N. Korean leadership stabilization may take 1-2 more years: U.S. expert

SEOUL, Sept. 26 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un has not fully taken control of power and it may take a year or two for him to become firmly entrenched, a North Korean observer said Thursday.

The assessment by Ken Gause, a senior researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), comes as Kim seems to have made a smooth transition to take over the country two years after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.

The analyst claimed at the Asan North Korea Conference in Seoul that although the incumbent leader may be invested with inherent legitimacy and has been successful in acquiring all necessary titles of power, this does not mean he has consolidated his grip over the country.

Kim, reportedly in his early 30s, currently is the supreme commander of the country's armed forces, first secretary of the Korean Workers' Party and first chairman of the National Defense Commission.

"He still needs to grow into the position (he holds) and learn how to effectively wield power," Gause said, adding this process requires demonstrating the leaders' capability and relationship building skills.

The CNA expert said Kim is currently involved in a three-phase process of consolidation.

The three phases refer to Kim being designated heir apparent by his father in 2010, followed by the leader establishing a strong power base and creating his patronage system that began in earnest this year, while reducing his dependence on close advisors. In the final stage that may begin around 2015, Kim can assume full responsibilities as supreme commander and establish his own decision-making process.

Gause said that if the North Korean leader is able to survive the last phase with his position intact, the regime's stability will probably be ensured for the foreseeable future. He, however, warned that there is still a possibility of his powers being curbed that can relegate him to become a "puppet" to more powerful forces inside the country.

"If this occurs, the stability of the regime comes into question," he predicted.

Others at the gathering hosted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies predicted that in the short term, regime stability will not be challenged, but there are no assurances that this state can be maintained forever.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korean specialist who teaches at Kookmin University, pointed out that in the short and medium term the communist country will remain stable.

"We have seen consolidation of central control, which seemingly faced no challenges from below or from within the leadership," the scholar said.

He, however, argued that the regime may become unsustainable in the long run.

Lankov based his views on the anachronistic centrally planned economy being incapable of generating economic growth.

The professor, meanwhile, said that younger North Koreans seem less afraid of the government and more aware of the outside world, which can translate into internal political discontent down the line.

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