North Korea: The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

Kim Jong-il imposed unimaginable hardship on the North Korean people. What follows him could be even worse.

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is dead. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea faces a potential power struggle which could turn violent. Any near-term prospect of negotiating and implementing a new nuclear agreement with the North died with Kim. Washington’s best policy is to step back and observe.

For sixty-three years, only two men ruled the DPRK: “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. The former made a nation but nearly lost it after starting the disastrous Korean War. The latter carried on development of nuclear weapons while his people starved. Now the impoverished nation faces an uncertain political future.

After his stroke three years ago, Kim Jong-il anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. The younger Kim was first unveiled to the North Korean public last year. The North Korean media now is calling him the “Great Successor” (previously he was referred to as “Brilliant Comrade” and “Young General”).

With his father’s protection, Kim Jong-il took roughly two decades to carefully move through the party hierarchy, building support and derailing rivals. In contrast, Kim Jong-un has had little time to establish himself. His father appeared to create a quasi regency, headed by hissister Kim Kyong-hui, brother-in-law Jang Song-taek and army vice marshal Ri Yong-ho, to shepherd the younger Kim to power. But the regents may want to be king (or queen) themselves.

In fact, Pyongyang today is a bit like the Ottoman Empire, with several potential claimants to supreme authority from the family alone. Kim Jong-il left three sons, a sister and brother-in-law, a wife/consort, a younger stepbrother and unnumbered, unacknowledged illegitimate children. While their political influence varies—the stepbrother, until recently an ambassador, of late is reported to be under house arrest—all can claim familial legitimacy.

Moreover, many officials in the Korean Workers Party and officers in the military have been waiting a long time for the Kims to leave the scene. Kim Jong-il carefully prevented any single person from accumulating too much power. Kim Kyong-hui is a full member of the Politburo but does not serve on the National Defense Commission, Jang is a vice chairman of the NDC but is merely an alternate member of the Politburo, and Ri is a full member of the Politburo but only a member of the lesser Central Military Commission.

This dispersal of power could either ease Kim Jong-un’s way to the throne or increase the number of rivals grabbing for the scepter. And the army, as the single most important institution, may play kingmaker. Some observers believe that the ruling elite are invested in continuation of Kim family rule. As Michael Green of CSIS argues, “the generals and party leadership have every incentive to support” the transfer since “their own survival depends on a successful transition.” Still their positions and privileges reflect a system—not a person. Kim Jong-un as figurehead, or another Kim as replacement family representative, would work just as well.

And where power has been so concentrated in the past, there is much to be gained from reaching the summit. Even apparent loyalists have reason to resent the Kim dynasty. For instance, Jang was variously purged and rehabilitated by both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and despite evidently acting as a stand-in after Kim Jong-il’s stroke saw some of his allies dismissed, seemingly to strengthen Kim Jong-un’s position. Jang is not the only apparatchik who might be willing to risk regime stability in an attempt to win primacy.

There is understandable hope for a “Korean Spring,” and refugees report growing anger against a regime that has delivered only hardship and repression. But the DPRK’s largely rural population is an unlikely vehicle for change. The millions of peasants are impoverished, disorganized, and oppressed. Flocking to Pyongyang is not an option. Only those thought to be loyal are allowed to live in the capital, and while urban elites may want reform, they probably do not desire a revolution that could consume them. Some observers hope that Kim Jong-un, with at least a taste of life outside of North Korea, might be a reformer. As Shi Yuanhua of Fudan University predicted, “Compared to his father, Kim Jong-un has more motivation to reform, considering his background abroad and his age.” There also has been wistful talk of a potentially progressive “third-generation” leadership around Kim.

However, Kim has enjoyed the good life only as a result of his people’s suffering. U.S. intelligence officials claim that he has a violent and mercurial personality. Moreover, both Pyongyang’s provocative military attacks last year and brutal crackdown on refugees this year have been attributed to him. That may be assuming too much—it is doubtful he could have launched either without his father’s approval—but there is nothing to suggest that he is ready to break with the past.

Maybe a North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev is lurking in the background, but if so he will have to move slowly to survive. There is no safety net for those who lose political battles in the DPRK. And the Soviet collapse undoubtedly will be on the minds of elites as they battle for control.

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