Once again, it’s the veil of secrecy that makes North Korea so dangerous.
From the moment we learned that Kim Jong-il had been dead for two days and that young Kim Jong-un would take his place, upbeat market reaction represented a triumph of hope over experience. Few miss the father, but the son was always ill-equipped to bring about constructive change—inside North Korea or in relations with others.
In fact, the new leader was overmatched from the beginning. The father was groomed for more than two decades before inheriting power in 1994 at the age of 53. The son, a 29-year-old political novice, was pushed into place late last year after less than two years’ experience with the family business. The steady deterioration of North Korea’s economy and infrastructure over several decades, particularly outside the capital, ensures that the boy and his minders have much to do.
The father knew the son would need help and he positioned his brother-in-law and the regime’s previous number two, Jang Sung-taek, to act as regent. Mr Jang is believed to have strong personal ties with senior officials of the Korean People’s Army, guarantor of North Korea’s baseline security. Also among Mr Kim’s “guardians” are army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho and Kim Jong-il’s sister Kim Kyong-hui. What is the true balance of power among these people? Outsiders have no reliable way of knowing.
That’s why, for the next few weeks, we should worry more about North Korea than about Iran. Compared with North Korea’s government, Iran’s theocracy is an open book. Bluster among players in the controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme has market watchers on edge, but the near-term risk of trouble here is over-rated. Americans and Europeans have little appetite for another Middle East conflict that’s sure to pressure oil prices and imperil their delicate economic recoveries. Israel is talking tough, but that’s at least in part to ensure maximum compliance with the next wave of soon-to-be-rolled-out sanctions. Iran has little interest in starting a war it can’t win. Real trouble will probably wait.
But apparent preparations for a North Korean rocket launch over the strong objections of the US and North Korea’s nearest neighbours remind us that Pyongyang remains uniquely unpredictable. South Korea and Japan have threatened to shoot the rocket down, but having made clear its intention to press forward, North Korea’s new government is in no position to cancel plans and lose face.
In addition, South Korea is less likely to back away from provocation than it was two years ago. In March 2010, a North Korean attack on a South Korean naval vessel killed 46 sailors. Eight months later, North Korea staged artillery and rocket attacks on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, provoking fury and frustration within South Korea’s military. At the time, despite considerable domestic political pressure, President Lee Myung-bak ordered South Korean forces to exercise restraint. Another round of hostile acts might not draw such a measured reaction.
Why are the North Koreans doing this? Traditionally, hostile acts are intended to project confidence and deter threats. It’s worrisome enough if this latest show of bravado is intended for an international audience. But if the real concern is local, if someone within the elite believes a show of strength is needed to safeguard Kim Jong-un’s standing at home, then North Korea may have a whole new generation of surprises in store.