Continuity through change: North Korea’s second succession

EIAS Board Member Glyn Ford published an article in the Autumn isssue of the British journal Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture , entitled "Continuity through change: North Korea’s second succession". Find the article.


Continuity through change: North Korea’s second succession

New leadership in a number of key countries offers a window of opportunity for North Koreans.

Glyn Ford

After the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, North Korea was called on to orchestrate only the second leadership transition in its sixty-five year history. The previous time, in 1994, the situation had been bleak. The ‘Arduous March’ period was well under way: tens of thousands of people were dying every month from the effects of malnutrition, and the economy was in meltdown, as factories, farms and workshops closed due to the scarcity of a wide range of inputs, including electricity. The government went into limbo as Kim Jong Il spent three years mourning his father - he did not officially take over the reins of power until autumn 1997. This time, with barely a 100-day pause for mourning, Kim Jong Un has become the head of a new collective leadership that appears firmly in control; and this time it’s a leadership that talks. In fifteen years as leader Kim Jong Il uttered only a single sentence in public, while on 15 April 2012 Kim Jong Un gave a carefully crafted twenty minute speech that was effectively Pyongyang’s ‘State of the Union’ address.

The economic situation is also sharply different this time around. Eighteen years the economy was grinding to a halt, while today in Pyongyang everyday life serves to demonstrate the failure of sanctions. The citizens of Pyongyang have never had it so good. Consumerism in privileged Pyongyang is of course only part of a much more complex reality, but it offers a very different image from the one that has for so long been assiduously cultivated in the West. And my argument here is that to engage with the complexities of North Korean reality requires both willingness to talk and a willingness to understand.