Asan in the News


Pyongyang’s Succession Drama

North Korea’s long-suffering people will have to continue their “arduous march.”


When Kim Jong Il came to power in 1994, he inherited a crumbling regime. The collapse of the Soviet Union and decades of economic mismanagement had brought the North Korean economy to the brink of collapse. A year into Kim Jong Il’s rule, North Korea entered what its historians officially call “the arduous march,” a period of massive famine that claimed the lives up to three million people.

Yet Kim managed to pull the regime back from the abyss, while maintaining a total grip on his people that would have been the envy of many a fallen Arab dictator. Even as his people succumbed to starvation, he ruthlessly continued to develop nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. He then adroitly used his WMD programs to blackmail his neighbors and the regime’s sworn enemy, the U.S., into providing food and occasional economic aid for his long-suffering people.

Despite all his efforts, Kim Jong Il has left his son and heir, Kim Jong Eun, with a regime whose future is perhaps even more uncertain than the one he inherited from his father 17 years ago. Most significantly, he belatedly started to groom a successor only after a stroke in August 2008 forced him to face his own mortality. This leaves North Korea with a leader who is less than 30 years old and with less than three years of practice governing a regime facing formidable political, economic and national security challenges.

There are two factors that will determine the survivability of the regime, one domestic and one foreign. The domestic factor is whether and how quickly Kim Jong Eun will be able to take up the key positions of power in the military, party and government, in that order. His legitimacy is based on the fact that he is Kim Il Sung’s grandson and Kim Jong Il’s son. It is certainly a formidable pedigree, but it is also his only claim to power. It may or may not be sufficient even among those who continue to profess loyalty to his forefathers.

This is where the role of the senior members of North Korea’s ruling elite, such as Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, becomes crucial. Believed to have been entrusted with the role of guiding and overseeing young Kim’s accession to ultimate power, Jang’s choices and actions in the weeks and months to come will prove decisive in whether the succession goes smoothly.

However, Kim Jong Il also left his son with an apparatus of totalitarian rule whose intrusiveness and control over the lives of its people remain unsurpassed by any other regime of its ilk, past or present. It is a system that seamlessly blends the party, the military and his family. If the young Kim succeeds in securing his grips on the main levers of this formidable totalitarian regime, he will more than likely succeed in maintaining his family dynasty, at least for the time being.

The decisive foreign factor is China. Ever since the founding of North Korea, China has remained its staunch supporter, sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers to defend it against United Nations forces during the Korean War. According to some estimates, China provides up to 90% of North Korea’s oil and 70% of its food imports. It is the only country of any consequence that continues to defend North Korea on the international stage, sometimes at a great cost to its own reputation, such as when it refused to condemn North Korean sinking of South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year.

It is a safe bet that China will continue to support the North Korean regime, not out of love for the Kim dynasty but because of its own obsession with maintaining stability on its borders. China is loath to see any disruption that might disrupt its continued economic rise, especially the potential influx of millions of refugees if Pyongyang collapses. Besides, China may want to maintain North Korea as a “buffer” against the U.S.-allied South Korea and Japan. At the least, North Korea is a convenient thorn on the side of the U.S. and its allies in the region, keeping them preoccupied with its WMD programs and occasional provocations by conventional means.

Despite its shattered economy and shaky succession process, North Korea will continue to trudge along. A totalitarian system engineered by a perverse mastermind will likely serve its new master well. Its giant neighbor, China, whose path of development over the past 20 years could not be more different than North Korea’s, continues to lend its support to this anachronistic regime out of a logic all its own.

The world will have to continue to suffer through a regime whose durability continues to baffle. North Korea’s long suffering people will have to continue their “arduous march.” Northeast Asia’s otherwise booming economies will have to endure for some time to come a regime whose threat to the peace and prosperity of the region is matched only by its unpredictability.


Mr. Hahm is the president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.