Kim Jong-un: Why He Is More Likely to Reform North Korea Than His Father


This year has been kind for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un: He was voted the sexiest man for 2012 (this award, of course, was given by the satirical newspaper The Onion) and put North Korea on the list of space-faring nations with the country’s first successful rocket launch. However, there are bigger questions for the young leader to address, if he wants to maintain his viability as such for the long term: Namely, what will North Korea be in 10 or 20 years time?

An old adage of international relations suggest that if you don’t go to the world, the world will come to you. For Kim, the resolution is to meet the world somewhere in the middle.

The Stalinist nation will not go very far as the 21st century progresses. For better or for worse, our world is coalescing closer together. Causes and effects are becoming system-wide: For example, the collapse of the U.S. dollar would trigger a hyperinflationary economic collapse, the likes of which would make the current depression a historical footnote to a footnote. The point is that the choices in one area of the world can affect the other parts more deeply than perhaps any other time in history. North Korea, as isolationist as it may be, cannot hope to be entirely separated, because even the current regime conducts an array of international relations to improve its relative position. Needless to say, the best example is the country's completely preventable food security problem.

The issue in front of Kim, then, is that the longer he withdraws his country, the sooner the world will come knocking. He must find North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping, to begin needed reforms towards opening North Korea’s human and economic potential, both to domestic and regional benefits. Human societies tend to perform better in all respects under more moderate conditions: If Kim knows his history, then he knows that every absolutist regime that has ever existed, has failed when it failed to adjust. More than choices, then, the dynamics of a globalized world are going to give Kim the reasons to change how he governs his country.

It is doubtful that North Korea would give up its missile or nuclear technology; much like Iran, compelling Pyongyang with sanctions and threats of invasion will simply not be productive, just like it is not productive now. On those counts, it would be wiser to push for North Korea’s gradual membership into international control frameworks like the Non-proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While these technologies can indeed be employed for military means, they also hold immense civilian potential that should not be forfeited on a whim – not to mention the human capital created through their development.

It might seem that we are going to no less than "legalize" the regime in North Korea. Fretting about would be pointless, because we’ve done it before, and Mao’s regime in China would be just one example. Doing it again would not be as painful, however, because Kim is going to give us the reasons to do so; already, Washington has had the dry run with the general in power in Burma.

Political problems at any point in time are always settled when we sit down and talk to one another. North Korea will not be an exception to this age-old way of civilization.