Challenges in post-Kim Jong-il era
Everybody knew that Marshall Kim Jong-il was going to die sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, his death came as a complete surprise to both North Koreans and the outside world. It seems that Kim himself assumed that he would live many more years ― at least he was not as careful in preparing for a power transfer as his father.
Indeed, only in early 2010 did the people of North Korea actually learn that a new genius of leadership had been born in their country. In October the same year, Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son, appeared in public for the first time. It is not widely realized though, that technically speaking, Kim Jong-un had been made heir-designate. When the father died, his son was merely a top official and four-star general (never seen in uniform, though).
This situation has led many to speculate that the young Kim, obviously lacking a power base and experience, will become a sitting duck for rival contenders in the court of the now dead elder Kim.
Admittedly, such a turn of events cannot be ruled out. As is known, the deaths of both Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were followed by a cutthroat struggle for power among former potentates that served their respective strongmen. In both cases, the persons who were first seen as successors (Malenkov in post-Stalin Soviet Union, and Hua Guofeng in post-Mao China) were eventually pushed aside.
It is not impossible that in the next few months we will see a challenge (or, perhaps, a number of challenges) to Kim Jong-un’s power. We might learn about an unusual movement of troops and Pyongyang watchers will probably notice that some dignitaries “have not been seen in public of late.”
However, it seems that in the peculiar case of North Korea, Kim Jong-un ― in spite of his embarrassingly young age and political inexperience ― stands a pretty good chance of surviving. It is an open question whether he will be an actual decision-maker, since for the first years of his rule he is likely to be assisted and supervised by the members of his father’s old guard. That said, his formal position as North Korea’s new supreme leader seems to be relatively secure.
In any other dictatorship, such a young person would probably have to deal with many a contender, but North Korea is not a standard dictatorship. North Korean generals and cadres might dislike and even despise Kim Jong-un, but they also seem to understand that in order to survive, they have to stick together.
The current predicament of the North Korean leadership can be best described by the famous dictum of Benjamin Franklin who said "We must hang together, gentlemen ... else, we shall most assuredly hang separately."
The North Korean state continues to face a number of threats, both international and domestic. Chief among them is the existence of South Korea itself. The major problem is that the South’s unprecedented economic success underlines the economic failure of the North Korean state.
The ratio of the gap in per capita income levels between the two rival states on the Korean Peninsula is estimated to be between 1:15 to 1:40. No other two countries that border one another have such a huge differential in income levels. To put this in perspective, the gap between West and East Germany was between 1:2 and 1:3 at the time of their reunification.
Needless to say, this difference is potentially destabilizing. If the people of North Korea are allowed to learn the true extent of South Korea’s prosperity, and if they become less fearful of the government, they are likely to do what East Germans once did. That is to get rid of the current regime, and demand unification with the fabulously wealthy South (somewhat naively expecting that unification will immediately bring them similar living standards with those the people of the South currently enjoy).
Facing such a situation, the leadership in Pyongyang is likely to be very careful about rocking the boat. What they actually think about Kim Jong-un is irrelevant as is whether Kim Jong-un possesses the requisite leadership qualities. He is important, above all, as a symbolic figure who, in the eyes of the majority, has a certain legitimacy conferred by his name, his origin, as well as from his anointment (albeit not quite complete) as heir designate.
The above statement might irritate the democratic sensibilities of some readers, but we should not forget that the vast majority of states in human history have been run by hereditary ruling families ― and people saw such an arrangement as perfectly natural. The North Korean people have no experience of living under any kind of democratic regime. Before they became subjects of “the Kim monarchy,” they used to be subjects of the Japanese emperor, and before that, subjects of the Joseon Kingdom kings.
Therefore, Kim Jong-un appears to be safe ― not perfectly safe, perhaps ― but rather safe for somebody with his circumstances. Pyongyang’s leadership is perfectly aware that it is cornered; they seem to understand the value of unity and continuity. And, moreover, they see Kim Jong-un as the living symbol of this continuity.
This does not necessarily mean though that the next few months will be smooth. Trouble may arise elsewhere.
First, ambitions sometimes make people act irrationally. There is a small but real chance that some members of the North Korean elite will still mount a challenge to Kim Jong-un’s leadership. This challenge, however, is unlikely to be supported by a majority of the elite.
Second, we might see a power struggle between the advisers of the young dictator. It seems likely that the young Kim Jong-un will be coached and advised by a group of aged cadres (essentially the people who ran the country during the time of his father). One would expect that this group of regents is not free from intense factional rivalries.
Needless to say, we cannot predict the future, but it seems likely that for the next few months and years, North Korea will continue to follow the trajectory it had under Kim Jong-il, with his son as a nominal (or perhaps actual) leader.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.