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North Korea, the arts of succession

The aftermath of the death of Kim Jong-Il highlights the obstacles in the way of a clear assessment of North Korea's power dynamics, says JE Hoare.
JE Hoare
29 December 2011

Death and taxes are said to be certainties. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK / North Korea) announced the abolition of taxes in the 1970s, but so far has failed to abolish death. This at least became clear with the announcement that Kim Jong-Il, effective ruler of the country since his father Kim Il-Sung's death in 1994, had died on 17 December, leaving his third known son, Kim Jong-Un, as probable successor.

Kim Jong-Il’s death was not wholly unexpected. He was widely believed to have a rather racy lifestyle, fond of both women and drink. He disappeared from view for some months in 2008 and despite regime efforts to argue that nothing had happened, showed all the symptoms of a stroke when he began to reappear. Yet although he was the pinnacle of the state, of the party and of the military, he appeared to make no arrangements for the future until 2010.

This was in marked contrast to his father, Kim Il-Sung, who had set in place a training programme for his son in the early 1960s, even though it would not be until 1980 that it became publicly clear that he was the designated successor. By the time the elder Kim died in July 1994, Kim Jong-Il had some thirty years’ experience of party and government and had already taken over some of his father’s roles. The playboy image received much publicity but it masked a trained, and, according to some, capable operator.

But in 2010, in a flurry of activity surrounding the first Korean Workers’ Party conference since 1980, Kim Jong-Il moved to make arrangements for his succession. Among those present was a rather plump young man dressed in what is known as a Mao suit, who bore a strong resemblance to Kim Il-Sung. For some time before the conference, rumours had identified this man as Kim Jong-Un, believed to be the youngest son of Kim Jong-Il. (Until the announcement of Kim Jong-Il’s death, no details of his family had ever been released in the DPRK.)

He was then appointed a four-star general and a vice-chair of the national defence commission (NDC). Moreover, his aunt Kim Kyong-Hui became a four-star general and a member of the party politburo. Neither had any known military experience. Also advanced at the conference was Kim Kyong-Hui’s husband, Jang Song-Taek. Jang has had a mixed career, apparently suffering periods of being out of favour. Now he is back, and some even predict that it will be him rather than his nephew by marriage who will really succeed Kim Jong-Il.

The family tradition

Whoever does so will have a mixed inheritance. The DPRK, to say the least, is far from the success story that its leaders claim it to be. Even before the end of the Soviet Union or Kim Jong-Il came to power, the country was in economic and political difficulties. The mid-1990s were a bad time, with the loss of markets, the terminal decline of heavy industry, and a series of natural disasters that hit an already fragile agricultural sector already struggling to provide sufficient food.

Kim Jong-Il was only partly responsible for this situation, but he made it worse by effectively withdrawing from government for three years after his father’s death: both by nuclear and missile brinkmanship (in the face of some provocation after 2001, it must be said) and by a confusing see-saw between encouraging economic change and an insistence on continuing with a non-working economic model. The latter seemed increasingly irrelevant as the North Koreans plunged into a form of market economy as a means of survival.

So the future of both the DPRK and the new leader is uncertain. It is unlikely that there will be any dramatic change in the short term. The elite will want to present a united front not just during the funeral and mourning period (as so far it has been able to do) but as the centenary of Kim Il-Sung’s birthday approaches in April 2012. Yet behind the scenes, there may well be jockeying for power and influence. There is much speculation about the role of the military and the views among senior generals at having an untried young man placed over them.

This does not mean that Kim Jong-Un will necessarily be thrust aside - there may well be advantages in keeping the Kim family tradition going as a source of legitimacy for the new leadership. A public power-struggle is unlikely. The DPRK elite knows what has happened to other leadership groups that have allowed disputes to become public, so any conflict will be behind closed doors. The elite also knows that the Republic of Korea is watching and that signs of weakness or splits might tempt some in the south to intervene. Such considerations are also likely to discourage any provocations, again at least in the short term.. For some time to come, the complex arts of North Korean analysis are likely to be under great strain to explain developments.

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