Getting Ready for Kim Jong-un
Image Credit: Mike Connolly

Getting Ready for Kim Jong-un


The recent appointment of Kim Jong-un as a general and his attendance at a major military parade this month seemed to further confirm his status as the likely heir to Kim Jong-il. Do you expect the next North Korean leadership to be as centralized as it was under Kim Jong-il?

What I took away from the party conference in September was the impression that there was a relatively careful balancing of institutional interests and individual roles across the party and the military bureaucracy. There’s been a lot of focus on Kim Jong-un as a successor to Kim Jong-il. But if we look overall at the appointments, there have been a variety of balancing mechanisms put in place. One is the refurbishing of the party as an institution, which suggests that the next leader might not have a military-first policy. Another aspect is actually in the appointment process – Chang Sung-taek (Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and vice chairman of the National Defence Commission) – didn’t get as much attention in terms of any special party roles.

So I think what all this suggests is a structure that’s going to require some of the key power holders to work together in some way — it necessitates a kind of collective approach to leadership. You could look at a collective leadership as a means for managing some kind of regency, or it may simply be characteristic of a third-generation leadership. So I guess I’m questioning whether we can expect the same kind of one-man rule in a successor regime.

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How stable do you think this kind of arrangement could be?

I think that what we’ve seen over the past few months has been an attempt to shore up the capacity for longevity, certainly. But what we just don’t know is whether that effort will succeed or whether this structure might lead to competing power centres in the absence of Kim Jong-il. Clearly, it was intended to bind the bureaucracy to the will of the family. But we don’t know, because everything in North Korea is organized around Kim Jong-il, how the new structure will take in his absence. Is he the foundational stone that if you pull it away the whole regime collapses? Or is there now a supporting infrastructure that would allow the leadership to be stable in his absence?

Is there any indication about how this transition is likely to be viewed within North Korea?

If you’re one of the North Koreans that has been named to a position, then it may well depend where you are in the hierarchy. If you’re not involved in that particular process or not affected immediately – if you’re one of the regular citizens – then based on the interviews with foreign journalists there’s no appetite for identifying oneself as dissatisfied with the new arrangement. That said, I’m sure that there is a lot of dissatisfaction, especially after the currency devaluation. The question is if that will matter and how it could potentially be expressed.

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