The third generation of the Kim Il-sung family line in North Korea what I refer to as “DPRK 3.0” has just begun with the recent appointment of Kim Il-sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, to several key posts in the country. Such shift of power from the second generation (“DPRK 2.0”) to a much younger and untested third-generation leader, Kim Jong-un, is unprecedented in many ways, which could be very good or very bad for the Korean peninsula.
Unlike DPRK 2.0 with Kim Jong-il, DPRK 3.0 under Kim Jong-un in the future breaks new ground in several obvious ways.
First, is Kim Jog-un’s age. Although there is some dispute about his exact age, 26 or 27, what is not at dispute is that the new likely leader of one of the most reclusive and unpredictable nuclear-armed states in the world could soon be in the hands of someone who 10 years ago was a high school student.
Some cultures, such as in the U.S., youth can be seen as a good thing because this could lead to creativity and new thinking to existing problems. But in the Korean peninsula, seniority based on age is a critically important element of the Korean psyche.
In North Korea, a country essentially stuck in time in terms of customs and traditions, age consciousness is probably even more extreme. Now place this cultural variable into the context of real world leadership scenarios in the DPRK. Imagine someone in their 20s, or 30s for that matter, who is trying to command the respect of military leaders and legislative officials who are on average double his age (the average age of the DPRK politburo is in the 70s, with some in their 80s).
Even in an American setting, having a young leader-president in his 40s (such as Kennedy, Clinton and Obama) can be a challenge. This is because such leadership can be viewed with skepticism from the military brass.
In North Korea, this scenario is even more extreme. This is offset somewhat by Kim Jong-un bearing the god-like Kim family name. But who knows how long such military loyalty will last, especially if Kim Jong-un is viewed as being more of a dove than a hawk when it comes to international dealings. In essence, the North Korean military and legislative leaders, with the average age in their 70s, may consciously or unconsciously think, “The person I have to report to and call my leader isn’t even as old as my son.”
In the U.S. case with former President John F. Kennedy, the combination of being seen as a liberal outsider not in sync with the military inner circle led to the “Bay of Pigs” invasion of nearby Cuba. This turned out to be one of Kennedy’s worst failures.
Interestingly, a risk exists that Kim Jong-un may very well be placed in a similar situation during his DPRK 3.0 leadership period. Such extreme military demands to invade or aggressively defend North Korea’s national interests may not happen right away, but it could perhaps at some point not too far down the road. Although speculation exists that Kim Jong-un will be encircled by trusted senior insiders, such as his aunt (i.e., Kim Jong-il’s sister), Kim Kyong-hui (for economic and perhaps legislative issues) and her husband, Jang Song-taek (for military issues), both around age 64, ultimately the top of the leadership chain stops with the new Dear Leader 3.0. Also, because Kim Jong-un lacks military experience, in a “military first” country such as the DPRK, being a young civilian leader with little military experience will also pose the risk of a sudden potential backlash against his leadership by the military, as occurred in South Korea in the early 1960s.
The second notable feature of DPRK 3.0 is that North Korea’s potential new future leader will likely be both multilingual and multicultural. This is not insignificant. For instance, it is likely that Kim Jong-un attended a Swiss boarding school from about 1998 to 2001 for his education, perhaps even having a Swiss (non-Korean) roommate and close confidant. This means that he can probably speak not only Korean, but also English and perhaps German.
Further, Kim Jong-un is also known to be an avid NBA fan and basketball player. So it seems he shares at least some common cultural interests with Western nations such as the U.S. basketball (an American-invented sport). So above and beyond political diplomats being shuttled back and forth between the two nations, perhaps the U.S can also try using sports diplomacy in the form of having an NBA exhibition game in Pyongyang and/or sending NBA sports legends over to North Korea to forge closer cultural ties, such as Michael Jordan or Lebron James (who is closer to Kim Jong-un’s age) as goodwill sports ambassadors. In a DPRK 3.0 environment, such a creative approach, in addition to traditional diplomatic attempts, could help raise much needed communication lines between the two states. Keep in mind also that the U.S. president, Barack Obama, is also an avid basketball fan and former player in college. And much like Barack Obama, who spent his younger formative years outside his home country (in Indonesia), Kim Jong-un also spent his younger formative years outside his home country (in Switzerland).
But, as President Obama now knows perhaps too well, a leader of a country cannot seem too “foreign.” Similarly, this same suspicion by the DPRK military of a young civilian leader who lived several years in a foreign country may force Kim Jong-un to take more hawkish and nationalistic stances than he may want, much like with Kennedy’s case.
Ultimately, in terms of the big picture, the recent “game changing” paradigm shift in North Korea’s leadership has led to a very different DPRK a DPRK 3.0 which represents a remarkable opportunity for both the U.S. and North Korea to seriously engage each other in bi- and multilateral talks.
By Jasper Kim
Jasper S. Kim is department chair of the Graduate School of International Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. His more recent book is, “Korean Business Law: the Legal Landscape and Beyond” (Carolina Academic Press, 2010). Ed.