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North Korea's New Collective Leadership

Interviewee: Sue Mi Terry, CFR National Intelligence Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 29, 2010

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With a series of military promotions on September 28, North Korea's ailing leader, Kim Jong-Il, has established his sister, her husband, and Kim Jong-Il's youngest son as his expected successors. The promotions, just before a landmark meeting of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, confirm experts' long-held expectation that Kim's son Kim Jong-Un was favored to succeed him, says Sue M. Terry, a U.S. intelligence expert and now a CFR national intelligence fellow. Terry says that because of Kim Jong-Un's inexperience, Kim Jong-Il has set up a sort of "collective leadership" with his sister Kim Kyong-Hui and her husband Jang Song-Taek--Kim's No. 2 man in the military establishment--to help guide Kim Jong-Un if Kim Jong-Il dies soon. Terry notes that if Kim were to die before North Korean elites accept his succession plan, the leadership will be very fragile. It's unlikely that there will be any changes in North Korea's foreign policy or in its relationship with the United States as long as Kim Jong-Il is alive, says Terry.

Can you go over some of the appointments named at the conference in North Korea?

Kim Jong-Il announced right before the conference that he has named six people to become the rank of four-star generals. Among them are Kim Kyong-Hui, Kim Jong-Il's younger sister, and Kim Jong-Un, his third and youngest son. North Korean experts had expected that Kim Jong-Un would be given a prominent position to lay the groundwork for his eventual succession. What's noteworthy is that Kim Kyong-Hui was also promoted to the four-star general rank. That creates almost a collective leadership--along with Kim Kyong-Hui's husband--waiting in the background. That obviously shows that Kim Jong-Il is not only interested in Kim Jong-Un succeeding him, but in Kim Kyong-Hui providing support to Kim Jong-Un should Kim Jong-Il pass away suddenly or suffer from a long-term debilitating illness.

How has his sister become so important?

Ever since Kim Jong-Il's mother, Kim Jong-Suk, died in 1949, he became very dependent on his younger sister. He is sixty-nine and she is sixty-four, and they were known to have a very close relationship. In the last several years, Kim Kyong-Hui particularly became more of a close confidante to Kim Jong-Il and even more so after his stroke, which is believed to have occurred in late 2008.

What about her husband?

Her husband, Jang Song-Taek, sixty-four, is the No. 2 man in North Korea. He's the vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission--which controls the military--making him the second most powerful man in the country. He was once even sent away for a couple years for having too much influence in the North Korean regime. But now, Jang Song-Taek and Kim Kyong-Hui will play a role of regent to Kim Jong-Un.

What's most noteworthy is that ever since its founding at the end of World War Two, North Korea was ruled by one strong man, either Kim Il-Sung or his son, Kim Jong-Il, but now what's interesting is that there are several powerful figures: Jang Song-Taek, Kim Kyong-Hui, and Kim Jong-Un.

Are these changes important? Are these promotions important?

We've all been waiting for this to happen, and now they've made it official, saying that this is the next leadership structure. They've basically announced that Kim Jong-Un is going to be the next leader. But what's most noteworthy is that ever since its founding at the end of World War Two, North Korea was ruled by one strong man, either Kim Il-Sung or his son, Kim Jong-Il. Now what's interesting is that there are several powerful figures: Jang Song-Taek, Kim Kyong-Hui, and Kim Jong-Un. Now we have multiple power centers.

Say Kim Jong-Il passes away suddenly next month. Who's likely to be in charge?

Behind the scenes, it will be Jang Song-Taek, but Kim Jong-Un would probably be put forth as the successor, more as a figurehead. Jang Song-Taek would have the influence. So we are really looking at going toward more of a collective leadership for now. All the other elites in North Korea have an interest in keeping the system together, in continuing the status quo, because they have to hang together. But what would be interesting to see, down the road, is how the society functions without a strong leader, strong arbiter like Kim Jong-Il, because it's not going to be Kim Jong-Un in the short run but Jang Song-Taek. It will be interesting to see if the elites will be able to sustain that coalition.

These titles are all military titles. This young man who's about twenty-seven or twenty-eight has become a four-star general without--as far as we know--serving in the army. His sister has not served in the army.

Not a day in her life.

And she's also a four-star general. What's the relationship between them and the real generals? Do they really salute these new generals?

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That is a question that no one can really answer. That's why, if you put the question about what happens if Kim Jong-Il dies next month, I think this new leadership will be very fragile. The key to making this particular succession process go smoothly depends on Kim Jong-Il living long enough for people to really buy into this. Kim Jong-Il has just begun the selling process to the military and the public. If he is able to sell it to the military and everyone else, I think he'll have a better chance.

What would you expect after this Congress?

They've been laying the groundwork for the propaganda. The propaganda work will continue. Kim Jong-Un accompanied his father to China in late August, and Kim Jong-Il will have him meet foreign delegates, foreign leaders, and accompany his father to all the meetings, and the succession process will continue.

Recently there were promotions of two important foreign ministry types, Kim Kye-Gwan and Kang Sok-Ju, who have been involved in previous talks with the United States as well as in the Six Party Talks on nuclear disarmament. Does that signify anything?

A lot of experts say that promoting Kang Sok-Ju and Kim Kye-Gwan and Lee Yong-Ho, another official to the Six Party Talks, had to do with signaling to the United States their intent to seriously engage the United States and to possibly make some concessions. I disagree. The fact is that these officials are Kim Jong-Il's loyalists, members of the Old Guard, who have just effectively carried out Kim Jong-Il's nuclear policy, which has been a cycle of escalation, negotiation, and then reaping concessions. So he is rewarding them. I don't think it is necessarily to signal to the United States that he is ready to make any kind of concessions.

The North Koreans recently had talks with the Chinese again, but there's no date for any renewal of these talks. What's the U.S. position on these talks?

The U.S. position is that in the aftermath of the Cheonan attack, the sinking of the South Korean corvette, we're waiting to see what North Korea does. The South Koreans are asking North Korea to either apologize or show some sort of remorse on the Cheonan. It's really hard to move without anything from North Korea.

A lot of experts say that promoting Kang Sok-Ju, Kim Kye-Gwan, and Lee Yong-Ho had to do with signaling to the United States their intent to seriously engage the United States and to possibly make some concessions. I disagree.

There's great curiosity about Kim Jong-Un. What do we know about this young man?

Unfortunately, we know very little. We know he was born in Vienna and educated in Switzerland. He is reportedly the son of Kim Jong-Il's consort, Ko Young-Hee, who reportedly died in 2004. There's a famous sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who was Kim Jong-Il's family sushi chef, and he wrote a memoir and portrayed a very unflattering picture of Kim Jong-Un, saying that he is very much like a mini-Kim, if you will. He apparently looks like Kim Jong-Il; he has the similar health issues as Kim Jong-Il; he has a similar personality. He is impetuous; he's spoiled; he's mean to servants. But we do not know anything about his worldview, what he thinks of foreign policy. What we know of him is really from childhood, so it's hard to know what this twenty-six-year-old man now thinks about the United States and nuclear policy.

What do we know about Kim Jong-Il's sister?

She is suffering from the horrible tragedy of her daughter committing suicide in France in 2004. She also suffers from alcoholism. At some point she had a very difficult relationship with Jang Song-Taek; we hear about marital troubles. She is now a minister of light industry. But we do know that because of her close relationship with Kim Jong-Il, she has influence.

What about her husband?

We heard that Jang Song-Taek might have been more economic reform-minded, but we also do not know what his worldview is. Some China specialists and some South Korea specialists also acknowledged that he might be more reform-minded and therefore more reasonable, but we do not know for sure. And Jang Song-Taek would be hard-pressed to talk openly until Kim Jong-Il dies. Basically that is the key. You will not really know what the elites think of where the North should go until the death of Kim Jong-Il.

Do you think in this uncertain period North Korea is apt to be more aggressive? I mean, they sank the Cheonan for no real reason, it seems.

There were several reasons, people speculate, on why North Korea sank the Cheonan. First of all, as revenge to the accident that happened last year (USAToday) when a North Korean ship collided with a South Korean ship and retreated in flames. Another reason could be related to the succession process. Some people were speculating that Kim Jong-Un's orders are responsible for the Cheonan, even though that could not be done without final approval by Kim Jong-Il. This speculation is that it was still orchestrated by Kim Jong-Un and his supporters to show the military and everyone else that he's got the mettle to do this.

Right now they are engaged in another cycle of escalation, negotiation, reaping concessions. They sank the Cheonan, now they want to engage the United States bilaterally, to achieve some sort of peace treaty or peace regime, but in due course North Korea will escalate. I think the key year will be 2012, when it is the hundredth anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's birth, and they'll have to show something for it. I would not rule out more nuclear tests, more missile tests.

You don't see any great softening in North Korea?

I am afraid that not much will change until Kim Jong-Il dies. In the interim, how can Kim Jong-Un just come in and all of a sudden have a softer policy? He needs to win the respect of the military and the security services, and rally the public.

The views expressed in this interview are those of Sue Terry and not of the U.S.

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