North Korea’s future is shrouded in uncertainty. Chairman Kim Jong-il died in December after 17 years of dictatorial rule.
He is succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un, who will find it a challenge to consolidate his rule.
When Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-sung in 1994, he was over 50 years old with 20 years of successor training under his belt.
By contrast, Kim Jong-un is 28 and was named as his father’s designated successor barely a year ago. He is inheriting a country that has been terribly weakened over the last couple of decades.
The change in leadership and the centralised power that he embodied may spark internal strife among North Korea’s ruling bureaucracy.
And such instability, combined with circumstances such as a popular revolt in China, could produce an upheaval from below.
North Korea’s neighbours don’t want any instability ripple across East Asia.
China, in particular, has provided aid largely to avert a massive inflow of North Korean refugees that might threaten its own internal stability.
For the same reason the common-sense notion that the US will seize this opportunity to stir up North Korea because it wants to sow instability there is rather one-sided.
In 1994, when Kim Il‑sung died, the US wanted stability and within three months it signed the “Agreed Framework”. North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for aid in developing a civil nuclear programme.
The country’s instability could have a more serious ripple effect in the region than before, as the rise of China and Washington’s strategy to contain it are making the entire region more unstable.
As news came out about Chairman Kim’s death, South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak government put the military and police on emergency alert.
The government would like to use fear of conflict to bury all sorts of current political problems.
We must oppose these right-wing attempts at fear-mongering. But we should neither pray for North Korea’s stability as liberals and populists do, nor mourn Kim Jong-il as some on the left do.
Our attitude should not be dictated by the vantage point of inter-state diplomacy—even if that emphasises reconciliation and cooperation. True leftists should always start from the interests of the international working class movement and of human liberation.
For ordinary North Koreans, life has been marked by extreme poverty and the rule of terror.
Kim Jong-il, in particular, prioritised the development of nuclear weapons even while a significant part of the working class was starving. The notion that class struggle, rather than weapons of mass destruction, is what drives anti-imperialist movements was quite alien to him.
Worse, a decade of fiscal austerity since 2002 has intensified the misery and inequality suffered by ordinary North Koreans.
The final insult came when Chairman Kim in his declining health embarked on a third-generation succession of power to his son.
North Korea bears no resemblance whatsoever to the kind of socialism Marx advocated. Not a trace.
It is not even seriously anti-imperialist, given how President Kim Il-sung in his final years and Kim Jong-il throughout his time in power sought to normalise relations with the US.
Therefore, from a genuinely left-wing perspective advocating working class self-emancipation, there is no reason either to mourn Kim Jong-il or to wish for North Korea’s situation to stabilise.
We want the North Korean working class to fight for democracy and fundamental change in the turbulent times that lie ahead of them, and to lend them wholehearted support when that happens.
This is an edited version of a statement issued by the South Korean socialist group All Together on 20 December 2011