Daniel W. Drezner

My two predictions on North Korea

One of the drawbacks of being a foreign policy blogger is that it becomes very awkward to avoid discussing international relations events that make the front page for consecutive days.  I am therefore duty-bound to comment on Kim Jong Il’s death, Kim Jong Un’s ascension to leadership, and what it means for North Korea.  Except ...

One of the drawbacks of being a foreign policy blogger is that it becomes very awkward to avoid discussing international relations events that make the front page for consecutive days.  I am therefore duty-bound to comment on Kim Jong Il's death, Kim Jong Un's ascension to leadership, and what it means for North Korea. 

Except I have no friggin' clue what will happen. 

I am in good company on this total lack of knowledge.  I'm bemused by all the U.S. officials anonymously commenting on what Kim Jong Un is like, given that our intelligence on this country is so awesome that Washington didn't know his father was dead until 50 hours after he died, and then only because the North Koreans announced it on television.  To be fair, however, it's not like the South Koreans knew either, and some reports I've seen suggest the Chinese were in the dark as well. 

One of the drawbacks of being a foreign policy blogger is that it becomes very awkward to avoid discussing international relations events that make the front page for consecutive days.  I am therefore duty-bound to comment on Kim Jong Il’s death, Kim Jong Un’s ascension to leadership, and what it means for North Korea. 

Except I have no friggin’ clue what will happen. 

I am in good company on this total lack of knowledge.  I’m bemused by all the U.S. officials anonymously commenting on what Kim Jong Un is like, given that our intelligence on this country is so awesome that Washington didn’t know his father was dead until 50 hours after he died, and then only because the North Koreans announced it on television.  To be fair, however, it’s not like the South Koreans knew either, and some reports I’ve seen suggest the Chinese were in the dark as well. 

Despite the near total lack of information outside of North Korea about North Korea, the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits require I provide at least two predictions per post.  So, here’s my first prediction, courtesy of Mr. T

What we do know about the triumvirate of Kim-Jong-Il selected leaders guiding Kim Jong Un into power does not bode well for the North Korean economy.  The only bright spot for the DPRK’s economy in recent years was a modest step towards private economic activity.  The fact that one of them "published articles about the need for the government to curtail market-oriented activity" does not bode well for the per capita income of your average North Korean. 

My second prediction is that Kim Jong Un will hold power for longer than any Western analyst expects him to hold power.  Most of the pundit chatter has been about the Kim the Youngest’s lack of gravitas and the asbsence of sufficient time to groom him as the successor to Kim Jong Il.  As I’m hearing this, I keep thinking of Hua Guofeng, Mao’s successor.  It’s an imperfect analogy, but Hua was a relative unknown plucked from obscurity by Mao only a few years before his death.  In the end he was outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and his allies, but even Hua managed to stay in power for a few years before that happened, putting down an attempted coup by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four. 

To use more game-theoretic language, I’m not sure there is a first-mover advantage to any ambitious North Korean challenging Kim the Youngest.  Because of that, and because the entire DPRK elite likely fears internal division when concerned about natiional survival, the tyranny of the status quo will likely persist for longer than anyone realizes.  Which, unfortunately, in this case, happens to be actual tyranny. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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