Stephen M. Walt

Is Kim Jong Un up to the task?

Victor Cha of Georgetown University scores a rare two-fer on today’s oped pages, landing a piece in the New York Times and another in the Financial Times, both on the implications of Kim Jong Il’s death.  Victor’s main argument is that new leader Kim Jong Un, (son of the deceased Kim Jong Il, grandson of ...

Dieter Depypere/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Dieter Depypere/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Victor Cha of Georgetown University scores a rare two-fer on today’s oped pages, landing a piece in the New York Times and another in the Financial Times, both on the implications of Kim Jong Il’s death.  Victor’s main argument is that new leader Kim Jong Un, (son of the deceased Kim Jong Il, grandson of Kim Il Sung) won’t be up to the task of running an already-troubled regime. In his words: "Such a system simply cannot hold."  He suspects this situation will encourage China to get more actively involved in internal North Korea politics (and might go so far as to "adopt" it as a quasi-province). Cha doesn’t think there’s much that the United States can or should do at this juncture, but he recommends that the United States start more active contingency planning for the collapse of the regime or significant internal turbulence, and redouble its efforts to establish a channel of communication on this issue with Beijing.

Victor knows a heck of a lot more about North Korea than I do, so I’m reluctant to challenge either his forecast or his prescriptions.  But I can think of at least one reason why Kim Jong Un might — repeat might — fare somewhat better than Cha expects.  If North Korea’s ruling elite understands their own fragility and recognizes the dangers that a serious power struggle might pose, then Kim Jong Un can survive by default.  Why? Because he’s the one leader that all the potential contenders can agree on, if only to avoid the dangerous uncertainties that an open contest for power would entail.

As the history of every royal family shows, dynastic succession doesn’t guarantee that you get a gifted or effective ruler every time. But it often works because having anybody in place helps ward off in-fighting among various potential contenders.  And even if Kim Jong Un is mostly a figurehead, he’s the only person in North Korea who can credibly claim to have been chosen by the departed Dear Leader. 

All this is not to say that the regime won’t have real problems in the months ahead, and I certainly won’t be surprised if Cha’s forecasts are borne out. But the Kim dynasty has lasted longer than one might have expected, and we shouldn’t be utterly astonished if the newly ascendant "Great Successor" turns out to be the compromise candidate that the rest of the elite decides to tolerate, in order to avoid the risky process of picking someone else.   

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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