any time soon, suggesting to internal audiences at least, that the succession appear to be proceeding smoothly.

Walking alongside Kim Jong-un was a delegation of North Korea’s political and military leaders which included two key allies of Kim Jong-un : Jang Song-Thaek, and Ri Yong-ho.   Jang Song-Thaek is a powerful figure within North Korea, being Kim Jong-ils brother in law, vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee.  Once seen as a potential rival for leadership, his stature and support for Kim Jong-un will be critical in the short-to-medium term.  For his part, Ri Yong Ho is vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (second only to Kim Jong-un) and was recently appointed to the Politburo presidium, of which there are only five members. This now puts him at a critical juncture between the political and military powers in Pyongyang, and in a pivotal position to help support Kim Jong-un’s succession in the coming months.  Their placement among the key mourners, and importantly behind Kim Jong-un, will be seen as evidence of their tacit support for Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy as successor.

Just as during Kim Il Sung’s funeral, a huge smiling portrait of Kim Jong-il was positioned on top of the front car in the procession for the 40km drive into Pyongyang – a far step from the solemn imagery previously standard for communist funerals that is also traditional in Korean funerals.  If history is providing a template for proceedings in 2011, it seems likely that we can now expect the smiling image of Kim Jong-Il most recently published by KCNA to start appearing atop buildings and on posters throughout the country.  Used to the much older image seen in recent news reports , this younger, smiling Kim Jong-il will subtly help remind North Koreans of the loving care of their Dear Leader, and in turn help foster support for Kim Jong-un (albeit marginally).

So far, video of Kim Jong-il’s two other sons has not yet emerged.  There had been much debate as to whether Kim Jong-nam would make the funeral, having been outcast to a life in Macau following his failed attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyworld in 2001.  An outspoken member of the Kim family, his impromptu and controversial interviews with international media led to him falling out of favor with the Pyongyang elite.  At one point he had been once expected to take power after Kim Jong-il, but his non-appearance at the funeral suggest how far out of favor he now is and perhaps that it might not have been safe for him to return.   As for the other son Kim Jong Chol, while he is still believed to be in North Korea, Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto wrote in a memoir that the Dear Leader thought Jong-chul was “no good because he is like a little girl”.  His non-appearance in the main procession may have merely been to ensure that all attention was directed at Kim Jong-un.

Although KCNA issued multiple indicators in advance of Kim Jong-il’s funeral that suggested foreigners would not be allowed attend, initial reports from Chinese government sources indicate that Chinese Ambassador to the DPRK, Liu Hongcai, was in attendance at the funeral today.  This was in contrast to Kim Il Sung’s funeral in 1994, which was a uniquely North Korean affair.  At that time, China – DPRK relations were in a relatively bad place, with Beijing having recognized Seoul just two years before in 1992, much to the ire of the DPRK.  With North Korea’s relationship with China having improved significantly in recent years, the exclusive invitation for the Chinese ambassador can be seen as Pyongyang showing appreciation for China’s recent public support for Kim Jong-un.

After about two hours, the convoy reached Pyongyang’s infamous Kim Il-Sung square.  It is not known yet whether the body will be returned to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace and mummified like that of Kim Il Sung.  With Kim Jong-il having been at the helm throughout the catastrophic famine that resulted in nearly a million dead in the mid 1990s, his popularity was never like that of his father.  While there was a brief period when Kim Jong-il lapel badges circulated freely alongside those depicting his father, in the early 2000s they were banned – few people wore them, such were their preference for Kim Il Sung.  And while statues of Kim Il Sung adorn squares all over North Korea, none can be found of Kim Jong-il – the Mansudae Art Studio that produces them was instead ordered post-1994 to focus on commemorating Kim Il Sung only.  In this context, moving Kim Jong-il’s body for permanent display alongside that of his father at the Kumsusan Palace might be seen in some quarters as in appropriate.  But at the same time, there is a compelling argument that putting the two together will help bolster the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, something that is desperately needed at the moment.

Today’s funeral is a critical part of the Pyongyang regime’s attempt to shore up both support and loyalty for Kim Jong-un.  Replicating so many aspects of Kim Il Sung’s funeral and putting Kim Jong-un center stage will undoubtedly boost the successors profile significantly for internal audiences.  Elevating the position of the army was crucial during the proceedings, having built up so much power under the leadership of Kim Jong-il’s songun first polities.   Similarly, the decision to invite Chinese representatives was shrewd, an easy way to show appreciation for early support for Kim Jong-un from Beijing.  So far, so good.  But just how long Kim Jong-un can continue on course is no doubt the question on everyone’s lips.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Year in Review: The Korean Peninsula in 2011

By Troy Stangarone

While 2011 will ultimately be remembered for the passing of Kim Jong-il, it was also a year of significant change and new milestones for both South Korea and the U.S.-Korea alliance.

In many ways, 2011 really began in the waning days of 2010 for South Korea. On November 23 last year, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two members of the South Korean military. The attack sealed a chill in relations between North and South Korea that would set the tone for the first half of 2011. By the time both sides began to make progress towards the end of the year that could have led to the resumption of the Six Party Talks, Kim Jong-il had passed away.

At the same time, barely two weeks after the shelling of Yeonpyong Island, the United States and South Korea reached a supplementary agreement on the KORUS FTA that paved the way for the agreement to be passed four years after originally being concluded. Despite political delays over remaining political issues in Washington and in Seoul, the long stalled agreement was passed by Congress on October 12 during President Lee Myung-bak’s summit visit and the National Assembly during a surprise session on November 22.

Having resolved long-standing concerns over the FTA, it is now set to coming into effect early next year. Representing a significant deepening of U.S.-Korea relations, the FTA signifies an important milestone for both sides in remaking the alliance into a broad based 21st century partnership that extends beyond mutual concerns about North Korea. However, despite the importance of the agreement politically and economically, the politics surrounding it may seep into 2012 as the opposition in South Korea has continued to call for the agreement’s renegotiation.

Korea also saw success on the Olympic front in 2011. After bidding previously for the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games, Pyeongchang easily beat out Munich and Annecy for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  With the International Olympic Committee awarding Korea the 2018 Winter Games, Korea will join the United States, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, and Russia as the only nations to host both Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

Despite lingering concerns regarding the KORUS FTA, 2011 was an important year for South Korea when it comes to trade. On July 1, the EU FTA came into force, making it the world’s largest bilateral free trade agreement and in early December South Korea overcame the headwinds of uncertainty from the euro zone crisis to pass the $1 trillion threshold in total trade for the first time.  South Korea reached the $1 trillion mark in total trade in a short six years after first crossing the $500 billion threshold and during some of the worst economic times since the Second World War. Barring a meltdown in the euro zone, which remains a real possibility, the EU FTA and newly implemented KORUS FTA will likely help South Korea to continue to expand its trade volume in the coming year.

On the diplomatic front, there were a series of milestones. The summit meeting between Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barak Obama in October was universally seen as a high water mark in U.S.-Korea relations and representative of a strengthening of ties in recent years.  South Korea continued its efforts to become more of a global player as it hosted the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan and is set to host the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. On a bilateral level, Ambassador Sung Kim became the first Korean-American to be posted to Seoul, capping a year of deepening ties between Washington and Seoul.

At the same time, the future holds uncertainty for the relationship. Like much of the world, South Korea is beginning to feel the effects of political change. In the November Seoul mayoral election, the Grand National Party (GNP) was unable to hold on to the mayor’s office, but the Democratic Party (DP) was unable to capitalize on the GNP’s difficulties. Instead, social networking and a desire for change from politics as usual led to the surprise victory of the independent Park Won-soon in the mayor’s race and the failure of the DP to gain any traction in the election. The aftershocks have already seen the DP merge with a party of supporters of former President Roh Moo-hyun to form the new Democratic Unity Party and a push for greater change in the GNP.

Despite the prospect for political change in South Korea, the most sweeping changes of 2011 have occurred in North Korea. With the surprise death of Kim Jong-il, the succession process put in place during the September, 2010 Workers Party Conference was unexpectedly pushed forward. In recent days the regime has worked to choreograph a smooth transition to Kim Jong-un as the military has publically referred to Kim-Jong-un as its “supreme commander”  and he has been promoted to top post in the Korean Workers Party Central Committee.  However, it is still unclear if Kim Jong-un will govern with complete authority as his father did, or North Korea will move towards a collective leadership structure where Kim Jong-un serves as a figure head. What does seem clear, despite uncertainty about the future ability of the regime and Kim Jong-un to maintain its hold on power, is that the passing of Kim Jong-il will presage a change in how North Korea is governed.

On a lighter note, South Korea saw the debut of Saturday Night Live Korea (SNLK), a spinoff of the popular U.S. satire. While early indications are that SNLK will be as irreverent as its American counterpart, that might not be a bad thing. Given the uncertainty that lies ahead in North Korea with the death of Kim Jong-il, many Koreans might just need a good laugh in 2012 as many of the events of 2011 linger into next year and they ponder their own future.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from David Hepworth’s photostream in flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.