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Happy Birthday, Dear Leader - who's next in line?
By Yoel Sano

The scepter in the Hermit Kingdom passed from the Great Leader to the Dear Leader - and will he in turn pass it on to his youngest son, already extolled by some as the Morning Star King?

The lack of fanfare surrounding North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's birthday celebrations this year has much to do with his inauspicious age, 62. It lacks the symbolism of 60, an important Korean milestone, described as hwangap, completing one big circle or life cycle and beginning another. However, as the Dear Leader celebrates his birthday on Monday, it is precisely because of his chronological age that the question of succession must be weighing on his mind, even as it tantalizes Korea watchers.

The Great Leader Kim Il-sung was succeeded by his son, the current and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, and who will succeed him has Pyongyang watchers watching closely for omens, signs in the heavens, entrails or tea leaves. Could it be the oldest disgraced - and possibly illegitimate - son, the middle son dismissed as "effeminate" by his father, or the younger son now called by some "The Morning Star King." It's far from settled and the family saga is in its early stages.

Because Kim leads a regime long cemented by vested interests, the process of succession should be relatively painless, though regime collapse in an impoverished nation maintained by a brutal hierarchy is possible. Too many concessions to the United States, Japan and South Korea over the nuclear issue could undermine the current regime. Still, Kim assumes - and so do most observers - that he will stay in power. The main issue therefore is not if the regime will survive, but which of his three sons is standing next in line.

Kim inherited power from his own father, the late "Great Leader", Kim Il-sung, and it is inconceivable that any organized succession process will not involve one of Kim Jong-il's own sons. Given the fact that the Dear Leader himself was groomed for the top leadership position for more than 20 years, he will presumably want plenty of time to prepare whichever of his sons he chooses for the role. He has several daughters, but the highly patriarchal nature of the regime and most East Asian societies precludes a female successor.

Kim Jong-il was his father's eldest son and was chosen as successor for this reason. Traditionally, the eldest son is the natural successor in any dynastic succession, so in theory, the identity of Kim Jong-il's successor should be obvious: his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, born on May 10, 1971, to his second wife, Sung Hye-rim, a leading actress in North Korea.

Eldest 'bad boy' son may be illegitimate
Kim Jong-il's first marriage in 1966 was to Hong Il-chon, with whom he had a daughter, Kim Hye-kyong, in 1967. But within the space of a few years, Kim apparently separated from Hong in favor of Sung. This, however, is where the succession process gets complicated. It is not known whether Kim Jong-il ever actually married Sung, and it has been suggested that his eldest son Kim Jong-nam - the obvious heir-apparent - may have been illegitimate, and not so apparently the next in line.

Evidence seems to point in that direction. According to Kim Jong-il's adopted daughter, Ri Nam-ok - who is actually the daughter of Sung's sister, and who defected to Western Europe in 1997 - Kim Il-sung never knew of his first grandson, and would not have approved of his son's liaison or conjugal partnership with Sung. As such, the senior Kim apparently arranged for young Jong-il to marry a general's daughter, Kim Yong-suk in 1973. This union resulted in the birth of at least one child, a daughter, Kim Sol-song, in 1974. According to some reports, there may have been other offspring, but Kim Sol-song is the only one definitely known. As in many other ruling dynasties, the details of Kim Jong-il's private life are rather sketchy.

In 1980, Kim Jong-il married again. This time to Japanese-born ethnic Korean dancer, Ko Yong-hui, who bore him two sons, Kim Jong-chol in 1981 and Kim Jong-un in 1983. Though Kim Jong-nam may appear to be Kim Jong-il's obvious successor, because of the uncertainty of his legitimacy, over the past three years, attention has turned to the latter of Kim's sons.

And, indeed, while it appears that Kim Jong-nam had initially been in line for the succession - having been appointed to a senior post in the domestic intelligence agency and also placed in charge of North Korea's fledgling information technology industry - he subsequently fell from favor after May 2001. In that month he was very publicly arrested and deported from Tokyo's Narita International Airport, with his son and two female aides, after attempting to enter the country on a false Dominican Republic passport. Adding to the bizarre scenario, he had apparently been seeking to visit Tokyo Disneyland - although it has not been ruled out that he was on a sensitive mission to acquire Japanese technology.

Kim Jong-nam's weakened position became even more apparent in 2002, when he spent much of the year in Russia, tending to his sick mother Sung Hye-rim, who had been living in Moscow after falling out with Kim Jong-il many years earlier. Sung passed away from natural causes in August 2002.

May the best Jong win
Just after his mother's death, another development increased Kim Jong-nam's marginalization. At the end of August 2002, Japan's Jiji Press, citing Chinese diplomatic sources, reported that a hitherto unknown son of Kim Jong-il - named Kim Hyon (also known as Kim Hyon-nam, then aged 30) - had been appointed head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the ruling Korean Worker's Party (KWP). Given that Kim Jong-il had himself once headed this department when he began his political ascendancy in the early 1970s, speculation naturally arose that the younger Kim Hyon was being groomed to succeed his father.

However, nothing more has been heard about Kim Hyon, raising doubts about the veracity of Jiji's story.

By early 2003 reports emerged that the Korean People's Army (KPA) had begun a propaganda campaign centering on the personality of Ko Yong-hui - although in typical to North Korean fashion, without actually naming her. A similar campaign had been created for Kim Jong-il's long-deceased mother, Kim Jong-suk, ahead of his succession, and as such, the development points to one of Ko's sons, rather than the bad-behaving and possibility illegitimate Kim Jong-nam or the perceived late entry, Kim-hyon, as the heir-apparent.

Attention naturally turned to the elder of the two brothers, Kim Jong-chol, and Newsweek magazine published a dated and blurred black and white photograph of him during his school days in Switzerland. More recently, though, the emphasis has been on the younger brother, Kim Jong-un (also spelled Kim Jong-woon). The main proponent of this theory is Kim Jong-il's former Japanese sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym), who, in his memoir, published in Japan, stated that Kim regards Jong-chol as too effeminate, and Jong-un to be more like his father.

Complicating this complicated picture, however, were reports in October 2003 that Ko Yong-hui had been critically injured in a car accident. Other reports suggested that she was suffering from breast cancer. Her current status is unknown, and any disagreement over the succession could potentially cause problems for the process. Although Ko has no formal role in the process, she presumably wields some influence over Kim Jong-il's decision.

In this regard, Kim Jong-il will be keen to avoid any schisms developing within the ruling family, as happened with his own succession. Kim himself displaced his father's younger brother, Kim Yong-yu, from the position of heir apparent in the early 1970s. Kim Yong-ju subsequently vanished from public life in 1975, and would not reappear until July 1993, only to be appointed one of North Korea's four vice presidents later in that year. This move was said to be aimed at reassuring North Korea's old guard that a massive generational shift would not take place once Kim Jong-il took power.

In addition, it seems that Kim Jong-il had to stave off a challenge from his half-brother, Kim Pyong-il, the oldest son of his hated stepmother, Kim Song-ae. Pyong-il was widely said to have been better leadership material, possessing greater skills and having served as a major general and deputy director of the strategy bureau at the Ministry of People's Security in the 1980s. However, because Kim Jong-il saw him as a rival, and Kim Song-ae favored Pyong-il as successor, he was sent abroad in 1988 as ambassador to Hungary, followed by Bulgaria, Finland, and most recently, Poland, in order to keep him out of Pyongyang politics. Another half-brother, Kim Yong-il, died of cirrhosis of the liver in May 2000 in Germany, where he had been serving as counselor at the North Korean interests office.

Military backing key to smooth succession
One thing that is certain is that whoever succeeds Kim Jong-il will have to win the support of the powerful Korean People's Army. The 1.1 million-strong military is the only institution that can challenge the regime. Indeed, the power and profile of top military leaders has increased substantially under Kim Jong-il, who relies on the armed forces to maintain order and stability in the face of widespread famine and economic decay. While Kim Il-sung was alive, the generals mainly kept out of the limelight. However, senior commanders now accompany Kim Jong-il on virtually all his public appearances, reinforcing the image of a military state.

Kim Jong-il has ruled North Korea exclusively as supreme commander of the army since his father's death in July 1994. Since that time, Kim Jong-il has very skillfully won the backing of the Korean People's Army by waiting for the natural demise of some of the octogenarian veterans of his father's anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle - such as former defense ministers O Jin-u and Choe Kwang - to pass away through natural aging. And he has appointed his own loyalists to key positions. The most important of these are Vice-Marshal Jo Myong-rok, the first vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) and head of the KPA's political bureau; Vice-Marshal Kim Yong-chun, the chief of the general staff; and Vice-Marshal Kim Il-chol, the minister of the People's Armed Forces - North Korea's system of defense. More recently, General Ri Myong-Su, the director of the operations bureau of the general staff, and KPA political bureau deputy directors Hyon Chol-Hae and Pak Jae-gyong have gained prominence. These men form the core of Kim Jong-Il's power base in the army.

Kim Jong-il's moves to control the military have been a remarkable success, considering that for many years prior to 1994, it was said that the KPA disliked the Dear Leader so much that it would depose him in a coup immediately after Kim Il-sung left the scene. Kim Pyong-il, with his military background, was often mentioned as a possible military-backed replacement.

However, Great Leader Kim Il-sung gradually phased out senior officers who would pose a threat to his son, Jong-il's succession, and in December 1991 he appointed Jong-il as supreme commander of the army, despite the fact that he had no military experience, except for a brief unconfirmed stint at the East German Air Force Academy in the early 1960s. Kim Jong-il was subsequently elevated to the rank of Marshal of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in April 1992 and then a year later to chairman of the National Defense Commission - a post that he now holds as head of state.

Kim Jong-il has also successfully bound his family to the top ranks of the military structure through his full sister Kim Kyong-hui's husband, Jang Song-taek, who serves as the first vice director of the Korean Workers Party 's organization and guidance department, headed by Kim Jong-il himself. Jang's eldest brother, Jang Song-u, is a KPA vice marshal and commands the Third Army Corps, which surrounds the city of Pyongyang. According to Sin Kyong-wan, a former KWP official, the second-oldest brother, Jang Song-yop, is the vice director of the Kim Il-sung Higher Party School. A younger brother, Jang Song-Gil, is a lieutenant general and tank commander, while the youngest, Jang Song-ho, is a political vice president of the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School - an elite establishment which Kim Jong-il and many top leaders attended.

Kim Jong-il has nurtured the army
In any case, the KPA - which has increased its influence under Kim Jong-il - benefits from his continued rule, adopting a Military First Policy under the banner of "Kangsong Taeguk" - a great and militarily powerful nation. The military's position allows it to guide national policy without having to take administrative blame for North Korea's ongoing economic problems. As such, the KPA has a vested interest in a stable succession, especially since many senior military leaders are developing business interests as heads of military-dominated conglomerates. The largest such enterprise, Chungwoonsan, is headed by Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, according to North Korea watcher Selig Harrison.

Although there have been several reports of coup attempts - most notably in 1992, by a group of Soviet-trained perestroika [restructuring]-oriented generals, and again in 1995, by elements of the Sixth Army Corps in remote North Hamgyong province - none has come remotely close to succeeding because of the efficiency of the security apparatus.

There are really only two circumstances in which a military coup would take place. First, if the economy continues to disintegrate, and national survival becomes an issue, "reformist" elements in the Korean People's Army may conclude that North Korea is better off without the Korean Worker's Party and Kim Jong-il. The second scenario involves Kim Jong-il making too many concessions over North Korea's nuclear program to the United States, South Korea, or Japan, and accelerating economic reforms that cause social unrest. The latter situation could lead to a "reactionary" coup of the sort that befell Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.

Another reason why a second dynastic succession is likely to be upheld is that it is not just the ruling Kim family that benefits from nepotism and connections. While the predominance of a small number of surnames in Korea (North and South) makes it difficult to track family links, it is known that many top leaders are the sons of the revolutionary generation that fought against Japanese imperialism, or have siblings in high positions. For example, Kim Kuk-tae - a senior KWP central committee secretary in charge of cadre affairs - is the son of general Kim Chaek, who served as the KPA's frontline commander during the Korean War, in which he was killed. General O Kuk-ryol, the head of the central committee's special operations department, is the son of a veteran guerrilla, as is Colonel General O Kum-chol, the commander of the air force.

North Korea's titular head of state, Kim Yong-nam, who serves as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA, or legislature), has two brothers in high positions: General Kim Du-nam, a one-time military adviser to Kim Jong-il, and Kim Ki-nam, a senior central committee secretary. Yang Hyong-sop, the vice president of the SPA Presidium, is married to Kim Jong-Il's aunt. Many others benefit from similar ties.

Not a one-man show, a regime of vested interests
Therefore, North Korea, far from being a one-man show, or even a one-family show, is an entire regime bound together by vested interests, under the leadership of Kim Jong-Il. This should make the succession process easier, provided that the identity of the heir is decided upon without causing fractures in the first family or the army.

Assuming that the regime survives - and it has proved remarkably durable, against all odds - it may still be some years before North Korea formally announces the identity of the successor.

Although Kim Jong-Il's political rise began in the early 1970s, when the official media began to speak of the "Party Center" as a code word for Kim, his actual status as heir apparent did not become clear until the Sixth Korean Worker's Party Congress in 1980, when he was appointed to a number of party posts. Yet, it was not until August 7, 1984, that Pyongyang publicly confirmed Kim Jong-il as successor. Even then, it would be another 10 years before his father died, after which Kim would have to wait three years before being appointed to his father's position as general secretary of the KWP. In September 1998, Kim Jong-il formally took power, but he never assumed the state presidency, instead ruling in his existing position as chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Certainly, the signs are that either Kim Jong-chol or Kim Jong-un is being maneuvered into the succession. The latter is even being referred to as the "Morning Star King", according to South Korean Pyongyang watchers. However, the saga is still in its early stages, and Kim Jong-nam cannot be totally ruled out. His status as first-born son carries considerable weight, and the regime has a habit of re-instating disgraced figures after a suitable period of atonement.

In the meantime, there appears to be very little active opposition to the regime. Unlike Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which spawned dozens of opposition groups in exile, North Korean defectors have created only one such group, the National Salvation Front For Democratic Unification of Chosun, led by former KWP propaganda official Pak Kap-dong. However, the organization has proved as ineffective as it is low profile. The nearest thing North Korea has to an exiled opposition leader is Hwang Jang-yop, a former central committee secretary, who defected in February 1997. Hwang was initially welcomed in South Korea under the presidency of Kim Young-sam, but once Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy" took effect, Hwang was ignored. Hwang still travels to the US, where he addresses neo-conservative groups that welcome his calls for regime change in Pyongyang. But Hwang is 81 years old, and has limited time left to achieve his goals.

As far back as the 1980s, Korean historian Bruce Cumings, when questioning a Soviet diplomat in Pyongyang on the chances of Kim Jong-il succeeding Kim Il-sung, was told "come back in 2020 and see Kim Jong-il's son succeed him".

As of early 2004, that prediction, seemingly unrealistic only a few years ago, no longer sounds so implausible. Check the omens, the stars, the entrails and the tea leaves.

Yoel Sano
has worked for publishing houses in London, providing political and economic analysis, and has been following North Korea, as well as other Northeast Asian developments, for more than 10 years.

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Feb 14, 2004

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Kim Jong-il's impeccable logic  (Sep 4, '03)

Soap, sleeze: North Korea's first family  (Mar 2, '02)


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