The stability of nuclear-armed North Korea may hinge on whether its military and the family of deceased dictator Kim Jong Il agree that his little-known, twenty-something son can extend six decades of dynastic rule.
Kim Jong Un was named to high-level military and party posts in September 2010. Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack Dec. 17, groomed his son for succession by featuring him prominently at a party congress and having him meet with foreign dignitaries.
The younger Kim is slated to take the reins of an economy whose 24 million largely impoverished people -- five percent of whom serve in the military -- have almost no access to outside media and suffer from chronic malnutrition. North Korea shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear weapons program in the face of global sanctions and any sign of concessions from the new leader could undermine his position.
“It’s not going to be an easy succession,” said Hong Yung Lee, a professor of East Asian politics at the University of California at Berkeley, in a phone interview. “The most important institution is the military. How will it handle Kim Jong Un?”
Kim was designated the country’s leader yesterday in an official statement announcing his father’s death, and North Korea’s military pledged its support. The official Korean Central News Agency called him a “great successor” to carry on his father’s legacy. The memorial service is set for Dec. 29.
Before taking his posts and being named a four-star general last year, Kim Jong Un had never been mentioned in official reports. Kim Jong Il last year also elevated allies including his sister Kim Kyong Hui, brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek and Workers’ Party of Korea official Choe Ryong Hae to act as guardians for his untested son.
“The succession has been a race against time, and time has run out,” said Rod Lyon, a program director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, in a phone interview. “If the family is not united, we’re in a very dangerous space.”
South Korea, which never signed a peace treaty with the North at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, yesterday called in police officers for emergency duty, considered raising alert levels for the military and pledged steps by the central bank if needed to stabilize financial markets. South Korea’s Kospi index today rose as much as 1 percent after tumbling 3.4 percent yesterday and the won rebounded from a 10-week low.
Shares of South Korean military suppliers rose. Speco Co., a defense equipment manufacturer, Victek Co., which makes electronic warfare equipment, and Huneed Technologies, a military communications equipment manufacturer, all gained by or close to the daily limit of 15 percent for the second day.
The Japanese government, which built up its defense network after a North Korean missile flew over Japan in 1998, today announced the purchase of 42 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
During North Korea’s state television broadcast, the announcer wept as she read the news of Kim Jong Il’s death. Footage was aired of thousands of people in the main square of the capital of Pyongyang chanting in unison and waving Kimjongilia, a flower named after the deceased leader. The country is in official mourning until Dec. 29, when a national memorial service will be held.
Under the North’s “military first” ideology, the nation has built an armed force of 1.2 million soldiers, with about 7.7 million in reserves, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Some North Korean troops withdrew from annual training and returned to their bases after Kim’s death, South Korea’s defense ministry said today in a statement.
“We don’t know if there is a group of angry generals that may decide enough is enough after two generations of Kims,” said Bradley K. Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” and a former reporter for Bloomberg News. “Jong Un is not even 30 years old, so it’s going to be very difficult.”
Kim Jong Il reportedly had a stroke in 2008, spurring speculation over his succession. Kim Jong Un and his older brother, Kim Jong Chol, have a different mother than the eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, who fell from favor after he was caught trying to enter Japan in 2001 on a fake passport. Educated in Switzerland according to U.S. and South Korean media, the youngest son resembles his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded the nation after World War II.
No Supreme Commander
Kim Jong Un’s 15 months as presumptive heir pale in comparison to the 20 years his father had to prepare as the designated successor to Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Kim Jong Il only took the highest post in the ruling Workers’ Party three years later.
Yesterday’s statement didn’t name Kim Jong Un, thought to be 28 or 29, to replace his father as supreme commander of the army, head of the National Defense Commission or general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Securing his place as unquestioned head of state will require him to assume those positions, said Park Joon Young, professor of international relations at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul.
“He is not prepared and needs a lot of people’s help to maintain his position as heir,” Park said. “It will be very difficult for Jong Un to stand on his own.”
Park and other analysts said the response of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, will be key to the regime’s future. As vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang is the No. 2 government official. Granting or withdrawing his support may make the difference for Kim Jong Un.
“Stability will depend on Jang Song Thaek, who is Kim Jong Un’s de facto regent, and how he has positioned himself,” said David S. Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, in an e-mail. “Things are likely to unravel slowly.”
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen since attacks last year on a warship and a disputed island that killed 50 South Koreans. The administration of President Barack Obama, along with the United Nations, increased sanctions after the incidents. The U.S. resumed direct talks with North Korea in October on dismantling its nuclear program, including work on a light-water atomic reactor that the Korean Central News Agency said on Nov. 30 was “progressing apace.”
Glyn Davies, the U.S. envoy on North Korea, told reporters in Beijing that the U.S. was in talks to provide food aid to the country. The Associated Press yesterday reported a deal had been struck for North Korea to suspend its uranium enrichment program in exchange for food, before Kim Jong Il’s death was announced.
North Korea’s economy shrank in 2010 for the second year in a row, according to South Korea’s central bank. The North’s nominal gross domestic product totaled 30 trillion won ($25.5 billion) last year, compared with South Korea’s 1,173 trillion won, the central bank said in November.
“Even when North Korea has been under great internal and economic strain, its levers of state control are very, very strong,” Euan Somerled Graham, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said by phone. “The chance of an internal rift within North Korean elite is the risk, rather than a spontaneous uprising from the people.”