North Korea: new opportunities in a post-Kim Jong-il landscape

The following is an op-ed in the East Asia Forum on the opportunities and openings we should try to create in the post-KJI political landscape.

My team was finalising our 2012 program plans for North Korea exchanges — preparing to implement workshops on fiscal strategy and financial sector development, as well as discussing the potential of an economic think tank comprised of policy makers — and in close contact with our local partners shortly before Kim Jong-il’s passing. These were all very interesting ideas because our North Korean partners were driving them, rather than us. Now, programs will be delayed and disrupted.

More broadly, we expect an immediate and short-term lockdown in North Korea with restrictions on travel and communications as authorities move to stabilise the situation in preparation for mourning. While some pundits rushed to proclaim the likelihood of instability and provocations, it is more likely that North Korean elites will try to present images of a united front in the short-term despite any backroom manoeuvrings.

We should also watch to see whether Kim Jong-un undertakes a trip to China at some point after the mourning period. Given that China is North Korea’s most important partner, who leads and who goes on this trip will say a lot about North Korea’s political order. A trip by North Korea’s next leader will also indicate that the internal situation has stabilised, and that the leader is confident a coup will not take place in his absence.

The changing political landscape will provide new opportunities to explore innovative policy options. The hope is that policy makers will also react to this situation not just defensively, but proactively, identifying opportunities in the medium term to encourage sensible and outward-looking economic policies in North Korea. In the longer run, this will support the livelihoods and aspirations of the 30 million North Koreans who want better living standards and greater interaction with the outside world...

Read more at the East Asia Forum.