N.Korean Succession Is Like Nothing Else in the World

      September 29, 2010 12:33

      North Korea's third-generation hereditary succession is unprecedented in the 20th and the 21st centuries and flies in the face of political theory. In most cases, a two-generation hereditary dictatorship has led to outbursts of democratic fervor and dismantling of the powerbase, but North Korea is the only country calling itself a "republic" where the power is now to be handed over to a third generation.

      Also, successors to dictators usually go through an apprenticeship, holding key positions in the ruling party and the government to prepare for the leadership. During this probationary time, they make their existence known to the foreign diplomats, and build up their legitimacy. But Kim Jong-un, the third son and heir of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, does not follow this pattern, having emerged from obscurity to be anointed in his 20s. North Korea also distinguishes itself from other dictatorial regimes in that it idolizes the entire family of the leader, thus making the country effectively a kingdom rather than a republic.

      Pyongyang residents dance at a plaza in celebration of the extraordinary congress of the North Korean Workers Party. /Reuters-Yonhap

      ◆ Longest Hereditary Succession in Modern History

      Hereditary dictatorship has been a risky political move with a very low success rate. Jason Brownlee, an associate professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, analyzed 258 dictatorial regimes between 1945 and 2006 where one person stayed in power for three years or more in a 2007 article titled, "Hereditary Succession in Modern Autocracies." Of the 23 attempts at hereditary succession, only nine were successful. North Korea is unparalleled in this field.

      The combined duration of rule of the first and the second leaders -- Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il -- is 62 years and counting. That is way ahead of Togo and Gabon in West Africa, which have been under hereditary rule for 44 years, Togo eight months longer. Syria has been under hereditary rule for 39 years, Azerbaijan for 17 and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 15.

      ◆ Family Cult

      U.S. magazine Foreign Policy has said that legitimacy can be inherited through the idolization of the entire family of the leader. In the North, the "supreme leader" succeeds his father, the "eternal president" Kim Il-sung, whose mother Kim Pan-sok is the "mother" of North Korea. Kim Jong-il's mother Kim Jong-suk is the "mother of the revolution." Kim Il-sung's brother Kim Chol-ju is the "indomitable revolutionary fighter." Their vast portraits overlook all national events, and labor mobilization campaigns are held in their names. Again, this was only a feature in North Korea of over 250 dictatorial regimes studied.

      ◆ 'Unpredictable and Dangerous'

      The Economist says North Korea has become a more unpredictable and dangerous country as a result of the third-generation succession. In the past, North Korea committed international terrorism during the succession period. For example, the 1983 bombing in Rangoon that killed a score of South Korean officials and journalists and the bombing of Korean Air flight 858 in 1987.

      Victor Cha, a senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said earlier this month in an interview about North Korea's attack on the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan that when the successor, unlike his predecessor, lacks the revolutionary credentials, the leadership has to create a huge incident that is tantamount to a war to gain legitimacy and build up his myth.

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