On December 17, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il died. The state press announced that his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, is the “great successor.” There’s a clear pattern where each step towards succession is accompanied with a provocation, reflecting the regime’s belief that its ills can be cured through conflict. At only 27 or 28 years old, Kim Jong-Un is out to prove himself, and the short-range missile test that followed his official takeover isn’t going to cut it.
Kim Jong-Un is largely a mystery. He wasn’t even formally mentioned in North Korea’s state press until October 2010. His age, mother and marital status aren’t even known. It is reported that British intelligence assess that he has an “explosive temper” and suffers from severe hypertension, giving little hope that his mental state is any better than his father’s.
In October 2010, he was given the rank of a four-star general, even though he has no military experience whatsoever. His young age, lack of experience and the decreasing support of the North Korean army and population make it difficult for Kim Jong-Un to ensure the stability of the regime. A cable published by Wikileaks reveals that the top national security advisor to the South Korean president believes the regime will collapse within 2 to 3 years after Kim Jong-Il’s death.
Kim Jong-Il believes that confrontation with outside powers is necessary for a successful transition. In 1987, he was the designated successor. He ordered the bombing of a South Korean airliner and took part in a plot to assassinate South Korea’s president in Burma. This is the same type of preparatory steps his son undertook before his own ascent.
On May 25, 2009, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test. About one week later, Kim Jong-Il had his top officials pledge their loyalty to Kim Jong-Un. It is now known that Kim Jong-Un ordered the March 26, 2010 sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46. Five South Korean properties at the jointly-operated Mt. Kumgang resort were seized almost immediately after, and two North Korean agents were arrested in South Korea as they planned to kill a high-level defector there. Not long after that, the North launched cyber attacks on South Korean websites.
Over the summer of 2010, Kim Jong-Un oversaw a huge purge of political officials in order to solidify power. Older leaders were replaced with younger loyalists. It is said that 1,000 were arrested and 20-30 were executed. In September, new party leadership was chosen. Not long after, North Korea revealed an advanced uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges and began erecting a lightwater reactor at Yongbyon.
On October 29, a South Korean border post was fired upon. On November 23, 2010, North Korea fired 200 artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing 2 soldiers and 2 civilians. It was then learned that, right before the attack, Kim Jong-Il and Jong-Un met with the top military officials in the area where the rounds were fired from, including the battalion that launched the attack.
This series of events draws a strong correlation between steps in the succession process and aggressive action on the part of the regime. Now that Kim Jong-Un has officially taken over, obviously biggest step in the process, more provocations are very likely on the way. Indeed, the announcement was immediately followed by the firing of a short-range missile.
The enemies of North Korea face a serious dilemma. The regime is a threat and it is encouraging to see it become weakened. However, the provocations will become more severe as those weaknesses grow.
The North Korean population and elements of the military are becoming much more rebellious. In November 2009, the regime unveiled currency reform plans that enraged the population. In an extremely rare challenge, protests and open criticism erupted. Remarkably, the regime backed down and apologized. Kim Jong-Il had an advisor executed shortly thereafter. Then in February 2011, market traders protested after promised goods did not arrive. The security forces beat one man unconscious, sparking dozens of more citizens to participate, resulting in larger clashes.
Over half of the North Korean population now consumes foreign news, breaking the information blockade that has held the regime in power and maintained the leaders’ personality cult. Even some North Korean soldiers near the South Korean border are watching South Korean movies and television shows and selling pornographic DVDs. One was arrested for taking part in a pornographic film, and another for explaining the democratic South Korean political system to his fellow soldiers after learning about it through a radio broadcast.
The North Korean regime has become weaker and more unstable. Its population is eager to learn about the realities of the world, instead of the propaganda they are force-fed. The loyalty of the military to Kim Jong-Un is in question. He will respond to these problems with repression and aggression and the West should get ready for it.
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