The rule of Chairman Kim Jong-il is coming to an end. ‘The Lodestar of the 21st Century’ and ‘the Guardian of Our Planet’ is elderly, ailing, and obviously tired. His economy, despite a brief respite in 2008, is continuing on a downward spiral. His subjects literally worshipped his father, the founder of the North Korean state, but despise him. Kim’s plan to install his 27-year-old son on the throne looks like a precarious bet.
So what will happen in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea when Kim passes from the scene? Unfortunately, we can’t rule much out. Pyongyang’s politics are Byzantine, unpredictable, and almost always hidden from view. We nonetheless caught a glimpse of what’s going on this month when the Supreme People’s Assembly, the rubber-stamp legislature that usually meets once a year, held an unexpected additional session. At the extra meeting, Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, was named vice chairman of the all-powerful National Defense Commission.
Apparently, Kim wants his trusted relative, the husband of his younger sister, to act as regent until his youngest-acknowledged son, Kim Jong-un, is ready to become the third family member to rule the regime. The plan had originally appeared to run into opposition, but the elevation of Jang indicates Kim Jong-il was able to put his succession programme back on track.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Jong-un has the wind at his back for the moment. The regime, although not formally a monarchy, derives its legitimacy from the Kim family. This means the military—by far the strongest bloc in Pyongyang—will naturally look to a Kim as leader. Moreover, Korea has a tradition of strong-man rule, and there are no stronger men on the peninsula than the Kims. Additionally, the regime’s fragility can even help the young Jong-un. Flag officers, who could take over if they so choose, look hesitant to become formally responsible for a failing economy and a disintegrating society.
Yet despite all the advantages Kim Jong-un enjoys, there are powerful forces working against him. For one thing, Kim Il-sung, who died in July 1994, began planning the elevation of his son, Jong-il, in the early 1960s. Jong-il, on the other hand, has spent only a couple of years getting Jong-un ready for the top spot. Should Jong-il disappear or die soon—as many hope and some expect—Jong-un will not have had the time to consolidate his position in Pyongyang.
Jong-un may not have much time in any event. The regime has promised its people that by 2012 their nation will be a ‘strong and prosperous country.’ By now, North Korea’s impoverished citizens have become used to fantastical boasts of Kim family propaganda, but this claim is of special importance and not easily forgotten. Why? In 2012, the regime will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.
In short, Kim Jong-il has created a hard-to-ignore marker for himself. That’s probably a mistake because there’s no conceivable way he can make good on that solemn promise. His major economic ‘reform’ initiative of last year, a misconceived demonetization launched on November 30, resulted in riots against the government and the firing squad execution of Pak Nam Gi, the official in charge of the botched plan. Kim was able to restore order, but the disruptions clearly demonstrated the lack of popular support for his regime—and the declining effectiveness of his governance.