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2009/06/11 10:24 KST


North Korea's Succession Dilemma: Why Dictators Choose Hereditary Succession

By Park Hyeong-jung
(Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul)

  Beginning last January, Kim Jong-il's third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, came into the spotlight as his father's most likely successor. Some media sources have reported that North Korea has already taken steps to transition the country's leadership to the younger Kim in what would become the regime's second consecutive father-to-son succession. In dictatorial states, hereditary successions are seen as a means to minimize the dilemma and risk the regime must face in the process of transferring power from one leader to the next. This is most likely the reason North Korea has chosen hereditary succession over other forms of power transition.

   What is the dilemma that dictatorial regimes face when it comes to succession? Mainly, dictators must take on different forms of risk whether or not they decide to appoint a successor. If a dictator gives too much power to his successor while preparing for the transition, there is a risk that the successor may overthrow the dictator or create internal division among the people. On the other hand, if a dictator does not create a strong foundation of support for his successor or is unclear about who it will be, there is a high possibility that a power struggle will break out after the dictator's death. Thus, the inescapable dilemma. Dictators will have to face risk whether they choose a successor or not. Moreover, their successor can neither be too strong nor too weak.

   One way to manage this dilemma is by transferring power through hereditary succession. First, father-to-son succession is the surest way of protecting the current dictator's security. Compared to other forms of succession, hereditary successors pose the lowest risk of rebelling against the current leader or attempting to take over at an earlier date. Second, hereditary succession provides the greatest security for elites who want to maintain the current distribution of power. If the leader were to choose a successor among the elites, the distribution of power among various groups within the elites would shift. This could result in a power struggle among the elites in which one group is forced out of power, or the whole political system goes into crisis. In contrast, hereditary succession allows the elites to maintain the status quo. This form of succession is the option for leaders who do not want their regime to collapse or factions to purge each other.

   According to Jason Brownlee, from the end of World War II to 2006, there has been a total of 258 cases in which a dictator has ruled a state for more than three years. Among these figures, there were 23 cases of hereditary succession. Of those, nine were successful.

   Hereditary succession goes against contemporary political thought, so there are many obstacles that hinder its success. What conditions are necessary for hereditary succession to be successful? First, the ruler must have founded the party in power. Or, as in North Korea's case, the dictator's authority must supersede the party's authority. Second, there must be a precedent of hereditary succession. This prevents elites from justifying and agreeing on other forms of power transfer. Elites usually strongly support the successor appointed by the current leader because they are used to this form of succession. However, if the current ruler was selected through an appointment process led by the party, there is a high probability that the elites may oppose hereditary succession.

   Historical evidence shows that hereditary successors receive the support of the elites even when they are relatively young, inexperienced, and unfamiliar with dictatorial rule. For example, Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited his father's rule in Haiti in 1971, when he was only 19; Ramfis Trujillo took over the Dominican Republic in 1961, when he was 32; Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan succeeded his father in 2003, when he was 42; and Faure Gnassingbe began his rule of Togo in 2005 at age 39. The reason these young and experienced rulers received the elite's support was because hereditary succession allowed top officials and elites to maintain their power and status.

   The most important role of hereditary succession is preventing power struggles among the ruling class and allowing elites to hold on to their power. In other words, hereditary succession can be seen as a joint project by the current ruler and the elites to overcome the natural limits of the ruler's lifespan and maintain the status quo by controlling the uncertainties of power transfer.

   The success or failure of North Korea's father-to-son succession hangs on the regime's ability to deal with its international policy challenges. Hereditary succession will most likely not increase North Korea's ability to solve these challenges. Ultimately, the gap between the regime and its people will widen. From the perspective of comparative politics, in dictatorships like North Korea, where it is impossible to differentiate between the public and private, the ruling class has broken apart as a result of protest from the masses.