Korea’s Third Kim: Will Anything Change?

The death of Kim Jong-il and subsequent dynastic transfer of power in North Korea caused a spasm of hope in the policy community that the secretive and totalitarian nation might embark on economic and political reforms. As the new leader, Kim Jong-un, was exposed to Western affluence while receiving his education in Switzerland—so the wishful thinking goes—surely he would realize the benefits of opening up his country. In fact, the young and inexperienced scion of the Kim dynasty derives his legitimacy solely from his family heritage. He has every reason to perpetuate the oppressive system built by his grandfather and buttressed by his father. In fact, how much Kim Jong-un’s ideas and beliefs matter will remain questionable, at least over the short term. It is reasonable to assume that the untested leader will be guided by guardians or perhaps regents. This means that he may not be the one calling the shots, at least for the time being. The opaqueness of the power structure, meanwhile, has important implications for the outside world. The consolidation of power is likely to be still in progress, and it would take months—possibly even longer—for outside observers to learn how policies are determined. With Kim Jong-il, the world at least knew with whom it was dealing. Under Kim Jong-un, we may not even enjoy that advantage for some time to come.

There is little that is known about Kim Jong-un, apart from the fact that he is the third son of Kim Jong-il, is in his late twenties, and spent some time at a school in Switzerland. His youth and exposure to the Western world have prompted hope in some quarters that he would be more open to reforms aimed at reviving the country’s dysfunctional economy. History has shown, however, that foreign exposure does not always lead to liberal policies. Cambodia’s Pol Pot, who was responsible for the murder of approximately twenty percent of his country’s population, was educated partly in France. Liberian dictator Charles Taylor holds a university degree from the United States—and is accused of war crimes and human rights abuses.

Kim Jong-un was chosen over at least two older members of the family. One is Kim Jong-nam, a half brother who reportedly fell out of favor after being detained in Japan for trying to enter the country on a forged passport in 2001. The other is Kim Jong-chol, a full brother. According to a book by a former Japanese chef of the late Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader complained about his second-oldest son, saying that he is “like a girl.” Kim Jong-un had long been his father’s favorite, according to the same source, who was the North Korean dictator’s chef for thirteen years until leaving the country in 2001. (The Hermit Kingdom is so thoroughly closed to Western eyes that even such anecdotal information is treasured by outside observers.)

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For Kim Jong-un, upholding his own legacy means maintaining the hagiography of the Kim family’s greatness. He has clearly taken pointers from 1994, when his father took over from his grandfather (and founder of the country), Kim Il-sung, and fortified himself by strengthening the personality cult his father had established and portraying himself as a son consumed with the tasks of filial responsibility. Kim Jong-il not only promoted slogans about his father’s immortality, such as “The Great Leader will be eternal,” but also remodeled the Kumsusan Assembly Hall—his father’s living and working quarters—into a mausoleum where his father’s embalmed body is preserved. Additionally, he instituted a new calendar-year system based on Kim Il-sung’s birth year, 1912. He used “Juche,” a guiding philosophy for North Korea loosely translated as “self-reliance,” as the name of the year. (Under this system, 1912 became Juche 1. According to North Korean calendars and newspapers, this year is Juche 101.) Kim Il-sung was named eternal president of the country, and out of deference to his father, Kim Jong-il allowed himself only the title of chairman of the country’s powerful National Defense Commission.

Kim Jong-un has, however, added his own twist to efforts aimed at boosting his family heritage. Images of the new leader, carried by the North Korean media during his first month in power, evoke his grandfather more than his father—not just in terms of physical appearance, but also in terms of interactions with ordinary people. The third-generation Kim has been shown putting his ams around soldiers, walking arm-in-arm with them, and even putting his hand up to a person’s cheek. The pictures convey a more personal and caring image than any of Kim Jong-il.


This family hagiography—the only legitimacy for the Kim regime—will continue. (Already plans are afoot to embalm Kim Jong-il’s body too, which means the son will govern against the backdrop of a hall of ancestors.) And the tight control of information will continue as well. Radios that can pick up foreign broadcasts will continue to be banned. Economic reforms that open up the country to information as well as goods will have little chance of being implemented. Such policies are crucial for ongoing dynastic control. To deviate from the grandfather and father is to call one’s own legitimacy into question.

North Korea has already made clear that under Kim Jong-un there will be no change in the “military-first policy,” a feature of his father’s ruling style that makes the military the main pillar of support for the regime. The Korean Central News Agency, the country’s official media, announced on December 26th, less than a week after Kim Jong-il’s death, that the policy will be given “steady continuity at all times” under the Dear Leader’s heir.

The new regime has also indicated continuity in foreign policy. A day after declaring Kim Jong-un its supreme leader, it said that there would be no deviations in its policy toward Seoul as long as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is in power. In a statement carried by the official media on December 30th, the National Defense Commission said that “the foolish politicians” in the world, including South Koreans, “should not expect any change from us.”

Even if Kim Jong-un wanted to change the course of policy, there is reason to believe he may not be free to do so, particularly over the short term. The new leader is surrounded by senior members of the ruling party and the military, who are expected to act as his guardians. Important members of this inner circle include his uncle, Jang Song-taek, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. A political survivor who has been rehabilitated from a demotion in 2004, Jang is well versed in policy matters as well as the power dynamics of the system, and is likely to play an important role in determining the direction of the new regime.

Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister, who is married to Jang, has also been promoted steadily in the run-up to the dynastic succession. In the final mourning ceremonies for Kim Jong-il, her ranking moved up from fourteenth to fifth, according to Japan’s Jiji Press. In a situation where symbolism must substitute for information, such a climb up the political ladder is an indication that she will also play a significant role.

In such a heavily militarized country, the armed forces are expected to play a crucial part in the stabilization of the new regime. The most important of its members are three heavyweights—Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, head of the military’s general staff, Vice Marshal Kim Yong-chun, minister of the People’s Armed Forces, and General O Kuk-ryol, who was head of the military’s general staff in the 1970s and has been a longtime associate of the Kim family.

The presence of such an independent source of power is the biggest difference between Kim Jong-un’s succession and that of his father. When Kim Jong-il succeeded Kim Il-sung, he was fifty-two years old and had been groomed for the position for two decades. He had already consolidated power within the party, military, and other governmental branches. He was also already representing the state in the country’s external affairs. Kim Il-sung had begun gradually transferring power to his son, with the result that by the time he died, Kim Jong-il was already carrying out much of the regime’s everyday functions—and had no need for guardians overseeing his rule.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un has been in the public eye for barely one year. His grooming began only around 2009, and he officially joined the power elite in October 2010, when he became a four-star general and was appointed deputy chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.


At least outwardly, Kim Jong-un’s succession appears to be proceeding smoothly. But the speed of his elevation suggests that North Korea is likely to have undergone a significant change from the regime it was under Kim Jong-il. There are more actors involved in the leadership structure, and  as the country ventures into this unknown territory, questions remain as to whether the dynamics in the power structure have already been established. Have the key players agreed to their power share? Will fissures in the regime appear as the new Kim attempts to consolidate his rule and escape the control of his advisers?

The possibility of factional strife cannot be ruled out. There are historical examples from other parts of the world. In the Soviet Union, a factional power struggle followed Stalin’s death in 1953, and was only resolved after Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964. In China, Mao Zedong’s death triggered a violent factional struggle that ended with the defeat
of the Gang of Four.

Even though its recent history is a family story even more than a political one, North Korea has not been immune from court intrigue in the past. While the secretive country may appear monolithic to outside observers, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il consolidated their power through the purging of political rivals and potential contenders for power. Kim Jong-il, for example, placed his half brothers Kim Pyong-il and Kim Yong-il in foreign countries to exclude them from political power. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the two half brothers were not on the list of members of the national funeral committee for their father. (Kim Jong-un may have learned from this example. Neither his half brother Kim Jong-nam nor his older full brother Kim Jong-chol was on the list of members of the national committee for the December 28th funeral of Kim Jong-il.)

For regional powers, concerns over the transition period include whether the country will resort to military adventurism to establish its legitimacy. North Korea has in recent years shown belligerent behavior toward its neighbors. Pyongyang has been held responsible for the sinking of a South Korean corvette in March 2010 that killed forty-six sailors. North Korea also fired artillery shells on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November of that year, killing four South Koreans and marking the first such attack since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Japanese officials have indicated they believe it unlikely that North Korea will resort to major military provocations during the traditional Confucian one-hundred-day mourning period for Kim Jong-il, if only because the regime will likely use the time to try to establish working operations of the new leadership. On the other hand, another nuclear test or long-range missile launch remains possible over the medium term for two purposes—as a show of force and for the practical purpose of developing its nuclear and missile programs.

Despite a history of bizarre rhetoric, pronouncements by North Korea’s official media continue to be a useful gauge for the country’s intentions. In this regard, Pyongyang watchers note that while these state media have called the current South Korean government a “traitor group” in a statement from the National Defense Commission on December 30th and criticized Japan in a commentary on January 3rd, they have been relatively quiet on the issue of the United States. When Kim Jong-il died, the United States and North Korea had reportedly been close to a deal that would give Pyongyang food aid in exchange for the suspension of North Korea’s controversial uranium enrichment program. Such straws in the wind encourage the hope that the North Koreans might reopen dialogue with Washington.

Dealing with the new regime, therefore, will be particularly challenging for the outside world until the dynamics of the new power structure become clearer. Under Kim Jong-il, negotiators knew whom they were dealing with. With the new leadership under Kim Jong-un, we may not know who is calling the shots for some time, which means that the Korean Peninsula will likely become an even more dangerous place than it already is.

Naoko Aoki is a journalist based in Washington. She formerly covered Japanese domestic politics and economic policy in Tokyo for Japan’s Kyodo News before serving as Beijing correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has visited North Korea eighteen times.

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