What is happening in Korea? by Gabriel Jonsson

During the past week, South Korea held parliamentary elections whereas North Korea made a failed missile test and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founder, eternal President Kim Il Sung (1912-1994).

In the April 11 elections, the ruling Saenuri party won 152 of 300 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. The main opposition party, the Democratic United Party, received 127 seats. Although it is difficult to predict the impact on the presidential elections to be held in December, the chances of Park Kun-hye, the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee (1963-1979), to become the ruling party’s candidate could have improved. Politics will increasingly focus on the elections, which means that it is unlikely that anything dramatic will happen in domestic politics or in inter-Korean relations throughout the year.

Since North Korea announced on March 16 that it will make a missile test between April 12-16 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, there has been much concern regarding the announcement world-wide. The test was made on April 13 but it was a big failure: the rocket crushed into the sea just one minute after it was launched. Considering that the launch not only concurred with the commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday but also was intended to strengthen the new leader Kim Jong-Un’s position, the crash was very embarrasing for the leadership. The North Korean authorities have admitted the failure and initiated investigations to find out the causes. It cannot be excluded that the failure will have an impact on power politics within the ruling Korean Worker’s Party (KWP).

At the military parade held in the capital Pyongyang on April 15, the leadership showed up in front of tens of thousands of citizens in order to show unity. The appointment of Kim Jong-Un as first secretary of KWP and chairman of the Central Military Commission on April 11 followed by the appointment as first chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission on April 13 clearly shows that the North Korean leadership wants to maintain status quo. This wish also became clear when Kim Jong-Un declared that the ”military-first” policy pursued by his father Kim Jong Il (1942-2011) will be enhanced.

Since the 1950s, North Korea has always emphasized the juche idea of self-reliance in politics, economics and defense, but the missile test is an indication that this policy has contributed to make the country backwards in terms of military technology. The admission of the failure shows that there is awareness of the backwardness within the party, but whether the failure will cause fissures or not is an open question. Considering that there since the struggle for power within the party ended in the late 1950s have been no known signs of fissures within the party, it is hard to expect that such a situation will develop now.

On the other hand, one difference now is that the legitimacy of power for a third generation Kim is weaker than for his predecessors. In fact, Kim Jong-Un’s only source of legitimacy is being son of Kim Jong Il, but how long will that impact last? What will happen if he cannot bring the country out of its economic difficulties that to a large extent are caused by the huge military expenditures? We do not know yet by sure how firm grip he has on power, but even if Korean politics is characterized by one-man rule the leader must have trusted advisers around him. Could the failed test cause distrust among his closest people?

North Korea is in contrast to what was the case in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe  extremely isolated from the outside world which makes it virtually impossible to change the system from outside. Domestic pressure for a change is at the present out of the question but should fissures arise within the leadership, along with disunity within the powerful military, an unpredictable situation could develop in the country.

Gabriel Jonsson

Associate Professor Korean Studies, Stockholm University