North Korea’s Uncertain Succession

North Korea’s Uncertain Succession

Will Kim Jong-il’s twenty-seven-year-old son assume power in a smooth transition or is a destabilizing succession struggle ahead for reclusive North Korea? CFR’s Scott Snyder says the next few weeks will provide crucial signals.

December 19, 2011 4:53 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Despite an outward show of unity in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death, there is much unknown about North Korea’s succession process, says Scott A. Snyder, CFR’s top expert on Korea. Snyder expects the North Korean leadership to focus inward to put its policies in order, but he questions whether the military leadership will remain loyal to Kim Jong-un, Kim’s youngest son and handpicked successor, who turns twenty-eight next month. "Korea is a society that is attentive to age and seniority," says Snyder. "And so the idea of a twenty-eight-year-old who also commands the military is hard for outsiders to grasp, and it remains to be seen whether it is in fact sustainable."

With the death of North Korea’s President Kim Jong-il, there seems to be a leadership plan in place in which his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, would take over. But Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui is there in a senior position as well as her husband, Jang Song-taek. What is going to happen?

The initial focus is going to be on getting through this mourning period and the funeral. The funeral is going to be held on December 28. There already is a funeral committee and a kind of rank ordering of top individuals serving on the committee, and it is headed by Kim Jong-un. So that projects a sense of order to this process. Kim Kyong-hui is on the list as well as Jang Song-taek.

Do we learn much from the funeral list?

This list really flows in my view from the September 2010 unveiling of Kim Jong-un (MSNBC) as the next leader at the Workers Party conference. And so far it looks like there are a lot of efforts to suggest a sense of continuity and a sense there is a collective process that is effectively functioning. What we don’t know is what is happening behind the scenes and whether the process can hold in the absence of Kim-Jong-il, because he really has been the glue that has held the system together over the course of the past fifteen years.

Will North Korea become less militant, more willing to strike deals with the outside world, go back to nuclear disarmament talks or become more belligerent? Do you have any guesses?

I’m actually expecting kind of an inward turn and a focus on getting affairs in Pyongyang in order before things move forward. You know, Kim Jong-il actually observed a three-year mourning period [after his father died] in which he, even though everyone knew he was the successor, did not come out and perform any public functions or take any visible external leadership positions.

I anticipate that it is unlikely that Kim Jong-un is going to take an active role in the near term in managing state affairs.

That was back in what years?

That was between 1994 and 1997. There was the continuation of and resolution of the Agreed Framework [between the United States and North Korea] in 1994 so it didn’t mean North Korea’s diplomacy ground to a complete halt. But I anticipate that it is unlikely that Kim Jong-un is going to take an active role in the near term in managing state affairs. He will be involved much more in a kind of initial behind-the-scenes role especially as it relates to foreign diplomacy.

Any chance of provocation from the new leadership?

Because we know so little about the leadership, it also means we don’t have a good grasp on the motivation in the event of provocations. And this is particularly complicated in a circumstance where a provocation could be evidence of fragmentation or divisions in the North Korean leadership. Or it could be a tactic used to signal to outsiders to stay away or it could be a tactic used by design to gain some kind of tactical advantage.

And I take it this funeral will not be attended by Western leaders?

That’s right; it’s all just a domestic affair. No foreign leaders invited.

In the last few weeks the United States has had diplomats in China meeting with North Korean officials. What was the purpose of those talks (NYT), and do you think those will continue or come to a halt?

Last week, the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, Robert King, had discussions in Beijing with his counterpart, Ambassador Ri Gun, on the issue of conditions under which the United States might provide food assistance to North Korea. There was also anticipation following the visit of Special Representative for North Korean Policy Glyn Davies to Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing-- that there might be a third round of U.S.-North Korean bilateral talks. There were press rumors that that set of talks might have even occurred at the end of this week. It is unlikely now that will happen.

The United States does have some interesting decisions to make regarding whether or not, in the context of this transition, it might want to announce provision of food assistance now-- especially since the talks have already occurred and presumably there was some level of understanding reached about the conditions under which the United States would be willing to provide that assistance.

Would such assistance be conditioned on North Korea’s returning to the Six Party Talks concerning stopping their nuclear program?

The talks about food have been separated from the nuclear issues.

And, the new presumptive leader, Mr. Kim Jong-un, hasn’t really made himself known to the international scene yet; has he spoken publicly?

No. He has met some international leaders but always with his father. And all of his public appearances so far had been with his father. So he was being groomed for leadership, but this is still the early stages. Now he is basically on his own, and we will find out if he can move forward. If he does, he is supported by some sort of collective leadership process that looks like it had been put in place. We saw something very similar to this following Kim Il-sung’s death when Kim Jong-il took over.

There is another factor here that I have to mention. He is turning twenty-eight on January 8, and although he carries the title of General, Korea is a society that is attentive to age and seniority. And so the idea of a twenty-eight-year-old who also commands the military is hard for outsiders to grasp and it remains to be seen whether it is in fact sustainable.

Talk a bit about him.

He apparently was at a Swiss boarding school for a couple of years and also has had educational opportunities in North. But my impression is that really he may be the North Korean version of a home school product with the exception of his two years in Switzerland. It doesn’t appear to be the case that as he was receiving instruction in North Korea, or that he had a lot of interaction with peers, for instance, at Kim Il-sung University or at some other North Korean university.

Kim Kyong- hui, who is the new leader’s aunt and her husband, Jang Song-taek, are high up in the leadership. Some people speculate that Jang in fact might be the true leader of the military for the time being.

Well, it’s complicated. Jang is actually lower down on some of the leadership lists, and he also was not highly ranked in the September 2010 party conference. But he has the greatest potential for cross-institutional experience or connections in various parts of North Korea’s bureaucratic system. Jang is the one who at first brush appears to have more lateral contact than many others in the system.

Talk about the relationship right now between South Korea and North Korea. How tense is it?

The two Koreas have really not been on speaking terms over the course of the summer and fall. The new unification minister [for South Korea] Yu Woo-ik, appointed back in October, has been attempting to open some new channels. But the North Korean leadership has shifted its focus more toward who is likely to succeed the current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, than on having dialogue with Lee. So that’s a reflection of the poor quality of Korean relations. Lee has continued to insist on a North Korean apology for the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval ship, Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island near the North Korean mainland.

Is there an election scheduled in South Korea?

There are parliamentary elections that will take place in April of next year, and the presidential election takes place in December. Lee cannot run again so there will be a new president. At the moment it looks like it could be a fairly competitive race. There was a recent election for Seoul mayor, which was won by a progressive candidate, Park Won-soon, who beat a candidate from Lee’s conservative party. So there is the possibility of a shift in power from conservative to progressive in South Korea.

Are the progressives more interested in closer relations with the north?

Yeah, they’ve been historically more interested in engagement.

It’s arguable that there is nothing that North Korea would like more than for the U.S. to come in as a kind of strategic counterweight to China.

How are North Korea’s relations with China and the United States?

North Korea is economically almost completely dependent on China and that has resulted in a closer political relationship, but as far as I can see it is because the Chinese are hugging the North Koreans. Not necessarily because the North Koreans are hugging the Chinese back. And in fact it’s arguable that there is nothing that North Korea would like more than for the U.S. to come in as a kind of strategic counterweight to China. But the nuclear issue remains as a major, really inescapable sticking point. There is simply no prospect for the United States to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea without denuclearization.

And is it likely the new leadership will want to maintain this nuclear foothold?

There’s no reason yet to expect that there would be a change in policy direction in North Korea.

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North Korea

Heads of State and Government


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