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The Succession Crisis

Dec 2, 2017
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During the Korean leg of her Asian visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of her way to express concerns about a potential succession crisis in North Korea. It’s a timely question; with Kim Jong-il experiencing health problems–he reportedly suffered a major stroke last year –there are questions about who might replace him, and increased instability during the transfer of power.

But, if recent reports from South Korea and Japan are accurate, the succession picture in the DPRK is now a bit clearer. According to the U.K. Telegraph, officials in both capitals are now confirming a long-standing rumor: the North Korea leader’s youngest son, 25-year-old Kim Jong Un, is being groomed to replace his father.

It would be the second hereditary succession in one of the last remaining communist dictatorships. Kim Jong-il took power 15 years ago upon the death of his father, Kim il-Sung, the founder of the North Korean state.

At the time he took charge in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il had been groomed for power for more than 20 years, handling an ever-increasing portfolio of titles and responsibilities. Kim il-Sung helped pave the way for his son’ succession, securing support from key members of the North Korean military. The younger Kim also curried favor with younger officers, and has promoted them since assuming power.

Obviously, Kim Jong-Un is much further behind in the succession process. A product of European schools (with a fondness for German cars, baseball and sushi), Kim Jong-un has recently registered as a candidate for the DPRK’s Supreme People’s Assembly (the rubber-stamp national legislature), the first step in his preparation for power. Japanese and South Korean analysts also claim that Kim Jong-Un will assume important political and military posts in April, further enhancing his resume.

Kim Jong-il has two older sons from a pair of marriages. But 37-year-old Kim Jong Nam seems to share his father’s passion for women and liquor. He is sometimes spotted in the casinos of Macau and is best remembered for an embarrassing diplomatic incident in 2001.

Visiting Disneyland in Japan with two women and a young child, Kim Jong Nam was briefly detained by local authorities for traveling on a forged passport. The South China Morning Post also reported that Kim’s elder son lived in Macau for almost three years (until 2007), suggesting that he had fallen out of favor–and out of line for succession–in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Nam subsequently returned to North Korea, and took a senior government job. However, Kim’s chances for replacing his father were further diminished by his parentage. Kim’s mother was the first wife of Kim Jong-il, a woman that did not meet the approval of Kim il-Sung.

That means the line of succession begins with Kim Jong-un and his 28-year-old brother, Kim Jong Chul. Right now, the odds favor the younger son; a former family chef describes Kim Jong Chul as “soft” with the “heart of a woman”–hardly desirable qualities for a prospective, totalitarian dictator.

The real issue is whether Kim Jong-un has enough time to get ready for the top job, and secure the right backing to keep himself in power. Kim il-Sung lived to age 82, giving his son years to prepare. Given his father’s recent health crisis, Kim Jong-un may not have that luxury, setting the stage for a potential succession crisis.

Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Mr. Kim and his family’s hold on power. While Kim Jong-il recovered from last year’s stroke, his brother-in-law essentially ran the country for three months. There were no reports of increased dissent, to potential threats to the regime’s authority. With the backing of the military, a caretaker figure could run the country until Kim Jong-un is deemed “ready” for the top post.

And, ironically enough, the DPRK recently vowed its loyalty to Kim Jong-ils’s youngest son. That pledge (subject to reversal) is another indicator that Kim Jong-un is the anointed heir, destined to replace the “Dear Leader” at the appointed time.

If Kim Jong-un follows his father’s example, he will lavish gifts and resources on his officer corps, doing whatever it takes to keep them happy. While millions of North Korean peasants starved to death in the 1990s, the DPRK military remained relatively well off (read: they had enough food and perks to retain their loyalty). With the backing of the armed forces, both Kim Jong-il and his regime have exceeded expectations. In 1994, more than a few Korea experts were predicting a brief reign for Kim Jong-il, believing that he could never sustain the support of the military.

Whenever he assumes power, Kim Jong-un will inherit a bankrupt country with the world’s fourth-largest army and a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Those factors, coupled with the younger Kim’s inexperience (assuming that Kim Jong-il passes away in the next 3-5 fives) is not a combination for a peaceful transfer of power. It happened before, but the odds of a second, smooth transition in Pyongyang are decidedly long.

And that poses the real question, one that Mrs. Clinton didn’t answer in Seoul. What is the U.S. plan for a sudden implosion of the DPRK?

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