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[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

North Korea After Kim Il Sung

Congressional Research Service: Report for Congress, No. 94-578 F
July 20, 1994
-ti- North Korea After Kim Il Sung
By Rinn S. Shinn, Analyst in Asian Affairs & Robert G. Sutter, 
Senior Specialist in International Politics
Foreign and National Defense Division & Office of Senior
Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994, the only leader North Korea had
since its founding in 1948. His death raises several questions
about future stability and the strong U.S. interests on the
Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong Il, son of the elder Kim, has been
groomed to succeed for over 20 years. Indications so far point to
an orderly transfer of power, as Kim Jong Il is believed to have
a firm control of the party, military, and state bureaucracies.
There seem to be no overt signs of any organized or even isolated
pocket of opposition. Two formal steps must be taken to make his
ascent to power official. These steps involve his election as
president of North Korea and as general secretary of the ruling
Korean Workers Party (KWP). These could come soon after Kim Il
Sung's funeral is over on July 19. In short, his short-term
succession seems virtually assured, but his long-term success is
another matter.
The long-term uncertainty stems from the fact that Kim Jong Il
must solve all the problems that his father could not resolve,
even in better times. These problems include: a steady economic
downturn with no hopeful signs of recovery in the near future;
and the current controversy over North Korea's suspected nuclear
weapons program. Kim Jong Il faces a predicament: the status quo,
or continuity in Pyongyang's domestic and foreign policies, will
mean more of the same unresolved problems; on the other hand, a
radical departure will potentially undermine political stability.
Thus, at least in the short run, Kim Jong Il may be constrained
to adopt a cautious balancing act to cope with the immediacy of
his stable transition.
The uncertain situation in Pyongyang could affect U.S. policy in
several ways, at least over the short term. American leaders may
avoid statements and actions that could be misinterpreted in
Pyongyang and precipitate a crisis on the peninsula; they may
endeavor to scour available channels of information for data
useful in determining appropriate U.S. policy; and they may give
more immediate attention to a wide range of policy contingencies
in the months ahead--ranging from collapse or conflict to
accommodation and negotiation.
Proper U.S. policy during the delicate leadership transition in
North Korea is particularly important because of the large U.S.
stake in the Korean peninsula. The United States has remained
committed since the 1950-1953 Korean War to maintaining peace on
the Korean Peninsula. This commitment is backed by 37,000 troops
deployed in South Korea against the North Korean threat, and
other forces stationed in Japan. The U.S. troops in Korea provide
a "trip wire" that is sure to engage the United States in the
event of a North Korean attack. The U.S. forces support South
Korea's 650,000 forces who face North Korea's 1.2 million person
army deployed in forward positions and in a high state of
readiness along the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South
Korea. The U.S. stake in South Korea is widely seen as supporting
U.S. security, economic, and other interests in Japan, and
strengthening U.S. ability to manage complex relationships among
the four major powers--Russia, China, Japan, and the United
States--whose interests focus on the peninsula.
The American hope that the post-Cold War era, marked by the
collapse of the Soviet Union and much of international communism,
would lessen tensions in Korea proved illusory. Pyongyang's
nascent nuclear weapons program has led in recent years to
occasionally very high levels of tensions, as the United States
and its allies have felt compelled to employ pressure tactics
along with positive incentives in order to curb the illegal and
seriously destabilizing North Korean program. (See North Korea's
Nuclear Weapons Program, CRS Issue Brief 91141, by Larry Niksch.)
The passing of Kim Il Sung inserts new security concerns into the
American strategic calculus. In the past, American planners could
reasonably assume that North Korea, although subject to
unpredictable actions ordered by the Kim Il Sung leadership,
remained under the "Great Leader's" firm control. Because of the
leadership change, U.S. concern over the stability of the North
Korean regime has risen markedly. It is assumed to be in U.S.
interest to avoid a chaotic and militarily violent situation
emerging in Pyongyang that could spill over onto South Korea and
possibly China and even precipitate a major war on the peninsula.
Although Americans often favor a rapid demise for the communist
regime in North Korea, few wish it to be chaotic to the point of
endangering the well-being of our allies South Korea and Japan,
as well as nearby China and Russia.
U.S. economic interests focus on South Korea and the importance
of the broader northeast Asian area for the development of the
American economy. The United States is South Korea's largest
trading partner and the largest export market. South Korea is the
U.S. eighth largest trading partner. The U.S. trade deficit in
1993 was $2.3 billion in a total two-way trade of $31.9 billion.
Also some American business people see possible future targets of
opportunity in developing markets in North Korea. These economic
interests would be in jeopardy in the event of hostilities on the
page 2
The United States also has actively supported the impressive
progress toward greater democracy and political reform in South
Korea, and hopes to see North Korea move from the deep repression
and isolation of the past. At the same time, U.S. leaders
generally eschew political initiatives that would fundamentally
endanger stability on the peninsula and promote chance of war
involving U.S. forces.
Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994, reportedly of heart failure
brought on by what Pyongyang called "heavy mental strains." The
only leader North Korea had since its founding in 1948, his death
raises uncertainties and questions: who is Kim Jong Il, soon to
become Kim Il Sung's successor? Can he effect a stable transition
without chaos or internal opposition? Will Kim Jong Il be able to
steer North Korea in a new direction? Will his stewardship affect
vital U.S. interests in peace and stability on the Korean
Peninsula? Answers to some of these questions could come as soon
as the end of this month when the formal political succession may
be completed.
Two steps are needed to make succession official, but there is no
precedent or constitutional provision relevant for naming a
successor in North Korea when a sitting president dies or is
incapacitated. The first step involves the election of the
president of North Korea by the Supreme People's Assembly, North
Korea's rubber-stamp parliament; and the second step will entail
the election of a general secretary of the Central Committee of
the ruling Korean Workers (communist) Party (KWP). The two steps
have not yet taken place, at least publicly. But judging from
North Korea's state-controlled media, all indications, at this
point, point to a transfer of power under Kim Jong Il so that
short-term succession appears virtually assured; his long-term
success is another matter, however.
Kim Jong Il, aged 52, has been groomed to succeed for 21 years,
beginning in 1973, when he was first named to a fairly
significant post in the Central Committee Secretariat of the
ruling KWP (For more on his career, see Kim Jong Il--A Profile
below). His stature has grown steadily particularly since 1980,
when he was assigned to key party and military posts, making him
the virtual second-in-command to Kim Il Sung. His status as
co-leader has not been overtly disputed; in fact, it can be seen
that he was preordained to succeed the late leader at the KWP's
Sixth Party Congress in October 1980.(1)
     1. For more on this point, see Rinn-Sup Shinn, "North Korea
     in 1981: First Year for De Facto Successor Kim Jong Il,"
     Asian Survey, v.xxii, No. 1, January 1982, 100-102; for
     broader context in which to assess the implications of Kim
     Jong Il succession, see North Korea: Policy Determinants,
     Alternative Outcomes, U.S. Policy Approaches, by Rinn-Sup
     Shinn. [Washington] June 24, 1993. 23 p. CRS Report 93-612 F
page 3
For years, speculation was rife that Kim junior might not survive
long after the demise of his father-mentor. Kim Jong Il was often
said to be impulsive, unstable, or even reckless, but we do not
have sufficient information to confirm these reports.
Nonetheless, indications from North Korea's state controlled
media suggest that he will formally assume the two posts vacated
by the elder Kim's death: president of the state and general
secretary of the KWP Central Committee. There is some possibility
that he might pass up the largely ceremonial presidency to devote
full-time as general secretary, the most important focal point of
power in North Korea. An educated guess at this time is that
leadership will not be collective; the idea of a collective
leadership is alien to Korean political culture.
Dejure succession may be the easiest part of a daunting challenge
awaiting Kim Jong Il. Observers judge that if he stumbles badly,
he might face a potential opposition from among members of his
own Kim clan, notably from Kim junior's stepmother Kim Song Ae
(chairwoman of the Korean Democratic Women's Union and a member
of the KWP Central Committee) and his halfbrother Kim Pyong-il
(age 40), Pyongyang's ambassador to Finland. According to recent
North Korean defectors, Kim Pyong-il has a certain "charismatic
presence" about him and is personally engaging--traits some
analysts say are lacking in Kim Jong Il. If the much rumored
family rivalry persists, Kim Yong Ju (the late Kim's 72-year old
brother) might be tasked to restore intra-clan harmony; in the
early 1970s, observers saw Kim Yong Ju as a possible successor to
Kim Il Sung--and thus a potential rival to Kim Jong Il. However,
as Kim Jong Il's stature began to grow after 1975, Kim Yong Ju's
standing declined proportionately. He suddenly dropped out of
sight from May 1976--until just as suddenly he emerged in
December 1993 as one of the four vice presidents and a member of
the KWP Political Bureau.
The military is pivotal to the physical survival of North Korea,
or more to the point, to Kim Jong Il's transition. Given the
inter-Korean confrontation since the 1950s, the 1.2
million-strong military always had a special preferential status
under the late leader, enjoying a lion's share of state resources
and thus remaining a major drag on the economy. Since the early
1970s, with his fathermentor's blessing, Kim junior has placed
his own politically correct loyalists (now regiment-level
commanders) in the Korean People's Army (KPA) hierarchies; the
moves seemed to upset some of the professionally minded KPA
officers as an unwelcome political intrusion. Nevertheless, by
mid-1985, Kim Jong Il had gained a firm personal control of the
military, prompting his father to remark in 1986 that "the
leadership succession issue was brilliantly solved." By
implication, the military was and will remain the dominant
institution that can make or break Kim Jong Il's succession. In
an apparent effort to channel military allegiance to the two
Kims, Pyongyang promoted senior officials, including some 700
generals, between April 1992 and July 1993.
page 4
The economy is not as manageable as the military but just as
critical to the success of Kim Jong Il. Now in the fourth
consecutive year of negative growth and with no hopeful signs of
any turnaround in the near future, the North Korean economy
reportedly shrank by 20 percent between 1989 and 1993.
Pyongyang's Third Seven-Year Plan (1987-93) fell far short of its
target goals; as a result, the fourth 7-year plan that was to
begin in 1994 had to be put off until 1997 to allow more time for
Pyongyang to regroup in the face of steady economic deterioration
since the collapse of the Soviet Union and cutoff of Soviet
assistance. To cope with growing shortages of food, consumer
goods, and other essentials, North Korea stepped up austerity
measures, urging the people to conserve and to "produce more with
less" and reducing already meager food rationing. North Koreans
now are told to get by with "two meals a day." Industrial
facilities are running at 40 percent of operating capacity due to
shortages of fuel, electricity, and raw materials. Factors
contributing to the worsening of North Korea's economic plight
include: the structural distortion favoring heavy industries at
the expense of agricultural and consumer-oriented sectors;
emphasis on the putative power of ideological motivations to
compensate for an absence of production incentives in a
socialized economy; politically-motivated allocation of scarce
resources for showcase but nonproductive public projects;
antiquated production facilities that cannot be replaced due to
lack of funds; and a high level of annual defense spending
estimated at nearly a quarter of GNP.
North Korea is now trying to remedy its economic problems by
rapidly increasing production in grains, consumer goods, and
foreign exchange earnings. There can be no quick solution,
however. North Korea's basic problem has always been that
economic management was subordinate to Kim Il Sung's
political/ideological priorities. Now, Kim Jong Il's dilemma is
how to restructure the economy without disowning the party line
that Kim Il Sung has never failed in his economic leadership.
There are some hopeful signs. Even before Kim Il Sung's death,
North Korea was trying new economic experiments. It set up a
Chinese-style special economic zone in the northeastern corner
adjoining the Tumen River in an effort to induce foreign
investment and joint ventures. It also informally asked South
Korean firms to participate in North Korean projects, something
that would have been unthinkable several years ago. On July 11,
1994, South Korea's Economic Planning Board disclosed that
recently [before Kim's death] an American management consulting
firm was "allowed" to open an office in Pyongyang to do a
preliminary analysis on the North Korean economy--possibly in
anticipation of economic assistance from the United States, South
Korea, and Japan.(2) If true, this can be seen as a step in the
right direction. But it should be noted that unless the current
issue over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program is
resolved soon, the economy is bound to get worse if only because
talks of foreign assistance are conditioned on nuclear
     2. "North Korea Asks U.S. for Economic Diagnosis," Choson
     Ilbo [Seoul], July 12, 1994.
page 5
Before Kim Il Sung's death, Kim Jong Il's contact with foreign
leaders was limited, as was his foreign travel. But he may not
have been a stranger to foreign policy issues, as he is believed
to have played a pivotal role, with the elder Kim, as an
architect and overseer of Pyongyang's negotiations on the nuclear
issue with the United States and the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA). Thus, Kim Jong Il could be the among the first
North Koreans to realize that Pyongyang's foreign policy is at
once interlocked with the immediacy of his succession stability,
or the very survival of North Korea itself.
Kim Jong Il faces two key foreign policy problems: the ongoing
dispute with the United States, the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA), and South Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons
program; and the issue of North-South Korean reconciliation.
Pyongyang's refusal to allow international inspections of its
nuclear facilities except on its own terms has heightened
international concerns over its nuclear intentions. If
Pyongyang's nuclear program, coupled with a deliberate game of
nuclear ambiguity, is largely for selfpreservation, as some
analysts suggest, then it could be inviting an unintended
outcome: more insecurity stemming from economic pressures inside
North Korea. In other words, greater economic deterioration would
result not from a U.S./South Korean military threat, as North
Korea has long alleged, but from denied access to foreign
resources it needs for its economic turnaround. Time is not on
Pyongyang's side. The third round of high-level U.S.-North Korean
talks on the nuclear question, now on hold until after Kim Il
Sung's funeral, could provide an important clue to the extent of
Kim Jong Il's grip on power, particularly on the military whose
support he may need, as he seeks to balance his regime's
compelling and often conflicting security and economic interests.
South Korea looms large, in Pyongyang's eyes, as a potential
threat to the very existence of North Korea. The scheduled
historic summit talks between Kim Il Sung and his South Korean
counterpart, Kim Young Sam (which would have occurred July 25-27,
1994, in Pyongyang) could have helped put North Korean anxieties
to rest and also softened the Cold War enmity between the two
arch-rivals. Will Kim Jong Il be ready anytime soon for the
summit talks, now postponed indefinitely at Pyongyang's request?
For North Korea, top on its summit agenda will have been the
issue of long-coveted unification based on Kim Il Sung's terms;
the South Korean agenda will have included, in descending order,
issues involving the inter-Korean denuclearization accord of
1991, reunion of separated families, and a wide range of
functional cooperation.
South Koreans hope that Kim Jong Il's policy toward South Korea
will be different from that of his father. They hope that the new
leader will recognize South Korea as independent and not as an
alleged colony of the United States as Kim Il Sung had long
claimed. They hope that Kim Jong Il will strive for
reconciliation and coexistence, something Kim Il Sung gave
lip-service to but on which he was unwilling to compromise.
Despite their hope for a better interKorean relationship, South
Koreans are skeptical about Kim Jong Il, since he is suspected of
masterminding such terrorist acts as the 1976 axe-murders of 
page 6
two American servicemen in Panmunjom, the 1983 bomb explosion in
Rangoon that killed 7 South Korean cabinet members accompanying
their president then on a state visit to Burma, and the bombing
of a Korean airliner in 1987. South Koreans also suspect that Kim
Jong Il, in an attempt to court his security conscious generals,
has taken a hardline position on the nuclear issue.
The uncertain situation in North Korea after the death of Kim Il
Sung poses several potential implications for U.S. policy. Over
the short term, American decisionmakers appear to be concerned
about avoiding statements and actions that could be
misinterpreted in Pyongyang and precipitate a crisis on the
peninsula. Thus, the sometimes strident rhetoric and forceful
military initiatives advocated by some U.S. leaders in the
American debate over the North Korean nuclear program earlier
this year have been toned down, at least for a time. U.S.
military deployments have remained "normal," as the United States
has not followed South Korea's lead by putting forces on a higher
stage of alert.
Although acknowledging that they have little concrete information
about the problems, prospects, and policy priorities of the new
North Korean regime, U.S. leaders may endeavor to glean available
channels of information for data useful in coming up with an
appropriate U.S. policy. Thus, the U.S.-North Korean talks in
Geneva on nuclear issues are not only important for their own
sake, but they could provide a barometer of broader North Korean
foreign policy concerns. North-South Korean contacts could be
similarly useful, as could information conveyed as a result of
Chinese communications with the North Koreans
Uncertainty in Pyongyang also would seem to require careful U.S.
attention to a wide range of contingencies in the months ahead.
These could range from greater military readiness to deal with
the outbreak of war or the violent collapse of the North Korean
regime, efforts to assist South Korea and possibly others to deal
with possible massive refugee flows if the North Korean regime
splits or collapses, and diplomatic efforts to provide a common
front in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program or other
issues. Most important in U.S. diplomatic contingency planning
presumably would be U.S. interaction with allies like South Korea
and Japan, followed possibly by China, North Korea's main trading
partner and strategic neighbor.
An obvious contingency that will presumably require considerable
U.S. attention in the months ahead has to do with the danger
posed by North Korea's reprocessing of nuclear fuel rods now in
cooling ponds at the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
U.S. policymakers would presumably need to be prepared to deal
with this issue by negotiation when the North Korean regime
decides to resume the Geneva talks or otherwise reach an
accommodating agreement over the issue, as well as by measures
involving negative and/or positive incentives designed to press
the North Koreans to avoid breaking KimINRS-7
page 7Il Sung's pledge to former President Jimmy Carter to "freeze" the
North Korean nuclear program.
Rinn-Sup Shinn. "North Korea in 1981: First Year for De Facto
Successor Kim Jong Il," Asian Survey. v. 22, No. 1, January 1982,
Donald N. Clark (editor). Korea Briefing 1991. Boulder, Colorado:
Westview Press, 1991 (Published in cooperation with The Asia
Society). [Consult particularly 89-91, 122-123]
Research Institute for National Unification. Power Structure in
North Korea and Prospects for Policy Direction After Kim Il Sung.
Seoul: May 1992. 174 p. [In Korean]
The Institute for South-North Korea Studies. The True Story of
Kim Jong-Il. Seoul: 1993. 145 p.
U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Korea:
U.S.-South Korean Issues in the 1990s, by Robert G. Sutter.
[Washington] (updated regularly) CRS Issue Brief 94038
---- North Korea: Policy Determinants, Alternative Outcomes, U.S.
     Policy Approaches, by Rinn-Sup Shinn. [Washington] June 24,
     1993. CRS Report 93-612 F
---- Korea Crisis 1994: Military Geography, Military Balance,
     Military Options, by John Collins. [Washington] April 11,
     1994. CRS Report 94-311 S
---- North Korea's Nuclear Program: U.S. Policy Options, by
     Richard Cronin (coordinator). [Washington] June 1, 1994 CRS
     Report 94-470 F
---- North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program, by Larry A. Niksch.
     [Washington] (updated regularly) CRS Issue Brief 91141
page 8
Few leaders of the world are as enigmatic or reclusive as is Kim
Jong Il. He is variously depicted as bizarre, weird, erratic,
impulsive, distracted; and intelligent, pragmatic, bold, sincere,
and hard-working. Some even claim that he suffers from manic
depression, but these have not been confirmed.
He was born Feb. 16, 1942, to Kim Il Sung's first wife, Kim Jong
Suk (who died in 1949) in the vicinity of Khabarovsk, Siberia,
where the elder Kim led an anti-Japanese Korean guerrilla
detachment. (North Korea claims, however, the junior Kim was born
in a "secret camp" at Mt. Paektu, the tallest peak in Korea,
straddling the Korean-Chinese border). Kim Jong Il was reared
under a stepmother, Kim Song Ae, whose son, Kim Pyong-il (40) is
seen by some as a potential rival to Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il's
personal life is little known even to North Koreans. He is said
to be between 5'3" and 5'5", overweight for his height. Many
sources claim that he was married twice, fathering two daughters
and one 23-year-old son.
Upon graduation from North Korea's elite Kim Il Sung University
in 1964, Kim Jong Il joined the KWP to become a deputy director
of the party's cultural and performing arts affairs in addition
to its propaganda and agitation matters. In 1973, he became a
central committee secretary in charge of propaganda and agitation
and the following year became a member of the influential
Political Bureau. Kim Jong Il's status as Kim senior's right-hand
confidant was made official at the party's Sixth Congress in
October 1980, when he was named to the inner circle of the
Political Bureau and the party's military affairs committee. At
the time of Kim's death, the younger Kim was the supreme
commander (since December 1991) of the Korean People's Army
(KPA--the collective term for the armed forces) and chairman of
the state's National Defense Commission (since April 1994), in
addition to his No.2 spot on the most influential three-member
Political Bureau Presidium of the KWP Central Committee. He also
was a secretary of the party central committee that, along with
the military, served as the two most important institutional
focal points of power.
Kim Jong Il, or "dear leader," as he is called, has since the
early 1970s figured as the prime force behind Pyongyang's
campaign designed to elevate Kim Il Sung to the status of a
virtual demi-god. Since the early 1980s, Kim Jong Il himself has
become the focus of an intensified personality cult. His peerless
revolutionary feats inspired 1,400 poems, 20 novels, more than
200 songs, countless essays, and television series. The "dear
leader" is extolled as a genius at everything he does, from
composing epic operas to film-making to philosophizing to
monument-building; a species of begonia is named after him:
"Kimjongilia." For political and ideological purposes, he began
to be quoted in party literature in late 1982 as an authoritative
voice, along with his father, on all party, state, and military
affairs. Since then, the two Kims have been the only two
authorized sources North Korean media are told to quote for
domestic and foreign consumption. From observers' perspective,
without his father's guidance, or moderating influence (the
closest thing to check and balance in
page 9
North Korea, if there was one at all), Kim Jong Il will need to
have a coterie of dedicated confidants, not sycophants, willing
to speak out and provide the best possible recommendation on
pressing policy issues pro and con.

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