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N.K. succession appears smoother than expected

Experts cite Kim Jong-il’s health, economy as factors to affect power transfer to his son

North Korea’s second hereditary power succession plan has proceeded smoothly and systematically since the communist state essentially made it official a year ago that its leader’s third son Kim Jong-un was to succeed his ailing father, according to experts.

But they pointed out that several variables such as the health of reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, persistent economic woes and nuclear ambitions could influence efforts for the third-generation power transfer.

Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, first came into the international spotlight on Sept. 28 last year when he was given the newly-created post of vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission.

Jong-un was also made a four-star general in the same month, confirming widespread speculation that the Swiss-educated son was being groomed to take over from the 69-year-old leader, who suffered a stroke in the summer of 2008. His photo was first unveiled on Rodong Sinmun, the official daily of the Workers’ Party on Sept. 30.

The North’s media outlets have since released photos of Jung-un accompanying his father at key political, diplomatic and military events. Programs to idolize him, including a song worshiping him, have also been carried out.

“The succession process has proceeded in a quite stable, smooth and systematic way with leader Kim Jong-il standing firm at the center and the so-called guardian group helping solidify the process,” Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told The Korea Herald.

“During the process, Jong-un was given high-level jobs in the military and the ruling party. The hereditary succession has also been stipulated in the constitutional revision. Russia and China have also directly or indirectly supported the succession scheme.”

Yang noted that the process is still in the first of what he calls three stages with Jong-un holding the title of the CMC vice chairman.

In the second stage, he could be given the vice chairman post at the National Defense Commission, a top military decision-making body directly controlled by the autocratic leader, he said. At the last stage, he could assume a standing-member post at the party’s politburo, finally initiating a regime jointly run by Kim Jong-il and Jong-un.

Most experts concurred that the health of his father will be one of the critical factors that could affect the succession process.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (right) and his son and heir apparent Jong-un (left) review a military parade during a ceremony to mark the 63rd anniversary of the foundation of the communist regime at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9. (Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (right) and his son and heir apparent Jong-un (left) review a military parade during a ceremony to mark the 63rd anniversary of the foundation of the communist regime at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9. (Yonhap News)

“Since he was tapped as successor, there has been a reorganization of the elite groups taking place to make things more favorable for Jong-un. Internally, he could hold a considerable power and influence,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.

“But all this was possible not because of his efforts but because of his father’s guardianship. Thus, things depend heavily on how long his father can maintain his health.”

Kim Yong-hyun, another expert at the same university in Seoul, echoed Koh’s view.

“Should Kim Jong-il be able to maintain his health and continue to lead the state affairs for the next three to five years, chances are that the succession scheme will become quite stable,” Kim said.

“But, should his health deteriorate rapidly, there could be instability which stems from the possible conflict within the elite group in the North and other influence from outside to shake up the succession process.”

Making a comparison between the first and second father-to-son succession processes, Kim said that the current heir apparent had not undergone competitions in the party and the military, through which a potential leader can mature and get stronger.

“The process of Kim Jong-il emerging as the successor was quite slow. He, at the time, had to overcome the competitions. But Jong-un is emerging in a structure where there seem to be no competitors,” he said.

Kim Jong-il was tapped in 1974 to succeed his father Kim Il-sung. His succession was made official in a 1980 party convention and he took the helm of the North upon his father’s death in 1994.

Another factor that could influence the succession scheme is economy. Experts said that an ability to ease the impoverished country’s long-standing economic hardships could be effective in winning support from the general public.

Well aware of the importance of economic stability, the North Korean leader has visited China, its sole patron, three times since May last year to appeal for economic support. He also met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev last month to discuss the construction of a gas pipeline.

Dong Yong-seung, senior fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute, said another crucial issue is whether Jong-un will be able to make a balanced, timely decision to introduce part of the market economy as a tool to stabilize the communist regime

“The North has temporarily allowed a market mechanism and blocked it at some points. This trend has been repeated as the North takes advantage of the market to maintain its regime,” Dong said.

“The North’s ultimate goal is to complete the socialist planned economy anyway. But when it is difficult to achieve that goal, the North has (partially) accepted the market. Whether Jong-un can properly adjust the level of market factors in its economy while successfully maintaining the socialist economy will be a crucial variable.”

Experts have said that the possibility of revolts or uprisings within the elite group or by the general public is low.

“What matters is the loyalty from the party, government and military. They all believe Kim Jong-il and Jong-un are in their community sharing a common destiny. So the possibility of a coup is very low,” Professor Yang said.

Professor Koh stated, “In a country tightly controlled by a single leader, it is difficult to organize anti-regime forces. A bottom-up change comes when there are a variety of forces, but they do not exist in the North.”

Dong of SERI also pointed out that should the North go on a path of confrontation with the international community over its nuclear and missile programs, the succession process could hit a snag.

“Should the North do things to cause international instability, which China and Russia cannot handle, it would be a risky factor,” Dong said.

By Song Sang-ho (

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