The Korea Herald


Experts see key role for Kim’s guardians

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 20, 2011 - 15:20

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Late leader’s brother-in-law Jang may be critical; N.K. media hails Jong-un as ‘honorable’ leader

North Korea experts raised a set of scenarios regarding how the communist state’s governing system will change amid growing uncertainties stemming from the demise of Kim Jong-il.

One of the most likely scenarios is the third-generation transfer of power to his third son and heir apparent Jong-un will be completed with his so-called guardian group in the military and the ruling party backing him.

But experts do not rule out the possibility of the hereditary succession getting bogged down due to conflicts among the power elites.

“After the funeral is over, the North may take legal, institutional procedures for the power transfer. It may declare its completion of a ‘strong, prosperous state’ with Jong-un at the center of its leadership next year,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

“But as he is inexperienced and young, the North may say to the outside world, it is under the leadership of Jong-un, but internally, it may be led by a transitional system of the collective leadership.”

On the surface, the leadership system led by Jong-un is taking shape with the North’s state media starting to hail him “honorable” leader. China, the North’s lone patron, also supported Jong-un’s leadership on Tuesday, referring to him as “leader.”
Jang Song-thaek Jang Song-thaek

Yang added that key guardians in support of the heir apparent include Kim Kyong-hui, the late leader’s younger sister; Jang Song-thaek, her husband; and Ri Yong-ho, chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff.

Experts noted that Jang, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the North’s de facto supreme guiding organ, may play a critical role in the succession process.

Jang currently handles an array of state affairs, including security, economy and military policies. Some, however, raised the possibility that he could pose a threat to Jong-un with his growing political clout.

Citing possible power struggles among the elites, some experts said that Jong-un may Experts see crucial role for guardians in N.K. successionfind it difficult to take “absolute” power his father had enjoyed since taking over from national founder Kim Il-sung following his death in 1994.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that Kim Jong-un will be 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,” said Lee Seung-reol, North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University.

Lee pointed out that as Jong-un has yet to have any firm authority over the personnel issues, those in the power echelon could be mired in conflicts stemming from power struggles among top elites.

Yang, however, dismissed the possibility of any military coup or revolt to challenge Jong-un’s legitimacy.

“The likelihood is very low. Kim Jong-il had prepared for the succession very hard, established legal, institutional systems to support it, conducted a major personnel reshuffle for it and garnered support from China and Russia,” he said.

In a worst scenario, experts said that popular uprisings ― influenced by democratic aspirations from the Middle East and North Africa ― could occur and lead to a collapse of the reclusive state and a mass outflow of its citizens into China.

“The degree of respect from the people toward Kim Jong-il and Jong-un is different. There is a possibility of revolts or uprisings,” said a North Korean expert, refusing to be named.

In the least likely scenario, some say that instability in the North could lead the leadership in Pyongyang to lose control of their weapons of mass destruction, causing international society to intervene.

Experts said that as China seeks stability in the region, which is crucial for its economic advance, it would continue to help stabilize the North with financial, diplomatic support as part of its crisis management schemes.

“As the North is undergoing a transitional period, China is expected to offer economic support and help the North fend off threats from outside,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, North Korea expert at Korea University.

By Song Sang-ho (