North Korea is going through a critical time of power transition. "Although Kim Jong-Il remains firmly in control for now," according to South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek, "he is unlikely to live beyond 2015."
So the third-generation Kim rises in the Hermit Kingdom. Kim Jong-Un, 28, the youngest son of Kim Jong-Il, has emerged as the Dear Leader's heir apparent. Kim the Third was "elected" the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission in September 2010 and appointed Daejang, the four-star General, in the Korean People's Army, despite having no military experience.
Many North Korea hands in the West see Kim Jong-Il's succession plot to groom Kim Jong-Un to keep the Kim Dynasty intact as anything but certain, especially in a time when political unrest is sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa. These analysts are looking for clues that the son would not lead a smooth transition as his father ails. In an article entitled "North Korea parliament ignores Kim's son," BBC News reports, "A rare session of North Korea's parliament in early April, seen as an opportunity to reveal more about political succession in North Korea, has failed to mention leader Kim Jong-Il or a son tipped to replace him. In fact, North Korea parliament is silent on Kim Jong-Un succession."
"Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il has hastened purges of anyone suspected of plotting against his son, Kim Jong-Un, as the clock ticks down on a handover expected to be complete by 2012," writes Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist on the Koreas, "unfortunately for Kim, his son is so unpopular that the process could decimate his security forces. This could explain why the heir apparent was unexpectedly passed over at the Supreme People's Assembly in April."
Some experts in South Korea have gone one step further to forecast the collapse of the Kim regime, like those in the Middle East and North Africa. "Kim Jong-Il and Jong-Un will be the targets of public resentment in case of an uprising in North Korea," says Park Hyeong-Jung, research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul, "the North could follow a similar path to Egypt. North Korea's military may remove its leader Kim Jong-Il and his heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un, in case of such an uprising."
Even President Lee Myung-Bak of South Korea is suggesting a Middle Eastern-style Jasmine Revolution in North Korea. "The fall of autocratic regimes in the Middle East struck me to recognize that nobody can stop calls for change," announced President Lee, "watching the collapse of regimes that had appeared unshakable, I came to believe that no one can block moves of change."
For three reasons, however, do not expect any immediate collapse of the Kim Dynasty despite internal power transition and external pressure for change.
For one, even though North Korea remains a poor country, in recent years, the economic situation of its population has improved noticeably. "The lives of North Koreans are tangibly better than 10 years ago-and keep improving slowly," writes Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul, "different factors might be in play. First, in the past 10 years a new, essentially capitalist economy grew in what once was a perfect example of a Stalinist state. Now it seems that a majority of families make a living in the private sector. Second, the state-run sector, or what remains of it, also adapted and learned to work in new conditions. Third, the large and important role played by the Chinese aid."
Beijing will never allow a grassroots uprising in North Korea. China is North Korea's most important ally, accounts for almost three quarters of North Korea's total foreign trade and more than 90 percent of its oil imports. Beijing also views Pyongyang as a vital strategic buffer against the United States. With China accelerating the scale and scope of its aid to and support for North Korea, it is hard to imagine the demise of Kim regime anytime soon.
Last but not least, Pyongyang's tight control of information flow has ensured that North Korea is not going through a cyberspace revolution. Less than 1 percent of the North Korean population has mobile phones and Internet and social networking services are severely blocked. As a result, the chance for a "Jasmine Revolution" in North Korea is very slim, at least for the time being.
For better or for worse, the Kim Family show is not nearing its end yet. It will be counterproductive if the United States and its allies' North Korea policy is to be based on the assumption of an imminent collapse of the Kim Dynasty.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.