Why N.Korean Regime Succession Is a Delicate Matter

      September 28, 2009 12:14

      North Korea has officially denied there is any talk of a successor to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, but only last Thursday newspapers published a photo of a North Korean propaganda poster taken by a tourist that exalts Kim's third son, Jong-un. "Comrade Kim Jong-un" is hailed in the poster as "succeeding to the lineage of Mangyongdae and Mt. Baekdu." Mangyongdae is the birthplace of Kim Il-sung, and Mt. Baekdu the alleged birthplace of Kim Jong-il.

      It was in March that it became virtually established as fact that Kim Jong-il had chosen Jong-un as his successor. That the country's No. 2 leader Kim Yong-nam felt moved to deny it indicates the uncertainties and difficulties associated with the second dynastic handover of power.

      There are two sources of news on such matters. One is through North Koreans who go to China or other countries with permission, and they are adept at telling stories the world wants to hear because they get a paid for them. Another channel is internal North Korean information transmitted through contacts the 17,000 defectors maintain back home. The contacts could be anyone, including border guards and intelligence agents. Comparing the information from these two channels creates a conflicting picture of Jong-un. Most North Korean traders or Chinese residents in the communist country say Jong-un is the successor to the throne.

      Kim Jong-il's oldest son Jong-nam, who appears to have been sidelined, was the North Korean leader's favorite child. But his fall from grace is related to the rise to power of Kim Jong-il's ex-wife Ko Yong-hui, the mother of Jong-un. The National Defense Committee and Ko Yong-hui, Kim Jong-il's sister and wife of Jang Song-taek, a member of the Committee, are crucial here.

      Once just a rubber-stamp organ, the Defense Committee has recently gained control over the departments that handle espionage and external affairs, becoming the most powerful organ in North Korea. As a result, key figures within the committee such as O Kuk-ryol and Jang Song-taek have become even more powerful. "It appears that Kim Jong-il's physical condition, prompted him to hand over a portion of his authority to O and Jang," said Hwang Jang-yop, a defector and former secretary of the Worker's Party. And the choices of Kim Kyong-hui, a major figure in North Korea, remains as an important variable. Without a son of her own, she raised Jong-nam like her own child.

      If he is to beat Jong-nam to the succession, Jong-un must gain the support of not only the key committee figures but of Kim Kyong-hui as well. Former leader Kim Il-sung favored his second son, Pyong-il, as his successor, but the insistence of veteran revolutionaries that the eldest son must succeed the leader prompted the selection of Kim Jong-il instead. Kim Yong-nam's official denial suggests that the North Korean intelligence agency could be behind an attempt to question Jong-un's legitimacy.

      Internally, the second dynastic succession is tougher than it may seem to be. It cannot simply be settled by Kim Jong-il's edict. One recent North Korean defector who used to work in the intelligence agency said, "The son who gets chosen by Kim Jong-il may end up being the successor, but that does not mean the North Korean elite and people accept that." He said the biggest problems in the selection of a successor are the catastrophic economic conditions and finding a justification for the power transfer. When Kim Jong-il took over from his father, there was no unrest because there were no food shortages, but now the situation is quite different.

      Another important issue is China's position on the Kim Jong-il family, which has lost Beijing's trust due to the North's nuclear and missile tests. If he pushes through a hereditary transfer of power rather than going through a Socialist process, this would upset the more traditional communists in China. If that happens, Beijing could try to change North Korea's leadership. A new North Korean power base that has the support of China might not find it so difficult after all to topple the hereditary line.

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