Son rising for a post Dear Leader era
By Andrei Lankov
A few days ago, a new session of the Supreme People's Assembly - North Korea's
rubber-stamp parliament - was convened in Pyongyang. In most cases, such
sessions do not attract much attention outside a tiny circle of the full-time
Pyongyang watchers: few people would be excited by the sight of monotonously
and tastelessly dressed men and women sitting in rows and raising their hands
to signal their unanimous approval of the laws and resolutions that - as
everybody understands - seldom bear any relation to reality.
However, this time observers suspected that something unusual was going to
happen. The assembly's last session took place in April, and was not supposed
to meet again so soon. As we learned on June 7, parliament was convened to
authorize (with the expected 100% approval rate) a major reshuffle of the North
Korean leadership - and, judging by the urgency of gathering, this reshuffle
was seen as a pressing matter.
A few days earlier, on June 3, the official North Korean wire agency reported
that one day before, Yi Che-kang, the first deputy chairman of the ruling
Korean Workers' Party, had been killed in a traffic accident. The victim of a
car crash was, formally speaking, second only to Dear Leader Kim Jong-il in the
This news had to be suspicious: North Korea's traffic is arguably the thinnest
in Asia, but the country has a long tradition of traffic incidents taking the
lives of high officials. The first such incidents occurred in the early 1970s,
during the transition of power from the country's founding father Kim Il-sung
to his son.
Nowadays, the new dynastic transition is unrolling. In early 2009, after long
delays and much hesitation, Kim Jong-il decided that his youngest son, Kim
Jong-un, would become the next great leader of the country. So far, no
reference to the "Young General" has appeared in the open media, but one can
come across accolades to his greatness and superhuman wisdom in classified
materials that are published for the benefit of officials (and distributed
The events of the past week allow us to surmise how the power structure of
North Korea will look like in the first years after Kim Jong-il's death. It
seems that North Korean political heavyweights have finally begun to prepare
for the unthinkable - the demise of the Dear Leader.
The choice of Kim Jong-un as a heir designate serves, above all, the interests
of the North Korean elite, so one can even suspect that the choice was somehow
pushed on Kim Jong-il by his entourage. The "Young General" really is young,
being merely 27 or 28 years old. Even North Korean propaganda mongers find this
embarrassing, so they insist General Kim is in his early 30s.
The choice of such an exceptionally young candidate serves, above all, the
interests of the old guard, Kim Jong-il's own entourage. A young crown prince
has no power base and no allies. Thus, even if he technically becomes the
supreme leader, he will have no choice but to follow the advice of his father's
entourage, that is, people who are running the country now. He is doomed to
become a puppet - at least for some while.
However, a weak crown prince will require an able prince regent. For the past
few years, most Pyongyang watchers agreed that the most likely candidate to
take such a position is Jang Song-taek, a brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il.
Born in 1946, he is 64 and hence young by the standards of North Korea, where a
majority of the top leaders are in their 70s and 80s. The recent Supreme
People's Assembly session confirmed these speculations. At the session, Jang
was appointed vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. The North
Korean constitution stipulates that the chairman of this body is head of the
state, and Kim Jong-il runs the country exactly in this capacity. Therefore,
Jang officially became the second-placed person in the country.
The car incident that killed Yi Che-kang was also timely for Jang Song-taek. Yi
was widely believed to be a rival of Jang. Now, with Yi dead, Jang seems to
have no serious rivals left. The recent assembly session also appointed a new
head of the North Korean cabinet. In North Korea, the prime minister is
essentially a top technocrat, but it is still significant that this position
went to Choe Yong-rim, who is rumored to be close to Jang.
Jang's position remains precarious: Kim Jong-il is still the supreme leader,
and in North Korea even blood connections with the highest family do not always
secure a person from august wrath. In the past, family members have been exiled
a number of times, and in one case a young relative of the Dear Leader was
assassinated in Seoul, where he had defected. A few years ago, Jang Song-taek
disappeared from public sight for a year, and he is widely believed to have
spent this time in exile.
At any rate, the North Korean elite - with at least tacit approval of Kim
Jong-il - began to work on the architecture of a post-Kim Jong-il regime. It
seems that the future power structure will consist of Kim Jong-un, a much
extolled Star of Revolution and Shining Comrade (or whichever flowery titles
they will invent) who will essentially be a powerless puppet while real
authority will dwell with a council of technocrats and generals presided over
by Jang Song-taek. In all probability, it means that the death of Kim Jong-il
will not bring about much change: for a while the country will be steered by
the same people who have been running it for the past two or three decades.
However, power transitions do not always go as intended. To start with, Kim
Jong-un's personality cult is still in its infancy, and it will take few years
to develop it to the usual North Korean levels. We are yet to see pages of all
newspapers filled with countless stories of the "Young General's benevolence".
However, before the personality cult is developed enough, not only Kim
Jong-un's position but the entire system will remain insecure. We do not know
whether Kim Jong-il and his old guard have enough time at their disposal: at
the latest Supreme People's Assembly session the Dear Leader did not look
It is also possible that after Kim Jong-il's death some cracks in the top
leadership, now invisible, will lead to intense infighting and thus undermine
the cohesion that is essential for the stability of the system.
And even if the transition goes smoothly enough, the resulting system will
remain inherently unstable. Kim Jong-un might be young, inexperienced and
compliant now, but he will get stronger and wiser, and in all probability will
not be too happy about the control of the old dignitaries. Many young kings
ended up challenging and removing their regents.
On the other hand, the likely members of the future regent council are quite
old, with an average age of 75 or so, hence in a decade many of the present-day
top dignitaries will be dead from natural causes (and, perhaps a car crash or
Finally, Jang Song-taek might be tempted into assuming all power for himself.
Nasty things are known to have happened to young crown princes in the past -
from food poisoning to riding incidents and, perhaps, even good old car
But, whatever happens, the first days of June saw the contours of post-Kim
Jong-il North Korea emerge.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.