Three Key Questions in 2012

Developments in North Korea, Burma, and China are expected to dominate the East Asia scene this year.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Kim Jong Il (R) and his son Kim Jong Un (2nd L) appear at a military parade in Pyongyang, Sept. 9, 2011.

Will the new North Korean leader follow in his "rogue" father's footsteps?

Early hopes that Kim Jong Un will step out of his dictator father Kim Jong Il's shadow have been dashed.

Two weeks after the senior Kim's death of a heart attack, Pyongyang has told the world not to expect any policy changes under his successor son.

In effect, the official pronouncements since the young Kim took over as supreme leader from his late father imply that he will continue with the country's illicit nuclear weapons and missile development program.

There will be no changes for the average North Korean who had endured Kim Jong Il's brutal 17-year rule—no organized political opposition, no free media, no functioning civil society, no religious freedom.

In addition, they cannot expect an end to torture of detainees, severe food and acute power shortages, and a crumbling economy.

"We declare solemnly and confidently that the foolish politicians around the world, including the puppet group in South Korea, should not expect any change from us," a statement from North Korea's powerful National Defence Commission said on the eve of the new year.

The commission is “the highest guiding organ" of North Korea's 1.2 million strong military, of which Kim was officially appointed supreme commander on Friday, two days after official mourning for his father ended.


Kim takes over the country at a very significant time.

It is the 100th anniversary of the new leader's grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth and the year that the North claims it will become a “strong and prosperous nation.”

2012 is also the year North Korean propaganda claims the country will become a “full nuclear weapons state.”

“The North Koreans have a game plan to demonstrate then to the world and their people their full nuclear weapons capability,” said Michael Green, a former top Asia expert at the White House.

“What we know about their program suggests pretty strongly that they’re preparing for a third nuclear weapons test and maybe missile tests … and Kim Jong Un will be under pressure [in 2012] to visibly move the nuclear weapons program forward," he said.

"How he handles it, and the inevitable backlash … that’s when we may start getting a better sense of how dangerous the situation really is.”

Still, Green said, there is some hope that Kim Jong Un may follow through on discussions between Pyongyang and the U.S. and reach some agreement on a missile and nuclear testing moratorium and a return to the six-party aid-for-denuclearization talks.

Food aid

The United States was on the brink of announcing a major donation of food aid to North Korea after secret talks with North Korea when Kim Jong Il's death was announced on Dec. 17.

Food and economic aid are critical for the junior Kim to lay any foundation to fulfill his father's pledge, however ambitious, to steer North Korea to become "strong and prosperous."

"Kim Jong Un inherits a country that is more isolated and impoverished than ever, that is burdened with severe international economic sanctions, and whose industrial infrastructure is literally crumbling," notes Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat.

"It cannot long continue on this path," said Revere, now a Northeast Asia expert at Washington-based Brookings Institution.

"While he will likely [and necessarily, in order not to tarnish his father’s legacy] emphasize continuity at the outset of his rule, the young Kim will eventually have to face the cold reality of the North’s predicament and either take [North Korea] on a new path, or risk collapse. The decisive moment for North Korea will happen on his watch."

What role will Ang San Suu Kyi take if she wins by-election?

If the Burmese government sticks to its plan, the country will begin 2012 with the release of more political prisoners.

But a bigger anticipated development for the year is democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's political role after she contests by-elections slated for April which she is widely expected to win.

President Thein Sein's nominally civilian government paved the way for her to enter parliament by initiating the move to amend the constitution to allow her National League for Democracy to re-register as a political party.

The NLD was deregistered after it boycotted last year's general elections because of restrictive rules that among others prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from being a candidate.

In the April 1 by-election, the 66-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi will contest a seat in the lower house of parliament, most probably in her home constituency of Kawhmu, south of the main city, Rangoon.

The Nobel laureate has not divulged publicly what role she will play, if she wins the election, as part of her long desire to bring about national reconciliation.

Will she take a cabinet role in a coalition government, rubbing shoulders with administration officials who were once powerful military generals who kept her in house arrest for years?

Or play the role of a constructive opposition leader?


She recently hinted to visiting Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra that she is eager to be in the mainstream of the administration.

Yingluck’s spokeswoman Thitima Chaisang told RFA that “Aung San Suu Kyi [said] she would like to manage the country and she wants to be elected—she would like to win the election, but that it depends on the people."

Whatever role Aung San Suu Kyi takes, she cannot avoid confronting key issues such as ending ethnic tensions and improving human rights that may put her at odds with the military-dominated government. 

She may also have to push the government for a full political dialogue, a call she has made since being released from house arrest about a year ago.

Any dialogue is critical as her voice, or even that of the opposition, will be limited in the military-dominated parliament.

She previously had a personal dialogue with President Thein Sein, but few details have been publicly disclosed by both sides.

"[But] by describing Thein Sein 'as open, honest and straightforward,' Suu Kyi made it clear that there is room for her to work with his government," according to The Irrawaddy, an online publication run by Burmese exile journalists. 

She however will face an uphill task bringing about any changes to the country's constitution if she wins one of the 48 seats that will be up for grabs in the April by-elections.

"For now, there appears no possibility of Suu Kyi pushing through amendments to the military-drafted Constitution, because such a proposal would require more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes, a non-starter in a parliament dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military," the paper said.


The military is guaranteed 110 seats in the 440-seat lower house, and 56 seats in the 224-seat upper house.

The pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party now occupies 80 percent of the remaining 498 elected seats.

Even if the NLD wins all the 48 seats at stake in the by-elections, the opposition voice will remain drowned in parliament.

Dialogue will continue outside parliament as part of the "political process" along with talks inside the parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi recently told a group of dissidents who participated in an uprising in 1988.

"These two processes will coexist. She said when these two processes can really emerge then Burmese politics will progress rapidly," Tun Myint Aun, a leader in the so called 88 Generation Students group, said after the meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi.

The group said it will not participate in the by-elections until its leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, both influential dissidents who began serving 65-year prison sentences in 2007, are released.

They could be freed soon.

A senior Burmese minister said recently that prisoner amnesties may occur on Jan. 4, when the country celebrates Independence Day, and on Union day on Feb. 12.

The government pardoned more than 6,300 prisoners—including about 200 political detainees—in a much-anticipated amnesty in October.

A key demand of the opposition and foreign governments has been the freeing of all political prisoners, estimated by activists to number between 500 to more than 1,500.

Will China's new leaders steer it away from a hard economic landing?

Fiery times may be in store for China in the Year of the Dragon as a once-in-a-decade transfer of power occurs at the top of the dominant ruling Chinese Communist Party.

In October, the party is expected to adopt leadership changes that will see vice president Xi Jinping eventually taking over from President Hu Jintao and vice premier Li Keqiang from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

This passing of the mantle—more than 70 percent of the leadership will be new—comes at a critical time for the country as it grapples with the biggest economic challenges in years amid rising demands for social and political reforms.

Fiscal and other woes in Europe and the United States, China's top export markets, are slowing down growth in the giant Asian economy which may not be able to provide enough employment to the urban influx of rural migrants and maintain social harmony.

No one is sure whether Beijing can avoid a hard landing for the Chinese economy, the main driver of global growth.


On the penultimate day of 2011, a key survey showed China's manufacturing activity continuing to contract after entering negative territory in November for the first time in nearly three years.

Global bank HSBC revised its China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) down to 48.7 in December after surveying executives at more than 400 manufacturing companies. A number below 50 indicates the sector is contracting.

"One school of thought is that the numbers were low, but not terribly so. This school says China’s economy shows signs of a soft landing. The other school says any PMI dip at all is a signal that the economy of the People’s Republic is in severe trouble," said Douglas McIntyre, an analyst at 24/7 Wall St., a financial website.

"Maybe both are right," he said. "China does not disclose much manufacturing activity by region or major industry. As usual, it keeps some of its most important data cloaked."

As export growth has slumped to its weakest level since 2009, thousands of small companies in the export-driven southern coastal regions have folded up or retrenched tens of thousands of workers.

Bare minimum

Analysts say China is set to enter a year of economic slowdown. Growth could slip below nine percent, nearing the bare minimum level needed to generate much-needed jobs.

China's state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences think tank projects growth to slide to 8.9 percent in 2012, its lowest point in more than a decade.

The big question is whether the economic problems will fuel demands for political change as the generational leadership change occurs under single-party rule.

Tensions are already rising between state and society as evidenced by various mammoth protests in 2011, including December protests by villagers of Wukan in southern Guandong province against unscrupulous land grabs and rigged elections that resulted in an unusual set of government concessions, including extending recognition to protest leaders.

"The 2011 take-away for the Chinese people may well be: protest and ye shall receive," commented Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

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