North Korea: Like Father, Like Son

Nobody ever really knows what’s going on in North Korea. The “experts” who get quoted in the media are mostly are relying on rumour, hearsay and innuendo, and I suspect that Western intelligence agencies can’t do much better. We still have no idea, for instance, why the North Koreans sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, back in March. Even by erratic standards of North Korea, this was an exceptionally belligerent act. But was it a deliberate provocation? A rogue decision by the military? A freakish accident? An outward manifestation of some invisible, internal political dispute? Unless the North Korean regime collapses and future historians gain access to its secret archives, we’ll probably never find out.

Still, there are some things that even the pathologically secretive North Korean regime can’t keep under wraps. For several months now, information coming out of the regime’s propaganda organs seemed to indicate that a transition was underway. Last month, the North Korean Worker’s Party held its first conference in thirty years, and it largely confirmed that Kim Jong Il is trying to install his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor. Jong Un was given senior positions in the military and the bureaucracy, and the regime itself has tacitly acknowledged that he will succeed his father. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal for him, right?

Dictators trying to hand over power to their sons is nothing new, of course. But without the legitimating aura of a long-standing monarchy, it usually ends in failure.

Perhaps not. Political transitions in authoritarian states are always tricky and often violent. More power concentrated in a single office means a more intense struggle to control that office. (If you have time, read this account of a series of violent transitions in the Roman Empire.) And, not to put too fine a point on it, just look at this guy. Does he seem like the type to inspire respect, awe and admiration? Kim Jong Un is either 27 or 28 years old. He’s overweight and supposedly diabetic. He has never served in the military, or accomplished anything else in the course of his life, yet he was made a four-star general in the army. If you’re a mid-level officer in the North Korean military (which is far and away the most important organ of state, much more so than the civilian bureaucracy), I’m guessing you have serious doubts about him, even if you’re too terrified to actually express them.

Dictators trying to hand over power to their sons is nothing new, of course. But without the legitimating aura of a long-standing monarchy, it usually ends in failure. Oliver Cromwell, having declared the dawn of a new republican era, tried to pass on power to his son Richard. He managed to stay in office a mere nine months before being overthrown by his own army. More recently, Laurent Kabila successfully passed on power to his son, but Joseph Kabila’s authority in the anarchic DRC doesn’t extend far beyond the borders of Kinshasa. There was an interesting case in Haiti in 1971, when “Papa Doc” Duvalier handed over power to “Baby Doc” Duvalier, his 19-year old son. Papa Doc was one of the underrated villains of the 20th century: a sociopathic dictator who created a voodoo personality cult, used a paramilitary force called the Tonton Macoutes to keep the population in a permanent state of fear, and killed as many as 30,000 people during his rule. The apparatus he created to subjugate the population was so firmly entrenched that Baby Doc managed to rule the country for 15 years, but eventually his government also collapsed.

It’s also a move that could easily backfire, splitting the Kim family into two factions and creating a potential new rallying point

Those are the failures. In the successes column, there is Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who succeeded his father in 2000 and has maintained a firm grip on power since then. There’s also Kim Jong Il himself, who became supreme leader by succeeding his father in 1994. That was a very different situation to the one today, however. The transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il took place over a long period of time, and was exceptionally well-planned. Jong Il was anointed the de facto successor at a party conference in 1980, and he had 14 years to build up his own power base before his father died. By contrast, the transition to Kim Jong Un feels hasty and unplanned, like it was forced on the regime by Kim Jong Il’s poor health. (He suffered a stroke in 2008.)

Jong Il is trying to smooth the transition process by giving more power to his sister and his brother-in-law, presumably so they can act as regents on Jong Un’s behalf. This is probably a necessary step in an intensely conservative society that is highly deferential to old age. It’s also a move that could easily backfire, splitting the Kim family into two factions and creating a potential new rallying point for anyone who fears the rise of Jong Un. Kim Jong Un does have one thing in his favour, however. The North Korean elite, like the upper echelons of any steeply hierarchical society, benefit enormously from the status quo. Jong Un, according to most accounts, is a status quo figure. If the North Korean military and political establishment believes that he will keep everything basically the same as it is now, they may conclude that he is the least-worst of all available options, and stick with him rather than risk a catastrophic leadership struggle.

So then: whether to bet on Kim Jong Un’s ultimate success is an interesting question, and by no means a settled one. But as for the idea of Chinese-style economic reforms in North Korea? You can bet against that outcome every time.

  • Mark

    I’m living in South Korea at the moment and I found your article quite interesting. One thing you should know about North Korea is that it carefully manipulates it’s population’s conceptualization of historical and current events to suit itself. For example, we know from defectors that North Korean schools teach their students that South Korea initiated the Korean War by invading the North in 1950. They have also told their populace that South Korea is a wretched nation with constant food supply shortages, and a population that is forced to rummage through trash cans for food.

    I think you article also answered the question of why they sunk the Cheonan; the need to hastily cobble together some credentials for the young Kim. While outwardly denying any involvement in the affair, internally the incident is probably being presented as a ‘great strategic victory’ for Jong-Un. Indeed some highly placed South Korean intelligence officials and members of a defectors’ network claimed to have intercepted messages referring to a great military achievement shortly after the sinking.

    The North Korean regime also attempted to credit Kim Jong-Un with the country’s initial ‘success’ in the soccer world cup, and insisted that with his help and support they could even win the tournament. When this failed dismally after the team’s 0-7 defeat at the hands of Portugal, they held a public display where each player on the team had to blame the coach for this failure, and apologize to Kim Jong-Un for letting him down.

    Personally I agree with some of the final words of the late Hwang Jang-Yop, the highest ranking official to have defected from North Korea. He said: “Whoever the successor is ― Kim Jong-un or someone else ― will make no difference unless the core problem of the North (totalitarian rule) is resolved.” I don’t think the success of this transition can be judged solely on whether or not Jong-Un is able to consolidate and maintain power in the absence of his father; rather we should concentrate on the direction that the new leader takes the ‘hermit kingdom’ in.

  • I’m not convinced that Syria’s al-Assad can constitute a success either though. Considering his academic seclusion in England and the fact that his brother was being groomed for the role of president prior to his death, al-Assad was forced to make severe concessions to retain power. This is a large part of why Syria has such close ties today with Iran and Hezbollah; al-Assad was forced to form very compromising and overt allegiances with all manner of tyrants in order to keep the state out of his military’s hands (ie prevent a coup.)

    Even if a succession is pulled off, the politics behind retaining control often betray just how shaky it was to start with.

  • Just to be clear, I’m defining “success” in a narrow sense, ie. whether Kim Jong Un will be able to assume and consolidate political power. I strongly doubt that any potential North Korean government be a “success” in the sense that it actually improves the lives of North Koreans. As I noted in my closing paragraphs, the political incentives work against reform: the policy of autarky means that North Korea is stable, even if the economy has stabilised at a very low level. There is no popular pressure for change as there was in China (ie. Tienanmen Square). The elite (especially the military) benefit heavily from the status quo. China, the only foreign patron that matters, would prefer to see some sort of economic reform in North Korea but it isn’t going to force the issue. I don’t expect any of these conditions to change for the foreseeable future, with the possible exception of the last one. Therefore it seems likely that any future North Korean government will simply offer more of the same.

  • Mark
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