In the aftermath of the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, there was deep concern that the dictator’s chosen successor, his third son Kim Jong-un, would have a rocky time trying to consolidate his position. Now it appears that his path to power has been smoothed by an apparent agreement with the military to share the responsibility of governing the state until the younger Kim can consolidate his position with the military and the party.
Reuters is reporting that there will be “collective rule” in North Korea with Kim Jong-un at the head of a “ruling coterie” that will include the military with the younger Kim’s uncle and Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, acting as regent.
North Korean news reports indicate that the military has pledged allegiance to young Kim, which will strengthen his hand as he deals with other factions also interested in ruling the Stalinist state. Those factions include two brothers passed over for leadership, the powerful sister of Kim Jong-il and wife of Jang, Kim Kyong-hui, and an up-and coming-general, chief of the joint chiefs of staff Ri Yong-ho.
None of these individuals are likely to challenge Kim Jong-un in the near future. But the inexperienced Kim may find himself being pushed out by those with a stronger base of support in the military and the party, or who are simply more ruthless and willing to upset the status quo to seize power.
His two older brothers may resent being passed over, but Kim Jong-il made sure they were never able to build an independent base of power to challenge their younger brother. Perhaps the most serious rival to Kim is his uncle, Chang Song-taek. Married to the elder Kim’s sister, Chang is an important member of the Politburo and Vice Chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission. Reuters’ source believes that the military has agreed that he will wield power in a kind of regency with the younger Kim as something of a figurehead. Since no one knows precisely how the internal leadership dynamics function in North Korea, and since this kind of collective leadership has never been tried in a country ruled since 1948 by all-powerful dictators, Kim Jong-un’s position may be precarious indeed.
Chang may be satisfied with being the power behind the throne, or he may not. An analyst at Seoul University said of Chang that he “has played a considerable role during Kim Jong-il’s illness of managing the succession problem and even the North’s relations with the United States and China.” The Korean Economic Institute (KEI) speculates that Chang is China’s choice to succeed the elder Kim, adding, “These factors, including his involvement in economic projects and directing internal security matters, leave a possibility for Chang Song-taek to attempt to seize power himself.”
The military is the wild card in the succession drama. Perhaps fearing that his brother in law might make a play for power himself, the elder Kim placed the chief of the joint chiefs of staff, Ri Yong-ho, close to his son, according to an expert on the North’s powerful structure at the Sejong Institute. But the KEI believes that it “will remain to be seen if they [Chang Song-taek and Ri Yong-ho] and others are really trying to help him, rule by controlling Kim Jong-un from behind the scenes, or set him up for failure.” This kind of convoluted intrigue is common in totalitarian states and one misstep by the younger Kim may have deadly consequences.
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