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BBC World Service

What Kim Jong-Il’s successor could do for North Korea

Adriene Hill Dec 19, 2011

Adriene Hill: Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-Un is expected to take control of the country.

Joining us now to explain the possible impact of that transition is Lucy Williamson, Korea correspondent for the BBC. Good morning, Lucy.

Lucy Williamson: Good morning.

Hill: So, where does North Korea’s economy go from here?

Williamson: Where North Korea’s economy goes from here is pretty much where it’s been for the last 15 years or so. It really suffered from the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It’s been largely relying on food aid handouts and support from China in the meantime.

That’s one of the reasons why countries here in the region are so concerned about this political transition because the only previous transition North Korea has been through, 17 years ago, was when the country was in a much better state — economically, and in terms of quality of life. So I think at the moment, people are watching very carefully to see what kind of signs there are that this transition’s going to go smoothly.

Hill: Does the death of Kim Jong-Il change North Korea’s economic role in the region right now?

Williamson: It’s less than 12 hours since we’ve heard this news — since it was announced — and so I imagine there are key decisions being taken behind closed doors in North Korea. But this is the world’s most secretive country, and it’s very difficult for outsiders to know which direction the wind’s blowing yet.

Hill: What kind of economic change might we see?

Williamson: Well, again, it depends very much on how much power, how much authority, this new leader has. I mean, his options are fairly limited. His father initated a policy of “military first,” which meant that the military got the first of everything — it got the first of the resources, it had a large say in the running of the country.

To try and undo that is likely to be quite difficult. The military is seen to be a major power broker now in North Korea. And so, if anything, that’s going to be quite a difficult economic pattern to unravel. But also, it’s very difficult to see how North Korea can boost its economy without radically changing its ideology, and radically changing the way it runs the country.

All of these go to the heart of what countries here in the region are concerned about, which is which direction North Korea is going to go — is it going to become more isolated, is it going to engage more with the international community? And at the heart of all those issues, of course, is North Korea’s nuclear program, which is really at the core of people’s worries about it.

Hill: Lucy Williamson is the Korea correspondent for the BBC. Thanks so much.

Williamson: Thanks a lot.

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