North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Il died on December 17, 2011. Kim Jong Il’s era is gone and Kim Jong Un is now the new leader. How solid is Kim Jong Un’s grip on power at the moment? Can Kim Jong Un continue to consolidate his power into the future? And what kinds of policies will the new leader pursue toward the US and South Korea?
First of all, Kim Jong Un appears to have consolidated his power successfully, but how solid is it? It is noteworthy that nothing irregular has been detected so far in the power succession from father to son. Basically, what we see today is the reflection and extension of what has been done and achieved until now with regard to power succession in North Korea. Several facts lend weight to this argument.
After becoming heir apparent last September, Kim Jong Un quickly took control of the military and the intelligence with the full support of the two key power-holders Jang Song Taek and Ri Young Ho under the supervision of Kim Jong Il. Recall also that Kim Jong Il had placed double layers of safeguards for his son when he named his son the heir at the party conference in September 2010. One protective layer was that Kim Jong Il restored the party’s authority fully so that it could keep the military in check. The military had grown disproportionately strong under the strategy of military-first politics. The other was that Kim Jong Il placed Ri Young Ho in the position of overseeing the military and Choi Yong Hae overseeing the party to counterbalance any potential threat to his son from Jang Song Taek, the most powerful figure in North Korea except Kim Jong Il and his son.
The order in the list of names of the funeral committee for Kim Jong Il shows that the authority of the party is being fully appreciated in North Korean politics: members of the standing committee of the politburo of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party come first, then members of the politburo, then candidate members of the politburo, then the members of the Central Committee. The military people who come rather early in the list do so because of their party ranks, not their military ranks. The ordering arrangements in the list confirm Kim Jong Il’s strategic positioning of the party vis à vis the military has paid off.
Second, the obituary report of Kim Jong Il’s death accorded Kim Jong Un the title “The Leader” of North Korea. He was called the “outstanding Leader of the party, the military, and the people.” This hints that during the two days that followed the death of Kim Jong Il, the key power-holders there discussed and agreed to continue to support the son as they had been preparing. Had Kim Jong Un’s power been not that solid, the obituary would have evidenced his weaker status with more equivocal phrasings than “The Leader” with modifiers such as “outstanding,” “great” and “respected.” As early as December 25, North Korean media accorded Kim Jong Un the titles “Dear Leader” and “supreme leader of the armed forces,” which were used for his father. On December 26, Kim Jong Un was called “the head of the central committee of the party” and “the pre-eminent Leader of the party, the state, and the military.” All these mean that Kim Jong Un as the new ‘supreme leader’ of North Korea has control over and will officially assume the top positions in the party, the military, and the government before long.
Third, Kim Jong Un’s power consolidation deeply hinges on the existence of an alternative candidate for his position. But as of now we see no viable challenger to his succession. This is because Kim Jong Un has been functioning as the supreme leader-to-be and has been treated as such. In accordance with the thesis on power succession, Kim Jong Un enjoyed the same ‘absolute authority’ that his father did and played the same ‘decisive roles’ his father did as well. There has not been any sign of a power struggle or a collective leadership arrangement in North Korea.
Then, can Kim Jong Un continue to consolidate his power into the future? Presently his path to power appears free of conspicuous obstacles. Any internal power strife will be possible in a future scenario where Kim Jong Un proves inept in the eyes of the ruling elite by failing in the areas of economy or foreign policy. By and large, the key power-holders are more likely to work in concert, for their own interests, as they are stakeholders and key beneficiaries of the Kim Jong Un regime.
Furthermore, the current domestic and external environments bode well for the new leader. Domestically, his father died ‘while overseeing the welfare of the people through on-the-spot guidance day and night despite his failing health,’ not at a banquet, for instance. Next year, 2012, is the 100th anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth, who holds a special, unchallenged place in North Korean history. Such inheritances will aid more than do harm to Kim Jong Un’s power consolidation.
In the external environment, nuclear talks had already started between the US and North Korea before the death of Kim Jong Il. Since the talks are in progress, it is not in the US’ interests to be confrontational toward North Korea. South Korea had already fumbled once in 1994 under the Kim Young-sam government when Kim Il Sung died, and has every reason not to repeat the same mistake. Even if the current Lee Myung-bak government desires a hardline policy toward the North, there is little chance to execute it because President Lee has become a lame duck, deep and wide.
Then, what will Kim Jong Un’s policies be like toward the US and South Korea? Since the stabilization of the domestic situation is at the top of Kim Jong Un’s agenda, unless South Korea and the US pose a threat to or provoke North Korea, it is not likely that North Korea will provoke first considering the potential negative impact of an unfavorable external environment on domestic politics. But should Kim Jong Un decide to retaliate against South Korean and US “provocations,” he is likely to do it more forcefully than not, lest he should fall a prey to an image of “young and weak.”
What happened in the nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea in 1994 after Kim Il Sung died could be a frame of reference for what will happen to US-North Korean nuclear negotiations in the future. Back in 1994, in hopes of keeping the nuclear negotiations on track, President Bill Clinton expressed his condolences for the death of Kim Il Sung, and North Korea reciprocated US goodwill by being determined to move forward, in sharp contrast to their argumentative style on many previous occasions. Against this backdrop, both sides could speedily agree on a settlement of the central issues of the nuclear negotiations; hence the Agreed Framework was signed in Geneva. This time, Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton, not President Barack Obama himself, expressed condolences for the death of Kim Jong Il. In the same fashion, however, the current nuclear negotiation between the US and North Korea can move forward down the road toward an agreement if the US is more willing and proactive to make a comprehensive deal with North Korea, exploiting the newly-opened window of opportunity by the change of leadership in North Korea. Basically, the new leader means new policy.
Then, what will happen to inter-Korean relations with Kim Jong Un at the helm of North Korea? When the South Korean Minister of Unification expressed condolences to North Korea, it distinguished between the people and the leader. The new leader in the North must have understood it as an insult for him, as the North Korean media criticized such behavior. North Korea also made clear that the Lee government’s sincerity for the improvement of inter-Korean relations will be judged by whether it allows South Korean delegations from all circles to go to Pyongyang to express their condolences. All these are elements of potential conflict from both sides, which should be dealt with extremely cautiously lest they spiral up to a real fight between the two Koreas. North Korea could be oversensitive amid power transition, while South Korea too could be so with both a general election and a Presidential election ahead. In short, if the Lee government tries to open a new era with a goodwill policy in good faith, North Korea, more likely than not, will be more cooperative toward the South. Again, during this period of mourning and stabilization, Kim Jong Un is currently in a passive mode, looking for goodwill signs from the US and South Korea, not taking any initiative in dealing with them. This means that the ball is in our court for the moment.
Finally, the problems Kim Jong Un will struggle with are exactly the same problems his father struggled with: provision of food and energy, economic recovery and development, peace settlement on the Korean peninsula, improvement of inter-Korean relations, among other things. Those problems are real tough challenges for the new leader in the North, the solution to which requires cooperation from outside world. Once Kim Jong Un stabilizes the North Korean situation, there will be no other choice for him but to be more responsive to and accountable for the needs of the North Korean people and, more importantly, to be more cooperative toward the US and South Korea.