from Asia Unbound

Deja-vu in North Korea? Succession 1994 vs. 2011

December 23, 2011

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North Korea

Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un salute during a military parade (courtesy Reuters/KCNA)
Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un salute during a military parade (courtesy Reuters/KCNA)

As events unfold surrounding the succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, it is clear that North Korea is using the 1994 succession from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il as its template for managing the current transition. However, as one observes these two parallel processes, it becomes clear that while North Korea may have this template, differing conditions in 2011 compared to those that existed in 1994 may prove fatal to successful implementation of this succession. Among the key differences in the two processes are the following:

  • At the time of Kim Il-sung’s death, a 53-year old Kim Jong-il had been preparing to run the country for over two decades and had already taken over many critical facets of control over the regime. Kim Jong-un is 28 and has only been groomed for succession for less than three years.
  • At the time of Kim Il-sung’s death, ideology was the guiding factor that determined loyalty of the populace, but under Kim Jong-il, money became the key means by which to ensure advancement, and patronage is the primary means by which loyalty is obtained.
  • In 1994, the public distribution system was operational, but under strain, and there were virtually no private markets. By 2011, markets are the major means of distribution and the public distribution system is operative on a relatively limited basis. North Koreans are less dependent on and trusting of the state that has long failed to provide for their livelihood.
  • North Korea in 1994 was still an isolated society that was largely disconnected internally and with the outside world. But North Korea today is economically connected with other countries, and penetrated by information that circulates with increasing efficiency.

On this basis, it should be clear that the North Korea Kim Jong-un will lead is not his father’s North Korea, but a country that has already embarked on a process of inevitable change. What is not clear is whether a collective leadership that is virtually unchanged–with the exception of Kim Jong-un assuming his father’s roles–fully recognizes and appreciates the difficulty of the challenges they face or the necessity of transformation.