Has North Korean succession been settled?
The answer to that question is “probably.” That’s a step up from “possibly.” But in the Hermit Kingdom, nothing is really ever certain.
The recent late night announcement by Kim Jong-Il of the promotion of his third son, Kim Jong-un to the rank of general in the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) has removed any lingering doubt as to which of his sons is his chosen successor. The promotion repeats a pattern from the past. Kim Jong-Il was also promoted to a high post in the NKPA in 1991 by his father, Kim Il Sung, to establish his future claim to the top position in the country.
According to Dr. John Ishiyama, a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas and expert on North Korea, the sudden rush to establish his third son as his legitimate and chosen heir to power has been accelerated by Kim Jong Il’s deteriorating health.
But, says Ishiyama, there are some other promotions, which have taken place, which are also important to understand and indicate how any succession in the near future might be handled. Kim Jong-un is in his late 20s and is virtually untried, having had little or no experience to date within North Korea’s power structure. If Kim Jong-Il were to die soon, he’d be left to fend pretty much for himself.
However Kim Jong-Il has now carefully prepared the way for a sort of “regency” if should die unexpectedly. Kim Jong-un’s consort is a visible part of the top leadership, and in the position of Kim Jong Il’s personal secretary for years, is thought to wield exceptional power. Additionally, Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Soong-taek, considered by some to be an opposition figure, has been reconciled with the family and promoted to the vice-chairmanship of the National Defense Council, solidifying his position in the power structure. Kim Kyon-hui, Jong-un’s aunt and Soong-taek’s wife, is a 4 star general in the NKPA as well as holding a powerful position within the ruling Korean Workers Party.
All of that suggests that the consort, aunt and uncle will form a power clique that will be the actual “power behind the throne”, until Kim Jong-un is deemed to be prepared to take the reins of power himself.
In the meantime, and unlike the careful grooming Kim Jong Il got from his father, Kim Jong-un will be set upon a relative crash course to learn what is necessary for him to survive and thrive in the leadership role his father will leave him. The recent promotion sets him on that path and the other promotions are designed to protect him and enable him to learn the levers of power there.
It won’t be an easy task by any means.
The totalitarian nature of the regime, the poor international standing of the nation, the sanctions imposed by other nations for its role in nuclear proliferation, another bad harvest and the subsequent rumors of starvation all combine to paint an even bleaker future for the country than present. All that can be realistically hoped for at the moment is that when the young Kim Jong-un does take power he will look outward with the aim of reform and rejoining the society of nations instead of looking further inward and remaining on the road to eventual catastrophic ruin.