The Trouble with Kim Jong-il's Succession

  • By Kang Chol-hwan from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    August 20, 2010 13:07

    Kang Chol-hwan

    The North Korean party elite have recently felt the country is at something of a historic turning point, with regime change just around the corner. Leader Kim Jong-il believes that the only way for him to maintain his power is to establish the hereditary succession of his son, but it is doubtful whether the entire party agrees.

    Ri Je-gang, the first deputy director of the Workers Party's Organization and Guidance Department, the prop for Kim Jong-il's heir apparent, recently died in a mysterious car accident, and Pak Jae-kyong, the deputy director in charge of propaganda of the General Political Department of the North Korean People's Army, was recently removed to a post in charge of overseas affairs. There is no way of knowing the inside story, but something is clearly going on. These could be signs of a rift in the leadership between those who feel the winds of change blowing and the Kim loyalists.

    O Kuk-ryol and Jang Song-taek apparently have gaining power in the North. Both are Kim Jong-il's closest associates, but power is leaning toward the former. Commanding the Operation Department of the party for a long time and enjoying Kim Jong-il's absolute trust, O has built firm personal links in the armed forces. Now even Kim cannot afford to remove O. Jang Song-taek, meanwhile, lost his two elder brothers in the armed forces to heart attacks and has few close associates remaining due to incessant intrigue against him. The power structure is cracking.

    North Korea has had few political upheavals. However difficult it was, Kim Jong-il's associates always united behind him. But the question is what a future without him holds, and whether they face a stark choice between Chinese-style reform and being thrown on the scrap heap of history.

    The North's food shortage is even more serious than the famine during the latter half of the 1990s. But markets that were deserted for several months after the botched currency reform late last year are reviving, and the people are restless. The authorities find it all but impossible to control the markets any longer, and the suspension of foreign aid means the armed forces and those in power have little to bargain with.

    Few party leaders know what Kim Jong-un looks like and what he has done. The party's propaganda department should make the same efforts it did to establish Kim Jong-il as his own father's heir, but that does not seem to be happening.

    Kim Jong-il specially created a secret body dubbed "No. 10" with the authority to ferret out and dispose of people who raised questions about his family lineage, lest anyone raise doubt about the genetic purity with which the regime is obsessed. If Kim Jong-un is to be presented as the heir, the background of his mother Ko Young-hui will inevitably be exposed, and that is bound to eventually lead to the disclosure of Kim Jong-il's private life and his own origins.

    But the biggest stumbling block to hereditary succession is Kim Jong-il himself. Having reduced his own father Kim Il-sung to a powerless figurehead, he must now dread what Kim Jong-un might do if he is built up too fast. He is in a bind, both compelled to designate an heir and mortally afraid of doing so, with the result that the whole process is stalled.

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