Dear Leader Kim Jong-il has been dead for eight months. A lot and not much has changed in North Korea, leaving U.S. policy in suspense. Kim Jong-un, officially the “Great Successor” but more aptly nicknamed the “Cute Leader,” has changed the atmosphere in Pyongyang. He’s taken his attractive young wife about town, surrounded himself with children and projected a populist image.
Yet the regime has made and broken another nuclear agreement, threatened South Korea with death and destruction, and tightened border enforcement with China. In July, Pyongyang accused U.S. and South Korean agents of planning to destroy statues of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, “a war action as serious as the armed invasion.” Talk of economic reform remains a South Korean hope rather than North Korean reality.
Great Leader Kim Il-sung ruled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994. He spent roughly two decades making his son, Kim Jong-il, into heir apparent. By the elder Kim’s final days, Kim fils was running the government.
Kim Jong-il didn’t start a similar process with Kim Jong-un—thought to be twenty-nine years old, he is the youngest of three sons—until after suffering a debilitating stroke in August 2008. The younger Kim quickly acquired positions, titles and three mentors to help guide him to supreme power: his uncle Jang Song-taek, aunt Kim Gyong-hui and army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho. However, the transition process had barely begun before the Dear Leader died last December.
Everything looked calm as the Great Successor played the great mourner. Policy remained unchanged. The regime completed negotiations begun before Kim Jong-il’s death with Washington on an aid agreement—and then promptly violated it, just as in the past.
In July came the “retirement” for “health” reasons of Vice Marshal Ri, one of the three regents anointed by Kim Jong-il, and the naming of Kim Jong-un as a “marshal” in the military. Evans Revere of the Brookings Institution argued that Kim was “wasting no time in consolidating his rule.” The International Crisis Group posited several factors supporting “the continuation of an extremely concentrated, one-man dictatorship” and concluded: “No person or group is likely to challenge” Kim.
The declaration of Kim Jong-un’s political victory is premature. The cascade of titles following his father’s death was more a sign of weakness than strength, an attempt to invest him with gravitas obviously lacking. While the nomenklatura may be invested in the Kim cult—a Japanese newspaper reported that Jang told Kim Jong-il’s first born, Kim Jong-nam, now living in disgrace in Macao, to stop criticizing the family power transfer—top officials are not likely similarly committed to Kim Jong-un as dictator.
To the contrary, more than a few aspirants to power probably believe it is time for someone other than a Kim to rule. And Kim Jong-un appears ill-equipped to battle for control. Perhaps he is more serious than his background and demeanor suggest, but he has spent little time grappling with the snakes and scorpions that fill Pyongyang’s corridors of power. In contrast, Kim Jong-il maneuvered for twenty years under his father’s guidance.
A more plausible contender is Jang, who is half of the powerful tandem with Kim Jong-il’s younger sister. Jang took on an important role in internal security under Kim and acted as the latter’s stand-in after his stroke. He later was added as a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and an alternate member of the Politburo—and elevated to full membership after Kim Jong-il’s death.
Jang understands the danger of merely orbiting the supreme leader: he twice disappeared from public view, apparently falling from favor under both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Moreover, last year Kim Jong-il reportedly limited Jang’s authority, perhaps in an attempt to enhance Kim Jong-un’s position as heir apparent.
No one knows the family dynamic, though Jang originally may have been closer to Kim Jong-nam. Even if there is genuine affection between Kim Jong-un and his uncle, Jang no doubt would prefer to eliminate any chance that his nephew might decide to dispense with his services in the future.
Moreover, Ri’s ouster looks more like consolidation of power by Jang than Kim. If Kim already was exercising supreme authority, he didn’t need to defenestrate Ri. Kim might have wanted to kick off “the training wheels,” as Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, but there was no hurry to do so.
In contrast, in a system of collective leadership Jang and army chief Ri were direct rivals. Moreover, Ri’s ouster followed the appointment of Jang ally Choe Ryong-hae as vice marshal to oversee the army. That step challenged Ri by strengthening party control over the military. South Korean sources indicated that Jang and Choe together prepared to move against Ri by monitoring military units that the latter might attempt to deploy. The Chosun Ilbo quoted one South Korean official: “It appears that Jang loyalists meticulously plotted to retire Ri and other adversaries before they could consolidate their power base.”