All Eyes On North Korean Leadership Succession
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI - With the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, all eyes are on his son and heir, Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Il died of "physical and mental overwork" according to North Korean propaganda broadcasts. Although Kim had several heath problems, including a stroke in 2008, he appeared vibrant in recent meetings, said Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation, Washington.
His death has been long awaited by outside analysts and speculation has been rampant for years on how his young son, reportedly in his late 20s, would transition to the top spot in Pyongyang's opaque political decision making apparatus.
Kim Jong Un is a "pale reflection" of his father and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, Klingner said. "He has not had the decades of grooming and securing of a power base that Jong Il enjoyed before assuming control from his own father."
The person who will most likely serve as a bridge between father and son is Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, who has long been in charge of the top security agencies, said Bruce Cumings, a North Korea specialist at the University of Chicago.
Cumings warned that the U.S. media "constantly mistake this regime for a one-man dictatorship … [when] in fact an entire generation of leaders rose in tandem with Kim Jong Il, and they are now in power and have much privilege to protect, with Jong Un being the key symbol of continuity and power."
Furthermore, a senior generation guided the transition to both Jong Il and his son, and the ones still alive are powerful leaders on the "most powerful body," the National Defense Commission (NDC). "They may be octogenarians, but they have a huge army behind them, and this is also one of the most patriarchal societies in the world," Cumings said.
This does not mean that Kim Jong Un's attempt to consolidate power will be smooth. If the party and the military do not support him, the chances of the regime imploding or falling into a variety of instability scenarios that could lead to collapse are at least 50-50, said Bruce Bechtol, author of the book, "Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security."
The big difference between Kim Jong Un and his father is that when Kim Il Sung passed away in 1994, Kim Jong Il was the second highest ranking member of the NDC, a leader in the Organization and Guidance Department of the Party, a marshal in the Army, and in charge of the North Korean security services, Bechtol said.
Not so with Kim Jong Un. Although the son has been groomed for these positions, "he is not actually in them," Bechtol said. "And thus, the succession process from father to son is much more tenuous then it was in 1994."
What is certain is that six-party talks on the country's nuclear program will stall as North Korea works out leadership issues, said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China. Prior to the announcement of Kim Jong Il's death, media reports suggested that the U.S. and North Korea had made preliminary agreements for the resumption of multilateral nuclear negotiations.
Some Western analysts argue that Kim Jong Un's early education in Switzerland will make him more amenable to the West, but the North Korean elite has a vested interest in maintaining the system and will assess Kim Jong Un's ability to protect their interests, Klingner said. "The elite will balance a shared sense of external threat against fear of domestic instability from an inexperienced leader," he said.
"The senior government leadership may assess Jong Un's shortcomings as sufficient justification for contesting his succession. Elite resistance to Jong Un's rule could manifest itself in outright opposition or in usurping his power and leaving him a mere figurehead."
This could force Kim Jong Un to become more bellicose towards South Korea and the U.S. by instigating a crisis in order to generate a "rally around the flag effect," he said.
That wouldn't necessarily lead to war, Zhuang said. Kim Jong Un will be busy with domestic issues and China will most likely have more influence over Kim Jong Un as both countries continue to ramp up economic cooperation, he said.
In recent years, hundreds if not thousands of markets - many joint ventures with foreign firms - have opened, and there is a new export zone at Kaeson, which employees more than 40,000 North Koreans, Cumings said.
This could make for a "happy ending" in the form of soft landing for this dictatorship, more openings to the outside world and eventual decompression of totalitarianism, Cumings said. However, he warned, "happy endings don't have much meaning in North Korea."