Will North Korea Attempt a China-Style Opening?

Probably not under Kim Jong Un, but a Deng Xiaoping-style reformer could be around the corner

Levine Jan17 P.jpg

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gestures to several generals / Reuters

Not too long ago, a communist despot dominating a closed, nuclear-armed country died. His death caused an outpouring of grief within his society, where his cult of personality was all-encompassing. This despot was replaced by his handpicked successor, who had little experience and was unknown to the outside world. The successor was acclaimed by the people and the party and rapidly assumed all of the top positions and titles.

I'm not referring to recent events in North Korea. The despot in question was Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. The similarities between then and now, China and North Korea, are striking.

On September 9, 1976, the closing of an era came when Mao, who had ruled China since the 1949 revolution he led, succumbed to various illnesses. Mao had always resisted naming a successor for fear of being overshadowed while still alive. Candidates who did emerge such as Liu Shaoqi or Lin Biao met with grisly ends. Future paramount leader Deng Xiaoping spent four years exiled in remote Jiangxi Province as Mao constantly vacillated between the need for competent leadership after his death and his desire to keep down anyone who might outshine him.

Mao's solution came in the form of Hua Guofeng, a regional nabob from Hunan Province. Hua had neither international experience nor a power base in Beijing and posed no threat. After all, he would be completely reliant on Mao for his legitimacy. In 1973, Hua was hastily elevated to the Politburo and only became firmly established as Mao's successor mere months before the leader's death. Sound familiar?

The aura of Mao protected Hua's position for a few years. As party discipline required, Hua was acclaimed as leader and showered with praise and titles. Owing everything to Mao, Hua confidently proclaimed his "Two Whatevers" policy: "We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave." But the ground rapidly shifted beneath his feet as other Chinese leaders realized the colossal scale of Mao's failures. Despite retaining many of his titles, Hua was muscled out of real power by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and died in obscurity as China celebrated the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Deng would go on to usher in China's storied economic opening and transform the country.

Is Kim Jong-un the next Hua Guofeng? If so, could a North Korean Deng Xiaoping and subsequent reform be just around the corner?

The new Kim suffers from the same drawbacks that doomed Hua. He has no independent power base. His military support is not deep. And, unlike Hua, who was at least a competent party official before his elevation, Kim Jong-un has no political experience to speak of. Unless North Korea's generals have bought into the infallibility of the Kim brand, it is nothing short of fantastical to assume that this pudgy neophyte will be able to navigate the treacherous straits of Communist Party politics. The vigorous affirmations of the army, their pledges of loyalty, and the rush to titles are a sham and belie the fundamental weakness of Kim Jong Eun's true power position. Hua Guofeng had titles too. He was the only person in the history of the People's Republic to hold simultaneously the top three posts of party chairman, premier and chairman of the Central Military Commission. The experience of Hua should be instructive: titles matter only as much as the institutions they represent. In a nation like North Korea today or China in 1976 where institutions are immature, don't expect an ambitious general to show deference to any leader on the basis of titles alone.

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Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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