Written by Rick Moran
In the aftermath of the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, there was deep concern that the dictator’s chosen successor, his third son Kim Jong-un, would have a rocky time trying to consolidate his position. Now it appears that his path to power has been smoothed by an apparent agreement with the military to share the responsibility of governing the state until the younger Kim can consolidate his position with the military and the party.
Reuters is reporting that there will be “collective rule” in North Korea with Kim Jong-un at the head of a “ruling coterie” that will include the military with the younger Kim’s uncle and Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, acting as regent.
North Korean news reports indicate that the military has pledged allegiance to young Kim, which will strengthen his hand as he deals with other factions also interested in ruling the Stalinist state. Those factions include two brothers passed over for leadership, the powerful sister of Kim Jong-il and wife of Jang, Kim Kyong-hui, and an up-and coming-general, chief of the joint chiefs of staff Ri Yong-ho.
None of these individuals are likely to challenge Kim Jong-un in the near future. But the inexperienced Kim may find himself being pushed out by those with a stronger base of support in the military and the party, or who are simply more ruthless and willing to upset the status quo to seize power.
His two older brothers may resent being passed over, but Kim Jong-il made sure they were never able to build an independent base of power to challenge their younger brother. Perhaps the most serious rival to Kim is his uncle, Chang Song-taek. Married to the elder Kim’s sister, Chang is an important member of the Politburo and Vice Chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission. Reuters’ source believes that the military has agreed that he will wield power in a kind of regency with the younger Kim as something of a figurehead. Since no one knows precisely how the internal leadership dynamics function in North Korea, and since this kind of collective leadership has never been tried in a country ruled since 1948 by all-powerful dictators, Kim Jong-un’s position may be precarious indeed.
Chang may be satisfied with being the power behind the throne, or he may not. An analyst at Seoul University said of Chang that he “has played a considerable role during Kim Jong-il’s illness of managing the succession problem and even the North’s relations with the United States and China.” The Korean Economic Institute (KEI) speculates that Chang is China’s choice to succeed the elder Kim, adding, “These factors, including his involvement in economic projects and directing internal security matters, leave a possibility for Chang Song-taek to attempt to seize power himself.”
The military is the wild card in the succession drama. Perhaps fearing that his brother in law might make a play for power himself, the elder Kim placed the chief of the joint chiefs of staff, Ri Yong-ho, close to his son, according to an expert on the North’s powerful structure at the Sejong Institute. But the KEI believes that it “will remain to be seen if they [Chang Song-taek and Ri Yong-ho] and others are really trying to help him, rule by controlling Kim Jong-un from behind the scenes, or set him up for failure.” This kind of convoluted intrigue is common in totalitarian states and one misstep by the younger Kim may have deadly consequences.
Kim Jong-il had been seen as the heir apparent to his father, North Korea’s first dictator Kim Il-sung, as far back as 1982 and spent a decade building his power base, finally taking power in 1994. But Kim Jong-un was only named as successor last year — hardly enough time to establish himself among the secretive and paranoid elites in the military and Communist party whose support is necessary to lead.
There is also the question of Kim’s youth. In a society that greatly respects age and experience, the 27-year-old Kim does not inspire universal confidence. Radio Free North Korea quoted one North Korean referring to Kim Jong-un as a “baby.”
There is very little known about Kim Jong-un. Even his age is in dispute, with some media reports saying he is 25 while others say he is 27 or 28. A hint of what kind of person he is came via this article in the Daily Mirror, which interviewed some of his teachers and school chums from his days as a student at Liebefeld-Steinholzi school in Switzerland.
Kim entered the school under an assumed name, never letting on that he was the son of North Korea’s leader. According to the article, Kim was something of a jock, playing basketball constantly and was apparently a huge fan of the NBA. One teacher described him as “well-integrated, diligent and ambitious.” He was “fiercely competitive” on the basketball court and was apparently “normal” in almost every respect; going out for pizza with his friends, playing video games, and watching martial arts movies. He also had a huge collection of expensive athletic shoes worth thousands of dollars.
In the middle of the term in 2000, he left suddenly never to return. It is believed he was enrolled in a prestigious military school, although he evidently never joined the military.
What the US and other regional states desire more than anything is stability in the transition. The most militarized country in the world, North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons and has a history of committing unexpected and provocative acts. But the US and other regional powers are hopeful that the change in leadership could mean progress in talks that would bring vital food supplies to Pyongyang and restart the stalled discussions over eliminating the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Current negotiations over food aid to the impoverished and starving nation were at an impasse when the elder Kim died. Resumption of rice shipments to the starving people of North Korea hinges on guarantees that the food will go to those who need it most and not end up in the hands of the military or the elites. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said through a spokesperson that the United States would be looking for signs of change from the new leadership. “We want to see the new leadership of the DPRK (North Korea) take their country in the direction of denuclearization, in the direction of compliance with their international obligations and commitments,” said Clinton. The nuclear negotiations, suspended in 2008, were conducted under the auspices of the “six party talks” that included North Korea, the US, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea. Food aid has been suspended since 2010.
The State Department said there was a brief meeting between US and North Korean diplomats at the United Nations where “technical” details of the food aid talks were discussed. Other than that, there has been no official contact and there are no plans to send a US representative to attend Kim’s funeral.
Knowledgeable observers will note details about every public appearance by Kim Jong-un — who he’s standing next to, who he mentions in speeches, even the order of seating at public banquets. What these observers cannot do, however, is peer into the inner workings of what is arguably the most secretive state on earth and glean intent from the men who will now be locked in a struggle for power, looking to emerge as North Korea’s next “Dear Leader.”