A Puzzle in Pyongyang

Kim Jong Un's ascension in North Korea poses as many questions as it answers.

UNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

"Finally," one is tempted to say. The years of speculation and half-baked news from dubious sources are over. A senior North Korean official has confirmed the unbroken line of power from father to son to grandson. The nagging issue, over which there’s been so much speculation, as to who will inherit Kim Jong Il’s regime has been officially resolved. Or has it?

The third delegates’ meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Sept. 28 answered a few questions. Still, it left others unanswered and posed quite a few new ones as well. In the end, Kim Jong Il emerged the undisputed leader. But has his legitimacy become more independent of his father than it used to be? Kim Jong Un has been introduced to the people. Does this mean he is going to succeed Kim Jong Il? Or will he succeed Kim Il Sung? Kim Jong Il’s sister Kim Kyong Hui has been promoted to the rank of general and is part of the party leadership. Is she supposed to support her nephew, or is this part of a strategy to more broadly enhance the family’s power? Her husband Jang Song Taek is also on board. Will he share the caretaking job with his wife? Are there any other members of the extended Kim family on the team?

First, let’s review the facts:

1. On Monday, Sept. 27, Kim Jong Un was mentioned for the first time in the official North Korean media when he was promoted to the rank of general. Now, at last, we know for sure how to write his name.

2. On the same day, Kim Jong Il’s sister was promoted to the same military rank as her nephew.

3. On Sept. 28, one day later, the first delegates’ meeting of the Workers’ Party in 44 years — and the biggest gathering since the last party congress in 1980 — opened after a mysterious delay. It had originally been announced for "early September."

4. Contrary to speculation in the Western media, Kim Jong Il did not step down nor did he hand over any of his powers to his son. Rather, the elder Kim was confirmed as the current leader of the party, the military, and the country.

5. From 1945 until 1980, the Workers’ Party held six party congresses and two conferences or delegates’ meetings. This means that on average, the party had one major event every 4.4 years. However, over the past three decades, it had none. Even the 21st (and so far last) plenum of the Workers’ Party was held 17 years ago in December 1993. Now, the party’s defunct leadership structure has been restored, and the delegates elected 124 members of the Central Committee and 105 alternates. These 229 people form the party’s elite. From among the members, 17 were named to the committee’s Politburo, the party’s second-highest leading organ, and 15 as alternates.

6. The Politburo, in turn, is headed by a Presidium, or Standing Committee, of five people, with Kim Jong Il at the top as the party’s general secretary. It also consists of Kim Yong Nam (82 years old), Choe Yong Rim (80), Jo Myong Rok (82), and Ri Yong Ho (68). The last was promoted the day before the delegates’ meeting to the post of vice marshal. He thus ranks above Kim Jong Un and his aunt and is rumored to be a member of the Kim family, which if true, implies a particularly strong base for loyalty. Given the advanced age of most of its members, if the Presidium is not newly elected in a few years, who will remain? This makes Ri, by far the body’s youngest member (along with Kim Jong Il), particularly interesting.

7. All three known close relatives of Kim Jong Il received top party posts. Kim Jong Un became vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (see fact 9). His aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, became a member of the Politburo, while her husband, Jang Song Taek, was made an alternate. The names of regular and alternate members were not provided in alphabetical order, indicating a certain hierarchy. Kim Kyong Hui’s name was listed last out of 17, and Jang was fifth out of 15. A day later, he was 14th (out of 15) on a list of short bios of regular and alternate Politburo members. Kim Kyong Hui was the only member in addition to Kim Jong Il for whom no details were provided.

8. Except for the Central Committee, there is not a single leadership organ in which all three close relatives of Kim Jong Il hold a post. Kim Jong Un is excluded from the Politburo altogether; Kim Kyong Hui is not on the Central Military Commission; and Jang Song Taek is only an alternate Politburo member. We could speculate that Kim Jong Il wants to prevent having too high a concentration of power in the hands of one of his relatives. He has made sure that the most crucial instruments of power are staffed with the most loyal of his followers, who will be ready to walk the extra mile and fulfill his strategic decisions with all the energy of a family member and co-owner.

9. As expected, Kim Jong Un has not (yet) become a member or an alternate member of the Politburo, but did receive a high-ranking post in the party’s Central Military Commission. As far as we know, this is essentially the organization through which the party controls the military, and hence the most powerful of its organs. It is no coincidence that this commission is chaired by Kim Jong Il himself. His son comes next in the hierarchy, as the first of the commission’s two vice chairmen. Jang Song Taek is a member, too, but the one with the lowest rank, so it seems. His name was listed last out of 19. Kim Kyong Hui is not a member.

10. On Sept. 29, North Korea’s official news agency published an unusually long and detailed article with profiles of all Politburo members except Kim Jong Il and his sister. In addition, a large group picture was published that showed the delegates and the complete Central Committee, including Kim Jong Un. The list of profiles and the photo rather openly revealed the true hierarchy within the party leadership: Only 19 people were sitting in the front row, while the others were standing. Kim Jong Un sat just one space away from his father, and Kim Kyong Hui sat five spaces away from the center. In a report on the taking of this picture, Kim Jong Un’s name came fourth after the Politburo Presidium members Kim Yong Nam, Choe Yong Rim, and Ri Yong Ho. Kim Kyong Hui was No. 18, and Jang Song Taek was No. 23 on that exclusive list of 33 leaders.

11. Also on Sept. 29, the North Korean media published a message from Chinese President Hu Jintao only a day after the delegates’ meeting. He stressed the deep and traditional friendship, close geographical relationship, and wide-ranging common interests of the two countries. Hu pledged to defend and promote the bilateral relationship no matter how the international situation might change. This was a message to the North Korean people and the international community: China is going to support the new North Korean leadership.

What have we learned?

The party meeting provided final proof of what has often been doubted: that Kim Jong Il still knows how to play the power game. Whatever else one might say about him, Kim Il Sung undisputedly was an able politician, and he did not choose his successor by chance. His son has now shown his abilities by resolving a tricky puzzle: He paved the way for a new leadership without turning himself into a lame duck. He did so by not leaving any important posts to somebody else — though, at the same time, he did not monopolize those positions. He distributed power among a core group of family members and his father’s loyalists, while also ensuring that none of them can be certain to be significantly higher in rank than any of their colleagues. As in Juche, the official state ideology in which everything depends on the judgment of the leader, power in North Korea remains Kim’s sole domain. At the same time, he has done what any good CEO does: delegate authority to avoid energy-consuming micromanagement of each and every aspect of his job.

The most important decision regarding human resources has been the introduction of Kim Jong Un as a member of the top leadership of the party and of the military. He will now have to quickly develop a record — at least on paper — of spectacular achievements so that he can be quickly presented to the people as the most logical and capable candidate for the next leadership post. Because Kim Jong Un was appointed with a clear reference to the military, Kim Jong Il appears to be following the same strategy his father did after 1980. At that time, North Korea analysts noticed that the late O Jin U, the top military official, was always standing close to Kim Jong Il. It would now be logical to expect that like his father before him, Kim Jong Un will be responsible for the promotion of top military officers, thereby ensuring their loyalty.

In terms of strategic decisions, the succession from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un might be different from the last changing of the guard in 1994. As early as 2008, it seemed likely that the role of the party would be strengthened substantially. The restoration of the party’s formal power organs and the many biographical details that were provided on the top leadership circle, including the group photo, suggest that the new leader will not be as autocratic as his predecessors.

What seems most notable is the renewed emphasis on Kim Il Sung as the sole source of legitimacy in North Korea. Kim Jong Il is not going to replace him as such, which would have been a precondition for the perpetuation of the current system of leadership. Therefore, in a sense, Kim Jong Un and all those who come after him will be, like Kim Jong Il, successors of Kim Il Sung. If this observation is correct, then we finally know the long-term blueprint for a perpetuation of North Korea’s leadership system.

Kim Il Sung was certainly aware that sooner or later, his son would face the succession issue. It would be a great surprise if they hadn’t talked about this and jointly developed a rough plan for creating a sustainable model of power succession. (though Kim Il Sung could not possibly have known just who would show the necessary capabilities to become the next successor and how much time his son would have to oversee and guide that process.) In 2008, when Kim Jong Il is thought to have suffered a stroke, Pyongyang’s media outlets began touting 2012 as the year North Korea would become a "strong and prosperous great country." His actions since indicate a man who is compressing a process that was planned long ago and supposed to last longer — not, as some analysts have suggested, a man creating a process from scratch and in great haste.

Concerning the current process of power transfer, as expected, a multistage approach is unfolding. At least one more stage will be needed. Chances are good that this will take place at the seventh party congress, whose date is as of yet unannounced. The year 2012 would be a good time, considering Kim Jong Il’s questionable health and that year’s auspicious meaning — the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

The China factor

Hu Jintao’s message of support, along with Kim Jong Il’s two visits to China before the delegates’ meeting, immediately lead to the question: What type of North Korea will China support? Clearly, the last thing China wants is for North Korea to collapse — as that would create a serious dilemma for Beijing: Either it could either do nothing and watch the U.S. sphere of influence expand right to its border, or it could actively interfere. But interfering would instantly shatter China’s copious efforts to present itself to other countries in the region as a peaceful giant that can offer a real alternative to protection by the United States. In the end, this is what North Korea is all about — competition between Beijing and Washington. Pyongyang knows this.

A third path might be open to China. North Korea has realized that the economic reforms of 2002, which focused on agriculture and hence closely resembled China’s early experiments in 1979, were in principle a good idea, but that conditions were so unlike those in China that the results inevitably differed — indeed, North Korea’s attempts were disastrous. Farmers saw their income grow, while the majority urban population (about 70 percent) faced rising prices. Inflation followed suit, and the just-narrowed gap between state and market prices expanded again. North Korea is much more heavily industrialized than 1970s China, and Pyongyang will accordingly need to focus on industrial reform above all else.

North Korea is not in a novel situation. It has intensely studied the one well-established blueprint in the region, the East Asian model of development. In short, it consists of a strong state that controls a few big players in the economy — zaibatsu or keiretsu in Japan, chaebol in South Korea, and the state-owned companies in China. Success requires a huge source of finance, coupled with a strong political partner that, for a while, is willing to turn a blind eye on protectionism and provides a huge market for the newcomer’s exports. The United States played that role for South Korea, and to a lesser extent for Japan. China seems now willing to provide this service for North Korea, under certain political conditions.

Since at least 2005, and more intensely since 2008, North Korea is returning to the path of orthodox socialism, or at least to its East Asian version. "Rule by the Party" — a collective with a first among equals at the top — is not only a key component of any socialist textbook case; it also defines the Chinese model since 1978. After two leaders of the Mao Zedong type, North Korea might now be getting ready for one that is more like China’s Hu — that is, a strong leader who rules as the head of a collective. With some luck, Kim Jong Un might even turn out to be a Deng Xiaoping — a man who has the power and vision to use this post to initiate and execute crucial reforms. So maybe we should wish him well

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola