NPR logo It's Official: Kim Jong Un Will Succeed Kim Jong Il. Will North Korea Change?

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It's Official: Kim Jong Un Will Succeed Kim Jong Il. Will North Korea Change?

A South Korean man watches a TV screen at a railway station in Seoul on Sept. 30, broadcasting a closeup of Kim Jong-Un, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.   Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

On the NYR Blog, Christian Caryl, a senior fellow of the MIT Center for International Studies, marks the coronation of "North Korea's New Prince," Kim Jong Un.

In the piece, he poses this question: "Does Kim Jong Un’s appointment offer grounds for optimism?"

"Not really," he says. "In fact, the peculiar circumstances of North Korea’s situation make any reform scenario highly unlikely."

We don't know much about the young man. He is Kim Jong Il's youngest son. He likes basketball, evidently. He was educated at a Swiss boarding school.

"This last detail is likely to awaken hope," Caryl writes. "Surely, one might think, his years spent in the West will have made North Korea’s future ruler painfully aware of just how backward his country is."

That, combined with Kim the Third’s youth and comparative vitality, could in theory place him in a position to take an interest in the reforms his country desperately needs: North Korea still ranks at the bottom of virtually every list on economic performance and political freedoms. Most North Koreans continue to suffer from malnutrition. Last year, despite the regime’s long history of harsh treatment of its own people, some North Koreans actually took part in public protests against a botched currency reform.

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What's the biggest obstacle to change? To Caryl's mind, it's South Korea:

It is highly unlikely that any economic modernizer in Pyongyang would be able to open up his (or her) economy to market forces without allowing investment to flow in from the South—and once that begins, it’s hard to imagine how anyone in the North could go on claiming that they still have the better system.