Features | Politics | East Asia

Korea After Kim Has Gone

Kim Jong-il’s youngest son is favourite to succeed him. But his prospects once installed are bleak—unless China steps in.

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.

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.

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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.

That’s not good news for Kim Jong-un, an untested candidate for succession. He is said to have inherited the ‘dictator gene,’ and no doubt his dad is giving him lessons in advanced cruelty, prevarication, and double-dealing.  Yet the challenges will nonetheless be daunting, especially if he faces them without parental backup.

There’s always hope for the youngest Kim.  In late 1994, few thought Kim Jong-il could survive without his dad. Top brass and senior officials, however, eventually assented to the first hereditary transfer of power in a communist state by rallying around Kim Jr.  But there’s one crucial difference between then and now. In October 1994, the Clinton administration signalled its support for continuation of the Kim regime by signing the Agreed Framework, an interim arrangement to suspend the North Korean nuclear programme.

Given today’s near universal pessimism in Washington about Pyongyang’s long-term intentions, it’s unlikely the Obama administration will come to Kim Jong-un’s rescue in such a dramatic—and tangible—fashion.  Moreover, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, even if he wanted to, can’t provide assistance after the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, a frigate.

That leaves China as the only possible saviour of the Kim dynasty. President Hu Jintao has consistently supported North Korea this decade. There may be great frustration with Pyongyang in Beijing’s policy circles, but there’s no consensus on withdrawing support for Kimist Korea.

On the contrary, we can expect Beijing and Pyongyang to retain their strong links. In addition to sentimental reasons for the continued bond, there are structural ones. Kim family provocations destabilize Japan, unnerve South Korea, and make the United States feel beholden to China. What’s there for Beijing not to like?  Moreover, both the Chinese and the North Koreans have identified Western nations as obstacles to their long-term ambitions.

At this moment, we don’t know how Beijing’s policymakers feel about Kim Jong-un, but there are reasons to believe they would not object to him as North Korea’s next leader. He will, in all probability, be a weak one and especially dependent on Beijing.

For decades, Beijing has cultivated North Korean officials, and Kim Jong-il has periodically purged them. The dynamic continues today and will only end when he loses power. But by then Beijing, especially if it has gained the upper hand, will undoubtedly have learned to live with the newest Kim.  Kim Jong-un, when he steps into his dad’s elevator shoes, may only be a figurehead. But from China’s viewpoint, that will be ideal.

Gordon G. Chang writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. He is the author of ‘Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.’