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Leadership Succession

Kim Jong-Il, like his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, was the object of an all-pervasive personality cult. Unlike his father, however, he had not initially designated a chosen successor. Indeed, leadership succession was one of the most profound political challenges facing the North Korean political system. Understanding the dynamics of succession is complicated by a lack of information, since -- as in many other ruling dynasties -- the details of Kim Jong-il's private life are sketchy.

Kim Il Sung began gradually preparing Kim Jong Il as heir apparent around 1971. From that year onwards, Kim Jong Il was given positions of increasing importance in the North Korean hierarchy, and his role as successor appears to have been confirmed by 1974, and beginning in the fall of 1975, North Koreans used the term party center to refer to Kim Jong Il. The succession of Kim Jong Il was publicly announced at the Sixth Party Congress in 1980, between six and nine years after it had been privately decided. At the age of 52 he finally assumed the position of president and chairman of the National Defense Commission with command and control of the armed forces in April 1993, culminating a 22 year climb to the top. Kim Il Sung died on 08 July 1994.

Kim Jong-il became General Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party on 8 October 1997, but has not assumed the presidency head of government. The presidency was left vacant after the death of Kim Il-sung, and was eventually abolished through a constitutional amendment at the 1st session of the 10th-term Supreme People's Assembly on 05 September 1998.

Kim Jong-il had displaced his father's younger brother, Kim Yong-yu, as heir apparent in the early 1970s. Kim Yong-ju vanished from public life in 1975, and only reappeared in July 1993. He was appointed one of North Korea's four vice presidents later in the year, apparently reassuring North Korea's old guard that there would be no massive generational shift when Kim Jong-il took power.

Kim Jong-Il's half-brother Kim Pyong Il was a potential rival, and his mother Kim Song-ae favored Pyong-il as successor. Consequently, he was sent abroad in 1988 as ambassador to Hungary, followed by Bulgaria, Finland, and most recently, Poland.

There were at least two reported coup attempts against Kim Jong-Il's succession. In 1991 or 1992 there were reports of an attempted coup by a group of Soviet-trained perestroika restructuring]-oriented generals. A group of about a dozen generals planned to assassinate the two Kims and implement radical modernization of North Korea. But the plot was discovered, and the plotters executed (according to one rumor they were burned at the stake before a military audience as a warning against).

And in 1995 there was an attempted coup by elements of the Sixth Army Corps in North Hamgyong province province bordering China (the area worst-hit by the famine). Along with elements in the neighboring 7th Army Corps, they planned to march on Pyongyang. The plot was exposed by the 6th Corps commander, Kim Yong-chun, who was promoted to chief of the general staff later that year as a reward.

During the mid-1990s outside observers expected to see the replacement of key party and military incumbents with younger people in the power core and elsewhere. In fact, this did not happen. Kim Jong-il remained surrounded by a gerontocracy nearly a generation his senior [Kim Jong-Il was born in 1941, while most of the senior leadership was born in the earyly 1920s].

By 1997 there were signs of considerable stress within the leadership, with a number of high level defections. Kim Jong-il's adopted daughter, Ri Nam-ok, defected to Western Europe in 1997. She is actually the daughter of the sister of Kim Jong-il's second wife, Sung Hye-rim, a leading actress in North Korea.

Hwang Jong Yop is the highest ranking defector ever to escape North Korea. Hwang defected from the North on 12 February 1997 and remained in seclusion in South Korea ever since. When Hwang was in power in Pyongyang, he was one of the closest advisors to the late dictator Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il. He spent eleven years as the President of the North Korean Assembly and many years as the prime architect of Pyongyang's Self-reliance ("Juche") ideology. Hwang denied the idea that there was a split between moderates and hard-liners within the leadership, noting that the one-man dictatorship left no room for the concept of rival camps.

It would be incorrect to assume that the deaths shortly after Hwang's departure of two senior North Korean military leaders, Choe Kwang and Kim Kwang-jin, minister and first vice-minister, respectively of the Ministry of People's Armed Forces, was the result of anti-Party activity. If they had conspired against Kim Jong-Il, they would never have been given state funerals or enshrined in the mausoleum for patriotic fighters.

According to unconfirmed Japanese and South Korean press reports in 1997, several senior party officials were publicly executed in September 1997, including General Ri Bong-won, a deputy head of the military's General Political Bureau. The Kyodo News Network reported that Seo Kwan Hui, Secretary of Agriculture for the KWP, and 17 other senior officials, including some from the army and from the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, were executed for corruption and working for South Korea. In January 1998, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that among those executed were a four-star general who ran the Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army and Choe Hyon Tok, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly. According to the AFP, seven persons in this group were executed by firing squad before thousands of spectators. [2001-2002 saw the posthumous rehabilitation of the national agriculture secretary, executed in December 1997 at the height of the famine].

In August 1998, there were unconfirmed reports that following a March 1998 coup attempt, authorities arrested several thousand members of the armed forces and executed many of them. Also during the year Kim Yong-ryong, the deputy head of the State Security Agency, was dismissed after making highly critical comments about the regime and calling for reform.

Five days after the first-ever inter-Korean summit ended, on 20 June 2000 Pyongyang released previous remarks by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il regarding his firm opposition to reform and an opening-up. "Reform and an opening up is the fastest way to collapse. We'll never allow any effort or attempt to reform and open-up," the (North) Korean Central Broadcasting Station quoted Kim as having said during a meeting the past New Year's Day.

Despite this, Kim Jong-il began to promote younger, less ideological technocrats to manage the economy. The year 2003 saw the appointment of a new premier, Pak Pong Ju, who was the former chemical industry minister, while appointments at the NDC saw members in their 80s replaced by members in their late 50s or early 60s. Members of the State Planning Commission and ministers of heavy industries were replaced by technocrats with a proven track record in economic management.

In November 2003, during a visit to the United States, Hwang Jong Yop revealed for the first time his thinking that Kim Jong Il's successor will not be a North Korean military officer. If Kim were to suddenly die, "the military have no capability to rule the nation," Hwang said. Kim Jong Il knows this too, Hwang suggested, otherwise he would not risk giving so much power to the military, who Kim dismisses as "mechanics." Hwang also suggested that the border between North and South Korea should remain closed even if North Korea should collapse "until the economic gap between the North and South is closed."

The extent of Kim Jong-Il's progeny is uncertain. Kim Jong-Il was widely reported to have sired at least two sons and two daughters by four women. He was believed to have married three times: Hong-H-chon, Kim Young-sook, [neither of whom bore children] and Ko Young-hee, who bore at least one and probably two sons. In the early 1980s Korean historian Bruce Cumings asked a Soviet diplomat in Pyongyang about the chances of Kim Il-sung being succeeded by Kim Jong-il. Cumings was told to "come back in 2020 and see Kim Jong-il's son succeed him".

In addition, Kim Jong-Il was reported to have fathered as many as nine additional illegitimate children by other women to whom he is not known to have been married. Sung Hae-eim was the mother of his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, but she was the daughter of a rich landlord and thus not a suitable consort for a communist leader. Son Nui-rim bore him two daughters, but she became mentally ill in 1991. In 1990 another woman bore him another daughter.

The Kim personality cult has legitimized the regime for decades, and the government may not survive long after Kim Jong Il's death. After half a century of dynastic rule, there is no mechanism for selecting a leader outside the family. This could result in a power struggle that left the government unable to function for a time, or it could result in the general collapse of the entire system.

Despite appearances, North Korea is not a one-man show. The extended "first family" of Kim Jong-Il is but the most visible example of a highly nepotistic regime bound together by vested interests. Although the predominance of a few surnames in Korea (eg, Kim) complicates mapping family links, it appears that many current leaders are the sons of the anti-Japanese leadership generation, or have siblings in high positions. These dense family networks could ease the succession, provided the identity of the heir is decided without fracturing the first family or the army.

Any organized succession process would almost certainly involve one of Kim Jong-il's own sons. But from Kim Jong Il's perspective, the prospects for a "Two King Dynasty" must have looked distressing likely. He was said to favor his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who was born around 1985. If Kim Jong Il faced health problems that might shorten his life relative to his father's lifespan, Kim Jong-un might face the prospect of succeeding Kim Jong Il at a rather tender age, after only a few years of preparation. Kim Jong-un might reign as a semi-divine god-king, but this reign could be at the sufferance of a regent, who might actually rule.

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Page last modified: 07-01-2015 18:35:33 ZULU