Generational Change in China and North Korea

By | March 13, 2012 | 1 Comment

Generational Change in China and North Korea

by Scott Bruce

2012 is a year of political transition in North-East Asia. Russia and Taiwan have both had recent elections, South Korea will have both a parliamentary and a presidential election this year, in April and December respectively, and the political environment in Japan remains fluid. With little confidence in whom they will be dealing with next year, or if they will remain in their current position themselves, 2012 may be a year of spinning wheels for many policy-makers and diplomats.

China and North Korea will face their own political transitions this year. These transitions, however, are part of a generational shift. In China, the fifth generation of Chinese leadership will take the reigns of power. As Cheng Li writes, the fifth generation leaders are more likely to be managers than technocrats, are much more diverse than their predecessors, and face a multitude of contentious problems including social stability and economic disparity.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-Un will attempt to solidify his leadership at the Korean Workers’ Party conference in April. Kim Jong-Un’s succession has been accompanied by a generation change in the Supreme People’s Assembly where elderly members have been retired and replaced by younger party members.

Andrei Lankov wrote a very interesting article about this generational change in the Korea Times:

Younger North Koreans grew up in a society centered on emerging market places. For their parents, earthly success was embodied in the form of a well fed party cadre, who would have been driven around in an old Soviet jeep or, in some exceptional cases, in an old Mercedes. For the younger generation though, success is exemplified by market traders who have flat screen TVs and air conditioners inside their homes and who wine and dine their mistresses in posh restaurants.

These younger North Koreans grew up after the collapse of the public distribution system in the 90s, they can communicate with one another in an unprecedented way via cell phones, they have been exposed to foreign music and television, and are increasingly focused on markets and trading with the outside with the outside world. Although these young North Koreans, 27 year old Kim Jong-Un excluded, are not running the state, this transition has very interesting implications for the future of the country.

The implication for North Korea is that the younger cohorts will be increasingly oriented toward markets and going outside of the DPRK to trade. This could mean increased exchanges with China, far and away the North’s largest trading partner. For China, the more diverse leadership could lead to more policy debates over how to normalize relations with the ROK, in addition to relations with the DPRK.


One Comment

  1. “For China, the more diverse leadership could lead to more policy debates over how to normalize relations with the ROK…”

    As far as China is concerned, South Korea is a bastion of American power in East Asia/Pacific region, regardless of who takes the helm in Beijing, Washington and Seoul. In the backdrop of this Sino-ROK relations do not have much room to be “normalized” further. South Korea hopes to continue to cash in on China’s economic growth while deepening the US-ROK alliance to keep China in check. China on the other seems to pursue FTA with South Korea for the sole purpose of breaking free from Washington’s TPP design which seeks to alienate and isolate China. From what I can see, China is really not gaining that much from its relations with Seoul.

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