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FOI scientist: Uncertainty in North Korea following death of Kim Jong-il

Difficult to assess the risks of a power struggle, confrontations, a new political direction or economic reforms as North Korea faces a sudden transfer of power.

- A possible power struggle in North Korea might well be about whether or not to bring in some kind of economic reform. We know so little about North Korea that it is difficult to say whether there is a risk of a power struggle, or which policy Kim Jong-un will wish to follow, says John Rydqvist, an expert on Asia at FOI.

Because of Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korea’s power elite did not have the time they had hoped for to prepare for the transfer of power to the young new leader Kim Jong-un, the son of the late Kim Jong-il.

- Many believe that last year’s confrontations with South Korea were staged for North Korea’s own domestic political reasons. The pattern of events also suggests that there is a risk of further provocations in connection with the current transfer of power, says John Rydqvist.

Many important elections are also due to be held in the region during the coming year. China will see a change of leadership and elections will be held in South Korea during 2012. The ruling party there has split and two of the leading opposition parties have joined forces, events which could bring much turbulence and uncertainty.

Relations between North and South Korea, which have formally been in a state of war since the 1950s, are characterised by policies of confrontation and the build-up of military forces. Since the partition of the Korean peninsula, the South has developed into a stable democracy with high levels of technological and economic development. At the same time the North has degenerated from a revolutionary planned economy to a state of economic ruin.
Research scientist John Rydqvist thinks that in recent years the outside world has been condemning North Korea for its continuing development of nuclear weapons in contravention of international agreements. As a weak, isolated state, North Korea feels threatened and needs an instrument of military deterrence. The country’s leadership, driven by a cult of personality, is now facing a generation change. The confrontational policy towards the outside world has been a way for the late Kim Jong-il to convince the army of his strength and so ensure the family’s retention of power.

FOI, Swedish Defence Research Agency

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