December 29, 2011 12:34
New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will have a tough road ahead now that his father Kim Jong-il is buried and the real job begins. So far he has only had to follow protocol and look sad by his father's coffin, but the impoverished country faces a host of problems, especially in its dealings with the international community.
Kim Jong-il elicited some grudging respect for the expert way he played the international community. His brinkmanship tactics involved threats and nuclear development, alternating with negotiations and concessions to extract aid. But Jong-un has no foreign-policy experience. "Only those who know where the brink is can play the brinkmanship game," one diplomat said. "But Kim Jong-un probably has no idea where the brink is."
The void left by Kim Jong-il's death is even bigger in relations with China, which is North Korea's sole lifeline. "The Chinese leadership has had difficulty with Kim Jong-il's brinkmanship tactics," a source in China said, but he was always able to extract more aid and investment because Beijing preferred the status quo and he tended to highlight the "blood ties" between the two countries, which count for a great deal in Confucian societies. Kim Jong-un, by contrast, will now have to deal with Chinese leaders who are three to four decades his seniors.
And North Korea urgently needs money to pay for celebrations of regime founder Kim Il-sung's centenary if it is to keep an increasingly restive and starving population in line. "People have high hopes for what the party will give to them" on Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday on April 15 next year, a source in North Korea said. "If the special rations are way below people's expectations, there could be an outburst of pent-up discontent."
The North Korean regime has been living on borrowed time with constant promises of a big party in 2012, when it had vowed to become a "powerful and prosperous nation." Kim Jong-il tried to trade a halt in uranium enrichment for 240,000 tons of food assistance from the U.S. before his death.
"People's dissatisfaction didn't mean much under absolute rule," a North Korean source said, "but things may change in the future. Kim Jong-un's immediate priority will be begging for rice for next year's promised feast."
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