North Korean Succession, Unveiled and Demystified

The North Korean regime is wrapping up festivities celebrating the debut of Kim Jong Un, the youngest acknowledged son of Kim Jong Il. If all goes according to plan — not likely — Jong Un will eventually succeed his father as “Great Leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.


On Sunday, we got two clues about the chubby dictator-in-waiting, who joined his dad on the reviewing stand high atop Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang as perhaps as many as 20,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen marched in perfect precision. First, Jong Un was dressed in dark civilian garb.

And why is his choice of wardrobe significant? The young Kim — he is probably no more than 27 — was made a four-star general at the end of last month. The elevation occurred just hours before the opening of the first major gathering of the Korean Workers’ Party since 1980. And at the long-anticipated and unexpectedly delayed event, Kim was appointed vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.

Yet despite the promotion, the “Young General” showed up on Sunday without uniform, stars, and medals. It is true that the two prior Kims took to wearing street clothes as they ruled. Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, customarily sported Western suits.  His dad, Kim Jong Il, invariably dresses like a garage mechanic, as Madeleine Albright once remarked. Analysts, however, expected Kim Jong Un to appear in the Square on Sunday in the guise of a general to show off his high rank.

After all, the whole purpose of parading thousands of men and women through the capital was to demonstrate to domestic and foreign audiences that the Korean People’s Army stands behind the planned succession from father to son. For Kim Jong Un to attend a military affair as a civilian, therefore, is curious.


We don’t know the reasoning behind the sartorial choice, but it’s possible Kim Jong Il did not want to offend officers who had devoted their lives to earning stars. So the Kim-family transition may not be sitting well with some elements in the military.

This is not to say flag officers will not back Kim Jong Un. It is to point out, however, that in a deeply Confucian, elder-respecting society, the transfer of power to a young — and youngest — son is a tricky exercise.

Observers say Jong Un is nonetheless well-suited to rule because he is as ruthless and calculating as his dad. And that brings us to the second clue we received on Sunday. On Sunday, Kim Jong Un did not appear to be the tough personality he is rumored to be. There was no look of confidence or hint of strength in the pictures of him broadcast around the world. He may have been the son to receive the dictator gene, but he looked a little blank, if not disoriented, as the troops goose-stepped by. In short, he appeared to be what he is: an overfed kid fresh out of school.

If that’s all he is, the youngest “general” is certainly not ready to play the dangerous game of politics in Pyongyang, where death is sometimes the penalty for a wrong move. Kim Jong Un’s first wrong move is to have a dad in poor health.

Succession planning has been occurring only because Kim Jong Il’s already-precarious medical condition has been weakening.  Until his stroke in August 2008, Kim had essentially banned talk of handing over power to anyone. After that event, preparations have been a rushed affair. Kim Il Sung devoted two decades preparing for the transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il has taken only two years to prepare the way for Kim Jong Un.


At Sunday’s festivities Kim Jong Il, still afflicted by the stoke, was seen limping and relying on the handrailing to keep himself upright. If he can survive for, say, a half decade, his son should be able to consolidate his position in the quarreling constituencies making up the North Korean regime. If he passes from the scene before then, however, he will not be a match for his adversaries in Beijing, where the senior leadership does not appear to want a third-generation Kim, and Pyongyang, which is populated with potential rivals for power.

Kim Jong Il is said to have delayed medical attention for his father, who was stricken with a heart attack in July 1994.  That act — akin to patricide — permitted the current leader to ascend the throne sooner than anticipated. It’s unlikely Kim Jong Un will do the same to his father, who at least at this moment is his only hope.


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