It would appear, however, from the limited information emanating from the North, that the passage of power to the third generation of the Kim dynasty will be difficult. Unlike his departed father, the presumptive heir, Kim Jong-un, has spent little time working within the government and consequently has not developed deep repositories of support. Indeed, whatever support he may have gained upon his being designated as Jong-il’s heir in 2010 and subsequent elevation to four-star general accompanied by influential positions within the Central Party and the powerful Central Military Commission, was garnered under the auspices of his father. While Kim Jong-il has also recently promoted other members of his family to key Party positions – notably his sister and her husband, Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Song-thaek – in what some regard as an attempt to solidify his family’s position at the pinnacle of the regime, and as a way to prop up his son, it is unclear that Kim Jong-un will be able to exert a similar level of influence independent of his father’s authority. Indeed, Kim Jong-il had purposefully kept his three sons under tight control, not allowing them to develop supportive factions that might be able to challenge his; however, it appears that this caution has placed the future of the Kim dynasty in peril as his son may not have access to the support necessary to quickly consolidate his newfound power.
It appears that in the silent days following Kim Jong-il’s death and prior to the public announcement, Kim Jong-un and his acolytes have been busy seeking that support. In the public announcement of the elder Kim’s death, the North Korean people were instructed to unite behind “the Great Successor,” a clear reference to Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, Kim Jong-un is at the top of the lists published by the state-run media, of Party officials involved in the upcoming funeral and memorial plans for Kim Jong-il. Position on such rolls often indicates position within the government and would indicate that Kim Jong-un has assumed the mantle from his father, the “Dear Leader.”
While North Korea has been typically characterized as a totalitarian state, a system in which the leader maintains absolute control, this description may, in fact, be misleading. Indeed, it seems that while Kim Il-sung maintained absolute control over the country he founded, his son, Kim Jong-il, did not enjoy the same level of power. Rather he sought to spread power within different agencies and play different factions off against one another. Kim Jong-il relied heavily on the military for support and subsequently instituted a national policy of “military first,” to serve their interests and keep them in the fold. However, it is unlikely that Kim Jong-un has developed sufficient power to follow immediately in this manner. As mentioned before, his inexperience precludes him from assuming his grandfather’s mantle of absolute leader, or from bounding freely to the top of his father’s system of “authoritarian pluralism.” Rather, it is likely that Kim Jong-un will assume a highly public role in an effort to unify the North Korean people behind his leadership, while the institutions of government will be managed by high-level officials like his aunt and uncle until such a time that he is better prepared to assume greater control. Under such a system it is likely that a small junta containing other members of the Kim family as well as military leaders will emerge with Kim Jong-un its titular head.
The test of the “Great Successor’s” leadership will be in convincing the powerful military establishment to throw their support behind him. While one may speculate his elevation to important positions within the military have allowed him to develop important and valuable ties to the military elite, it is, at present, unclear as to whether or not he is the military’s preferred choice of leader. Certainly there have been suggestions that members of the military’s highest echelon’s openly questioned the decision of Kim Jong-il to designate Jong-un as his successor. It is generally viewed that the attack on the ROK corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November of the same year were carried out under his supervision as a way of enhancing his stature in the eyes of the military elite. Despite such attempts to mollify the Old Guard generals, Jong-un’s lack of experience in political and military affairs are severely problematic. Moreover, there is suspicion that his elevation will result in the purges that so often accompany regime changes within totalitarian systems, as he seeks to disenfranchise potential enemies and promote those loyal to him. There are suggestions that brutal purges may have already begun to take place as reports have indicated that Kim Jong-un has taken steps to weaken potential rivals as well as solidify his claim to power through a campaign of fear.
It will be essential that Kim Jong-un solidify his support within the military. As a result, it is likely that he will continue, if not reinforce, his father’s policy of “military first.” However, this could have disastrous effects on North Korean civilians, as very limited resources are directed to the military. In particular, deteriorating economic conditions coupled with the rise in global food prices and meager domestic harvests have increased the likelihood that the already desperate humanitarian situation will worsen in the coming months, particularly as winter sets in.
These considerations will likely lead to increased appeals from the emerging regime for international aid and support. However, such aid has not been forthcoming in the past and is unlikely to be so now beyond token levels. The resulting dynamic will see a tightening of relations with China. While the fear of the collapse of the North Korean state will be enough to compel China to offer assistance, it may also allow Beijing to exercise renewed leverage over Pyongyang and the forging of fresh ties between the two nations. While this may lead to positive movement back towards negotiations over the North’s nuclear and other weapons programs, this seems unlikely. In the coming months, the emerging regime in Pyongyang is likely to freeze negotiations with the international community until its internal situation has become clearer. Indeed, it seems more likely that an emerging regime would seek to brandish their nuclear arsenal as a way of wringing concessions from the international community and thereby be in a position to stabilize the internal situation. This would have the added effects of legitimizing the new regime in the eyes of the domestic populace, as well as legitimacy through recognition by the international community, and further solidify the support of the military. This type of brinksmanship has become the calling card of the North Korean establishment and it seems unlikely that it would undergo a dramatic shift.
For their part the United States and South Korea would do well to avoid any dramatic changes in current policy towards the North until the new regime emerges and not overreact as the situation develops lest they exacerbate an already tense situation. In the meantime it is vital that the Obama administration consult directly with Beijing and encourage the timely resumption of discussions over the North’s nuclear program and normalization of relations. It is likely that these entreaties will largely fall on the deaf ears of Pyongyang as the new regime seeks to consolidate power, but it will be an important gesture that may preclude an unnecessary and counterproductive worsening of relations.
Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.