Meet Kim Jong Un's New Team

The Politics of Succession in North Korea

Kim Jong Un. (Courtesy Reuters)

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.

At this point, it is a mistake to describe Pyongyang as consisting of factions. Kim Jong Il took a number of measures to ensure that no strong alliances against him emerged within the leadership circle. Instead, Kim's power- building strategy resulted in the creation of a leadership composed of numerous powerful individuals, each with his or her own patronage networks that the leader liaised with and drew upon to execute his decisions. Kim bypassed chains of command and tended personally to individuals and networks, often pitting one opposition against another. His system has been described as a hub and spoke, with him at the hub. Future competition will not be over who occupies the hub but over defining the spokes' relationships to it. 

For now, however, the wheel seems to be turning as usual. The recently announced funeral committee list has followed a predictable pattern. Following Kim Jong Un's name are the three members of his father's Politburo Presidium -- the senior leadership of the Party's decision-making body. The first, Kim Yong Nam, is the president of the Supreme People's Assembly. A former minister of foreign affairs, Kim Yong Nam has close ties to the ruling family. Since 1994, he has served as the de facto head of state, receiving foreign delegations to Pyongyang that did not warrant Kim Jong Il's attention. 

The second, Choe Yong Rim, is the premier and another close Kim family confidant, having served as Kim Il Sung's personal secretary and head of the Pyongyang Party apparatus. 

And the third, General Yi Yong Ho, is the chief of the General Staff Department. The son of one of Kim Il Sung's close partisan supporters during the war against the Japanese, Yi Yong Ho is considered to be one of Kim Jong Un's guardians within the high command. 

After the Politburo Presidium, the funeral committee list contains the names of 228 additional leaders, for the most part arranged by institution: Politburo members, elders, Central Committee and state apparatuses, provincial secretaries, Central Military Committee, etc. The list is a mix of old guard and new faces that emerged on the scene at the 2010 Third Party Conference. Although Party leaders are featured prominently at the top of the list, it should be noted that, in this era of military-first politics, many of these officials also wear a uniform. Some key names who did not make the list are Kim family members such as Kim Jong Un's brothers, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, and his half uncle Kim Pyong Il, the ambassador to Poland and a rival to Kim Jong Il.

One of the more prominent members is Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Un's aunt and a member of the Politburo. Her relationship with her youngest nephew is the source of wide speculation, since she has long-standing ties to Kim Jong Il's oldest son, Kim Jong Nam. Kim Jong Il brought her into the public eye in 2009 to build support for Kim Jong Un. Whether she will support him now that her brother is dead will be a source of speculation going forward. 

Then there is the wildcard. Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Un's uncle, was also listed. He is an alternate member of the Politburo and a member of the Central Military Committee. As the story goes, Jang made a deal with Kim Jong Il in early 2009 to support Kim Jong Un in return for Kim Jong Il's permission to build his own patronage network. As the de facto head of North Korea's internal security apparatus, Jang is the unpredictable one in any succession scenario. His support will be vital for his nephew's early consolidation of power. He, however, could stand in the way of Kim's long-term survival. Jang has been purged at least twice since the early 1990s for building his power base without the leader's permission. He is rumored to still have leadership aspirations of his own. In 2004, before Jang disappeared from the scene for two years, Hwang Jang Yop (the most senior North Korean leader to ever defect) called him the second most powerful man in the country. 

Further down on the funeral list, at number 18, was Choe Ryong Hae, alternate member of the Politburo and party secretary for military affairs. Choe's ties to the Kim family go back to the 1970s. He played a major role in Kim Jong Un's coming-out party, and, along with the heir apparent, was promoted to four-star general. He and Jang Song Taek are rumored to be Kim Jong Un's most senior guardians. Choe's role as secretary for military affairs would give him a unique role in helping the "great successor" build his network within the Korean People's Army (KPA). 

At the end of the list of Politburo members are a number of military elders, the most prominent of whom is O Kuk Ryol, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and former chief of the general staff. He is a rather shadowy figure and could, within the ranks of the senior leadership, serve as a counterweight to Jang Song Taek. The Kim family has relied on the O family for support since the founding of the regime, and O Kuk Ryol will likely play a role in ensuring the loyalty of the high command. Already, he is responsible for crisis management and sits atop a vast apparatus of special forces.

In addition to these more august figures, there is a cast of new rising stars. Their relationship to Kim Jong Un is even less clear, but, since their rapid promotions paralleled his, they are probably connected to him. The presumption is that, since they are closer to his generation, they might have a more subservient relationship to him, unlike the senior leadership, which might harbor some disdain for the young successor. 

The first, Choe Pu Il, is deputy chief of the General Staff and a member of the Party's Central Military Committee (CMC). Allegedly once a member of the North Korean national basketball team, he is rumored to have been especially close to Kim Jong Un since childhood.

Next is O Il Chong, who is director of the Party's Military Affairs Department. O is the son of Kim Il Sung's minister of defense O Chin U (former mentor and confidant to Kim Jong Il), and his ties to Kim Jong Un are emblematic of Kim's ties to the rising generation within the KPA. As head of the Military Affairs Department, O is responsible for monitoring the loyalty within the senior ranks of the military. He also oversees the Worker-Peasant Red Guards (WPRG) -- the North's largest civilian defense force. 

And finally, Kim Yong Chol, the head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau and a CMC member, is one of the alleged masterminds behind the Cheonan sinking in 2010. Kim and the rest of the RGB have, over the last two years, become closely linked to the succession and to Kim Jong Un himself. Most outsiders became acquainted with him in his previous role as the hard-line North Korean delegate to the Panmunjom talks between the North and South. 

These figures represent only a fraction of the byzantine leadership structure that now surrounds Kim Jong Un. It is highly unlikely that Kim is prepared -- both his formal education and military instruction have been limited -- to fully assume the mantle of the "great successor"; he will have to rely on the guidance of those around him. He will certainly be subject to their influence. In addition, his daily schedule will be overseen by a Personal Secretariat that is still evolving, and populated mostly by figures who owed their loyalty to his father.

Taken together, what seems to be emerging is a leadership configuration in which Kim Jong Un, at least in the near term, serves as a figurehead to a regime struggling to survive the death of a man who was the focal point for decision-making for nearly two decades. In the near term, there is an incentive for the leadership to hold together in the interest of regime stability. 

But, in the long term, this leadership configuration faces unique challenges. First, the continuation of the Kim dynasty will make it near impossible for the regime to shed the ideological baggage needed to undertake meaningful reforms. The perpetuation of chuche and Kimilsungism -- a term for the ideology and system of power instituted by Kim Il Sung, which ensures that power will remain in the hands of the Supreme Leader, presumably a Kim -- will harden the boundaries for policymakers, thus making it difficult for leaders with contrary opinions to emerge. In addition, for the successor to eventually take the reins, the regime would have to undertake a campaign of deification.

After all, for the Supreme Leader to survive, he must be surrounded by a cult that insulates him from internal threats and places him above all other people. This will be especially important for a 28-year-old-kid among wolves. Such a campaign would be highly unlikely to tolerate any criticism of the Kim Jong Il era. The second problem would arise if the center of the collective leadership did not hold. Despite Kim Jong Il's efforts to build a cohesive group around Kim Jong Un, the group is made up of powerful individuals who might harbor power aspirations of their own. If the collective leadership (or elements within it) were to take actions to undermine or even remove Kim Jong Un, the power struggle could be fierce and potentially rip the regime apart. At the moment, the possibility that Kim Jong Un will survive 17 years of rule, as his father did, appears dim. But, 17 years ago, the smart money was not on Kim Jong Il either.

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