How Long Can Kim Jong-un Stay in Power?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has devoted most of his first year at the helm to consolidating his grip of power. He appointed his loyalists to key party, government, and military posts and clinched the top titles -- supreme commander, the first secretary of the Workers Party, the chairman of the National Defense Commission, and the marshal of the republic.

"Kim Jong-un has to some extent won the support of the elite in the past year, but the question is whether he can succeed in getting support from the people in his second year in power," said Prof. Cho Dong-ho of Ewha Womans University. "The regime's durability depends on whether it can achieve some success in improving people's lives."

The regime has blown about US$900 million, enough money to feed the entire population for six or seven years, on rocket launches. Since it has no economy to speak of, it urgently needs aid or investment from abroad.

"Kim Jong-un must have high hopes for new North Korea policies in the U.S. and South Korea after the presidential elections in both countries," a South Korean government source speculated. "The latest rocket launch has upped the ante in relations with Washington to some degree."

Both South Korean presidential candidates, the Saenuri Party's Park Geun-hye and the main opposition Democratic United Party's Moon Jae-in, have hinted that they will take a more flexible approach toward the North than the current Lee Myung-bak administration.

Huge portraits of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are seen behind traffic police in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Monday, the first anniversary of Kim Jong-ils death. /AP-Yonhap Huge portraits of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are seen behind traffic police in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Monday, the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death. /AP-Yonhap

But the recent rocket launch could scupper hopes of economic aid.

Chung Young-tae of the Korea Institute for National Unification said, "Continued nuclear and missile development will deepen the North's international isolation."

It remains to be seen whether China's new leader Xi Jinping will continue to help the North Korean regime to consolidate its hold, and whether he will continue to regard the North as a strategic asset.

A diplomatic source said, "China has always given just enough aid to the North so that it does not starve to death. As long as there's this 'respirator,' it's hard to expect any sudden change in the North."

Park Byung-kwang of the Institute for National Security Strategy speculated, "Any third nuclear test by North Korea will determine its future relationship with Beijing."

But the prevailing feeling is that there is a slim chance of regime collapse.

"It would take either a military coup or a popular uprising," said Prof. Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies. "But the military elite is under watertight surveillance, and there seems to be no dissident leader who would stand up to the regime."

Kim Jong-un's fate ultimately lies in the hands of eminence grise Jang Song-taek and his wife Kim Kyong-hui, who have worked as the young leader's guardians.

"Things could go wrong for Kim Jong-un if Jang and his wife stop helping him," said Ryu Dong-ryeol at the Police Science Institute said. "But if the two keep helping their young nephew for about three years, it'll be possible for him to stay in power for a long time."

Chung Young-tae agreed, saying, "Kim Jong-un's fate is directly linked to his aunt's survival. The first three to five years are the most critical time for the regime's survival."

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 19, 2012 15:52 KST