Kim Jong Il’s death: continuity plus opportunity to engage

Authors: Peter Hayes, Scott Bruce, and David von Hippel, Nautilus Institute

When North Korean leader and founding father Kim Il Sung died in July 1994, his son Kim Jong Il had effectively held the reins of power since 1981.

The problem with Kim Jong Il dying during an ‘on the spot guidance’ on December 17 — as announced by the North Korean official media on December 19 — is that not much is known about his third son and designated 27-year-old successor, Kim Jong Un. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un has had only one year, and not 15, to prepare for leadership, although his grooming began in 2008. Before he died, Kim Jong Il had also strengthened the courtly power of his clan, by promoting his sister and her husband to create, with Kim Jong Un, a triumvirate with which to continue the dynastic succession.

Kim Jong Un is said to have studied in Switzerland, he reportedly speaks English and German, and spent time training in the artillery command of the Korean People’s Army before his rapid ascension to four star General and membership of the Central Military Commission — the voice of leadership when it comes to setting the party and military line on critical issues at key junctures, especially in confrontations with external powers.

Yet Kim Jong Un’s skills as a decisive leader, his charismatic ability to mobilise and motivate people, and his skill at manipulating the many levers of power and control in the DPRK’s pyramid of power, all remain untested, at least insofar as those outside the DPRK can determine.

Kim Jong Un did not accompany Kim Jong Il in his May 2011 visit to China, now the DPRK’s main geopolitical and economic backer. Kim Jong Un did, however, meet with a high level PLA delegation in Pyongyang on October 25, 2010 led by Colonel General Guo Boxiong, PRC Central Military Vice Chairman. At that time, Guo gave to him a framed calligraphy that read in Chinese: ‘In the Same Strain’ — an obvious reference to Kim Il Sung and which is interpreted as a blessing from the Chinese military of his succession.

This emblem of support from the military, plus the observation of China’s heavy economic investment in recent years in the physical infrastructure of North Korea in order to extract resources (chiefly coal, iron ore, and other minerals) at relatively low prices from the DPRK, suggests that China will continue to back the Kim regime under the Kim Jong Un. China’s decisive strategic support after the two major confrontations between the DPRK and South Korea — in March when the ROK warship Cheonan was sunk and November, when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island and killed not only soldiers, but civilians for the first time since the Korean Armistice stilled the guns in 1953 — is another indicator that China’s support is likely to persist.

Now, in addition to the national celebrations of the 100th year of Kim Il Sung’s birthday in 2012, the new leader must steer the DPRK through a long period of mourning for Kim Jong Il, while focusing on improving the domestic economy.

Here, the generational factor may make a major difference to the style of decision-making, and the relative decentralisation of power in the DPRK. Already, political scientists have noted that North Korea shifted from one-man, totalitarian leadership in the person of Kim Il Sung, to a more technocratic style called authoritarian pluralism under Kim Jong Il, where he let the agencies of state — basically the military, the cabinet representing the economic line agencies, and the foreign affairs ministry — articulate different policy options before he would make a decisive move that set the cast.

However, the gerontocrats who lived through the Korean War are almost all gone; the next generation of senior leaders — the forty five to sixty year old North Koreans in senior party, military, and economic positions of power — are remarkably well-educated and often well-informed about the DPRK’s relative and absolute backwardness. Many of them are well travelled and even cosmopolitan, not unlike their South Korean counterparts, and understand the need for massive and structural change to their economy and polity. They also understand that too rapid a change could lead to chaos and disaster, so they are cautious and know what a weak hand they have to play, both against the politically conservative and socially influential military, and against the South and its many allies, especially the United States.

As a stunning example of the leading edge of this structural change, today more than 800,000 North Koreans have cell phones — a number that has grown from a few tens of thousands in just two or three years, and far more than can be monitored individually and centrally, as was the practice in the good old days of totalitarian surveillance of all telecommunications.

Kim Jong Un is likely even more conversant than even this new generation of senior leaders with the internet and networked information economies, and therefore, likely to be more open to rapid, structural change in the economy. Whether he can bring along his senior advisors in embracing the notion of structural change is another matter. But time is on his side, and he can press for change knowing that domestic and international forces will likely support him in the search for resolution of the nuclear issue.

Initially, Kim Jong Un and his senior advisors are likely to seek continuity with the past as the basis for smooth sailing in 2012 while they concentrate on domestic issues. They will emphasise their relationships with China; they will continue to talk about re-engaging in the Six Party Talks on the nuclear issue, but are unlikely to actually participate given the need for clear policy lines to be articulated at the Talks; and they will avoid provocations at the DMZ in 2012 to channel the political and emotional mobilisation associated with the mourning of Kim Jong Il’s passing to merge into support for Kim Jong Un’s leadership.

Ironically, Kim Jong Il’s death may make Korea the land of the morning calm for at least a year, during which political transitions will also occur in China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Far from a ‘Korean Spring’ led by 27-year-old revolutionaries, while the process of domestic change has begun in the DPRK at the very top and may prove to be just as irresistible as in the Arab world, the transition is likely to start quietly.

Peter Hayes is Professor of International Relations at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Executive Director of the Nautilus Institute, San Francisco. Dr. David Von Hippel is a Nautilus Institute Senior Associate based in Eugene, Oregon. Scott Bruce is the Director of the Nautilus Institute’s US Operations, located at the University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim. This is an adapted version of a longer article authored by Professor Hayes, published by the Nautilus Institute, which can be found here.