The Once and Future Kim

Succession and Stasis in North Korea

At the historic Workers’ Party meeting that took place in Pyongyang last September, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor. The decision recalled the words of King Lear, who, announcing his retirement, said he wanted “to shake all cares and business from our age / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburden'd crawl toward death.” Today, the world watches, hoping that compared to Lear, Kim’s judgment will be more sensible, his relatives less venal, and his eventual succession less bloody. Succession is always a regime’s most difficult challenge, and Kim Jong Un will have many obstacles to overcome when he tries to take power. But powerful forces will encourage stability and the continued, sorry reign of the Kim family.

At first blush, the road ahead for the “Brilliant Comrade,” as Kim Jong Un is called, does not look smooth. Said to be around 27 years old, he is young and inexperienced. He has two older brothers and an untold number of relatives who may be eyeing the crown. Outsiders do not know how news of his ascension was greeted by the elites who prop up the Kim regime -- whether they share the views of eldest brother Kim Jong Nam, who told an interviewer, “Personally, I am opposed to the hereditary transfer to a third generation of the family.” Perhaps most important, one wonders how the military feels about such a youthful figure suddenly being promoted to four-star general and handed the reins of power.

Aside from his internal challenges, Kim Jong Un will inherit a wreck of a country. Energy shortages continue to ravage North Korea’s already frail economy. The 1995–97 famine killed more than one million North Koreans and created an undernourished generation wracked by cognitive disabilities. A 2008 U.S. National Intelligence Council study on global health reported that half of North Korean children are stunted or underweight, while fully two-thirds of young adults are malnourished or anemic.

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