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

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