The death of Kim Jong-il this month came as a surprise to North Korean watchers. His third son, Kim Jong-un, has now been anointed “Supreme Leader” and will reportedly be sharing power through an arrangement with the North Korean military. It’s a shift into collective rule that has been routinely predicted by analysts.
Because of Kim Jong-un’s lack of experience and apparent inability to consolidate power thus far, he will need to look towards his guardians to assist him in securing a stable transition and running the country. North Korean watchers believe that he’s therefore going to be under the guardianship of Kim Jong-il’s sister and her husband, Kim Kyung-hee and Chang Sung-taek.
Kim Kyung-hee has held a variety of key positions within the Korean Worker’s Party and is a member of the Central Committee. As the first woman to earn promotion as a four star general, she’s seen as a powerful force within North Korean politics and will likely ensure that Kim Jong-il’s wishes are carried out.
In contrast, her husband Chang Sung-taek has seen declining influence over his support for economic reforms and Kim Jong-nam’s succession (Kim’s eldest son fell out of favor and is now living in Macau). Chang’s return to the political scene in 2006 was likely under the condition that he accepts Kim Jong-un as heir. By 2010, Chang was made the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC).
Whether strong opposition exists amongst the elites to Kim Jong-un’s succession remains to be seen. However, there may well be a consensus amongst the elites that, under the direction of the National Defense Commission, Kim Jong-un’s rule will be safe, and that stability will be assured, for now at least.
As to how the members of the National Defense Council will approach reform in the future, this is far from clear. Kim Jong-un is expected to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms since Chang is aligned with elites who seek greater economic reform within North Korea.
The consensus among Western analysts is that the relationship between China and North Korea will remain the same. Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping visited the North Korean Embassy in Beijing to express their condolences and reaffirm China’s support for North Korea. One of the more curious things surrounding Kim’s death, though, is that the Chinese government appeared to find out about it through the announcement on North Korean state media, just as the rest of the world did.
In terms of how the new leadership will approach the recent negotiations with the United States over its nuclear program is also the subject of much speculation. As Kim Jong-un still needs to assert himself in the upcoming months, the new leadership may seek to further delay the talks. According to a U.S. proposal revealed shortly before Kim’s death, North Korea was to receive food aid of 20,000 tons per month in exchange for suspending its nuclear enrichment program. However, the extent of the inspections and the monitoring of any North Korean denuclearization are yet to be decided upon. It seems likely that as the country is transitioning to a collective leadership, the more conservative elites will likely be opposed to restarting talks with the U.S. for the time being.
Kim Jong-un’s guardians, meanwhile, may wish to keep his influence under the control of the National Defense Commission. While China continues to pledge its support for North Korea, the United States has opted to sit back and watch to see how the political situation unfolds. With the dire consequences of failing to keep the country unified in mind, North Korean elites will undoubtedly be very much focused on stability.
Nicholas Miller is an analyst with the Center for Strategic Research and Analysis.