North Korea’s stability is in question as the country tries to smoothly transition from the leadership of the late Kim Jong Il to that of his youngest son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Il had been the clearly designated successor to his father for decades before taking power, while Kim Jong Un was only officially selected in late 2010. But the way in which Kim Jong Il’s death has been handled thus far, as well as China’s continued support, demonstrate the interest that external forces and North Korea’s elites have in keeping the succession in order.
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is raising questions around the region and world as to whether North Korean leadership can smoothly transition to Kim’s son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Un. One concern is that Kim Jong Un, the youngest of Kim Jong Il’s three sons, is thought to be between 27 and 30 years old and has had little formal training or preparation to lead North Korea. Unlike Kim Jong Il, who was the clearly designated successor decades before taking over for his father, North Korean founding President Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un was only officially designated as his father’s successor at a special conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea in September 2010. And it was only in January 2009 that the younger Kim was purportedly announced by his father to internal North Korean leadership as the chosen next leader.
The impact of succession on North Korea’s stability is significant because the country is not, as some outsiders portray it, a monolithic entity ruled by a single leader. Rather, the recently deceased North Korean leader, like his father before him, maintained rule over North Korea by balancing several different factions within the elite structure: the old guard revolutionary fighters; sons of martyrs; the military, the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Supreme People’s Assembly; various familial connections; and individuals and groups with various economic interests (overt or otherwise). It is with this management of the various personal and group interests among the North Korean elite that incoming leader Kim Jong Un has had little experience.
The way in which the news of Kim Jong Il’s death has come out of North Korea suggests that the North Korean elite are holding together, at least for the moment. It also suggests that while the timing of the death may have been unexpected, the response had been well prepared and agreed upon long before. Since Kim Jong Il’s rumored stroke in 2008, the North Korean elite have focused heavily on the imminent leadership transition and the protection of their own interests, which are embedded in the continuation of the current North Korean political system. But even though Kim Jong Un lacks strong credentials and relations within the North Korean elite, he is not necessarily standing alone.
The Lead-Up to Succession
The succession planning for Kim Jong Il goes back to 2001, when North Korean media began discussing the virtues of continued familial succession. But because Kim Jong Il had three sons, it was unclear who the successor would be, though the oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was considered most likely. However, Kim Jong Nam’s chances plummeted after an embarrassing detention in Japan in 2001 while purportedly traveling to Tokyo Disney on a false passport. The incident provoked many reactions inside North Korea; loose factions began forming around Kim Jong Il’s three sons, pressing for influence in the choice of successor and continued influence in the successive regime.
A key player in the struggle has been Jang Song Thaek, the husband of Kim Jong Il’s sister Kim Kyong Hui. Jang’s aggressive lobbying for Kim Jong Nam to be the successor contributed to his brief dismissal from government and time in re-education from 2004 to 2006 on Kim Jong Il’s orders. The concern among the top North Korean leadership was that lobbying around the different sons could undermine regime unity and stability and present an opportunity for foreign exploitation of the competition. In Pyongyang, this sense of danger was heightened with the concern that North Korea was a likely next target for the United States after the invasion of Iraq.
In general, the jockeying for influence in the succession process, and the building of support around the three sons, faded after Jang’s temporary removal until Kim Jong Il’s 2008 stroke. Jang, who had already rebuilt his reputation and influence with Kim Jong Il in part due to the intervention of Kim Kyong Hui, took over day-to-day operations in North Korea while Kim Jong Il was incapacitated. But with Kim Jong Il’s convalescence, competition resumed. Not having a clear successor was seen as a risk to the entire North Korean elite, and various loose affiliations again formed around the three sons.
A loosely pro-China faction took shape around Kim Jong Nam, who was known to have well established ties in China, and counted on his leadership as a way to integrate Chinese economic guidance and cooperation to strengthen North Korea. Jang was among this group initially. Supporting second son Kim Jong Chol were some of the older members of the military, who wanted to decrease what they saw as North Korea’s over-dependence on China and hoped for expanded economic ties with South Korea and even the United States. Due to his age, there was little expectation that third son Kim Jong Un would be picked, but perhaps as a way to balance the internal competition, Kim Jong Il had reportedly chosen Jong Un as his successor by January 2009. The youngest Kim purportedly had the backing of key elements of the military, which would likely wield greater influence over him due to his inexperience. He also was thought to have the backing of Jang, whose allegiance shifted as he saw Kim Jong Il’s choice coming.
Kim Jong Un’s Prospects
The likelihood that Kim Jong Un has the backing of core elements of the military and of Jang, who has been working closely with Kim Jong Il in leadership since 2008, suggests that the transition is unlikely to be overly disruptive, at least in the near term. In addition, there is strong Chinese support for a smooth transition and the continuation of Chinese economic and political influence in North Korea.
One sign of clear preparation and coordination between the two nations has been the way the death was announced. According to the North Korean timeline, Kim Jong Il died on the morning of Dec. 17, but the announcement was not made until noon on Dec. 19. The information was not leaked, nor was there an apparent change in North Korea’s military posture (though some media later reported that North Korean guards on the border of China were put on alert in the early morning of the Dec. 19). Moreover, the announcement was followed shortly by a prepared list of individuals responsible for the funeral committee and calls to support Kim Jong Un as the successor to the revolution.
Thus far, things appear very orderly in North Korea. A mourning period has been set through Dec. 28, the day of the funeral, which will allow the North Korean internal security forces to keep things under control at home, since the mourning period is likely to include the closure of businesses and perhaps curfews in various places. The North Korean military has already been on a slightly heightened state of alert regarding recent South Korean military exercises, so there was apparently no need to increase the security posture of troops. It appears that the only place with a more overt show of force is along the Chinese border, which is known to be both an area of lower political reliability and a potential entry point for external instigators to try to slip into North Korea to exploit the transition.
This does not mean that things will continue to be smooth. It took Kim Jong Il more than three years to fully solidify his authority after the death of his father in 1994. During that consolidation of rule, Kim Jong Il was faced with crop failures, natural disasters and rising food shortages — problems that led international observers to declare North Korea in famine conditions. Kim also had to firmly establish his authority among the North Korean elite. This reportedly included purges and state executions and saw the defection of Hwang Jong Yap, the highest-level North Korean defector. Kim’s policy of “Songun,” or military first, was key to this consolidation, as Kim apparently had to buy the military’s loyalty.
Internationally, the time between Kim Il Sung’s death and Kim Jong Il’s consolidation of authority saw continued infiltrations into South Korea through 1996 (ending with the election in the South of long-time dissident and pro-democracy figure Kim Dae Jung). It also saw North Korea sign the Agreed Framework with the United States, ending the existing nuclear crisis. North Korea also completed building the Taepodong missile and tested it as a way to signify Kim Jong Il’s completion of the power transition. In short, North Korea maintained its basic strategy of survival established by Kim Il Sung a few years earlier, mixing conciliation with provocation.