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Experts differ over prospect of power succession

Some raise possibilities of power struggles among elites

Experts are divided on whether the third-generation power succession in North Korea will be smoothly carried out following the death of its leader Kim Jong-il.

Opinions differed over whether the hereditary transfer of power to his third son Jong-un would face any obstacles in the communist state, which Kim had ruled with an iron fist since his father and national founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994.

Some argued that the process will proceed as planned given years of “systematic” preparations, while others floated possibilities of power struggles among the elite given his lack of experience and a relatively short grooming period.

The North claims that Swiss-educated Jong-un, who was internally tapped as heir apparent in 2009, was born in 1982. Kim Jong-il had 20 years of preparation before taking power, while it has been only several years since Jong-un started being groomed.

On the surface, the succession plan appears to be well under way. Following the announcement of Kim’s death, state media reported that the North’s military and people pledged to follow the leadership of the heir. Jong-un’s name also appeared on top of the funeral committee member list, which reflects his position in the power echelon.

After Jong-un was given the newly-created post of vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission and appointed as a four-star general last September, Kim was put at the center of the international spotlight as successor to his iron-fisted father.

Experts anticipated that, as his father did, Kim Jong-un may try to solidify his power base in the ruling Workers’ Party and the military during a lengthy mourning period, which is expected to be three years -- the same period of mourning spent for his grandfather.

Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University, said that although some degree of instability is expected in the beginning, there would not be any big impediments for Jong-un to take control of the North.

“The North has prepared for the power succession since leader Kim suffered (a stroke) in August 2008. I think a transitional system will lead the country with Kim’s family members and close associates temporarily,” he said.

“The fact that the announcement of his death came earlier than thought indicates that the North is confident in carrying out the ongoing power succession. There may not be any serious challenges to the heir apparent.”

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, raised the possibility that for the time being, a group of elites from the ruling party may collectively lead the country.

“As he is young, a group of elites from the party leadership may lead the country for the time being. However, there would not be power struggles that threaten the legitimacy of Jong-un as North Koreans believe he is in their community sharing a common destiny,” he said.

Yang also pointed out that the North would have a lengthy mourning period to stall for time for a stable power transition.

Other experts, however, raised possibilities that the power succession process could get bogged down in conflicts among the military and party elites.

“The leadership system in the North is not unitary. There are elites in charge of security and those in charge of the military. Jong-un has yet to gain full authority over personnel issues. Without a unitary system for the elites, there is a possibility of conflict,” said Lee Seung-reol, North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that Jong-un will be ultimately eliminated. Kim Jong-il had nearly 20 years to prepare for the power succession, but Jong-un had only two to three years. That can hardly be seen as (good) preparation. It appears that there is little stability in the power succession process.”

Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, left, looks towards his son Kim Jong Un, during a military parade commemorating the 65th anniversary of founding of the Workers` Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. (Bloomberg)
Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, left, looks towards his son Kim Jong Un, during a military parade commemorating the 65th anniversary of founding of the Workers` Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. (Bloomberg)

Some observers said that those who have served as “guardians” for Jong-un could rise as his rivals at a time when Jong-un is still being groomed to take the helm of the communist state.

One of the key guardians is Jang Song-thaek, the husband of Kim Jong-il’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hui.

Jang, vice chairman of the decision-making National Defense Committee, has influence over not only security matters, but also military and economic issues. Some say during the possible power vacuum, Jang could become a challenge to Jong-un.

Kim Heung-kwang, head of the North Korean Intellectual Solidarity, said that there appears to be some veiled feuding within the North Korean leadership, citing the North’s funeral committee list.

“The funeral list is the exact ranking of the leadership. It shows civilian elites have been pushed back, which means some internal feuding is taking place,” said Kim, a former professor at the Communist College in the North who defected to the South in 2004.

By Song Sang-ho (