Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new leader, has been named as first secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, the institution that North Korea’s constitution states should guide all of the nation’s activities.
The party’s highest post had previously been general secretary, but the party says it has decided to name Kim Jong Il, the young leader’s father, who died late last year, as its “General Secretary for eternity” to commemorate his legacy.
The move is not unprecedented. Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and the founder of the North Korean state, was posthumously named as “president for eternity” after his death in 1994. At that time, the title held by Kim Jong Il, chairman of the National Defense Commission, became the top job.
The post of general secretary has clearly been abolished to demonstrate Kim Jong Un’s reverence for his father and the new post of first secretary created as the supreme position in the real hierarchy. There is no doubt that Kim Jong Un has officially become the country’s supreme leader through a third-generation hereditary succession.
The Supreme People’s Assembly will be convened on April 13 and it is widely expected that the assembly will officially name Kim Jong Un to the top post in the government.
That means the young leader, who is believed to be still in his 20s, will assume, both in name and reality, the responsibility to deal with the many colossal challenges facing his nation. These include rebuilding the lives of the country’s poor, reviving a debilitated economy and ending North Korea’s international isolation.
However, the fact that the new leader’s first high-profile action has been to announce the launching of a satellite, generally seen as a thin disguise for a ballistic missile test, indicates that hopes for a positive change may have little foundation. Fuel is being pumped into the rocket and the countdown is nearing.
The way Kim Jong Un is handling his assumption of official titles and his use of provocative actions to intimidate neighboring countries signal that Kim Jong Un is just following in the footsteps of his father’s policies.
As the ruling party’s first secretary, Kim Jong Un will gain enormous power, but he has no experience of governing a nation. He will probably have no choice but to depend heavily on a coterie of close aides as he tries to manage the tough challenges facing him. The country will effectively be under collective leadership, with First Secretary Kim Jong Un serving as the head.
Both the abilities and personality of the new leader are still unclear. We need to keep close watch on his behavior to see whether he starts acting like a tyrant after securing his power base or takes more dangerously provocative actions.
However, he should realize that he won’t be able to achieve the economic and social regeneration North Korea urgently needs by launching missiles or conducting nuclear tests. Kim Jong Un will do little to remove international distrust of the secretive regime in Pyongyang if he fears making bold changes and uses his father’s dying instructions as the guiding principles of his rule. He will also be unable to save his starving people.
North Korea needs to rebuild its relationship with the international community by acting as a responsible state. There will be no positive outlook for the country unless it begins to pursue realistic and effective policies allowing it to obtain support from the rest of the world. Japan and other neighboring countries should actively engage with the North to encourage it to start moving in that direction. They must persist in trying to push Pyongyang toward reinventing its future.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 12
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