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North Korea’s recent military posturing has increased international interest in Kim Jong-il’s successor. Focus is now directed toward Kim Jong-un, third son of Kim Jong-il and reportedly heir apparent. In this commentary John Hemmings examines the challenges his young age and limited time to forge alliances with key members of the leadership will pose to his future rule and regional stability.
by John Hemmings, Department of International Security Studies, RUSI
What will little Kim Jong-un Inherit?
Last summer, when North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke and disappeared from public view, no one could have known that it would have dramatic effects on the security situation on the Korean peninsula. His reappearance in April 2009 shocked many. Photos showed that the once-potbellied dictator, famed for his distinct boiler suit and appreciation of fine French brandies and Champagne, had lost much weight and looked gaunt and unwell. His deteriorated state fueled speculation over the succession, which broadly followed two paths: in the first path conjecture focused on the results of a smooth transition of power, looking more at likely candidates and the management of succession. The second path focused on the likely effects a power vacuum or power split would have on the North Korean state, specifically on the powerful elite based in Pyongyang. While nothing is ever certain in dealing with North Korea, it is becoming increasingly likely that the first path has won over the second. Although North Korean media has yet to officially confirm this, speculation has centred on Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son, since January of this year. On the 2 June, Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reported that a North Korean official confirmed privately in an interview with the newspaper that Kim Jong-un had been chosen as the heir-apparent. One factor that makes this succession more likely than other rumours is the fact that earlier this year the twenty-four year old Kim Jong-un was promoted to the National Defence Commission, and that he seems to have been groomed for the position more than his brothers.
Having the Right Stuff
Educated in Switzerland, proficient in French and English, Jong-un would appear to be the antithesis of his father, whose travels have been limited to Russia and China. Unfortunately it is unlikely that this exposure to the outside world in a liberal international school environment has had a deep impact on Kim’s character. We may infer this by the very simple reason that he has been chosen as successor. Indeed, the main reason he seems to have triumphed over his two elder brothers in the succession seems to be the fact that he has the very traits that his father and grandfather celebrated in themselves: political prowess, respect for the military, and ruthlessness. According to Syung Je Park, a North Korea expert of the Asia Strategy Institute, while maintaining the bloodline and the Kim dynasty have been guiding factors for Kim Jong-il, the most important ones have been personality. The eldest son, judged to be ‘too worldly’, has been unofficially exiled to Macau, while the middle son Kim Jong-chul seems to have been ‘too girlish’ for his father due to his love of music and the arts. Park says that this same vetting process took place when Kim Jong-il was being considered by his father for the throne. His parting advice to his son in the 1990s was to protect the regime and the gains of the revolution by choosing a strong successor, without which the Korean revolution might follow the downward paths of the post-Stalin USSR and the post-Mao China.
Holding the Kingdom Together
If it is a given that Kim Jong-un has the personality traits to rule in Pyongyang, what is the likelihood that the young man will (a) assume leadership smoothly and (b) maintain rule over the North Korean ruling elite? Certainly, there are advantages and disadvantages in choosing him, which no doubt his father will have weighed up countless times. The family name is a plus, given that elder Kim Il-sung founded the modern North Korean state and is considered a near-deity by many citizens. The importance of this family connection is amplified in Korean culture, where the place of family is one of the strongest elements to the society. Jong-un will do better if he is able to get advice and training from his ailing father on how to rule over the various factions and personalities that make up the elite in both the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP). The disadvantages to choosing someone as young as Jong-un is that age plays against him when dealing with these factions. Jong-un has not had enough time to build up a true base of support among the leadership of the KPA and KWP, which could be crucial in the event of a military challenger. Also, his inexperience means that he may be unable to react properly and quickly to crises from within and from without. While none of these factors rules fully for or against him, certainly they are key to his success or failure. While one interpretation of the recent escalation of tensions is that Pyongyang is keeping the world at bay while it resolves the succession, another interpretation is that these public displays of hostility and military strength are for internal consumption, and that ‘Commander Kim Jong-un’ is already being credited with all of these actions in internal broadcasts in an effort to build his public persona with the North Korean public. One possible member of the upper elite who could prove dangerous to him is Chang Sung-taek, the right hand man of Kim Jong-il. Connected to the Kim dynasty by marriage, Chang has the experience, power base and most importantly, the military support to mount a challenge if he so desired (one of his brothers is the garrison commander in Pyongyang, while another commands an armoured division in the outlying countryside). The fact that Chang Sung-taek was recently appointed to the National Defence Commission by Kim Jong-il indicates that he will be a guardian rather than a threat to the young heir.
Can he keep Power?
Assuming the transition of power takes place smoothly, Kim Jong-un will no doubt rely on the military as his father did to maintain power. Following his own succession in 1993-7, Kim Jong-il was able to buy the army’s loyalty by pushing its policies and budgets over other ministries and over the Korean Worker’s Party. This ‘military first’ policy will probably be pushed even further in an attempt to maintain the support of the military ruling class which serves like an armed apparatchik class. With reference to the dark pattern of power shifts inside totalitarian states, Syung Je Park of the Asia Strategy Institute worries that Pyongyang may undergo the sort of purges suffered by Russia during the 1930s in an effort to solidify Kim Jong-un’s position. Sixty years ago this year, George Orwell published his opus, 1984. It seems tragic that a state so similar to the one described in his novel continues to exist in the modern world, in continual warfare with its enemies and its own people. It has ‘a dear leader’, whose image is everywhere to be seen, taking the cult of Big Brother to levels undreamt of by Orwell. A state that addresses its own achievements in the grandest terms, insisting that its satellites continue to orbit the earth, much in the way that Orwell’s state insisted that 2+2 equaled 5.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.