At a North Korean-run restaurant in Beijing last year, I proposed a toast in a loud voice, “To Chairman Kim Jong-il’s return to health!” Our Pyongyang-born waitress sauntered over and declared, “The chairman is healthy.” However, my next toast, “To Chairman Kim’s third son!” met with a deafening silence.
Now that the veil has been lifted, what are the prospects for a smooth leadership transition in North Korea? In the short to medium term, Kim’s plan is likely to succeed, but several factors will make the leadership transition tricky.
By having both his sister, Kim Kyung-hui, and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, join his brother-in-law in senior leadership positions, Kim Jong-il is attempting to make family rule permanent. Indeed, the most influential newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, has begun to contain references to the “Kim Il-sung race.”
Making the appointments public before the Workers’ Party conference had even begun reflects a sense of urgency due to concerns about Kim’s own mortality. The four stars Kim bestowed on each of them may ring as hollow as the soldiers seen dancing in the streets, but they are stars that his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek does not have. Indeed, Jang never served in the military, which is his chief weakness as a potential leader. In the coming weeks we are likely to learn of the youngest Kim’s military training and exploits (real and imagined). Given that Jang and his wife have no surviving children, they are more likely to act as foster parents rather than rivals.
Joining this triumvirate is Dear Leader confidante Ri Yong-ho, who was promoted to vice-marshal, which outranks the new four-star generals. Ri is the only other person in the innermost circle of power who is under the age of 80. Given that octogenarians make unlikely coup leaders, we may soon be speaking of a Chinese Cultural Revolution Gang of Four-style collective leadership. Each holds multiple and interlocking titles, which will increase the prospects for collective rule and minimize the chances of the type of regicide that befell Nepal in 2001.
The National Defense Commission and security apparatus remain the keys to power. With top positions in both organizations, Jang is poised to take over should Kim Jong-il die or become incapacitated sooner rather than later. However, the NDC is a coordinating body that does not directly control the other two key institutions, the military and the Workers’ Party. That is where the other three members of the gang come in.
During Kim Jong-il’s remaining days on earth, the central task facing the anointed ones will be to secure the loyalty of the military the only institution that could threaten continued family rule. Given the advanced age of the senior leadership, a coup-maker would have to come from the second tier. This is unlikely, but not impossible.
After more than a decade of “military first” politics, many observers had begun to consider the Workers’ Party irrelevant, but the party can provide a crucial source of legitimacy and base of popular support at key moments. A day after receiving their military titles, Kim Jong-un and his aunt were appointed to key positions within the party. Even though the last party congress was held in 1980 to “approve” Kim Jong-il’s succession, the party is believed to have as many as three million members. Membership has its privileges, including better access to food, education and job opportunities.
Some have questioned whether a young and unknown leader like Kim Jong-un can actually take over North Korea, especially given that his father was 20 years older and had been groomed for more than two decades by the time Kim Il-sung died in 1994. However, we need not look far for successful examples. Korea’s King Kojong began ruling at 21; Japan’s Hirohito also assumed power in his 20s. Combined, the two ruled for more than a century. All humans may yearn to be free, but sadly, North Koreans have known only absolute hereditary rule and there are no known social forces able to challenge this.
A more recent case may prove to be even more relevant: Syria. Bashar al-Assad was a 28-year-old medical student in England when his brother suddenly died in a car crash in 1994. He immediately entered the military, becoming a major in 1995, a lieutenant colonel in 1997 and a colonel in 1999. A year later he was president, but only after the Syrian parliament lowered the minimum age from 40 to 34.
Can we expect North Korea’s new leaders pursue reform and opening? Optimists point to the fact that Jang is a technocrat who has witnessed China’s economic transformation. He even toured South Korea’s leading companies. Kim Jong-un has spent at least two years studying in Switzerland and is believed to be enamored with Western culture. Unfortunately, the Kim royal family must also recognize the inherently destabilizing nature of reform as a threat.
If we are lucky, at least one of North Korea’s new leaders will try to follow in Park Chung-hee’s rather than Syngman Rhee’s footsteps, but more likely, they will behave like China’s Gang of Four, and prove to be the last gasp of a dictatorship. If there is a North Korean Deng Xiaoping, he will likely have to wait.
By Peter M. Beck
Peter M. Beck is an international affairs fellow in Japan of the Council on Foreign Relations, with his fellowship sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. He is currently at Keio University. Ed.