CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Print Print Email Email Share Share Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close

loading...

Kim Jong-un Survivability Scorecard: What to Look For

by Scott A. Snyder
December 27, 2011

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and military officer Jang Song-taek paying their respects (Courtesy: Reuters)

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and military officer Jang Song-taek paying their respects。 (Courtesy Reuters)

Now that the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) has officially announced the start of the Kim Jong-un era, the major questions on the minds of North Korean observers revolve around the durability and sustainability of the North Korean leadership under Kim Jong-un. Another way of making judgements regarding this process is to assess whether the succession process is going according to plan. The 1994 succession experience offers the North Koreans a template for how to successfully manage succession and offers a scorecard for assessing the durability of the Kim Jong-un regime. In the first few days, the North Korean leadership has made no obvious mistakes, nor has there been any evidence that the succession process is veering off track. The North Korean media has reinforced Kim Jong-un’s role, with international diplomats implicity acknowledging his position and KCNA bestowing on Kim Jong-un the titles of Great Successor and Supreme Commander. I believe that each of these elements is designed to reinforce perceptions of the inevitability of Kim Jong-un as the next leader, with the funeral being a major event designed to affirm Kim Jong-un’s new role at the same time that he pays respects to his father. This will also be the first opportunity to make judgments regarding his leadership style independent of his father.

Beyond the funeral ceremony, the calendar holds a series of events that North Korea will be able to use to its advantage to reinforce the centrality of Kim Jong-un and that therefore provide opportunities for external judgements regarding how the process is going, including:

Jan. 1: New Year’s address. North Korea normally issues a joint editorial or speech by the leader assessing the challenges and goals for the year. The 2012 address may have already been written, but can be scoured for deviations from the past and for evidence of possible rewriting post Kim Jong-il’s death. How the joint editorial is issued and whether Kim Jong-un might decide to personally deliver it as well as the substance it contains will offer some early clues to the actual role Kim Jong-un is and will be playing.

Jan. 8: Kim Jong-un’s 28th birthday and his first as leader. How will it be celebrated this year, and what messages are conveyed on this date?

Feb. 16: Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday. Still well within the mourning period, how will this birthday be honored and what roles will Kim Jong-un and other leaders play in any commemorations on that date?

April 15: Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. This was to be the big celebration of the year, marking the establishment of North Korea as a “strong and prosperous state.” But what are the benchmarks for assessing Kim Jong-un’s performance toward that goal? Arguably, the benchmarks may shift to “are you better off than you were seventeen years ago?” The famine that occurred in the midst of the Kim Il-sung-Kim Jong-il succession process presents an opportunity to establish a low bar for assessing Kim Jong-un’s performance.

Beyond these dates, what other signs should be watched? Intelligence on how the succession might be going wrong will be much harder to obtain precisely because KCNA will not be reporting it and news of internal developments in North Korea remains hard to come by. In any event, much of the activity that would spark greatest interest inevitably is likely to occur underneath the surface. However, here are a few things to watch for that might suggest things are going very badly.

  • Unexplained disappearances, especially of Kim Jong-un’s family members. Could be evidence of friction that would weaken allies and capability to maintain political control.
  • Overt challenges to Kim Jong-un’s authority or references to critical roles by individuals other than Kim Jong-un. Everyone is watching the activities of Jang Song-taek, Kim Kyong-hui, Yi Yong-ho, and Oh Kuk-ryol with special interest.
  • Evidence of friction between the party and military authorities, especially between the National Defense Commission and the Workers’ Party of Korea. Kim Jong-un has not received a role in the National Defense Commission, which was the seat from which his father governed. If these two organizations within the North Korean bureaucracy come into conflict, it might be evidence of a serious institutional cleavage inside North Korea.
  • Evidence of new competition among various arms of the state, especially competition for external resources, and particularly with regard to the pattern by which procurements of goods from China and other external sources are managed. Follow the money; whoever is leader will need financing in order to survive. Any contender for power will need a capacity to finance his challenge or the ability to take away from his colleagues’ power base.
  • Unusual military activity or precursors to a coup attempt. Kim Jong-il, we learned belatedly, survived a challenge from a unit based in Hamkyungdo in the mid-1990s at the height of the famine. It was ruthlessly put down, but it is important to recognize based on that experiences that Kim Jong-un may face, and could potentially survive, such a direct challenge to his rule.

The most difficult aspect of assessing whether things are going wrong is that, like our intelligence collection capabilities which did not appear to provide effective warning that Kim Jong-il had passed away in advance of the official announcement, the critical developments that constitute a serious challenge to the Kim Jong-un leadership will also likely be lagging indicators of circumstances that have already changed. As a result, it is likely that all the parties are going to be in a reactive rather than a shaping mode, and the question is how well we are in sync regarding our assessments of the motivations and implications of the changes we see on the surface.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by William Hadrian

    I’ve been reading many articles about the recent succession, and many experts are comparing it to the last succession from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il. I understand that this is the only past example we have to work with in assessing the current situation. However, there are tremendous differences between Kim Jong Il coming to power, and his son Kim Jong Un. The most obvious difference is the level of which how well they are both established within the ruling elite. In the case of Kim Jong Il, he had been primarily already established and well known by the public and the ruling elite before he came to power. This is tremendously different from Jong Un, who although recently promoted to a four star general, and has been groomed by many prominent elites who are now acting like his regents, he still lacks tremendous experience that I think may cause some friction in a country that highly values seniority, in a state that is on the brink of collapse. Not many experts are saying it now, but I think North Korea is headed down the route of Burma, and will most likely establish some form of military junta to rule the country as it attempts to ease relations with the outside world for strictly economic intentions. Now skeptics would say the elite would do no such thing as it would jeopardize the current ruling regime, but I think time will show that Kim Jong il was a tight nit glue that kept that barely standing system working. I think with him gone now the true holes and fault lines will be exposed. It’s only a matter of time.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required

Pingbacks