Reading Shakespeare in Pyongyang

Want to understand North Korea after Kim Jong Il’s death? Good luck. The palace intrigue in Pyongyang would put the bard to shame.


The prospect of Kim Jong Il’s death has loomed over Asia ever since he suffered a major stroke in 2008. And yet we have still managed to be surprised: Official word of the Dear Leader’s demise has inserted a profound sense of uncertainty about the future of North Korea and its neighborhood, driving down markets throughout the region, and spiking popular concern in South Korea about what comes next.

Yet it will be machinations inside Pyongyang — not the hand-wringing of those of us outside the country — that in the coming days, weeks, and months will have profound implications for the future of the Korean peninsula and the entire Asia-Pacific region. Taking into account North Korea’s impoverished and imprisoned population, its large and nuclear-armed military, and the global strategic significance of its neighbors, the stakes are astronomical.

North Korea was founded by Gen. Kim Il Sung from the ashes of Japanese occupation. With significant support from the Soviet Union, Kim (a.k.a. the Great Leader) established a Stalin-esque regime founded on fear, repression, and a cult of personality that raised Kim to the status of a god. Yet the Great Leader did not buy into his own immortality, and began grooming one of his sons, Kim Jong Il, to replace him upon his death. Kim the Younger (a.k.a. the Dear Leader) thus underwent a multi-decade process to consolidate his own base of power within the three pillars of the North Korean state — the Korean Workers Party, the government bureaucracy, and the military — so that, upon his father’s death in 1994, he had already established a secure base of power from which to rule.

Kim Jong Il, however, apparently did not take the prospect of his own mortality seriously. It was not until after his 2008 stroke that serious succession planning appeared to take place. Previously moribund bureaucracies were revitalized and potential competitors were sent to the countryside or suffered fatal car crashes. The Dear Leader’s 20-something son, Kim Jong Un — now being hailed in Pyongyang as the Great Successor — was made a full general (despite his lack of any military experience), named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and appointed to the Central Committee of the Korean Workers” Party — all moves to solidify his status as his father’s official successor. Also promoted to general was Kim Jong Il’s sister Kim Kyong Hui, whose husband Jang Song Taek is vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and was seen by many as the Dear Leader’s primary deputy.

Thus stands North Korea’s leadership today: the not-so-dearly departed’s twenty-something son and sister, both of whose promotions are little more than a year old, and the Dear Leader’s apparently capable brother-in-law. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un has not had nearly enough time to establish a personal base of power within the North Korean elite and bureaucracy and his ability to directly control the levers of power (especially the military) is questionable.

The plan appears to be that the new leader will continue to build his power base as his more established aunt and uncle manage the state in a kind of collective regency until the time is right for Kim Jong Un to take full power. Kim Jong Un can count on the legitimacy of the Kim family bloodline (which carries significant weight in North Korean propaganda), the relationships he has established so far, his gender (a cultural bias that prevents his aunt from taking power herself), and any residual loyalty elites may have to his father’s arrangements.

Yet succession rarely goes according to plan. When the prospect of absolute power and unlimited resources are combined with familial intrigue and a military and civilian leadership whose ambitions have been tempered by decades of despotic rule, succession could become downright Shakespearean.

The coming months and years in Pyongyang will be filled with palace intrigue. While it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un will be attacked directly, his aunt and uncle may attempt to sideline him with a grand title but little real authority. Will Kim Jong Un be able to wrest power from his aunt and uncle? How will North Korea’s other generals and party leaders react to attempts by a twenty-something kid to command people with decades more experience and connections? Who will control the military and domestic security services? And what of Kim’s other relatives? Many of them have been living in quasi-exile so as not to threaten the heir apparent’s legitimacy and could play a significant role (either as instigators or as figureheads) in factional maneuvering. Coups, either explicit or quiet, are a distinct possibility.

Given the opacity of the North Korean regime, it is unlikely that the outside world will have a good idea of exactly what’s going on. Rumor and old-fashioned Kremlinology, long the first resort of North Korea watchers the world over, will remain our primary windows into Pyongyang. Yet that is not to say that North Korea will turn inward and leave the rest of us alone.

More likely, North Korea’s external behavior during a time of transition will be even more unpredictable and destabilizing than when Kim Jong Il was in power. Given the importance of controlling the military in securing one’s position in Pyongyang, jockeying insiders (including Kim Jong Un himself) will likely attempt to use confrontation with South Korea and the United States as a tool to boost their legitimacy and solidify ties with military elites. Many observers believe that North Korea’s attacks on South Korea in 2010 were driven by succession politics, strongly suggesting that the region should prepare for future crises. Other provocations, including nuclear and missile tests, are certainly on the table.

Yet there is a window for very cautious optimism. A change in leadership means that there is a chance, albeit a small one, that Pyongyang’s new leadership could choose to turn away from the isolation and confrontation of the past and choose to open itself up to the world. Such a radical departure from established dogma would likely only be possible after leadership in Pyongyang has been consolidated and solidified, but we should not discount the possibility entirely.

China and the United States have significant roles to play in the coming months and years. Beijing has significant interests in sustaining North Korean stability, and in recent years has stepped up its economic and political engagement with Pyongyang. Many of China’s leaders believe North Korea will reform and upon up, along the line’s of Deng Xiaoping’s historic reforms, and seek time and strategic space to allow Pyongyang to change. With Kim Jong Il’s death, it is possible that Beijing will quietly but actively use its significant influence in North Korea to assist those elites in Pyongyang believed to be reliable and sympathetic to reform with Chinese characteristics. In the meantime, China will likely oppose any efforts by the United States or South Korea it believes would destabilize North Korea or threaten Pyongyang’s hold on power. For the foreseeable future, Beijing’s mantra will continue to be "patience and stability."

The United States, for its part, will keep a cautious eye on North Korea while working closely with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo to manage any crises that may occur. While Washington generally deems any significant movement from Pyongyang on nuclear issues to be unlikely at best until succession issues are resolved, the United States will nevertheless keep a keen ear open for any indication from the North that progress is possible. The fate of talks between Pyongyang and Washington on food aid and nuclear issues, rumored to be slated for this week, are under examination and may be delayed.

The most important external player in this drama will be South Korea. South Koreans are sharply divided between those who see North Korea as a malignant threat, and those who see it as a wayward brother in need of engagement and encouragement. A change in leadership in Pyongyang presents both sides with a chance at change. For southerners who see North Korea as a threat, a time of leadership transition may represent one of the last chances to reunify the Korean peninsula. For those who see North Korea more benignly, leadership change represents an opportunity to turn the corner with Pyongyang and encourage a more friendly and conciliatory era of inter-Korean relations. With Seoul approaching parliamentary and presidential elections in April and December (respectively) next year, the South Korean people will directly influence their nation’s approach to the North. The results of these elections could prove decisive for the entire Korean peninsula.

As for North Korea itself, the coming months will see some state-endorsed wailing, as well as the kind of Stalin-esque official funeral afforded the Great Leader. North Korea watchers have marked April 15, 2012 on their calendars as the next opportunity to see where North Korea is headed. This will be the 100th birthday of Kim Il-Sung, and was planned to be a celebration of North Korea’s supposed status as a "strong and prosperous country" and something of a coming out party for Kim Jong Un. Now that fate has intervened, it will likely be seen more as a litmus test. Will he pass?

Abraham M. Denmark served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia from 2015 through January 2017. Prior to that position, he was senior vice president at The National Bureau of Asian Research. Follow him on Twitter: @AbeDenmark.

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