North Korea’s Not-So-Simple Succession

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Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

Local party officials paying respects to a statue of Kim II Sung as a young military leader at Mt. Paekdu, Pyongyang, 1982

The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim.

That, at least, is the story you’ll get from most of the initial takes on the death of Kim Jong Il, whose death was announced Monday around noon, Korean time. He was a mysterious man in life, and his end was no different. In its official announcement, the Korean Central News Agency said that he had actually died two days earlier on a train “from a great mental and physical strain” (subsequently clarified as a heart attack). There was no explanation why the announcement had been postponed. At the time of his death Kim was said to be 69 – though some unofficial accounts say he was a year older.

His designated political heir, his third son Kim Jong Un, is now set to take the reins. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to happen according to the peculiar rules of the world’s only communist monarchy. Back in 1994, when North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung passed away, the succession to his son Kim Jong Il was a study in smoothness – hardly a surprise, given that Jong Il had already been deeply involved in the conduct of state affairs for years.

So the commentators can probably be forgiven for leaning heavily on the word “continuity” in their analyses of what’s likely to happen next. After all, isn’t the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea a staunchly totalitarian state where nothing ever changes? Actually, no. You could have gotten away with writing that just a few years ago. But too much has happened in North Korea in the interim.

It’s true that the government has shown little appetite for anything that might pass as “reform.” On the surface, at least, the odd blend of surreal personality cult and quasi-fascist xenophobia that has long characterized Pyongyang’s ideology remains firmly in place. Yet North Korean society has evolved dramatically over the past decade.

In the early years of this century, the famines of the late 1990s forced the government in Pyongyang to grudgingly allow for the establishment of private markets that enabled millions of the country’s citizens to make a living through trade. Many of the goods on sale in those markets came from China, where hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have now been able to visit. North Korea’s legal trade with China has soared in recent years – as well as a more shadowy informal business relationship, usually involving illicit trips across the two countries’ lightly guarded border.

As a result, North Koreans probably know far more about the realities of the outside world today than at any previous time in their history. In 2009, North Koreans publicly protested a clumsy currency reform effort proposed by the government that would have wiped out countless livelihoods at a stroke. Most of the protests took place in or around private markets – perhaps evidence of a growing self-awareness on the part of those who benefited from the state’s previous concessions. Don’t believe those pictures of hysterically grieving Northerners on the streets of Pyongyang. Most North Koreans have long since figured out that their country is a mess. So Kim the Third enters office in a country quite different from that ruled by his grandfather. The family name is no longer theologically beyond reproach.

This is not to say that public opinion counts for much in a country where the ruling elite has demonstrated little inclination to loosen the screws and the population has shown little sign that it is ready or able to channel its discontent into an organized form of opposition. But how long will that remain the case? No one should take Kim Jong Un’s ascension to the throne as unopen to challenge. Only declared the official successor a year ago, he is a mere 27 years old – and has almost none of the political know-how Kim Jong Il could boast when he assumed that job nearly two decades ago. In contrast, Kim Jong Un’s almost complete lack of military service and his posh education at a Swiss boarding school aren’t likely to endear him to the generals and Korean Worker’s Party stalwarts. Indeed, one North Korea expert rates the chances of a smooth succession from Kim Two to Kim Three at just 20 to 30 percent.

As of today, it can be assumed that the most powerful man in North Korea is Kim’s uncle, Chang Song Taek, widely regarded as the designated regent. Chang, who is 65 (health status unknown), has going for him both strong family ties (he is married to Kim Jong Il’s sister) and decades of work experience in the higher reaches of the regime. And this raises a number of intriguing questions. Will Kim the Younger be content to have his uncle telling him what to do? Will Regent Chang seize the opportunity to cement his own claim to power? Will the generals and party chiefs manage to coalesce around the inevitable realization that they will hang separately if they don’t hang together?


The next few months are likely to offer some interesting clues. Perhaps the most important involves the National Defense Commission, the military body which controls the country’s much-watched nukes and where real power is concentrated. Kim Jong Il’s death leaves the chair of the commission vacant. Chang is widely believed to be the most powerful of its four vice-chairmen, essentially making him the No. 2 man in the regime prior to Kim Jong Il’s death. Kim the Third, by contrast, was appointed in 2010 vice president of the Central Military Commission, a body within the communist party that also has an important role in military affairs, but his status in the more powerful NDC has until now not been made public. The NDC, in any case, is the space to watch.

I, for one, wouldn’t be at all surprised if we soon started hearing evidence of purges in the upper ranks of the government. Chang will want to get his own people in, and there is probably little that Kim Junior can do about it. At least at first.

Continuity? Don’t bet on it.

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