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 for most of his adult life. 

Whatever else may be said of Kim Il Sung -- and he was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent men, women, and children from the Korean War he launched, among other things -- he was a seasoned military and political fighter and a savvy operator intent on establishing his family's eternal rule over the Korean people. A quintessentially self-made man, Kim Il Sung invented the secular religion that would justify his dynastic arrangements to his people (Juche), and almost from the end of the Korean War onward cultivated relatives to continue the lineage of family rule.

Kim Il Sung's first Chosen One appeared to be the Great Leader's younger brother, Kim Yong Ju -- who was permitted to be a powerful presence in North Korean politics through the 1960s. By rumor and reputation, Kim Yong Ju was a cruel and dangerous man. With the rise of the "Party Center," however, he disappeared from North Korean politics altogether, never to be seen publicly again until after his brother's death. For Kim Il Sung, dynastic succession was a family business, but one that afforded limited room for sentimentality. Instead, sustainability was key, and Kim Jong Il (rightly or wrongly) was judged to be a better prospect for ensuring the sustainability of the family regime than his brother.

But like the heirs to so many self-made men, Kim Jong Il squandered his inheritance. Far from serving as a steward for his dynasty, Kim Jong Il revealed his self-obsessed short-term mentality once he had attained absolute power. His insouciance about regime survival (in ironic opposition to the painstaking attention he accorded to his own personal survival) was apparent from the outset. He scorned the institutions  undergirding Pyongyang's power and authority. He ignored the WPK's (the country's ruling political party) formal stipulation on convening regular congresses and flouted the party charter in bypassing the formal channels and crowning himself general secretary in 1998.

By the same token, that year he promulgated a nonsense-constitution: an M.C. Escher-esque document from which it was impossible to tell which organs of state were actually responsible for administering the country, and which positions of government had authority for issuing the instructions by which the state would be administered. In this recasting, Kim Jong Il was the state, and the state was whatever Kim Jong Il happened to say it was. But while such self-serving machinations might please a dictator-for-life, they were poorly suited to guaranteeing the credibility and resilience that a lasting state would need to have.  

The Dear Leader's bad attitude applied to the principles of hereditary succession as well. Through the 1990s and into the first years of this century, Kim Jong Il took no public steps to suggest that he had chosen, much less groomed, a successor. In his shambolic private life, he reportedly could tally up to seven acknowledged children -- but for whatever reasons, the Dear Leader deemed none of them particularly suitable. His oldest boy, Kim Jong Nam, was embarrassingly arrested and then deported from Japan while traveling under a false passport back in 2001. He has since been banished to Macau. A few years later, another son, Kim Jong Chul, was the focus of a brief and abortive adulation campaign -- but has neither been seen nor heard from since.  

Ultimately, Kim Jong Il gave the nod to his third son, Kim Jong Un. He is a twenty-something who studied in Switzerland in his teens. Last year, he was suddenly awarded a Four-Star Generalship. Kim Jong Un's hurried public promotions did not commence until last year after his father suffered a devastating stroke which made the question of succession utterly unavoidable. 

Unlike his father, who was the beneficiary of years of tutelage and training before his political debut, Kim Jong Un steps onstage with no corresponding care or nurture. To make matters worse: whereas Kim Jong Il's father took care to remove the Dear Leader's uncle from Pyongyang's decision-making constellation at the start of his son's ascent, Kim Jong Il saw to it that Jong Un's uncle and aunt -- Jang Song Thaek and Kim Kyong Hui -- would both be in the royal court to provide tender care and advice for their beloved nephew.

Such arrangements, needless to say have not always worked out well for young royals -- whether in Korean history, or elsewhere, Kim Jong Il leaves the world with much to answer for: the abject poverty and misery of his subjects, the North Korean famine of the 1990s, the routine abduction and killing of foreigners, the policy of international military extortion that poisons relations with his neighbors Ironically, it would appear that Kim Jong Il's own dynasty may have reason to rue his memory and curse his name.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • NICHOLAS EBERSTADT holds the Henry Wendt Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Policy And Economic Performance in Divided Korea during the Cold War Era: 1945-1991.
  • More By Nicholas Eberstadt