On Tuesday, the North Korean regime, always opaque and endlessly fascinating, will reveal the identity of its next leader.
The Korean Workers’ Party will hold its first major gathering since 1980 this week. At the 1980 Congress, Kim Jong Il, the current leader, made his debut. Analysts think his son, Kim Jong Un, will be introduced at the event as the next Kim to rule the North.
Not much is known about the autocrat-in-waiting. He is the youngest of the three acknowledged sons of Kim Jong Il. Jong Un may be 27, although no one outside the regime is sure, and he is thought to be just as competitive — and ruthless — as his dad.
He studied in a boarding school in Bern under a pseudonym until he was 15, passing himself off as the son of the driver in the North Korean embassy. He speaks at least four languages, idolizes Michael Jordan and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and likes good food and wine. He is into basketball, rollerblading, skiing, golf, and snowboarding. Analysts think he is chubby just like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state.
We aren’t even sure what Jong Un looks like now. There is a photo of a North Korean official who may be the young Kim. If that person is indeed Jong Un, then he bears a striking resemblance to his granddad, much more so than his pop.
Many bemoan the fact that we just don’t know that much about the young Kim. Yes, it would be nice if we had more information about him, but there is only one thing we really need to keep in mind at this moment: Jong Un is ill-prepared to take over as North Korea’s third leader.
For one thing, the North Korean regime is a snake pit and Jong Un is a hamster. Kim Il Sung spent more than two decades getting his son ready to rule and was revered when he died of a heart attack in 1994. Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, has now spent just a little over two years grooming his son.
If his dad were to die or become incapacitated at this moment, which would not be surprising given the deterioration of his health, Jong Un would have little chance of surviving. So far, he has had little preparation to become dictator-for-life other than serving in a low-level post on the all-powerful National Defense Commission since last year. The memory of his father, whose rule has been marked by misfortune and who is roundly detested, might not help too much.
Kim Jong Il’s plan is to have his brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, act as regent for Jong Un. So if the elder Kim passes from the scene in the near future, Jang is the figure to watch. Since Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August 2008, Jang, now 64, has amassed substantial power over the security services. Moreover, he is now well positioned with the military because he serves as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, second only to Kim Jong Il. Moreover, Jang will be at the center of the Kim-family circle, and that will give him leverage in three of the regime’s four power blocs that must be controlled if one is to rule the North.
Jang also holds a post in the Korean Workers’ Party. If he gets a promotion on Tuesday at the closely watched conference, he will have cemented his role as regent.
Or perhaps as North Korea’s next ruler. Why should he want to be the power behind the throne when he could actually sit on it? After all, he has an ambitious wife, Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister.
And Jang might get some help from an important quarter. The Chinese, for instance, would undoubtedly like the Kim family out of the way so that they could install a friendly collective regime in Pyongyang. China, since at least the 1970s, has been buying off flag officers, whom Kim Jong Il has been periodically purging. But as soon as Kim has gotten rid of the China-centric generals, Beijing just purchases a whole new lot. Probably some of China’s friends will remain after Kim Jong Il dies or becomes too ill to rule, so Jang could easily stitch up Chinese support.
There are, of course, some institutional reasons why Jang would not ditch Jong Un, now known as the “Young General” or “Our Commander.” Perhaps the most important is that senior generals, the most important group in North Korean society, believe their favored position is dependent on Kim-family rule. That is partly because Kim Il Sung successfully fused myths about his personal life into the regime’s ruling ideology, making himself the embodiment of the state.
Kim Jong Il was able to consolidate power after his dad’s sudden passing, and that surprised analysts, who thought he would be quickly tossed aside. So maybe the hamster-like Jong Un will be able to manage the next transition. Yet as he gets closer to ruling in his own name, he has to remember that assassination is a time-honored form of dispute resolution inside the North Korean regime. Since April, there have been at least four suspicious deaths of senior officials. One of the deceased was an important supporter of Jong Un — and an enemy of Jang Song Taek.
It’s unlikely someone will actually succeed in bumping off young Kim, given his family’s central place in society. Yet almost anything can happen as the next-generation leadership struggles to take control of the most dangerous regime on earth.