A reasonably stable transition can be expected in North Korea, says Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago
Following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il less than two weeks ago, the world has speculated on the succession question and what that means for stability in a region populated with nuclear weapons. While many discussions have focused on the uncertainty surrounding the Pyongyang's process of selecting its next leader, Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, the preeminent American scholar on the Korean Peninsula, has for years consistently outlined a contrarian view of North Korean politics that defies common stereotypes of the country. In an email interview, Professor Cumings spoke to Narayan Lakshman about how he expects North Korea to stride forth into the 21st century after the loss of its “Dear Leader.”
At the University of Chicago Prof. Cumings' research and teaching focus on modern Korean history, 20th century international history, U.S.-East Asian relations, East Asian political economy, and American foreign relations. His first book, The Origins of the Korean War, won the John King Fairbank Book Award of the American Historical Association, and the second volume of this study won the Quincy Wright Book Award of the International Studies Association. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999, and in 2007 he won the Kim Dae Jung Prize for Scholarly Contributions to Democracy, Human Rights and Peace.
What do you think the United States can do in the immediate aftermath of Kim Jong-il's passing to influence outcomes in the region?
For the time being I don't see any way the U.S. can influence the situation in North Korea, but it should refrain from making comments about a “power struggle” in the North [as Hillary Clinton did several times in 2009], which is not likely to be true, and will be taken as very insulting by the leadership.
Who will Kim Jong-il's successor be and what sort of transition process can we expect?
The only real precedent we have for the aftermath of Kim's death is what happened in 1994 when Kim Il-sung died, and there was next to no serious disruption in the leadership of the country, then or since. Kim Jong-il did not appear for several years, the equivalent of the three years of mourning required of the prince when the king died in pre-modern Korea; during this time the leadership seemed paralysed, doing nothing, or very little, to stem the famine that quickly swept the country after 1995. But, on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the regime in September 1998, there was Kim Jong-il emerging clearly on top. So one can expect a similar passage in the North for the next months and years, except that Kim Jong-un has far less experience than his father — Kim Jong-il was clearly going to be his father's successor from the early 1970s onward, and had decades of experience in all kinds of roles before he became the top leader. The person who will most likely serve as a bridge between father and son is Jong-il's brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, who has long been in charge of the top security agencies.
His role will be analogous to that of the Taewon'gun in the 1860s, regent to King Kojong, when the Kojong was much younger even than Kim Jong-un, but this regent successfully guided Kojong until he became a genuine leader, one whose rule lasted for decades.
If he becomes North Korea's next leader, do you think the younger Kim will manage the country differently to his father?
The best hope for the future is the Swiss education that Jong-un and his brothers got, giving them years of experience in a free Western country, whereas neither Jong-il nor his father had any experience of the West — neither got farther than East Berlin. Many changes have also happened in recent years in the North — hundreds if not thousands of markets, many joint ventures with foreign firms, the huge export zone at Kaeson, where foreign firms employ more than 40,000 North Koreans. So, that might make for a “happy ending” in the form of a soft landing for this dictatorship, more opening to the outside world, and eventual decompression of totalitarianism. The caveat here is the Arab Spring of 2011, which began in Tunisia but spread not just throughout the Middle East but by the end of the year to Occupy Wall Street and huge demonstrations in Russia against Putin. That will make the Pyongyang leadership very wary of its own people.
What is your view on the suggestion that the transition period poses certain risks that could exacerbate uncertainty for the country?
The media — the New York Times, CNN, Fox, and many other outlets here and abroad — constantly mistake this regime for a one-man dictatorship. In fact an entire generation of leaders rose in tandem with Kim Jong-il and they are now in power and have much privilege to protect, with Jong-un being the key symbol of continuity and power. Furthermore, a senior generation guided the transition to both Jong-il and his son — the ones still alive still being strong leaders on the most powerful body, the National Defence Commission; they may be octogenarians, but they have a huge army behind them, and this is also one of the most patriarchal societies in the world. So their guidance and control will most likely enable a second reasonably stable political transition. We can also hope that the new leadership will have much more concern for the welfare of their own people, rather than simply securing their own power — the latter being the epitaph for Kim Jong-il's 17-years of leadership, a record of failure at almost every level except the critical one of maintaining maximum power for his family and the regime.