Last December, North Korea impressed the world by successfully launching a satellite into space. Meanwhile, the country caused concerns about its intentions in developing ballistic missiles. Last week, concerns were raised again as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea performed its third nuclear test.
All these events considered, the intentions and future of the East Asian country are rather unclear. But instead of trying to figure them out, perhaps what we should be asking is whether the North Korean leader even knows what he wants. Besides the fact that North Korea’s extensive list of socioeconomic and diplomatic challenges by itself would impose doubts on anyone in charge of leading the country, when we consider that North Korea’s leader is only in his late 20s, we can understand why his behavior is inconsistent.
Young leadership is not uncommon in non-democratic political systems. Kim Jong-un is currently the world’s youngest leader, coming before the king of Bhutan at age 32. Leaders were even younger in the past — Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia at age 20, Queen Victoria inherited the throne when she was 18 and Puyi, the last emperor of China, took the throne at just two years and 10 months. In democratic countries, leaders tend to be much older. Consider America, for example — the median age of all U.S. presidents is 55, and the youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt, assumed his role at age 42.
It can be argued that being over 30 does not guarantee leadership skills, as proven by Mitt Romney’s behavior during the last presidential campaign. But such cases are outliers. In general, it’s not a good idea to assign positions of such broad influence and responsibility to citizens that are barely old enough to be sure about personal affairs, such as career and marriage. Complicated issues related with country leadership demand professional and personal experience that require much more time to accumulate.
Of course, neither the people of North Korea nor Kim Jong-un have much choice due to scandals involving Kim Jong-un’s eldest half-brother, the previous favorite to succeed Kim Jong-il. Still, there’s hope that the situation might end up being beneficial for the North Korean people. The country’s economy will stagnate if the international community strengthens its approach to Pyongyang’s exhibitionist displays of military power, increasing economic sanctions and pressing for internet access. And, with an informed population, Kim Jong-un will have no alternative but to conduct beneficial reforms similar to those Mikhail Gorbachev implemented in the Soviet Union.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 20 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]