Six Mysteries of North Korea’s Succession Drama

As Kim Jong Il starts looking for the exit, false predictions and wild rumors abound. Need some help sorting through them?

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea watchers have been sitting on the edge of their seats for almost a week, waiting for the highly anticipated conference of the ruling Workers’ Party — the first in 44 years. Prognosticators are already in high gear, churning out not only predictions about its outcome — Kim Jong Il’s youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, will somehow be anointed as the next leader of North Korea — but also trying to figure out whether and why the meeting seems to have been delayed even though all they have to go on is a North Korean statement that it would be held in "early September."

What is distressing for both of us as former U.S. policymakers and long-time observers of North Korea is that recent public commentary on the party conference and other important events is mostly based on gossip, rumor, unconfirmed reports, or uninformed speculation. The pervasiveness of this analysis distorts the public debate over the real challenges posed by North Korea and the policies needed to cope with that threat. Six of the most egregious analytical missteps are as follows.

The Political Succession: Uphill Battle or Smooth Sailing?

Yogi Berra’s famous observation — "it’s déjà vu all over again" — could well describe recent analysis of the succession. There was a lot of goofy reporting about Kim Jong Il during the last power transition in the 1980s and 90s, following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung — his erratic personality, his weak political base, and most of all, his likely short reign. For example, a poll of former South Korean intelligence officials found a majority believed Kim would only last months in the job. For a long time, we knew virtually nothing about him or the process by which he was being groomed, and therefore were primed to jump on any and all tidbits fed to us from dubious sources.

Sound familiar? Today, there is not a shred of evidence to back up talk about a succession "struggle." All we know — or think we might know — is that there is a transition underway. We don’t know for sure when it began, but there are some signs that it may have been in the works several years before August 2008, when Kim disappeared for months due to unspecified medical problems. Speculation that the process is fragile because it has been "rushed" and that the successor is not "ready" has no basis in fact. We do not even know how far along the process is, or what the next step might be.

Does that mean the succession will move forward smoothly? Not necessarily. Perhaps the wisest thing to do is to set out a working hypothesis and then refine it as facts drift in. If Kim Jong Il’s grip on power remains firm, it is highly unlikely that anyone will challenge his choice. The only way for anyone in Pyongyang’s inner circle to put a spanner in the works will be ever so subtly to show Kim that his son is not up to the job, and then leave it to him to decide that he needs to look for someone else.

North Korea: Teetering on the Brink or Inching Forward?

A supporting narrative, purveyed by a thriving industry of South Korean-based media is (radios and blogs) that North Korea is on the brink of collapse. This is reflected in the constant reporting chiefly about economic missteps but also severe food shortages. However, anyone who takes the time to carefully examine the facts will discover there is no good evidence pointing to a situation in the North so dire economically, or so disjointed politically.

For example, that the North’s currency redenomination of late last year was "botched" and left lasting resentment toward Pyongyang has by now been repeated publicly so many times that many observers have convinced themselves that Kim Jong Il’s regime is living on borrowed time.

We strongly doubt that is the case. Whatever mistakes the regime made in putting together or implementing the currency redenomination, not more than a couple of months passed before it realized this policy was a loser and threw it overboard. Was there lasting damage to the regime’s grip on power from this episode, or is it just another bump in a never-very-smooth economic road receding in the rearview mirror? In spite of all the breathless analysis, only one thing is clear: No one really knows.

Kim Jong Il: Fading Fast or Recovering Stroke Victim?

The health of the 68-year old Kim — bad and getting worse — has been cited as the cause of everything from North Korea’s 2009 nuclear and missile tests to a possible collapse of the country to, on a more mundane level, the "delay" of the party conference. No doubt there is a lot of chatter in intelligence circles about Kim’s health, most of it probably unreliable, as this would be among the most closely guarded of secrets in a regime that is very good at keeping them.

What we can see, and what we know from those outsiders who have met with Kim recently, is that he is active, in control of his faculties, lucid, and on top of his brief. His frequent tours of North Korea plus two recent trips to China are consistent with this conclusion. Moreover, video clips suggest that Kim has enjoyed at least a partial recovery following a course of rehabilitation therapy and other treatment. However, as one medical doctor observes on the 38 North website, "even for patients without purported risk factors such as diabetes, smoking, apathy, and post-stroke depression" the "survival rates at five years are little better than 35-40 percent, with over half of such patients becoming significantly disabled."

While it is true that the bell will someday toll for each of us, including Kim, without access to his medical chart, it is a bad idea for political analysts to assume failing health is driving political decisions. The health of a leader is always a factor and a concern, but there is a tendency on the part of outsiders to overcompensate in the case of a secretive regime like North Korea’s.

Kim Jong Un: Unfit to Rule or Man of Mystery?

Reports labeling the 20-something Kim Jong Un as "the idiot son" — unstable, responsible for dangerous acts such as the sinking of the Cheonan, and obsessed with Jean Claude Van Damme — sound familiar. Lunging at odd tidbits of dubious information is a tried and true practice employed by analysts during North Korean leadership transitions. Speculation from people who misjudged Kim Jong Il’s personality, character, ability, and how long he would last was rampant before and after he took power.

Recent articles citing the vague memories of classmates who knew the younger Kim years ago in Switzerland or analysis of old film clips of him at a school event (recently employed by a major Japanese newspaper) suggest we are going down this same path for the same reasons again. What is really important is exactly what we cannot yet see — the strength of his personality, his skill in manipulating people, his ability to use the levers of power, and his intellect.

Kim Jong Il’s Latest Visit to China: Supplicant or Geostrategic Magician?

North Korean and Chinese leaders have a long, long history of visiting each other. These visits are important, but there is a tendency to overanalyze the significance of any single trip. That has certainly been the case with Kim’s recent trip to China, where analysts parsed official communiqués and pontificated about what they saw as Kim’s failure to secure significant economic aid on his visit. Yes, for him to go twice in four months appears unusual and worth noting, but there are too many unknowns about the planning to throw analytical caution to the winds.

The North Koreans do not trust the Chinese any farther than they can throw them, a feeling that is fully reciprocated. Geography trum
ps such emotions, however, and the two countries by now know how to keep things on an even keel, even when smiling at each other through pursed lips and gritted teeth. Whenever there is a rocky period, both sides know very well that it will pass, that they will patch things up and put relations back on track … until the next rocky period.

Kim knows what he needs from China, and the Chinese know what he most wants — an understanding that they will not interfere in North Korean internal affairs and will undercut U.S. and South Korean efforts (real or perceived) to destabilize the North. Of course, because China is by far the North’s largest trading partner, the two leaders (or their retinues) have had extensive discussions about practical economic matters, all the more important given Beijing’s new emphasis on developing the northeast provinces, and North Korea’s wariness of Washington’s fixation with sanctions.

Jimmy Carter’s Trip to Pyongyang: Mission Accomplished or Snubbed President?

Because President Carter didn’t meet Kim Jong Il, his trip to Pyongyang, according to one pundit, was "worse than a slap to the face; it’s basically giving the middle finger to the United States." That may be true or it may not.

For one thing, logistics and schedules explain more about world events than people realize. The most mundane things — appointment calendars and the weather — sometimes have as profound an influence as the most clever political calculations. For that reason, to make an informed judgment, one probably needs to know when Kim Jong Il’s trip to China was put in motion, when plans were finalized, how much the dates were driven by Chinese leadership schedules, even whether the fact that there are only three railway bridges between North Korea and China, and that one of them was closed due to flooding, influenced decisions on venue and timing.

One close observer, former U.S. ambassador to Seoul Donald Gregg, has recently said in the International Herald Tribune that Carter knew before he left that he would not meet Kim. If true, all the more reason to drop the notion that this was a case of a former U.S. president being jilted at the altar. This much we know: His visit secured the release of an American citizen in trouble. We can’t, however, be sure what Carter learned from his discussions with other North Korean officials. But it is worth noting the former president met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upon his return.

Of course, any foreign-policy analyst knows the value of asking the right questions. But that’s an art form that seems to have been lost in the case of North Korea. If there is one lesson that the two of us have learned over the past 15 years in thinking about how to deal with Pyongyang, it has been the necessity of examining and reexamining accepted wisdom. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that has to be learned over and over again in regards to the North.

Robert L. Carlin is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. From 1989 to 2002, he was chief of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State and took part in U.S.-North Korean negotiations from 1992 to 2000.

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