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2008/10/02 11:05 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 23 (October 2, 2008)


A View on North Korean Leadership after Kim Jong-il

By Cheong Seong-Chang,
Director, Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program
The Sejong Institute in Seongnam near Seoul, Korea

The question of the North Korean leadership to succeed or replace current leader Kim Jong-il drew the attention of North Korea watchers in Seoul and elsewhere when rumors about Kim's health surfaced a few days before the 60th founding anniversary of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, which fell on Sept. 9. If Kim, 66, is in the situation to name his successor as his father Kim Il-sung did, the designation of his successor is very much delayed in comparison with his own nomination in 1974, when his father was 62 years old. Therefore Kim has to think about his successor, especially if the rumors about his failing health are true.

   Some North Korea watchers in Seoul argue that another hereditary succession to power will be impossible in North Korea. Some others maintain possibilities are high that Kim Jong-il will choose a general if he has to choose his successor in the near future. And there also is the view that Kim will not name his successor in the near future, in a move not to become a lame duck.

   No one can exactly foretell the developments that will take place in the country, which is a closed society. Yet we can hardly say that all these and other views regarding the succession to power in North Korea are valid, as a close examination reveals that some of the views are based on unreasonable assumptions.

   One of the important factors in forecasting the North Korean leadership after Kim Jong-il is the stand of the leading group in the North on the question of succession to power. For this reason, this essay will examine the North's theory of succession and its position on a second hereditary succession to power.

The North's Theory of Succession

North Korean theorists maintain that there will always be an inevitable shift in generation in the course of achieving the revolutionary cause of the Suryong (absolute leader), which is a "long-term project that proceeds generation after generation." They also argue that the fate of the revolutionary cause is determined according to the way the question of leadership succession is solved, and how the successor takes over the revolutionary cause at a time when a shift in generation is taking place. According to the North, socialism broke down in East European countries, including the Soviet Union, because they failed to solve the question of succession in a desirable way, while socialism has been ever victorious in North Korea because it has managed to solve the question "splendidly." For this reason, possibilities are high that this theory of succession aimed at justifying Kim Jong-il's succession the Kim Il-sung era will be also applied in the course of deciding the successor to Kim Jong-il if North Korea holds fast to the socialist system of its own style.

   Noteworthy in the North's theory of succession is that it allows almost the same status and role to both the Suryong and the successor. A North Korean document carries a remark made by Kim Jong-il, which reads, "Suryong's successor plays a decisive role in achieving the revolutionary cause of the labor class, generation after generation to the last, as the Suryong does so in the revolutionary struggle of the labor class." The theory defines the successor as an entity succeeding Suryong's status in his capacity as the "brain of the public mass, center for unification and unity, and supreme leader of the Party and the revolution." Also noteworthy is the point that the succession to power in North Korea does not regard simply Suryong's position, but also his "absolute status." The North also argues that people's unconditional loyalty to the Suryong should be succeeded generation after generation as his leadership is succeeded generation after generation.

   North Korea cites as symbols to be kept by Suryong's successor 1) unlimited loyalty to the Suryong, 2) outstanding wisdom, 3) polished leadership, 4) noble virtue and 5) the highest authority based on his splendid achievements. Of these symbols, his or her loyalty to the Suryong is the core factor essential to the successor.

   North Korea, however, emphasizes that the successor should be chosen according to his or her ability. This emphasis shows North's ostensible position that the ability of candidates for succession should be verified objectively. However, it is actually used as a theory to justify the hereditary succession to power. In other words, the North argues that it is unreasonable not to nominate a competent person as the successor simply because he or she is a relative of the Suryong. It continues to maintain that people have an "unreasonable, anti-historic way of thinking" if they label as a simple "hereditary succession to power" the nomination of a relative of the Suryong who has extraordinary ability. Based on this logic, North Korea has justified Kim Jong-il's hereditary succession to power, and may attempt to justify another hereditary power succession with this logic.

North Korea's Position on a Second Hereditary Succession to Power

Despite the guiding principle of electing a competent person as the successor, the North has peculiar guidelines for the election formula, which says 1) the successor should be elected on a basis of the nomination agreed upon by all North Korean citizens, 2) the successor should be elected among the new generation, and 3) the successor should be elected while the Suryong is alive. Under these guidelines, the leader can be easily tempted to make one of his relatives, including a son, his successor.

   Moreover, it is quite obvious that the Suryong prefers his son to others as a successor from the next generation because North Korea is strongly influenced by conservative feudal culture, and its system calls on senior officials and Party members to become "good sons who are ready to devote themselves to the Party and the Suryong." North Korea also has maintained that the selection of a successor from the new generation is inevitable because a successor from the same generation as the Suryong can hardly maintain leadership for a long time, causing the problem of having to elect another successor before long. In this environment, the North continues to argue, "The brain of the reform campaign and the center for sociopolitical living bodies has to be replaced frequently, touching off a sense of crisis with no leadership and hampering the constant proceeding of the reform campaign."
The North also argues that it is desirable to choose the successor while the Suryong is in office because if not, the Suryong's leadership cannot work temporarily, or men of ambition can try to win power while the successor's leadership has yet to be cemented. And the successor chosen while the Suryong is alive can assist the Suryong faithfully in a way to implement his ideology and leadership successfully while reducing his pains and anxieties, it asserts.

   In a lengthy editorial titled "The Road of the Military-first Principle," the North Korean Central System on Jan. 27, 2005 quoted remarks made allegedly by Kim Il-sung and his father, Kim Hyong-jik, saying that if they fail to fulfill their duties for the fatherland, or fail to achieve the tasks for liberating the fatherland from Japanese colonial rule and constructing a socialist society by themselves, the duties and tasks should be fulfilled and achieved generation after generation -- by their sons and even by their grandsons. The article also introduced the remarks made by Kim Jong-il that by all means he will "construct a socialist Kangsong Taeguk (a great, strong, prosperous country) and provide the people with a unified fatherland." It continued, "There was a different era where people expressed an ambitious idea. But the heart of the Suryong was burning with the great question regarding the fate of the fatherland and the people. That was for the idea for continued convolution, which calls for the achievement of the cause of the revolution generation after generation."
North Korean media has reported remarks allegedly made by Kim Il-sung several times in 1943 that if he cannot achieve the liberation of the fatherland and the construction of a socialist society, he will make his sons and even his grandsons do it. Undoubtedly, the reports indicate Kim Jong-il's will for another dynastic power succession. And it is unimaginable that Kim Jong-il, who has sworn to abide by the teachings left behind by Kim Il-sung, holds a position on the succession issue that is different from his father's.

Who Will Be Designated as Successor to Kim Jong-il?

Kim Jong-il's lifespan will serve as the most important factor affecting North Korean leadership after him, as agreed by the sweeping majority of North Korea watchers in Seoul and elsewhere. If Kim Jong-il continues to remain in office for the next four or five years or longer, North Korea will likely open an era in which it is ruled jointly by Kim Jong-il and one of the two sons borne by Ko Yong-hi. The year 2012, when Kim Jong-il turns 70 and the North marks Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday anniversary, can serve as an important occasion for North Korea's decision on who will succeed Kim Jong-il. That year, Kim Jong-chol will be 31 years old, one year younger than Kim Jong-il was in 1974, when he was designated as successor to his father, Kim Il-sung.

   As of 2008, all members of the Politburo of the Party Central Committee -- with the exception of Kim Jong-il -- are in their late 70s or older. Two of its full members, Kim Yong-nam and Jon Pyong-ho, plus three of its candidate members, Choe Thae-bok, Yang Hyong-sop and Choe Yong-rim, are still active. But such first-generation revolutionaries as Pak Song-chol and Kim Yong-ju, both full Politburo members, have withdrawn from the political scene and are playing only symbolic roles as honorary vice chairmen of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly. If the seventh Party congress is held in 2012, many of the old Politburo members will most likely replaced by younger elite.

   A successor to Kim Jong-il, if any, can win full membership in the Politburo in a plenary session of the Party Central Committee to be held before the Party congress, as in the case of Kim Jong-il in 1974. His succession will likely be established in the seventh Party congress, as the sixth Party congress held in 1980 declared Kim's status as successor-designate, electing him member of the Presidium of the Politburo and member of the Military Commission of the Party Central Committee. In other words, the seventh Party congress, if any, will serve as an occasion to establish the "unique leadership" of the successor-designate.

   In case Kim Jong-il steps down within four or five years because of troubles with his health, or if he loses power because of a coup d'?tat, possibilities are high that North Korea will be under the control of a weakened "unique leadership" or "collective leadership." Possibilities are slim that Kim Jong-nam will be designated as successor to Kim Jong-il because there is no strong political group supporting him, as viewed by not a few North Korea watchers and North Korean refugees. He has no experience working in the Organization and Guidance Department or accompanying his father during his inspection tours of military units. In case he becomes successor-designate despite his poor background, possibilities are high that there will come a large-scale campaign for purging Party cadres and senior army officers, as the one that took place in the 1950s to reinforce the authority of Kim Il-sung. If Kim Jong-nam takes power, he will likely go ahead with more friendly policies toward Europe and Russia than the Kim Jong-il regime because he attended French-speaking schools in Switzerland and Russia.

   Many North Korea watchers opine that Jang Song-taek, chief of the Administration Department of the Party Central Committee, will most likely take power if Kim Jong-il steps down or loses power in the near future. He is one of the senior officials who have an advantage in taking power because he has placed his men in many key posts, and he has the authority for administrative guidance of the State Security Department (secret police) and the People's Security Ministry. But his office has no authority for the guidance of the military.

   If Kim Jong-il is not present, either Ri Yong-chol, 80, or Ri Je-gang, 78, who are first deputy chiefs of the Organization and Guidance Department of the Party Central Committee in charge of the military and Party cadres, will probably be influential in choosing the successor to Kim Jong-il. If they are present, the person controlling the department will be influential in the succession issue. If and when Jang Song-taek takes power, the aforementioned two Party cadres can face a purge because they have acted against Jang, siding with Ko Yong-hi. For this reason, they will likely support Kim Jong-chol or Kim Jong-un, rather than Jang Song-taek, to make one of them successor to Kim Jong-il and maintain their vested power.

   Whoever takes power or succeeds Kim Jong-il can hardly exercise the absolute authority enjoyed by Kim, and most likely there will be a power struggle in the initial period of the new North Korean regime. If Kim Jong-il names his successor through a will, the North Korean elite will undoubtedly unite behind the successor. But if the successor fails to demonstrate leadership, troubles will appear in the ruling system. Even so, possibilities are low that a free democratic regime will appear in North Korea. With no improvement in North Korea's external security environment, the military -- whose influence has increased remarkably in the course of North's confrontation with the U.S. -- will enjoy growing influence in the post-Kim Jong-il North Korean regime because of the decade-old military-first politics. (This is an excerpt from an essay to be released in the Studies section of the October edition of Vantage Point. -- Ed.)