In the News – Kim’s death could herald N. Korea’s opening: experts

In the News – Kim’s death could herald N. Korea’s opening: experts

SEOUL, Dec. 22 (Yonhap) — With a young and foreign-educated leader taking over the helm of North Korea following the death of his father Kim Jong-il, experts cautiously predict that he might take steps toward economic reform and opening, reaching out to the outside for economic cooperation.

But skeptics still do not believe that Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of deceased Kim, could muster enough power to push through marked changes to the nation’s economic stance, considering his relatively weak power base and the country’s age-old separation from the world.

On Monday, the North’s state media announced that its leader died of a heart attack two days prior, putting an end to his decades of iron-fist rule over its starving people.

The late Kim had been grooming Jong-un as his successor and Pyongyang unveiled the son to the outside world last year by promoting him to the rank of a four-star general and placing him in key posts.

Little has been made known about the successor except that he is in his late 20s and was educated in Switzerland. Reportedly, he has been actively involved in efforts related to market opening and projects aimed at luring foreign investment over the past years.

His educational background and track record as the heir apparent are the main reasons why many experts here speculate that he might place more weight on reform and opening than on the separation and isolation that have devastated the nation’s economy over the past several decades.

“I think that Kim Jong-un will likely deal with economic issues in a forward-looking manner. We cannot overlook his overseas educational background, which surely helped him get interested in the economies of advanced countries,” said Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at the IBK institute.

The prediction, albeit cautious, comes as North Korea has been involved diverse cross-border cooperation projects that include linking a pipeline from Russia to South Korea, construction of a free trade zone in the Rajin-Sonbong region and development of industrial belts along its coastal lines.

“It seems that the North had designed its market opening plans very actively under Kim Jong-il’s rule mostly through cooperation with China,” said Hong Ik-pyo, an analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

“Jong-un is expected to maintain that policy stance for the time being. Though it depends much on what choice China will make, China will likely continue its support for business cooperation from the perspective of stability in the North,” he added.

But it is too early to say that the North will adjust its policy stance significantly, other experts said, citing the nation’s long-running separation from the outside world and relatively short period of time for the fledgling leader to build the power base required to push through his market-opening efforts in the future.

“Given the track record of the late Kim Jong-il and other circumstances, it is possible to predict that the North will move toward reform and opening,” said Dong Yong-seung, a senior researcher of Samsung Economic Research Institute.

“But if you take into account the North’s propensity for isolation, there are still doubt lingering over whether it could push forward reform and opening,” he added.

Lee Seung-ryeol, a researcher of Ehwa Institute of Unification Studies, echoed the view.

“Reform and opening have been made taboo in the North as supporting them could mean negating the nation’s own socialism,” Lee said.

“Even the late Kim, who held a tight grip on power, failed to actively push for them. It would be all the more difficult for Jong-un, whose power base remains weak, to take steps toward reform and opening,” he noted.

Despite the divided opinions on the North’s economic path, many agree that its opening would benefit South Korea by boosting inter-Korean trade. The North is also known to be rich in diverse natural resources, possibly providing more help for South Korea, which depends much on imports for such materials.

Trade between South and North Korea has been shrinking as their relations remain strained in recent years.

During the first 10 months of this year, inter-Korean trade came to US$1.42 billion, down 12.6 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to government data.

“The North’s move toward reform and opening would eventually have positive impact on the South Korean economy,” said Dong of Samsung Economic Research Institute. “Politically, it would mean stability on the Korean peninsula and economically it also means a lot of positive impact.”

Original article can be found here: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2011/12/22/98/0401000000AEN20111222004600320F.HTML

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