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Power Transition in North Korea creates more uncertainty for future

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • October 13, 2010

    As has been speculated for some time, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s supreme and reclusive leader, promoted his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to a military General and thus position him as the country’s next leader. Alongside, the senior Kim made the biggest leadership shuffle in a generation by promoting five others to full Generals in the People’s Army. Kim elevated his sister as well as a close friend, Kim Kyong-hui, to a high military rank, besides making the junior Kim a member of the Central Committee of the ruling Worker’s Party. Kim Kyong-hui is the wife of Jang Seong-taek and regarded by analysts as the No.2 in the North and a potential caretaker for the government if the senior Kim suddenly becomes incapacitated.

    Though the junior Kim is now in line to ensure a dynastic succession, in view of his inexperience he needs time to take control of the government. In the interim, therefore, Kim Jong-il has ensured that other members of the extended Kim clan will exercise power behind the scenes in a kind of Communist regency. In ensuring this power transition, it is speculated that the regime has almost abandoned the economic reforms that was thought to have been initiated in a limited manner and it also appears unwilling to enter into negotiations by returning to the Six-Party Talks (SPT) on the denuclearization issue. This is alarming news for the United States and North Korea’s immediate neighbours, South Korea and Japan.

    This power transition is bound to produce more political intrigue in the coming months. It is unlikely that this transition will produce a stable, credible leadership that will feel confident to engage with the outside world. Instead of steering the limited resources towards economic development, the junior Kim may concentrate more on military modernization and the nuclear development programme, which would give legitimacy to his position.

    Professor William R. Keylor of Boston University compared the situation in North Korea with that of Pakistan. According to him, while Pakistan has remained a matter for worry, North Korea’s case is more disturbing. He observes: “Succession in North Korea would just be an oddity if it were not for the fact that we are dealing with a country with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. That is what makes this serious.”1

    The United States, South Korea and Japan are watching with keen interest the developments in North Korea. It may be recalled that when Kim Il-sung, the founder of the hermit kingdom, died in 1980, there was fear of instability. Nothing of the sort happened then, though the country’s economic situation sharply deteriorated under Kim Jong-il. When Kim Jong-il succeeded his father, he already had 14 years of political training and thus the power transfer was smooth. This time around, the junior Kim may look for an alibi to consolidate his power base. And that is worrying.

    The urge to consolidate power might mean making provocative noises and heightening nationalistic credentials, which will send alarm bells ringing in Japan, South Korea and the United States. The sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, on 26 March 2010 by North Korea is suspected to have been conducted at the behest of the junior Kim. This action was seen as a deliberate move to ensure that the military respects the junior Kim who was on the way to succeed his father. Victor Cha, Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, fears that there may be something greater in the offing than the Cheonan incident to hold the regime together. In his view, “they were already unstable as it was, and this succession issue makes them even more unpredictable.”2

    The fear of a possible North Korean collapse can, however, be discounted so long as China is there to back Pyongyang. China has its own reason to avert such a possibility as domestic turmoil in the North will lead to an immediate refugee problem, which China is unprepared to face. It is for this reason, as also for its own strategic objectives, that China has been consistently bailing out the North by providing food, fertilizer and energy as life support for the regime. China has also taken a unilateral stand to ensure that the international sanctions against the North are not too harsh and that the North’s nuclear development programmes are not substantially derailed.

    The question that remains is whether the junior Kim will be able to hold on to the reins of power at such a young age, especially in a conservative Confucian society which reveres age and therefore public acceptance of a leader still in his 20s remains doubtful. It was probably for this reason that the junior Kim was at the centre stage of the massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of the country’s Worker’s Party on 10 October 2010. As thousands of troops marched through the streets of Pyongyang drawing cheers from spectators, and thousands of tanks, missiles and other weaponry were on display, the junior Kim made his high profile public debut in the state’s largest military parade in years. The regime apparently tried to show its unyielding priority on military power by revealing a new intercontinental-range ballistic missile to the international press. The junior Kim’s interest in military affairs was visible when he visited a missile unit in Gangwon Province on 5 October, his first stop since he was effectively established as heir to the leadership. It may be noted that this missile unit had test fired a barrage of six Rodong and Scud missiles in July 2006. The world also took note with concern when a North Korean diplomat told the UN General Assembly on 29 September after Kim Jong-un’s ascent that the regime will “strengthen its nuclear deterrent”. Recent satellite images show that the regime is carrying out massive construction in an area near the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor facility.

    When the regime in North invited the international press to cover the parade, the world was excited as it was seen as an opportunity to dig up information about the junior Kim. As a result, some 60 foreign reporters covered the event though the South Korean media was not invited. Most foreign reporters were Beijing-based and accepted Pyongyang’s offer to cover the event with alacrity. Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-il in which he said, “The China-Choson comradeship must be carried down through the generations.” China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, considered a likely contender to become the country’s next leader, attended a congratulatory banquet to commemorate the WPK’s founding at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, where he promised to strengthen the spirit of cooperation with the new leadership system in the Worker’s Party and take the relationship between China and North Korea another step forward.

    Thus it transpires that the younger Kim is assured of sustained help and cooperation from North Korea’s long-time benefactor, China. Under the current circumstances, two things remain unclear: whether the leadership’s legitimacy can be sustained and if so, for how long; and the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development programme. Things will unravel fully when the senior Kim finally passes away. But a possible collapse can be discounted so long as Beijing wants to keep the regime on life support.