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.
To make matters worse, North Korea is encircled by powerful adversaries. To the east is Japan, a military and economic powerhouse that annexed and colonized Korea in the early twentieth century. Below lies South Korea, which has 20 times the GDP of North Korea, twice its population, and a military alliance with the global hegemon. South Korea’s military is far more technologically advanced than North Korea’s and is staffed with well-trained and well-fed soldiers. Across North Korea’s northern border is China, an erstwhile ally that regards Pyongyang with a warmth that ranges from jaw-clenched resignation to total exasperation.
However daunting all of this may seem, and however dim Kim Jong Un’s prospects appear, several factors, both internal and external, will work in his favor. He will rely on the system designed by his grandfather, the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung -- a system that, as Daniel Byman and I have written, was designed for resilience.
Kim Il Sung devised this system to deter revolution from below and military coups from within. An elaborate ideology confers legitimacy upon the Kim family: according to the country’s founding myth, Kim Il Sung led a gallant band of guerilla fighters in the bitter winds of Manchuria to defeat the Japanese, liberate the Korean people, and establish the North Korean state. As historians such as Charles Armstrong and Bruce Cumings have argued, this genesis tale secures Kim Il Sung as the father, son, and holy spirit of the “religion” that is North Korea. Like his father, Kim Jong Un enjoys the legitimacy of Kim Il Sung’s blood in his veins -- and even bears a striking resemblance to his broad-cheeked grandfather. Kim Jong Un has allies who share his formidable pedigree. His aunt, Kim Kyong Hui (recently elevated to four-star general), is Kim Il Sung’s daughter; her husband, Jang Song Taek, is, as the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, Kim Jong Il’s number two. Kim Jong Un and these allies enjoy a great deal of legitimacy from this “great leader” (suryong) system.
Xenophobia is another ideological tool that helps prevent revolution. The regime’s propaganda inspires fear of dire threats from predatory Japanese and perfidious Americans, who are aided by traitorous South Koreans. These supposed dangers justify the powerful political role of the military, which already enjoys a glow of legitimacy provided by the Manchurian tale. By keeping North Korea on a perpetual war footing, the regime justifies spending a massive share of its budget on the military (25 percent of GDP, compared to South Korea’s four percent) -- a great deal of which goes to internal security.
The risk of popular rebellion is also reduced by Kim Il Sung’s social engineering. In the communist system that Kim Il Sung created, North Korea has neither a middle class nor a clergy -- groups that are frequently instrumental in fomenting revolution. Students and intellectuals -- other would-be revolutionaries -- have been intellectually defanged by the regime’s strict control of information. Heavily monitored, they are deterred from dissent by the threat of terrible punishment.
Indeed, perhaps the most important factor deterring revolution in North Korea is the government’s threat or use of force. Informants from multiple security agencies watch for any stirrings of dissent. People who commit relatively minor transgressions -- failing to dust their Kim family portraits, for example -- undergo “reeducation”: extra self-criticism sessions or more time forced to memorize the writings of the Great Leader. People who are accused of more serious disloyalty are exiled to harsh lives in the remote countryside, sent to brutal prison camps, or executed. North Korea’s would-be freedom fighters know that, according to the government’s “three generations” policy, they risk the arrest, incarceration, torture, and death not only of themselves but also of their parents and children. For all of these reasons, during the famine “North Korea’s starving farmers did not rebel,” Andrei Lankov noted. “They just died.”
Although the military is a dictator’s most important ally, it may also be his ultimate undoing. But the odds of a military coup in North Korea have been significantly reduced by Kim Il Sung’s measures to “coup-proof” his government. From the inception of the regime in the 1950s, Kim selected political and military leaders on the basis of political loyalty rather than professional competence, installing his relatives and guerilla cronies in the most powerful positions. To maximize the intelligence he received about any brewing disloyalty, he designed multiple internal security agencies that competed with and watched one another, and all reported to him. In the event that these measures failed and a coup occurred, Kim Il Sung created a parallel military force to protect himself from the Korean People’s Army.
Another factor reducing the likelihood of military coups is North Korea’s class system, which is divided into three tiers. The “core” class consists of favored elites who have impeccable pro-regime credentials (such as relatives who were wounded while fighting for the North in the Korean War). A “wavering” class has more questionable bloodlines. Consigned to the “hostile” class are people whose relatives fought for the South in the war or supported the Japanese occupation of the peninsula.
Elites in the core class are co-opted with comfortable jobs, housing, and gifts (such as cognac, flat-screen televisions, and Mercedes-Benzes). They are also allowed to live in Pyongyang, which, during the famine, meant the difference between life and death. Since the regime gave more food to residents of the capital than it did to the wavering or hostile classes exiled to the hinterland, it thus targeted the famine on its opponents while sheltering its allies. Because of this class system and regime co-optation, any disgruntled member of the North Korean military elite knows that a failed coup attempt would result in his own execution and would forever relegate his family to the hostile class. As hostiles, family members would forfeit their good jobs and good schools, their plentiful food and luxury cars, in exchange for penury and -- in the likely event of more food shortages -- starvation.
“A prince,” Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “should have two fears: one, internal concerning his subjects; the other, external, concerning foreign powers.” As a weak country surrounded by powerful neighbors, North Korea’s external position looks dire. But as insecure as the country appears, Kim Jong Un will not face serious external pressure. In 1993, after Pyongyang announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the United States contemplated cruise missile attacks on North Korean nuclear facilities but demurred for fear of war on the peninsula. Since then, two North Korean nuclear tests have provided an added deterrent.
But today, North Korea’s greatest deterrent lies not in its power but in its weakness. The grim specter of the potential chaos associated with the collapse of the Kim regime in the event of war has led neighboring countries to treat it with kid gloves. Outside countries fear that the government’s collapse could unleash a civil war; send refugees streaming into China, South Korea, and across the sea to Japan; and let “loose nukes” from North Korea’s arsenal find their way onto the global black market. An already dangerous situation could grow far deadlier if -- in order to stem refugee flows, track down weapons of mass destruction, or help starving North Koreans -- China, South Korea, or the United States decided to unilaterally intervene and found their forces jostling together on the small peninsula.
As a result of these fears, when confronted with the latest North Korean outrage, countries have chosen to keep their swords sheathed. South Korea and others have sought to engage North Korea and have provided it with large amounts of aid, restricting retaliation to strongly worded condemnations and economic sanctions. Last March, such dovishness even dominated in response to a North Korean act of war: the sinking of the Cheonan and murder of 46 South Korean sailors.