As 2011 draws to a close, what more can symbolize the uncertainty of 2012 than the future of North Korea under a young and inexperienced new leader?
Although none can say with certainty what the morrow will bring, guessing what the secretive state's future will be under 28-year-old Kim Jong-Un has become a tougher exercise than setting the colours on a Rubik's Cube.
The appointment of Kim Jong-Un, who is being hailed by North Korea's state-controlled media as the "supreme leader of the party, state and army", may smack of nepotism, but it speaks of a political truth. In a country where capitalist ideology and liberal political views are branded as evil, communism survives in traditional values which do not see a son succeeding a father as an aberration. Besides, in a country where the leader builds up a cult surrounding him, only a successor picked by him has the ability to ensure the nation's cohesion.
Kim Jong Il who died on December 17 was such a cult figure that he was called the Dear Leader by the people who turned up in their tens of thousands at the funeral on December 28. They cried and defied the biting snow as they lined up along Pyongyang's streets. Some described the severe weather as the nature's way of expressing its grief and the snow fall as tears.
An engineer explained the heart attack that killed the Dear Leader saying that just as the most used part of the machine would wear out fast, the dear leader's heart which overworked in pouring out love and care for his people wore out fast. The soul does not die or does not depart, the Koreans say.
Cynics may say that the scenes of a nation plunged into a state of mourning were a state-media stunt or a stage-managed drama. Whatever it is, the scenes belied the claims in the Western media only weeks ago that the country was on the verge of another famine, similar to the one that killed hundreds of thousands of people two decades ago.
The fact that famine or hardship has not brought about a people's revolt in North Korea perhaps indicates the communist state's Orwellian grip on the people or Kim Jong-Il's popularity or even the traditional-minded people's resolve to resign themselves to their fate. Maybe it is the mixture of all.
However Kim Jong Il was not a demon as the West tried to portray him. The West's demonisation of North Korea and its leaders dates back to the Cold War days. The hate campaign was largely due to the West's determination to stop the spread of communism especially to countries that had just freed themselves from the yoke of colonialism in the later 1940s and in the 1950s. The hate-campaign was more severe against Kim Il-Sung, revered by his people as the Great Leader, because he succeeded in making communism's benefits reach the people in the northern parts of Korea which came under the influence of Soviet Union soon after World War II had ended. The southern part came under the US control.
Kim Il-Sung, a hero in the freedom fight against Japanese imperialism, sought to unite Korea. He had the cooperation of the Soviets, but his pacifist moves were spurned by the United States, compelling him to invade the south — a move that triggered the four-year Korean War. Though the war ended in 1953 with an armistice, the parties are yet to formally end hostilities. Thus North Korea officially is at war with South Korea and the United States.
Kim Il-Sung remained in power till 1994. During his rule, he saw the Soviet Union crumbling and communism being dismissed as a failed ideology. Yet North Korea braving famine and natural disasters has survived to become a nuclear-power state. Kim Il-Sung balanced his foreign policy in such a way that he remained a friend of the Soviet Union and China even after the two communist giants parted ways in the 1960s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China became North Korea's main ally.
Feeling the economic crunch, Kim Jong-Il who succeeded his father in 1994 sought to bolster the country's coffers through secret arms deals. Missile and nuclear weapons technology were traded to sustain state-run programmes, especially the food distribution to as many as 16 million in a country of 24-million people. It is said that Pakistan and Iran owed their missile capabilities to technology bought or obtained from North Korea, which demonstrated its nuclear weapons capability by carrying out a test in 2009.
The nuclear test has helped North Korea built up deterrent against any military adventure especially by the United States and South Korea. It came a year after six-party talks, involving the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, collapsed largely due to the US failure to honour commitments reached during the previous phases of the talks. The US accused North Korea, however, of trying to get aid by nuclear blackmail.
It is against such a backdrop that Kim Jong-Un takes over North Korea. According to BBC's World Affairs Editor John Simpson, the young leader is guided by his uncle, Chang Song-taek, a senior general who is married to Kim Jong-Il's sister.
This means, North Korea will continue to be pro-China. North Korea is China's only strategic ally in the region where Beijing feels it is surrounded by US bases and countries which have signed defence pacts with the US.
The strategic alliance between North Korea and China and the US-South Korea response to it have virtually buried moves to unite the two Koreas under what was once known as Sunshine policy initiated by former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. Besides, China is a major or perhaps only foreign investor in North Korea and, in recent years, Chinese investment in North Korea has seen a sharp increase.
In other words, the survival of North Korea under its new leader, also rests on the balance of power in East Asia.