When Dynastic Successions Work: North Korea Takes Cues from the Middle East

Backdropped by a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his late father Hafez al-Assad (L), Syrian fans waved their country's flag during their national team's World Cup 2010 qualifying match against the Emirati team in Damascus on March 26, 2008. Photo: Getty Images.

North Korea is in the throes of a generational triple play: passing power to the son of the son of founder Kim Il Sung. 

How successful that transition will be remains to be seen. In seeking to enthrone Kim Jong Un, the third son of Kim Jong Il, North Korea may benefit from several factors it has in common with Middle Eastern states that have also managed to keep leadership a family affair.

Political scientists call countries such as North Korea and Syria—and potentially Egypt, Libya and Yemen— “neo-patrimonial states.” Although not monarchies, they have nonetheless perfected the means of transferring power from fathers to sons, ensuring family prosperity and regime stability, if not the welfare of their citizens

Three factors appear to bolster such transitions: a ruthless domestic security apparatus, the support of neighbors and declining U.S. power abroad.

The primary qualification for a successful generational handoff is a ruthless security and intelligence apparatus. No other contenders are given the opportunity to take power from the ruling family.

North Korea’s repressive capabilities are well known; tens of thousands have languished in its gulags or been executed since the state was formed in the aftermath of World War II. That efficiency appears undiminished even as the central government has faltered in its ability to feed the nation and control private commercial activity.

Syria is less oppressive but has also shown the capacity to defend the status quo with brutal methods.

Bashar al-Assad, 44, who was “elected” to the presidency unopposed after the death of his father 10 years ago, initially freed political prisoners only to arrest scores who became too enthusiastic about the prospects for reform during a brief “Damascus spring.”

Assad’s father, Hafez, ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years. His regime gave rise to the expression “Hama rules” for the artillery barrages that leveled the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, killing as many as 20,000 people. The mass killings destroyed what had been a hotbed of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism that threatened the minority Alawite regime. 

A second factor smoothing the way for sons to succeed fathers is the support for the status quo from neighboring countries.

In North Korea’s case, none of its neighbors really want a rapid collapse of the regime. While they are frequently frustrated by North Korean behavior, they prefer gradual evolution to sudden change. This is true even among a majority in South Korea who fear their economic success will be gravely undermined by reunification while North Korea remains at such a low economic level.

As such, China has been chiefly responsible for keeping the North Korean economy afloat since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and, in particular, since the famine that killed as many as 2 million North Koreans in the mid-1990s. Beijing also picked up the slack in providing energy after the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework in 2003 led to the deterioration of North Korean relations with the United States, South Korea and Japan. The framework was scrapped after North Korea admitted it had begun a program to enrich uranium and the United States ended deliveries of heavy fuel oil.

The importance of China to North Korea was underlined when Kim Jong Il visited in August while former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was in Pyongyang. Carter had gone to the North Korean capital to secure the release of a young American jailed for illegally entering North Korea. Korea analysts said it was puzzling that Carter did not get to see Kim given Carter’s age and stature and the fact that it was his intervention with Kim’s father that led to the breakthrough that produced the Agreed Framework.  

However, the trip to China took precedence for Kim Jong Il. He is believed to have taken Kim Jong Un along with him to introduce him to Chinese leaders and show him places associated with the life and mythology of Kim Il Sung.

China accounts for more than half the foreign aid to and investment in North Korea. That’s a pittance for the world’s second largest economy but is important for two Chinese rust belt provinces bordering North Korea—Jilin and Liaoning—which have large ethnic Korean populations.

“This is central to their economies,” says Drew Thompson, a China expert at the Nixon Center in Washington. “Local people benefit. It creates jobs and wealth for those who do not have other trading partners.”

While frequently frustrated by North Korean behavior, China has other reasons for accepting a smooth dynastic transition in North Korea. It fears that regime change would spark a mass exodus of North Korean refugees. Beijing also wants to retain North Korea as a nominally socialist buffer between China and South Korea. And it wants to avoid distractions as it begins its own delicate transition from the leadership of President Hu Jintao to a not-yet-anointed Communist Party figure in 2012.

Similarly, Syria has benefited from the support of neighboring countries.

Before Hafez al-Assad’s death, he patched up differences with Turkey by expelling Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The regime also overcame a concerted U.S. effort to get rid of it following the 2005 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which many blamed on Syria. Syria was forced to remove troops from Lebanon but retained its influence over Lebanese politics in part through support for the country’s most powerful militant faction, Hezbollah.

David Lesch, a professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., says Israel came to Bashar’s aid during the Bush administration, fearing that regime change in Syria would usher in a government even more hostile to the Jewish state. 

“Better the devil you know,” was the attitude, says Lesch, author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria.

A third ingredient in a successful hand-off from dictator to dictator junior is declining U.S. global power.

Only a few years ago, U.S. officials and Washington neoconservatives were trumpeting the collapse of rogue regimes and aggressively promoting democracy even in allies such as Egypt.

The 2003 U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq led then undersecretary of state John Bolton to warn other repressive governments with WMD ambitions to “take a number.” Efforts to improve relations with North Korea, Iran and Syria were sidelined by U.S. hawks who asserted that history was on their side.

In 2005, after the Hariri assassination, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute told me that Bashar was “an empty vessel” and his tenure was in doubt.

Others compared Bashar to Fredo, the weakest son of Don Corleone in the Godfather movies. Bashar, an ophthalmologist by training, had become his father’s heir apparent only after an elder brother died in a car accident in 1994.

Such triumphalism soon proved hollow, however, as U.S. forces were bogged down in Iraq, beset in part by Islamic militants who entered the country via Syria. Iran, meanwhile, gave lethal aid to Shiite Muslim factions that attacked U.S. troops with Improvised Explosive Devices.

Iran saw its regional profile rise thanks to the U.S. removal of its chief rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together, Iran and Syria boosted Hezbollah and Hamas and upset Bush administration hopes that its democracy promotion in the wider Middle East would benefit pro-Western groups.

Syria won its battle with the Bush administration. It burnished its regional credentials by resisting U.S. hegemony and “not caving in to ‘the American project’,” Lesch said. Moreover, the young Assad also bolstered his domestic standing by liberalizing the Syrian economy.

According to Lesch, by 2007-2008, Bashar was very confident and basically saying he had been on the right side. “The view in Damascus was that the United States has to make concessions to improve relations with Syria, not the other way around.”

North Korea, meanwhile, also outmaneuvered the Bush administration. It accelerated its nuclear program in the aftermath of the collapse of the Agreed Framework and the Iraq invasion but eventually took part in multinational talks. It survived new banking and other sanctions, tested a nuclear weapon and agreed to re-freeze plutonium production in return for aid and sanctions relief.

It resumed belligerent behavior as the Bush administration left office and has sent mixed signals to the Obama administration, which seems resigned to outsourcing North Korea to China and South Korea while focusing on more pressing domestic and international concerns. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton barely even mentioned North Korea in a major September 8 address on U.S. foreign policy before the Council on Foreign Relations.

Barack Obama came to office facing a severe financial crisis and abandoned muscular unilateralism in favor of a leadership style that relies more on cooperation and diplomatic persuasion. He recognized that rogue regimes often benefit from U.S. hostility and that the U.S. ability to impose regime change is limited. As Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations, “In this interconnected age, America’s security and prosperity depend more than ever on the ability of others to take responsibility for defusing threats and meeting challenges in their own countries and regions.”

No contemporary authoritarian state that is not a monarchy has managed to pass power to a third generation in a single family. Whether North Korea can do so depends not only on the attitudes of its neighbors and the influence of the United States but on the character and abilities of Kim Jong Un and how long his father will be around to oversee the transition.

Bashar Assad had six years apprenticeship and Kim Jong Il had 20 years before they took over. Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be 27, may not have that much time given reports of his father’s fragile health following a 2008 stroke.

Little is known about the younger Kim apart from the fact that he went to high school (under another name) in Berne, Switzerland and is said to speak English and admire the basketball legend Michael Jordan.

Han Park, director of the Center for Global Affairs at the University of Georgia and a frequent visitor to North Korea, says Kim Jong Un “looks exactly like his grandfather only taller and more attractive.”

The mechanism underlying the succession, Park adds, is unique. North Korea is a “secular theocracy in which Kim Il Sung is the source of legitimacy.” Power was transferred in 1994 from “father to son who piggybacked on the father and now to the grandson who piggybacks on both of them.”

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