With the death of Kim Jong-il, there’s been a torrent of speculation over what the future holds for “North Korea 3.0.” In the meantime, one thing seems clear: the country’s political system and the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) are now under serious stress, not least in their efforts to manage the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
If there are three words to describe the North Korean political system they would be: “politicized”, “centralized” and “inherited.” In essence, both the juche (self-reliance) and songun jeongchi (military first) ideologies have served as the political software for smoothing the centralization and politicization process. With this in mind, it might seem reasonable to assume that the North Korean system would have the capacity to force a transition to the thirdgeneration of leadership, at least in the short-term.
However, the situation now is quite different from when Kim Il-sung died in 1994, and it’s worth keeping in mind four key points in trying to understand what might come next.
First, the succession process has been well underwayfor at least two years. The appointment of Kim Jong-un as the Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission(CMCWPK) in September 2010, and the appointment of Jang Song-thaekas Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) in June 2010,indicate that Kim Jong-un will take charge of strategy and military affairs. Jang Song-thaek, meanwhile, is likely to handle administrative tasks. Kim Jong-un’s rise to power, then, hasn’t come from nowhere.
Second, when Kim Jong-un officially assumes the leadership of the NDC, the relationship between the NDC and the CMCWPK will be stronger than ever before. One of the interesting patterns in recent years has been the high number of figures serving both in the NDC and the CMCWPK. If we include the late Kim Jong-il, there are six “dual serving” figures. The ratio of these “dual serving” individuals has slowly increased over the years, and reflects the further refinement and centralization of the regime.
Third, after Kim Jong-un assumed his senior role in the WPK, numerous “generational changes” have taken place within the party, to mould the next regime. Themost senior personnelhave been fine tuned to include those who will serve as Kim Jong-un’s closest cronies. In particular, figures such as Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho (Chief of General Staff, Vice-Chairman of the CMCWPK), Jang Song-thaek, and Kim Kyung-hee (Director of the Light Industry Department of the Central Committee), will likely be Kim Jong-un’s key policy advisors. Other veterans such as Kim Yong-chun, RiYong-mu, Kuk-ryeol, and Kim Jong-gakare also likely to play significantroles in trying to ensure that policies are effectively carried out. Hence the fate of the “new” North Korea depends not only on Kim Jong-un’s leadership, but the competence of, and teamwork among, these senior individuals.
Finally, it’s important to note Pyongyang’s efforts to control the situation followingKim Jong-il’s death. Kim Jong-il died at 0830 on the December 17. However, the “Special Guard” order wasn’t sent to the KPA cadres and border guards until 0100 on December 18. The official announcement of the death wasn’t released until 1200 on December 19. By the time the news of Kim Jong-il’s death broke, the border with China was closed off, and in cities, armed soldiers were reportedly on guard at four meter intervals.
North Korea’s crisis management will really be put to the test in the coming days, with arguably the biggest challenge being the KPA. Indeed, despite the external message to the contrary, party-military relations may be strong, but they aren’t without their problems.
As Kim Il-sung began to construct his autonomous political system in the 1950s, North Korea shifted from a bureaucracy-based system to a more “people-based” one that gives the WPK greater authority. The military wasn’t excluded from this process, and became the most politicized of sectors in North Korea, with the hierarchy in the armed forces determined more by political credentials than military competence.
Yet although tensions may still exist between the party and the military, orchestrating a coup wouldn’t be easy. The North Korean leadership has done its best to stamp out conspiracies and factionalism within the KPA, and the new leadership is likely to continue this tradition.
What could cause cracks in the party’s tight control? Over the years, corruption and the looting of farms and markets by soldiers have been a significant problem. And while the leadership has taken stern action, disciplinary problems have proliferatedas poverty and food shortages have spread among the KPA. Such problems are slowly and steadily chipping away at the regime’s authority over the KPA.
It’s possible, then, that the political leadership could be weakened enough to cause the KPA to fragment into multiple bases of KimJong-unloyalists, militarist hardliners, reformists and bandits. Such a nightmarish scenario would undermine the prospects for peaceful unification and may spark serious instability.
It’s clear that North Korea is in a fragile state, and China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States must ensure they have contingency plans in place (although they will have to balance the need to prepare for the worst with not placing excessive pressure on the new regime).
Some have speculated that North Korea might provoke a military crisis to shore up Kim Jong-un’s support. However, while the possibility of some sort of military provocation can’t be ruled out, the North Korean leadership knows full well that a military clash would ultimately be counterproductive.
Next year was supposed to be the year that North Korea achieved its goal of becoming a “strong and prosperous” nation. Part of this will undoubtedly include the diversification of the KPA’s capabilities, a move that underscores Kim Jong-un’s potentially hardline strategy. Politically, the regime will work to strengthen its totalitarian control against the backdrop of trying to revive the country’s economy. Whether these three strategies are compatible remains to be seen. Either way, it could be a rocky ride ahead for the region.
Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi is a security affairs analyst affiliated to the FM BIRD Entertainment Agency Scholar Project. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales – Australian Defense Force Academy, where he is researching North Korea’s military capability management. He is also serving as a Reserve Sergeant First Class in the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.