The Death of Kim Jong Il and North Korea's Broken Dynasty

How Dear Leader Blew the Transfer of Power

A painting in the lobby of the Chongchon Hotel in the Mt. Myohyang region of North Korea. (John Pavelka / flickr)

North Korea today constitutes a unique political edifice: a Marxist-Leninist state that adheres to hereditary succession. For more than six decades, dynastic politics have determined Pyongyang's behavior and prospects. With the death of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, understanding the country's succession process is central to divining the future of this anachronistic, frustratingly cryptic, and often deliberately menacing government.

Kim Jong Il may be the Madame de Pompadour of his dynasty. With the "après nous le déluge" spirit of a true solipsist, he postponed the anointment of a successor until he was deathly ill. His inattention to what it would take to continue the regime only increases the odds of disaster in the wake of his death.

Kim Jong Il's fecklessness is all the more surprising considering that his rise to power was smoothed by the careful and methodical preparations of his father, Kim Il Sung -- the de facto founder of the modern North Korean state. And that was a project at least a quarter century in the making.

First, in the 1970s, North Korea's media extolled what it referred to as "Party Center" -- praising a new national myth, a being of unerring sagacity that demanded unwavering loyalty. In 1980, the Party Center was unveiled as none other than Kim Jong Il. The pageantry of those proceedings made it clear, long before power was ever handed down, exactly who'd become Kim Il Sung's successor.

In turn, Kim Jong Il had years of on-the-job training. In a 1992 newspaper interview father Kim offhandedly remarked that he had delegated the day-to-day administration of the country's domestic affairs (read: economic policy, party work, and public security activities) to his firstborn son more than a decade before. By the time that Kim Il Sung died in 1994, Kim Jong Il -- then in his early fifties -- had been helping to run the country

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