Economy may be test of North Korean transition

By Jeremy Laurence and Jack Kim, Reuters

SEOUL — North Korea’s new leadership under the inexperienced Kim Jong Un appears to be functioning “relatively smoothly,” but he has to look beyond key ally China to rebuild its shattered economy, South Korea’s most senior official on the North said Monday.

Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik told Reuters that despite Kim Jong Il’s death last month, the secretive North had clearly been well prepared for the handover to a third generation of the Kim family. “The succession of power has been stable and well prepared,” Yu said in an interview. “It’s difficult to predict the future, but for the time being it is likely they will focus on consolidating power internally and to appear stable to the outside world.”

Rumors swirled in markets this month about a possible coup in North Korea, but the South dismissed them as groundless. Yu said on Monday the new leadership appeared to be stable.

He, however, said that given Kim’s age — he is believed to be in his late 20s — and inexperience there remained questions about whether he could do “the job right.” “But having lived as a successor in a regime like North Korea itself is a significant experience. He may be young, but age should not be a big problem,” said Yu, although he conceded South Korea knows little about the man the North dubs the “supreme commander.” He said the North would seek to build a cult of personality around the young Kim, similar to that which made Kim Jong Il and the state founder’s Kim Il Sung into god-like figures. Yu said the young Kim did not yet appear to have the kind of absolute control that his father and grandfather wielded, saying a small band of trusted minders were playing an important role in supporting and influencing his leadership. He did not elaborate on the makeup of the inner group of leaders, believed to include Jong Un’s uncle and aunt and the military chief. A source with close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters last month the North will shift to collective rule from a strongman dictatorship. “It’s difficult to predict what form their role will take,” said Yu. “What’s important is to think about what sort of help we can offer to encourage them to make changes to stabilize itself.”