Lost in all the hubbub surrounding North Korea’s missile test yesterday—don’t worry, we’ll get to that—was Kim Jong-un’s elevation to First Chairman of the National Defense Commission. The title is newly created—the very much dead Kim Jong-il will maintain the title of Chairman for eternity, thus continuing the country’s odd necrocratic system—but the role is not. Combined with his positions as First Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party (bestowed on him on Wednesday; his father remains the party’s General Secretary eternally) and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, Kim the Current now holds all three posts through which Kim the Former ruled North Korea. At least officially, the succession process is complete.
Unofficially, young Kim is likely still consolidating support from the Workers’ Party and the military and working to ferret out the potentially (or actually) disloyal. Yesterday’s rocket launch should at least be partially understood in this light. Kim Jong-il had long been promising that 2012 would be the year North Korea became a strong and prosperous country. Kim Jong-un had to deliver. Testing missiles and nukes (stay tuned!) is one of the few means at his disposal to demonstrate national power (as presently constituted, North Korea will never be prosperous, and its leaders know it). It doesn’t matter that the rocket failed—in going ahead with the launch, Jong-un demonstrated commitment to his father’s “military first” policy and course for military modernization (I use the term loosely). He also demonstrated resolve in the face of widespread international approbation. This should all go over well in the insular North Korea and calm any elite concerns about unwanted change.
What have the United States and its allies learned from this? To paraphrase Pete Townshend: meet the new Kim, same as the old Kim. Unfortunately, given Washington’s track record over the past couple decades, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that we won’t get fooled again.