BUSAN, South Korea – A friend from Reuters AP asked me to comment on Kim Jong-il's death with these questions and I wanted to share my assessment of the still unfolding situation with my readers:
How stable is North Korea today, with the news of Kim’s death?
Pretty stable actually. When Stalin and Mao died the whole show didn’t tip over. Insiders took a bit more power from the now-missing center but more or less followed their previous roles initially. The Kim family network all have an obvious and deep interest – at least now, before the sorting out of the new pecking order – in preventing implosion. They’re all deeply vested in a brutal, human-rights abusing regime, and they would face SK post-unification courts with access to the death penalty if it all came apart. So the chance of civil war or implosion in the coming days is pretty close to zero. The real test will be in the next 6 to 12 months as the factional conflict heats up over the distribution of gains, particularly access to the badly-strapped national budget, in the nouveau regime. I think China after Mao is a good analogy here.
Father and son in 1983, eleven years before Kim Jong-il would take over following his father's death.
How prepared was the North for this scenario?
Better than we’d think, but still not too well. Highly personalized regimes, by definition, are institutionally poorly prepared for transition at the top, because the ‘sun-king’ has structured the system that way. Like Bismarck, Hitler, or Mao, they keep the underlings jockeying and guessing, but when they go, the hole in the middle is big. It took Kim Jong-il years to solidify his rule after Kim Il Sung, and even Kim Jong-il could only do that by leading the army personally, likely to forestall a coup. That said, NK has gone this through before, and familialism of its elite and dynasticity of its succession alleviate some of the factional tension authoritarian successions generate. Ie, because they are all related to each other (like any good mafia), they are less likely to turn one another. That is the whole point of appointing relatives to high positions. But nepotistic grooming didn’t have the full time to play through, because Kim Jong-un hasn’t been the dauphin long enough. NK is far less prepared than in 1994 after death of Kim Il Sung.
How prepared are Seoul, Washington and Beijing?
Not very. As Brezhnev’s health declined slowly, the West had time to adjust to rising factionalism and stagnation in the USSR. Brezhnev showed up less and less in public; the faces on the stage at Red Square changed to show who was up or down. This barely happened in NK; Kim Jong-il was travelling and walking around in Russia just 4 months ago. My sense is that most of us thought Kim Jong-il had recovered reasonably well from the stroke and might hang on for a few more years. This was a sudden heart attack that caught everyone by surprise.
How ready is the young Kim Jong-un to take over?
Not very. 1) He is young, which cuts against Korean cultural-Confucian standards of age matched to authority. 2) He has no experience in the military, which is now the central institution of the regime. 3) He does not have the years of ‘training’ and experience in Pyongyang backrooms to groom the connections necessary to govern a mafioso-like kleptocracy. Indeed, he seems to have no real political, military, educational, scientific, or other training for this role at all. The name is all he’s got, but that is central for the regime’s legitimacy given its hyper-patrimonialism and ideology. So my guess is that he will be kept for continuity and legitimacy but will basically become a figurehead for an emergent soft military junta (like Myanmar).
The heir to the throne, Kim Jong-un.
Who are the real leaders, now that Kim Jong-il is dead?
The Korean People’s Army top brass and the National Defense Commission, because Kim Jong-un is weak and they have the guns.
What role does the military have right now?
Regime Stabilizer. The extended Kim family is like the Corleones in charge of a whole country – shaking down SK, the US, the UN, the PRC and anyone else for aid and cash, counterfeiting currency, committing insurance fraud, dealing drugs, etc. Try to imagine that Brando’s Godfather character took over a whole state and ran it like a corrupt casino to rip off just about everyone – most obviously the NKs themselves. The nukes are just the biggest gun pointed at the world to force an offer no one can refuse.
But it is the military that keeps the internal peace and wards off the outside world to keep this whole racket running. So long as the KPA gets to keep their constitutionally exalted position (‘military first’), and their generous access to privilege and the budget that it entails, I see no reason to think the KPA will overthrow Kim Jong-un. Why not keep him as a figurehead, and the Kim family in general as the fall guys in case the whole thing does collapse? Let them face the angry Southern courts and swing from the gallows. That said, I do think the army’s role will increase substantially. We know there was some resistance to yet another dynastic succession, and that Kims seem given to megalomania and a god-complex that the army must know is hugely dangerous. So my thinking leans towards an emergent junta with the Kims as a fig leaf.
I have written a lot on NK. Here is the whole list. Here are some of the better ones: post-Kim Jong-il as a military dictatorship; policy options (all bad) for dealing with NK; Arab Spring and NK; and the parallels between Korea and Germany on unification.
On the Lighter Side