It is often amusing to be a
North Korea specialist. Most of the time, the
international community ignores this tiny, if
interesting and unusual country. But once or twice
a year, North Korea suddenly finds itself on the
front pages of all the world’s newspapers - only
to slip back into obscurity a few days later.
These outbursts of interest are not merely
short-lived and, frankly, shallow but are also
driven by events that are in the long run not that
significant - usually it is another twist in North
Korea's nuclear program, some clash between North
and South and the perennial succession question
that attract media attention. At the same time,
some important trends (usually related to the
internal situation in the North) usually remain
un- or under-reported.
The past two weeks,
one could see such an outburst of interest in
things North Korean. The
death of Kim Jong-il has become a media sensation.
The sudden death of the dictator not only
attracted a surprising amount of attention
worldwide, but was often presented as a possible
turning point in North Korean history. The Dear
Leader purportedly died of a heart attack on
December 17 while on a train to Huichon, Jagang
It was nice to see this outburst
of interest, but one has to be skeptical about the
significance of recent events. The succession was
bound to happen anyway, and for the time being it
is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the
expectations about coming change are not
completely unfounded - in the long run, Kim
Jong-eun's rise might pave the way for some
positive change. Nonetheless, it seems that the
sudden demise of Marshall Kim Jong-il will
probably have relatively little impact on the
immediate future of his country. Things are likely
to start changing eventually, but not too soon
(and, perhaps, not too fast).
died suddenly with a carefully planned succession
process incomplete. It is often overlooked that
Kim Jong-eun was not officially proclaimed as the
successor to his father in Kim Jong-il's lifetime.
When Kim Jong-eun officially entered North Korea's
political elite in October 2010, he was made a
four-star general (perhaps the youngest holder of
this military rank in the entire world) and also
given a deputy chairmanship of the Party's Central
Military Commission, a relatively obscure entity,
which should not to be confused with the powerful
National Defense Commission.
It seems that
initially it was planned that in 2012 Kim Jong-eun
would be given some additional high-level jobs and
would perhaps be proclaimed a "successor to the
great juche [self-reliance] revolutionary
cause" and second-in-command to his father.
This scenario is neither new nor original.
The blueprints for Kim Jong-eun's ascension are
quite old: North Korea's policy planners are
merely repeating the old pattern of the 1970s,
when Kim Jong-il himself was promoted to succeed
his father Kim Il-sung.
All these plans
were interrupted by the cruelty of fate.
Nonetheless, it seems that immediately after Kim
Jong-il's death, Kim Jong-eun was recognized as
the only heir to his father. In a mere few days,
he was promoted to supreme commander of the armed
forces, and became the object of a personality
cult (his official sobriquet is "Supreme Leader").
Transitions are always fraught with
instability, so it remains possible that somebody
will mount a challenge to him, but this does not
appear too likely.
The North Korean public
has become used to hereditary transfers of power.
Therefore, the promotion of Kim Jong-eun appears
to be natural to the average North Korean.
Regardless of whether he is qualified or not,
General Kim Jong-eun, by virtue of being
Generalissimo Kim Il-sung's grandson and Marshall
Kim Jong-il's son, has a measure of legitimacy.
This is important, as North Korea's elite
understands the need for all legitimacy they can
Many among North Korea's top brass
might even be happy that the new dictator is so
inexperienced and embarrassingly young - he is
said to be 29.
Over the past few years of
his life, Kim Jong-il had managed to arrange a
kind of support system that was meant to assist
his son in the initial, especially difficult,
years of his rule. This system had to be activated
a bit prematurely, but it seems to be firmly in
place and working fine.
For those North
Korean generals and bureaucrats who are lucky to
be a part of this quasi-regency structure, Kim
Jong-eun's inexperience hardly constitutes a
problem. It will be easier for them to manipulate
the young ruler, to influence his decisions, and
with some luck, to control his policies from
behind the scenes.
Currently, it appears
that the most powerful figures in the emerging
power structure are Kim Kyong-he and Chang
Song-taek, who are Kim Jong-eun's aunt and her
husband. The couple, in their mid-60s, have
seemingly been chosen by Kim Jong-il (or perhaps
by the entire Kim family), to become regents to
Kim Jong-eun. A major role is also played by Yi
Yong-ho, the actual leader of the North Korean
Right now, one cannot be sure
whether the Chang-Kim-Yi troika will be able to
able to maintain its expected position as supreme
regents. One would expect a great deal of power
struggle and conspiracy in Kim Jong-eun's
entourage. Kim Jong-eun himself seems to be
relatively secure for the time being, since he is
protected by his origins and perceived legitimacy.
That said, we might soon witness advisors
and officials jockeying for power behind the
throne and their struggle may become quite
At any rate, there is little
doubt that for the next few years, North Korea
will be run by the same people who ran it over the
previous decade (minus Kim Jong-il naturally).
This alone implies that the policies of
Kim Jong-eun will not be very different to those
of his father, at least initially. The chances of
a dramatic change in the political course of North
Korea appear even lower even if we take into
account the rather advanced age of virtually all
Kim Jong-eun's actual and potential advisors. They
are people in their sixties, seventies and even
eighties - not a time in one's life known for its
love of innovation and bold experiments.
The era of regency rule will not last
forever. Sooner or later, Kim Jong-eun will send
the old guard packing and will start to rule on
his own. When this happens, he may change
political course, but even this is by no means
certain - it is quite possible that Kim Jong-eun
will studiously try to avoid making any
significant changes in North Korean society,
economy and politics.
Even if things were
to change, it may take a few years before these
changes will become noticeable.
moment however, we have a country that is run by
the same people. They are likely to follow their
old line, so the only change right now which can
be seen is a new face at the apex of power.
Admittedly, even this new face looks very similar
to the face we have seen for the past 17 years.
So, the change is important - but perhaps less
important that the entire outbreak of media
interest might indicate.
Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin
University in Seoul, and adjunct research fellow
at the Research School of Pacific 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.
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