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A New Approach to North Korea

SEOUL – The long-delayed meeting of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party is now underway, and comes at a time of severe tension between North Korea and the international community. It is widely expected that Kim Jong-il’s third son, Kim Jong-eun, will be appointed to a key position and be publicly announced as his father’s successor. There are also hints that a reshuffling of important positions within the Party will take place, allowing the presumed heir to form a new power base.

Whatever happens, and whoever turns out to be the new leader, North Korea most likely faces an unstable future. The cost of maintaining internal order will continue to rise as the system’s fundamental defects force the new leader to confront stark new challenges. Moreover, responsibility for managing that potential instability extends far beyond the leadership in Pyongyang.

North Korea’s fragility is suggested by the fact that even such an important political event as the Worker’s Party conference, held for the first time in three decades, was abruptly postponed earlier in September. One cause for the delay could be a schism within the ruling elite, a group that “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il himself cannot control as effectively as before. Moreover, Kim’s health problems might have worsened much faster than outsiders guess, further complicating matters.

“Enough is enough,” a mid-level North Korean government official recently uttered in a private conversation with a South Korean visitor to Pyongyang regarding Kim Jong-eun’s likely succession. Ordinary North Koreans, too, evidently seem to view this succession differently from that of Kim Jong-il’s inheritance of power from his father, Kim Il-sung.