Events surrounding the death of Kim Jong-il have revealed a country in transition, and an elite apparently shifting seamlessly from one ruler to another. Yet the funeral list, the promotion of Kim’s youngest son as ‘Great Successor’ and ‘Supreme Commander,’ and the political movements around Kim’s sister Kim Kyung-hee and her husband, Chang Sung-taek have underscored the shifting balance of power between the Kims and the National Defence Commission, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP).
Now, following the remarkable rally that transferred power to Kim Jong-un, the question of most interest to Seoul, Tokyo and Washington is whether we will we see more of the same in 2012, or can we expect some sort of change? And if Kim Jong-un is going to shift North Korean internal and external policy, will it be for the better or for the worse?
While many point to the fact that Kim Jong-un briefly lived overseas and attended an international school in Switzerland as evidence that this may lead to more open-minded rule, it’s not clear that Kim Jong-un is in any way an improvement on his father. Nor are there any signs that he would move the country towards economic reform or a policy of engagement with the United States and its Asian allies. There are two main reasons: first, the fact that Kim was chosen by his father over two elder brothers indicates that he had something they apparently lacked. Second, he is politically weak and inexperienced. From the first, we can infer that his father favoured him over his brothers because of certain character traits deemed necessary to exert rule in the North Korean system. These are likely to include a willingness to use force in achieving objectives, strong-headedness, and a strong ideological allegiance to the system.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet most analysts agree that Kim Jong-un’s hold on power is bound to be weaker than that of his father. While his father will have begun to prepare him soon after the recovery from his stroke in 2008, this left little time to master the political intricacies of a complex country like North Korea. His father had nearly 30 years in various party posts and agencies before gaining power. In addition, Kim Jong-il was able to use his time in the propaganda and agitation department in the 1970s to build his father’s cult of personality, which ultimately enabled him to build one around himself.
In contrast, Kim Jong-un’s has a number of weaknesses.
Unlike his father, who had a cadre of peers his own age when he gained power, Kim Jong-un’s peers are far below him in the hierarchy and it would be impossible to promote many to senior posts without causing discontent. That means that he may lack what many Western political leaders take for granted by the time they gain power: a wide network of contacts, associates and connected friends, who act as both informants and political actors. Kim’s youth may also tell against his ability to rule. While the ability to rule others isn’t necessarily aged-based (think Octavius or Alexander the Great), experience is certainly helpful in avoiding the many pitfalls that political leadership brings. If this is true in the West, it must be even more so in an authoritarian system, where political gains and losses are so much greater. There is, simply, less room for mistakes.