In dictatorial states a change of leader can occasionally signify an opportunity for reform; perhaps the most prominent historical examples being Mikel Gorbachev and Zhao Ziyang, who respectively sought to overhaul the old Soviet and Chinese Communist systems (the former ultimately more successful than the latter). However more often than not, new officials are carefully selected and groomed to maintain the status quo and thus ensure the continuity of the ruling regime. Kim Jung-Un, son of North Korean dictator King Jong-il and heir apparent to what is increasingly being described as the world's only communist monarchy, is no exception.
His recent promotions and high profile public appearance at Sunday's military parade appear to be the culmination of a selection process designed to ensure the ongoing dominance not only of the Korean Wokers Party but of the Kim Dynasty, over this most abusive and secretive of states. Given that other, older relatives were passed over for the leadership, there is little hope that he will set about pulling apart the horrendously oppressive system that his father and grandfather strived so hard to create.
Yet at the same time, the international community's relationship with the newcomer may represent the only glimmer of hope for North Koreans.
For, despite the ruling regime's abhorrent behaviour (including human experimentation, man-made famine and brutal summary executions), its maverick military actions (most recently the unprovoked sinking of a South Korean warship) and, of course, its possession of nuclear weapons; there is little opportunity or political will to depose it. Even during the most extreme years of the Bush administration, when North Korea was labelled part of the 'Axis of Evil', the US realised that its weapons programme and geographical position within China's sphere of influence made military intervention all but impossible. And the South Korean government, whilst vocally supporting a reunified democratic Korea is paradoxically terrified of the prospect. This is unsurprising as, were the North Korean dictatorship (and consequently the North Korean state) to collapse, the economic and social costs of reunification would cripple South Korea- even with the most generous of aid packages from international donors. Meanwhile, over six decades of clandestine repression have destroyed any kind of internal opposition movement, leaving no avenue for activists or governments to promote democratic reform. Similarly, the totalitarian economic controls and absence of foreign business ventures in the state means that sanctions will have little effect other than increasing the peoples' suffering.
It seems therefore, that the only option remaining is for the international community to build links with Kim Jong-Un upon his assent to power and slowly attempt to generate influence that may eventually alleviate the plight of North Koreans to some small extent. Repulsive though the concept of courting such a leader may be, the unique political scenario posed by North Korea (marking it out from states such as Burma, Sudan or Zimbabwe, all of which have democratic alternatives and could feasibly make transition away from dictatorship) apparently leaves no other choice. This is not to say that Kim Jong-Un should be welcomed, praised or endorsed; or that the prospect of ever achieving political freedom for the citizens of North Korea should be discarded. Rather, it is to say that democratic governments, our own included, should seek to use factors such as Kim Jong-Un's European education or North Korea's involvement in international football tournaments, as opportunities to build a rapport that could eventually lead him to be more receptive when it comes to issues such as human rights.
For the sake of twenty four million people it has to be worth a try.