North Korea’s Transition: Time of Mistrust and Uncertainty

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the morning of December 17, according to an official North Korean news broadcast at noon on December 19. Initial reports say Kim died of a heart attack brought on by fatigue while on board a train. Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, and his health has been in question since. Kim Jong Un is Kim Jong Il’s third known son, and was given official titles only last year. He was hailed by state media this week as the “Great Successor” to his father.

North Korea’s young and inexperienced next leader will lean on a seasoned inner circle headed by his aunt and uncle to guide him through the transition to supreme ruler.

The North Korean regime is almost run like a cartel. Jang Song Taek, brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il, is considered by many as a power broker who would play a key role in the nation's future. Jang acted as a broker within the regime, especially after Kim Jong Il replaced his late father in 1994. It is clear that Jang is believed to have good relations with all three of Kim's sons, acting as their guardian and overseeing their educations. He is believed to have backed the youngest son as Kim's successor.

The North’s power elite is formally a three-pronged structure of the military, the Workers’ Party of Korea, and the parliament. The National Defense Commission is the state’s supreme leadership body, which Kim headed. The Workers’ Party of Korea was also headed by Kim until his death; a general meeting last year was meant to revive its status as the primary source of power.

The slogan of the Kim regime was “put the army first.” General Ri Yong Ho, the chief of staff, is ranked fourth on the list of funeral committee officials, an indication of the power he has not only within the army but as Kim Jong Il’s confidant in domestic politics.

China has emerged as the country that has the most influence over North Korea. North Koreans who escaped to northern China and remain in China live in danger, not only of being discovered by the Chinese authorities but from the bounty hunters who would turn them in to local authorities for a reward. While northeast China is generally far more economically developed and stable than North Korea, extreme poverty within North Korea and food shortages have a significant impact on movement across the border into China. The North Korean communist regime began experiencing a food shortage of increasing severity beginning in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting cut-off of economic benefits North Korea had received from the communist bloc.