Soviet and Chinese Communist history is instructive. After Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953, new Soviet Premier Georgi Malenkov spoke and acted in decidedly non-Stalinist ways. Under Malenkov, Stalin's ruthless secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, amnestied thousands of political prisoners from the Gulag in 1953.
Likewise, in Communist China soon after Mao Zedong died in 1976, reformers began to lead the party. Successors like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have enacted a train of more moderate, non-Maoist domestic and foreign policies. A similar pattern appears to be under way in Cuba as Raúl Castro gradually relaxes some of his ailing, comandante brother's harshest policies.
There already are faint signs of a post-Kim succession in Pyongyang, one that could bring moderation in policy. This process could take the form of relaxing Kim's strictly centralized, statist economic principles, which in turn could lead to a gradual transition to Chinese-style market economics. Moderation of foreign policy could well follow, as it did in the other postautocrat Communist dictatorships.
North Korea reinstated Pak Pong-ju, a former prime minister who was purged in 2007 for his market-oriented reform policies. His return to power may signal a fresh willingness by Kim and his circle to consider modernizing steps.
[Excerpt of an article by Albert L. Weeks, professor emeritus of New York University]