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2008/09/18 10:57 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 21 (September 18, 2008)


Speculation Over Power Transition Emerges Amid Kim Jong-il's Health Problems

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- As attention has remained focused on the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who reportedly suffered a stroke last month, concerns have spiraled over who will rule the socialist country after his death or incapacitation.

   The fate of the North largely depends on Kim, who has yet to officially designate a successor. Experts predict that if Kim dies, the impoverished, socialist state could be thrown into chaos as political and military factions vie for power. In addition to the leadership question, Washington and Seoul are tuned into what effect the situation could have on the stalemated nuclear negotiations and strained inter-Korean relations.

   Kim has not been seen in public since Aug. 14, when he reportedly inspected a military unit in the North. His conspicuous absence at a parade marking his country's 60th anniversary on Sept. 9, as well as the Korean full moon festival called Chuseok, on Sept. 14, fueled speculation about his illness.

   The North has not reported on Kim's health, while the North's No. 2 leader and ceremonial head, Kim Yong-nam, told Japan's Kyodo News Agency last week that there was "no problem." The North's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on Sept. 12 called for unity around Kim, a message state media frequently give. "The people, the party and the army must unite around the brain of revolution and devote all their struggles and moments of daily life to protecting and supporting the leader," it said.

   Nevertheless, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 14 reported the official activities of Kim, saying that he sent birthday greetings to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

   South Korean authorities said last week that Kim suffered a stroke in the middle of last month, but is recovering well enough to brush his teeth by himself and stand on his feet if assisted. Government officials in Seoul say no power vacuum appears to exist at present in the secretive, hard-line communist state.

   Kim's health has been the subject of intense speculation since he took over from his father in 1994. Kim succeeded his father and North Korean founder Kim Il-sung when he died of heart failure, marking the first hereditary succession of power in a socialist country. Kim Jong-il, however, has yet to designate a successor.

   In a lengthy political discourse that appeared in Rodong Sinmun on Sept. 14 and was also carried by the KCNA, the North said that the country's mightiest weapon is unity. "Our mightiest weapon -- the real missile -- is 'the missile of unity.' There are weapons that can destroy missiles, but there is not any weapon that can destroy a crystal made up of tens of millions of hearts," the newspaper said. Stressing the importance of Kim to the state, it said, "At the center of our unity is our leader. Our leader's greatness will enhance our unity."

   Several analysts believe the powerful military may secure more power in any post-Kim era, and take an even tougher stance on denuclearization and cross-border relations. A German lawmaker who recently visited North Korea said that there is the possibility of military rule. In an interview with a German TV network recently, Hartmut Koschyk, chairman of the German-(North) Korean Parliamentary Friendship Group and a member of the Federal Assembly of Germany, stressed the North's military has absolute sovereignty over all state affairs under the North's Songun (military-first) politics.

   But most analysts see much likelihood of collective leadership after the Kim Jong-il era. A top North Korean defector said on Sept. 16 that North Korea will likely be ruled by communist party officials rather than the military after the death of Kim Jong-il.

   "Chances are low that the military will take over the country since Chairman Kim has thoroughly been managing the military," Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea, said when he met with a South Korean lawmaker.

   North Korea's ranking military leaders have no complaints against Kim, the defector was quoted as saying. The claim is in stark contrast with the views of a number of North Korea experts who claim that the country will likely be collectively led by military officials after Kim's death.

   Hwang, who served as a secretary of the Workers' Party before his defection to Seoul in 1997, said Kim's first son, Jong-nam, is most likely the heir. "That's because the Chinese government has continuously managed Kim Jong-nam (as an heir apparent), and he is supported by Jang Song-thaek, an in-law of Chairman Kim," the 86-year-old defector said.

   After spending years in the political wilderness, Jang, the husband of Kim's sister and a senior Workers' Party official, rose to the core position in Pyongyang's power hierarchy.

   Hwang predicted that the death of Kim Jong-il will not be followed by chaos or anarchy because Kim's close aides are ready to rule the country. "If North Korea falls into anarchy, it is 100 percent certain that China will send in its troops," Hwang said. "But we don't have to worry too much about that because China has no ambition to take North Korean territory. The U.S. troops, rather, need to go into the North and build a joint management system," he added.

   Foreign policy experts say it is impossible to predict who might take over the isolated, destitute state, or what impact Kim's absence might have on the multilateral talks on ending the North's nuclear ambitions.

   Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the worst-case scenario might be "regime collapse" and an "implosion that draws South Korean or Chinese military units into North Korea to stabilize the situation."
Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Kim Jong-il's health failure will likely further hamper the stalled multilateral nuclear talks. Bush advised South Korea and the U.S. to refrain from provoking North Korea during the tumultuous transition period after Kim's death or incapacitation.

   Kim Jong-il had been heir apparent to his father, Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, for about two decades until the summer of 1994, when the senior Kim died of heart attack. His death came just weeks before he was to participate in what would have been the first inter-Korean summit since the end of the Korean War.

   Kim Jong-il has suffered from diabetes and cardiac problems for many years, and several German doctors reportedly visited Pyongyang in May last year to perform coronary bypass surgery on him.

   Talk of Kim's health failure resurfaced as the 66-year-old failed to appear at the annual ceremony on Sept. 9 to mark the 60th founding anniversary of the North Korean government, which he has never missed. It was also reported that Chinese and French cardiac specialists flew to Pyongyang in late August.

   Kim Jong-il is said to have punished some of his close confidants, including his brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek, when they suggested that Kim establish his oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, 37, as his successor. Jang, once dubbed the second-most powerful man in the North, was demoted to a job at a remote province in 2004 and then assigned to a key post in the ruling Workers' Party in 2006.

   Brookings' Bush expressed doubt that Kim Jong-il will cede power to one of his three sons soon, but predicted that the military will hold the key in any case. "My guess is that the military will be the dominant institution, whatever personnel arrangements are made."
North Korean defectors, formerly senior officials in the North, have said the demotion, though temporary, of Jang shows the difficulty of senior North Korean officials and military personnel in lining up a possible successor.

   Those who followed Kim Pyong-il, a half-brother of Kim Jong-il, were purged after Kim Jong-il's ascent to power. Kim Pyong-il has been abroad for the past two decades as North Korea's envoy to Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland and Poland.

   Kim Jong-il's second son, Jong-chol, 27, who suffers from a hormone-related disease, and third son, Jong-un, 25, are offspring of Ko Yong-hui, Kim's third wife, who died in 2004. Ko is still worshipped as the legitimate wife of Kim Jong-il and the national mother.

   "There have been indications that the second son, Kim Jong-chol, may be being groomed for leadership similar to the lengthy process that preceded Kim Jong-il's own ascension to power," Klingner said. "Kim's first son, Kim Jong-nam, was disgraced and sent into exile after being arrested for sneaking into Japan on a forged passport."
Jong-nam, the son from the North Korean leader's second wife, Song Hye-rim, had been adrift abroad, mostly in China, since 2002, when he was expelled from the Narita airport in Japan for trying to visit Disneyland in Tokyo along with his son and wife.

   The 37-year-old, however, had been reportedly staying in Pyongyang since July, spawning speculation that the power transition plan for him might still be valid, especially coupled with Jang Song-thaek's return.

   Despite being the oldest son, Jong-nam is still at a disadvantage because of his late mother's divorce, which is frowned upon in the predominantly Confucian North Korean society.

   The third son, Jong-un, is seen as too young to assume power, Klingner said. However, Jong-un is known to be heavily favored by Kim Jong-il, as the youngest son takes after the North Korean leader both in appearance and temperament.

   Kim Ok, the de facto fourth wife of Kim Jong-il who is also Kim's personal secretary, is widely believed to support Jong-un. The 44-year-old woman is considered to be among the most powerful, along with Jang Song-thaek, with some reports indicating Kim Jong-il is maneuvering to allow them to share power.

   A senior aide to South Korean President Lee said on Sept. 11 that he is skeptical about another dynastic power transfer. "It may be difficult this time, as none of the sons has been trained as an heir," he said. "The system for (the selection of an) heir is not the kind of thing that works in a day with anybody."
A senior South Korean official, requesting anonymity, would not preclude the possibility of any of the three sons joining forces with the military and the North's powerful ruling party. "Another hereditary power transfer is highly likely if combined with the military," he said.

   But there is more consensus on the likelihood of a collective leadership. North Korea expert Kang In-duk, a former unification minister in the Kim Dae-jung government and director of the Institute for East Asian Studies in Seoul, believes Kim will gradually lose control and be unable to make a comeback.

   Kim's one-man rule is expected to be naturally replaced by a collective leadership centered around the country's National Defense Commission, according to Kang. Kang bases his assessment on the fact that the five most powerful decision making-bodies in Pyongyang pledged allegiance to Kim Jong-il on the eve of nation's 60th founding anniversary on Sept. 9. This is indicative of a future collective leadership structure.

   The five bodies are the Central Committee and the Central Military Committee of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea, the National Defense Commission, the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and the Cabinet.

   Kang believes the new collective leadership, whether made up of hard-liners or moderates, will be forced to pragmatically adopt economic reform measures to ensure the country's survival. The new leadership will follow the China model, in which the communist party holds power and markets are opened. Kang noted that these positive changes may not be imminent, as the military is expected to continue its hard-line stance on the nuclear weapons issue.

   Chung Se-hyun, a former unification minister, said that there will hardly be another hereditary succession in North Korea. In an interview, he said that he knows Kim Jong-il himself made remarks on the dim likelihood of a hereditary power succession for three consecutive generations. "I heard that in 2004, Chairman Kim expressed skepticism about a dynastic power succession during his own generation," Chung said.

   Cho Myong-chol, a former North Korean defector who is now a research fellow at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, says there are rumors that Kim Jong-il told his men in 2005 and 2006 there would be no hereditary power succession. Cho said Kim Jong-il also said that he will hand over the country's power to young and capable people.