Pity Kim Jong Un. In one day, he lost his father and inherited the worst job in the world. Yes, pity is far more appropriately bestowed on the millions of victims of his scurrilous family (think just of the one to two million North Koreans who perished during the famine of the mid-1990s), but there is no question that the new leader of North Korea finds himself in an uneasy place. As I wrote in my 2010 Foreign Affairs article, "The Once and Future Kim," powerful forces will help Kim Jong Un consolidate his power. But the suddenness of Kim Jong Il's death has sparked fears of instability, with dangerous implications for the peninsula, East Asia, and the world.
Writing off the Kim family would be foolish. Kim Jong Il was a skilled dictator who survived the brass-knuckle politics of an impoverished and imperiled country. The Kim family created a set of policies and bureaucracies to "coup-proof" their government, a program that sustained the regime through famine and poverty. Because of instruments of power such as intense surveillance, political prison camps, and the exile and execution of dissidents, elites know that even a whisper against Kim Jong Un (let alone actual coup attempts) would mean death for themselves and severe punishment for their families.
Still, the suddenness of Kim Jong Il's death will destabilize the transition. Kim Jong Un's youth is enough of a strike against him; additionally, he has had very little time to prepare for his ascent. The current succession stands in stark contrast to the previous handoff of power in North Korea: Kim Il Sung designated Kim Jong Il as heir some 15 years before the Great Leader eventually died, allowing the son to gain experience in North Korean politics and build his power within the regime. Kim Jong Un was proclaimed heir only last year. One can only imagine the teeth-grinding among the career generals when Kim Jong Il elevated his son to four-star general despite his total
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