Few spectacles seem more bizarre to the outside observer than a North Korean state funeral. As the television screens relayed shots of the throngs of black-clad mourners wailing and beating their breasts in genuine or simulated grief at the passing of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, Western commentators struggled to find words to fit the images. Everyone feels that this is a momentous event, but no one really knows what to make of it. The designated Great Successor Kim Jong-un is a complete unknown. Even his age remains uncertain. No one can tell whether he is likely to seize firm control of the reins of power, whether he will be manipulated by older and more established figures like his uncle and fellow pall-bearer Jang Sung-taek, or whether the succession may even trigger power struggles within North Korea’s enigmatic regime. The void of uncertainty has left reporters scrambling for tidbits of information about such things as the new leader’s childhood tantrums or teenage enthusiasm for basketball.
But there is one morsel of information that, oddly, has been little reported. This is the fact that Kim Jong-un’s mother, Ko Young-hee, was born in Japan, and that North Korea’s new leader has several relatives living in Osaka. Ko’s parents came from the southernmost Korean island of Jeju and she lived in Osaka until the age of eleven, when she and her family were among around 90,000 ethnic Koreans who look part in a mass relocation from Japan to North Korea that began in 1959 and continued until the early 1980s. While most of these migrants struggled to adapt to life in their new homeland, Ko became a successful dancer with the leading North Korean theatre company and caught the eye of Kim Jong-il, becoming his third consort in the late 1970s. She died in 2004, reportedly of cancer.
It is unlikely that these South Korean and Japanese connections will have any direct bearing on the Great Successor’s policies, but they are a reminder that, despite its “hermit state” image, North Korea is truly part of Northeast Asia. Indeed, rather than attempting to guess the un-guessable, it might be more useful to think about the North Korean succession in a regional context.
North Korea’s future holds the key to the stability of the region as a whole, but it is not the only country in the region facing a change of political command. A new Chinese leadership will be anointed at the Eighteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the second half of 2012 and at the Twelfth National People’s Congress in March 2013. South Korea will also elect a new president in 2012. Recently, meanwhile, subtle shifts in regional approaches towards North Korea have started to become visible. The hardline policies towards the North pursued by the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, since his accession in 2008 have visibly failed to produce positive results, and have been coming under increasing domestic criticism. In recent months, the South Korean government has shown signs of willingness to soften its position and resume some humanitarian aid programs, which were suspended after the sinking of the warship Cheonan in March 2010.
Ever since 2002, when Kim Jong-Il admitted that North Korea had been responsible for kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, Japan has pursued an even harder line towards North Korea, with just as little impact. But during a brief visit to Beijing immediately after Kim Jong-il’s death the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, discussed the need to revive the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear policy, suggesting the possibility of Japan softening its approach to dialogue with North Korea. In recent weeks, the United States has also indicated its willingness to provide food aid to North Korea for the first time in three years. Indeed, a senior US official was in Beijing negotiating the aid issue at the time of Kim Jong-il’s sudden death.
Meanwhile, Burma, one of North Korea’s very few remaining foreign friends, is in a process of political transformation. Over recent years, as its contacts with the outside world shrivelled, the relationship had become increasingly important to North Korea, but the recent thawing of relations between the United States and Burma has been accompanied by indications that the Burmese government is willing to relinquish ties to North Korea, and may even provide Washington with intelligence on its erstwhile ally.
The actions of North Korea’s neighbours, and of the United States, are likely to have a crucial bearing on North Korea’s future. The country’s political elite is doubtless even more nervous than outside observers about the sudden transition to a new leadership and an uncertain future. Because they feel the need to conceal their insecurity behind public displays of strength, nervous and insecure regimes are often the most dangerous. In North Korea’s case, the anxieties are enormously increased by the fact that the economy is in a state of collapse and the population on the brink of famine, reviving terrible memories of the great famine that swept the country soon after the death of the country’s first leader, Kim Il-sung, and claimed around a million lives.
Insecurity and inexperience make it unlikely that the new North Korean leadership will take quick steps towards reform or opening to the outside world. In the longer term, though, North Korea’s neighbours can certainly help to avoid dangerous confrontations and ease the way to future dialogue. The most urgent move is to signal a willingness to maintain and expand food and medical aid programs. This will help to reassure the jittery new leadership, and the population more generally, that the outside world is not hell bent on North Korea’s destruction. Dialogue on aid will also give outsiders better insight into the nature and workings of the new regime. Above all, aid is vital for humanitarian reasons. In return for signs of North Korea’s willingness to return to dialogue on nuclear and other issues, Australia could support this process by proffering a lifting of the blanket ban on visas for North Koreans and restarting long-stalled training programs for North Korean technical experts.
The region’s political changes, if handled with caution, could make 2012 a year for new forms of regional engagement, including renewed multilateral dialogue between North Korea and its neighbours. The alternative – rash actions seen by a brittle and inexperienced North Korean regime as threats to the country’s security – could provoke a fresh spiral of conflict, with dire consequences particularly for the unhappy citizens of North Korea. The future of North Korean politics will be determined not only within the secretive and palatial compounds of the Kim dynasty, but also by decisions taken in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Washington and even Canberra. •