BEIJING - There is
fevered speculation that North Korea's newly
minted young leader Kim Jong-eun might be little
more than a figurehead, surrounded by a powerful
old guard that includes his influential uncle,
Jang Song-taek. According to this narrative, the
sudden death of the Dear Leader last December has
set the country on a road to a power struggle that
will lead to the ruler's downfall in the not-too
While this doomsday
scenario is popular in the aftermath of Kim
Jong-il's death, there's a powerful alternative:
Kim Jong-eun's North Korea may just make it.
Ignorance to this potential outcome reflects a
collective neglect among journalists and academics
who've jumped on the bandwagon of popular
History shows repeated
outbreaks of predictions of North Korea's
collapse. In 1994, when North Korea's founder Kim
Il-sung died, media outlets said without the
charismatic leader the country
would fall apart and
collapse in just three months. It didn't happen.
In 1996 during a severe famine dubbed the
"Arduous March", United States Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Deutch
warned North Korea's system would "collapse within
In December 2010, South
Korean president Lee Myung-bak said twice
publicly: "The unification [of the two Koreas] is
near," an oblique yet unmistakable indication that
he expected the implosion of North Korea. It seems
likely Lee will step down before he sees the
collapse of North Korea, his solitary term ends in
Donald Gregg, who worked
for the CIA for 31 years, including as Seoul
station chief and later as American ambassador to
South Korea, called North Korea "America's
longest-running intelligence failure".
Given the track record, a more relevant
question is to ask: Why are North Korean doomsday
scenarios so hard to kill?
North Korea's imminent collapse is among the least
successful areas of guesswork among Asian experts
in the past decades. This is partly because North
Korea has had the appearance of being on a
deathbed for years. Other authoritarian regimes
fell around the world - why has North Korea’s
When we look at North Korea, we
should begin with realities on the ground and the
circumstances we confront, so Jonathan Pollack of
the Brookings Institution told this author. So why
exactly is the North not likely to collapse even
under an untested and young new leader?
Firstly, the reason North Korea may muddle
along, as it has been so far, is not because the
Kims are capable leaders, but because of decades
of thought control that have made people believe
the Kims are a special breed. The Kims have the
so-called "Paektu pedigree," referring to the
Mount Paektu, revered by Koreans as holy.
This mythical construct, although
laughable in the outside world, has a serious
presence in the psyche of North Koreans who are
exposed to it from birth and throughout schooling.
Simply put, North Korea is run by a theocracy.
This is a country where anyone whose
family name is not "Kim" cannot become a new
leader, argued Liu Jiangyong, a professor of
International Relations at Tsinghua University in
Beijing. Pretenders simply are not legitimate in a
land where the Kims are gods.
religiosity has been downplayed by experts who
haven't been to the country and who raise
questions such as whether the tears North Koreans
wept hysterically over Kim Jong-il's death were
real or not. The truth is somewhere in-between.
North Koreans older than 60 years old
likely remember when the Kim family were just
humans but those who are younger know the Kims as
gods. Even the few foreign exports who repeatedly
visited the reclusive country tend to not
underestimate how much influence the idolatry,
indoctrination, thought control and personality
cults have had in shaping people's minds.
This also offers an explanation as to why
Jang Song-taek, the powerful elder, cannot become
a god himself, even if he may harbor the ambition.
Even if he successfully pulls off a coup, he would
have difficulty in establishing his authority
among people. His name will be the first obstacle.
Those who argue that North Korea is run by
a collective leadership also are yet to provide
any evidence. Though the heir is young and has no
military experience, after 60 days of his
leadership, we have yet to see a single piece of
proof that the country is run by a consultative
According to the North Korea
Strategic Information Service Center (NKSIS), an
organization by senior North Korean defectors who
monitor the North Korean situation through
personal sources, "the role of Jang Song-taek is
not as big as it is speculated."
concept of "collective leadership" in North Korea
is different from in the outside world. China is
run by the collective leadership of the
nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, in which
each member has a different share of stake. Each
also has his own turf to manage. For example, when
it comes to propaganda, it is Li Changchun who
calls the shots, not Hu Jintao.
North Korea, Kim Jong-eun owns all authority, by
default, inherited from his father. Every
top-level decision requires the nod from Kim
Jong-eun, according to a South Korean government
official, who follows the matter in the field. The
young Kim may use his uncle and aunt and other old
guards in the bureaucracy for their expertise, but
that's it. They are assisting the show, not
running the show. And it is them who know the
boundary too well; mortals shouldn't cross divine
Interestingly, this gives a
most important clue as to how North Korea's system
could unwind: an opening up to the outside world.
Opening up could mean a "system failure": the
deconstruction of the divine myth surrounding the
Ground realities also debunk the
popular view that a power struggle is in store. In
Western political-science, a leadership-transition
period is the most vulnerable time for any kind of
autocratic regime. It's based on Sovietology. But
North Korea is not your usual autocratic regime.
It is a theocracy. Again, the Kims are gods. The
elite cadres are the most privileged people in
North Korea. They hold high positions, travel
abroad, have foreign cash, buy iPads. They would
lose all their privileges and even end up in jail
when North Korea's system dismantles. They are
bound by a collective instinct to preserve the
Then there is the popular theory
that Kim Jong-eun has had very little time to
prepare for his ascent. An alternative view states
that power consolidation was largely complete
before Kim Jong-il's death. Kim Jong-eun's power
base is the Workers' Party, where he sits as vice
chief of its Central Military Commission (CMC).
When experts talk about "power transfer," more
specifically they mean power transfer from the
National Defense Commission (NDC) - which Kim
Jong-il used as his main power platform - to the
Workers' Party. It's a deliberate shake-off of a
preexisting power base to create a new power base
for a new leader.
After Kim Il-sung, the
founder of the country and Kim Jong-eun's
grandfather, died in 1994, Kim Jong-il
consolidated his power by weakening the authority
of the Workers' Party - the main power platform
his father used to rule the country. He did this
because the old guard was powerful, restraining
Kim Jong-il's budding authority.
effort to structure his own power base, Kim
Jong-il elevated the National Defense Commission
(NDC) as the highest state body, with ultimate
executive power resting with its chairman: Kim
Jong-il himself. He also initiated the
With Kim in
charge, the NDC naturally became the most powerful
organ. But after his stroke in 2008, Kim also
began to worry about what would happen to Jong-eun
after he was gone. Kim Jong-il after his recovery,
decided that his son, who was 25 or 26 at that
time, would be unable to create serious
credentials within the military. Jong-il attempted
to shift the power pendulum back to the Workers'
Party, Jack Pritchard, a former US negotiator with
North Koreans, recently told this author in
We know as a fact that the
CMC, not the NDC, choreographed Kim Jong-il's
funeral. Also, all the members of the CMC were
included in the funeral organization committee,
which came under intense scrutinized by outside
experts as a gauge of Pyongyang's emerging pecking
order under the new leadership.
may have begun grooming Jong-eun as heir earlier
than the outside world has speculated. New
evidence, coming from a former North Korean
collective-farm instructor reveals that Kim
Jong-eun was treated as the crown successor as
early as in 2001 internally. If true, this turns
the clock all the way back to 10 years ago as the
time for Jong-eun begin his preparation as the
With regard to Jong-eun's
grip on the military, diplomatic cables from North
Korea to its diplomatic missions abroad revealed
that the military made a pledge of allegiance to
Jong-eun in May 2009. Three months prior to that,
Ri Yong-ho, a key confidant of Kim Jong-eun, was
promoted to the highest position to run the Korean
People's Army (KPA).
Thus, an alternative
view is that Kim Jong-eun has secured both his
power base in the administrative bureaucracy of
the Workers' Party and through the CMC and the
military - the two pillars of authority in North
Korea. Besides, he also has the hereditary
legitimacy that renders the clearest justification
to his top seating in North Korea's power
Fourthly, there is too much
media hoopla about Jang Song-taek as the most
formidable "challenger" to Kim Jong-eun's throne.
Jang is not only not a Kim, he also has little
reason to rebel, which would risk the current
privileges he enjoys in North Korea. Jang would
require support from not only from other members
of the privileged elite, but also from ordinary
people. The latter could turn out to be the most
daunting task for Jang as it would require a
deconstruction of the divine myth surrounding the
There is also the China factor.
Analysts who favor the Jang coup scenario
critically forget that even if Jang did succeed in
removing Kim Jong-eun, he will need external
support to prop his feeble domestic legitimacy and
credentials among people.
place for him to turn to would be China, but the
Chinese leadership has already given its full and
unmistakably public support to Jong-eun, From
China's perspective, its prime national interest
lies in stability in North Korea. China regards
North Korea as its "backyard" and it wants the
backyard to stay quiet, while it is focusing on
building its economy until 2020 - the year Beijing
set as a "strategic opportunity period" to grow
its national strengths.
China also fears
North Korean refugees running across the border
after internal turmoil as it would destabilize
China's northeastern region. Border instability is
a serious national security concern for China,
which has restive ethnic minority groups including
Tibetans and Xinjiang Uhygurs living along its
land border of 22,117 kilometers (13,743 mi), the
longest in the world. In the aftermath of Kim
Jong-il's death, Beijing deployed a troop of
250,000 soldiers near the border.
also took a series of measures to "stabilize" the
situation and reduce uncertainty over North Korea.
Within hours after the announcement of Kim's
death, China took the initiative for diplomatic
coordination by rounding up ambassadors from the
US, South Korea, Japan and Russia, and counseling
them not to "provoke" North Korea during this
highly volatile time. The next day, President Hu
Jintao personally visited the North Korean Embassy
in Beijing, flanked by other top Politburo
members, and paid condolences to the late Kim, a
further signal to the world of the importance
Beijing attaches to Pyongyang.
regarding North Korea as its "backyard," China
also regards North Korea as a strategic buffer
against the presence of US military in East Asia.
China, therefore, hoped for a smooth power
transition in the North and rallied all-out
support around the untested rookie, Kim Jong-eun.
China's Global Times, the international news arm
of the official People's Daily, later assessed
that China played the role of "stabilizer."
Finally, if there is instability or coup
in North Korea, it requires people's participation
to bring it up to the threshold to be
"meaningful." Critically, when it happens, it
needs to gain hearts and minds of people living in
Pyongyang, the political center of the country.
The capital city Pyongyang has a population of 2
million. They are the most privileged people in
the country of 24 million.
whose family background has a proven revolutionary
record of being loyal to the Kim family or those
who made contributions to the Kim dynasty are
allowed to live there. They are also the ones who
are much better off economically than those in the
countryside. These are the people buying Sony
notebook computers and Samsung mobile phones in
Pyongyang's department stores.
or any other faction in North Korea secures of
legitimacy, and establishes a firm internal and
outside support, any movement to replace Kim
Jong-eun stands very little chance of being
North Korea is surely an
incredibly brittle society and there are many
reasons why it could shatter. Indeed, almost all
commentaries crafted in the aftermath of Kim
Jong-il's death focused on this aspect. However, a
military coup or power struggle in North Korea is
nearly impossible because preventing that outcome
it what the Kim family has paid the most attention
to prevent over the 60 years. There is no cohesive
alternative faction that can rise against the Kim
family. The powerful are all loyal to the Kim
dynasty as they are part of the vested interest
group. It's correct to say Kim Jong-eun is a
figurehead. But he is a god too.
all, the instinct for survival shared by the Kim
family and the dynastic element of the key
leadership plus theocracy are powerfully working
together to create a mental state that demands
loyal to the system, which is poor, backward and
abusing its people. And the untested young rookie
leader still stands as good a chance to survive as
he doesn't. But those in the position to explain
the matter to the public are predominantly telling
only one side of the story. And that's a problem.
(email@example.com) is a Seoul-born
columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the
US and China.
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