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From Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un: How the Hardliners Prevailed: On the Political History of North Korea (2007 – 2020)

In the summer of 2008, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke. That same year he named his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor and began to promote him among the North Korean elite. At the same time, the military gained influence. Foreign, domestic, and economic policy hardened. It was obvious that the succession plan, the power shift, and the change of direction were related.After Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011, the power struggle in the leadership circle intensified. The opponents of economic reform and opening-up policies prevailed again. Military spending and population control took precedence over economic development. Kim Jong Un’s 2012 pledge that the population would never have to tighten its belt again was rescinded only one year later. Timid attempts at economic reforms were stalled or rolled back. By 2016, the hardliners had consolidated their position, marking the end of the transition period that had started with Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2008. The country’s nuclear program was declared complete in 2018.To whom the real power has passed, however, is not as clear as it seems. Nominally, Kim Jong Un is the successor, and without a doubt he has a share of power. However, he is not the sole ruler. Rather, the country is governed by a precarious collective, the composition of which varies and whose members sometimes have weaker, sometimes stronger influence. Since Kim Jong Il’s death, the hawks have largely prevailed in this leadership circle. As a result, life has become even harder for most of the North Korean population, and the task of pushing Pyongyang towards peaceful coexistence has become even more difficult for the international community. For eight years, from 2007 to 2010 and from 2013 to 2018, Thomas Schäfer was German Ambassador to North Korea. He has gathered more experience there than many others who have only got to know the country during short stays. He has had thousands of short and long conversations, has occasionally received information that went beyond or contradicted the official version, and he has traveled quite a lot. Based on these conversations and the exegesis of publicly available sources, such as the North Korean media, Schäfer outlines how the discussion on some political issues has evolved since 2007 and how it has affected the lives of the population. To what extent is there a consensus in the leadership on important objectives such as regime security, reunification, nuclear armament, and economic development? How reformable is the regime? Is deterrence the only objective of nuclear weapons? Under what conditions is North Korea prepared to receive foreign investment? Are further power struggles over the political direction to be expected? Who holds the power in North Korea? How should the international community deal with the country? These are some of the questions that the author tries to answer by presenting existing evidence. Chapters of the book discuss, among other topics, the surveillance and manipulation of foreigners, the last years of Kim Jong Il’s reign, North Korea’s economic, domestic, South Korean and security policy in the Kim Jong Un era, the international efforts to influence Pyongyang’s thinking, the course of the power struggle within the leadership circle, and the limited role played by Kim Jong Un.


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