Meet Kim Jong Un's New Team

The Politics of Succession in North Korea

North Korea-watchers have been anticipating this day for years. According to the state news agency, on December 17, at eight-thirty in the morning North Korea time, on a train somewhere on the outskirts of the Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il "suffered an advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated with a serious heart shock." Nearly 50 hours later, the North Korean propaganda apparatus sprung into action, informing the world of Kim's passing and proclaiming his son, Kim Jong Un, the "great successor."

A close reading of the North Korean media suggests that Pyongyang is carefully orchestrating a succession plan. Kim Jong Un's placement at the top of the funeral committee list -- a device that the North Koreans use to publicly establish formal rank hierarchy -- leaves little doubt that he now heads the formal leadership structure. The accolades the press has accorded to him -- "great successor to the chuche revolutionary cause and outstanding leader of our party, army, and people" (chuche being the idea of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father, that the Korean masses are the masters of the country's development) -- mark the first official sanctioning of his status as successor. Combined with what appears to be a replay of the political theater surrounding the death of Kim Il Sung 17 years ago, this suggests that a stable, hereditary transition of power will take place over the next week, culminating in the funeral on December 28. 

Yet the real test for the regime will take place in the coming weeks and months, as North Korea moves celebrates Kim Il Sung's hundredth birthday in April, and attempts to fulfill his promise of a "strong and prosperous nation." That is when the cracks in the regime might start to show.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis