Dear Leader Goes South

Kim Jong-il’s possible health problems have implications outside Pyongyang, and could set off a succession crisis.

Two men have ruled the northern half of the Korean peninsula for sixty-three years. "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung was installed by the Soviets after the peninsula was divided by the victorious powers at the end of World War II. He gradually moved his son, Kim Jong-il, into a central leadership role, and the "Dear Leader" took over after his father's death in July 1994. But Kim Jong-il has gone missing amid rumors of illness, incapacity, or death. What comes next if the Dear Leader does not reemerge?

North Korea offers a rare example of monarchical communism. The so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea has the usual attributes of a communist dictatorship: dominant Korean Workers Party, secondary state institutions, and an oversized military. But the DPRK offers a unique twist-amidst a hierarchy filled with anti-Japanese guerrillas, party apparatchiks, and bemedaled generals is an extended family whose members slip in and out of power. At times North Korean politics has the makings of an Ottoman soap opera, with competing wives and families.

Kim Jong-il pushed aside an uncle and younger step-brother in his rise to power. He has three sons by two different wives (whether de jure or de facto no one knows for sure) and a son-in-law. His brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, disappeared in a purge a few years ago but recently reemerged. Suspected illegitimate children wield political power and make economic deals.

But if Kim is out, the family reign seems over. The Great Leader went to great effort to empower his eldest son. Jong-il first received public mention as the unnamed "party center," allowing him to shape the communist hierarchy. But Jong-il's oldest son is in disgrace. His second son is a couple weeks short of his twenty-seventh birthday. The youngest may be the most promising, but Korean culture venerates age and seniority. None of the sons have taken obvious, let alone important, political roles. Jang ranks second in the party hierarchy, but his influence absent Kim Jong-il is hard to assess.

Top officials outside of Kim's family are closely tied to the two rulers, but are unlikely to offer more than transitional leadership. Number two and de facto head of state Kim Yong-nam (no relation) is nearly eighty-one. The top military leader Jo Myong-rok is Kim's number two on the National Defense Commission but also is over eighty-two. A better bet might be another, younger general, O Kuk-ryol.

Of course, all speculation will prove irrelevant if Kim reemerges, hail and hearty. But he hasn't been seen for a month and there is no logical reason for him to miss the North's sixtith anniversary celebrations. While the political soap opera is entertaining, it could have deadly consequences.

Analysts have long speculated on whether Kim was serious about negotiating away his country's nuclear program and if he had sufficient authority to impose a pacific policy on the military. The nuclear negotiations recently stalled, with Pyongyang growing more belligerent after Washington refused to remove North Korea from its list of terrorist states. Whether this reflects a routine turn in DPRK negotiating strategy, an increase in military influence, or a problem with Kim Jong-il's health no one knows.

It's tempting to believe that things can't get worse in North Korea, where an unpredictable, brutal personal dictatorship has left the common people to suffer through mass immiseration and starvation. However, by all accounts Kim is intelligent and understands the challenges facing his nation. And it is conceivable, even if not likely, that he has been convinced of the economic and political benefits to be gained from nuclear disarmament.

But if not Kim, then who? Assume his family maintains its hold over power-that might mean continuation of the status quo, though not necessarily. A collective leadership might exercise caution towards the outside world, but that likely would doom the nuclear deal as well as further rapprochement with South Korea. Military dominance could yield a responsible moderate determined to create a more prosperous and less isolated DPRK, but hard-line rule seems far more likely. Think Burma, for instance.

The most frightening scenario would be a violent power struggle and even national collapse. Then the best case would be mass refugee flows to South Korea and China. The worst case would be factional conflict spilling over North Korea's borders, possibly attracting intervention by the South and China. Japan and Russia also would be vitally concerned in the outcome even if they remained aloof from any fighting.

There's not much Washington can do as East Asia waits with collective bated breath for confirmation of Kim's fate. But even if he is alive and well today, a transition will eventually come. And nervous-indeed, panicked-uncertainty is likely to return. Indeed, should the international geopolitical environment worsen, with, say, increased tensions between China and the United States as Beijing's regional influence grows, a North Korean succession crisis could be even more destabilizing.

The best American strategy would be to get out of the way. Without a cold war raging, South Korea is of little security concern to America. With the ROK enjoying 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea, the South can defend itself. Pull back America's remaining troops, and Washington could leave dealing with an uncertain leadership transition in Pyongyang to others in the region, most importantly South Korea and China.


Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon).