Leadership Transition in North Korea

Current Issues in U.S.-ROK Relations

January 13, 2012


On December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-il's seventeen-year rule came to an end as he reportedly succumbed to a heart attack. Nearly fifty hours after the event, the North Korean propaganda apparatus sprang into action, informing the world of Kim's passing and proclaiming Kim Jong-un, twenty-nine years old, the "great successor." Moving at a rapid pace, the transition of power appears to have gone smoothly as the young Kim received the titles of supreme leader (ch'eogo ryo'ngdoja) and supreme commander (Choson inmin'gun ch'oego) of the armed forces. An entirely different set of signals has highlighted what appears to be a collective leadership that will advise Kim and facilitate his consolidation of power.

The regime is now using the mourning period to rapidly move through the third phase of the succession.

Going forward, Pyongyang watchers will begin to key in on a number of issues central to the survival of this new regime. Has the leadership paradigm of one central decision-maker been replaced by something new? What challenges does Kim Jong-un face to consolidating his power? How will the party-military relationship evolve? What is the prognosis for near- and medium-term stability of this new regime?

Ken Gause

Director, International Affairs Group, Center for Naval Analyses

At the time of Kim's death, the North Korean leadership was moving through the second phase of a three-phase succession. This phase, which was launched with the Third Party Conference in September 2010, was to mark a period of on-the-job training for the heir apparent. It was also the phase in which the regime was to be rewired in order to accommodate a post-Kim Jong-il leadership configuration. In the third phase, Kim Jong-un would be appointed to additional senior party leadership bodies and receive the titles of power, much as his father did in the early 1990s.

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Political Transitions

Kim's death short-circuited this phased approach to leadership transfer. Instead, the regime is now using the mourning period to rapidly move through the third phase of the succession. On December 30, the Politburo passed a decree formally transferring the post of supreme commander to Kim Jong-un in accordance with his father's wishes. In the coming months, we can expect the convening of a Korean Worker's Party (KWP) meeting to convey at least the title of Central Military Committee (CMC) chairman on Kim Jong-un, which, according to the recently revised Party Charter (Article 22), is tied to the title of general secretary of the party.

As the regime moves through this blitz campaign to legitimize the succession, it is yet unclear whether we are witnessing a paradigm shift in how North Koreais ruled. There is little question that the regime is trying to portray Kim Jong-un as the supreme leader with all the authority and power that the title embodies. This was made evident by the North Korean media's publication of Kim's signature, apparently a signal that he will follow his father's practice of directly signing off on policy decisions. His guidance inspection of the 105th Tank Division also points to the eagerness of the regime to push his bona fides in front of the public. After all, Kim Jong-il ceased making public appearances for nearly three months after the initial mourning period for Kim Il-sung in 1994.

But while Kim might enjoy real authority, it is his relationship with the leadership support system around him that will determine the latitude he has to make decisions on his own. Coming out of ceremonies surrounding the funeral, Kim Jong-un's collective support network appears to be divided among several groupings of individuals. If anything, these groupings reveal a party-military amalgamation. While organizationally, the leadership appears to be situated within the party apparatus, it is intimately tied to the high command, making the argument over whether the military or the party is now in ascendance a moot point.

The inner ring of this support network is made up of gatekeepers who will most likely be involved in decision-making.

  • Vice Marshall (VMAR) Yi Yong-ho, director of the General Staff Department (GSD), has operational control over the armed forces.
  • General Jang Song-taek, who has oversight of the internal security apparatus and the economy portfolio, is well situated to support Kim Jong-un in the running of the daily operations of the regime.
  • General Kim Kyong-hui, the new leader's aunt, Politburo member, and director of the KWP Light Industry Department, will likely play an advisory role and serve as a main arbitrator within the Kim family as well as the larger North Korean leadership.
  • General O Kuk-yol, National Defense Commission (NDC) vice chairman, will have input into deliberations involving tradeoffs between reform and security.

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Political Transitions

This group of four is tied to two leadership bodies (Politburo and National Defense Commission), which do not currently include Kim Jong-un but were responsible for two critical decisions in the days after Kim Jong-il's death. The new regime's first authoritative statement was issued in the name of the NDC on December 30, setting the parameters of North Korea's relationship with the South. This was quickly followed by the Politburo's proclamation of Kim as supreme commander. While both decisions do not detract from Kim's authority, they highlight his need to rely on close advisers and established institutional authorities to conduct the regime's business.

The outer ring of this leadership configuration is centered in the party's CMC, which is made up of important second- and third-generation military and security officials from across the regime. Under Kim Jong-un, the CMC might replace the NDC as the command post of military first politics. It will be responsible for crafting the "great successor's" image, gathering loyalty toward the new regime, and running the country. In terms of Kim's relationship with the military, three CMC members are particularly crucial during the transition period. All accompanied Kim Jong-un as he escorted his father's hearse through the streets of Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-Un will have to mature as a leader and hone his skills in leveraging power bases within the regime.
  • VMAR Kim Yong-chun, as minister of People's Armed Forces, has past service in the KWP Organization Guidance Department and the Korean People's Army's (KPA) General Political Department, which give him invaluable experience in sniffing out potential disloyalty within the armed forces.
  • General Kim Jong-gak is the acting head of the KPA's General Political Bureau, a responsibility that makes him the de facto third-ranking member in the high command, behind the heads of the Ministry of People's Armed Forces (MPAF) and GSD.
  • General U Tong-chuk, as first vice director of the State Security Department, oversees the country's powerful secret police.

Other individuals with military portfolios bear watching, such as O Il-jong (director of the KWP Military Department), Kim Kyong-ok (first vice director of the KWP Organization Guidance Department for military affairs), and Choe Ryong-hae (KWP secretary for military affairs). They will be critical to creating and facilitating a unified and centralized party guidance system that invests the great successor with the ideological authority he will need to rule.

Looking to the future, Kim Jong-un will only be able to rely on this leadership configuration for a limited time. Ultimately, his political survival will depend on his ability to develop his own support base that will likely be drawn from up-and-coming party and military figures from the third and fourth generations. In addition, he will have to mature as a leader and hone his skills in leveraging power bases within the regime. Finally, he will have to showcase his policy skills, avoiding blunders that could call into question his leadership qualifications.

In terms of signposts, Pyongyang watchers will be looking for clues as to whether Kim Jong-un will be able to consolidate his power.

  • How will the North Korean media handle upcoming events? Over the next several months, the regime will celebrate the birthdays of Kim Jong-il (February 16) and Kim Il-sung (April 15). Both are opportunities for the media to provide additional clues regarding the succession. While the media did not publicly proclaim Kim Jong-un's birthday on January 8, it did air a documentary showing him driving a tank and visiting the rocket center that launched the long-range rocket Kwangmyungsung 2 on April 5, 2009.
  • Will Kim assume the chairmanship of the NDC? The regime may choose to leave the NDC post vacant. Much as Kim Il-sung became the eternal president, the regime may choose to designate Kim Jong-il as the eternal head of the NDC, an organization that embodied his leadership era. If so, this will require a change in the constitution, which currently (via Article 100) combines the posts of supreme leader and NDC chairman.
Early indicators that things are not going smoothly include erratic policymaking, mixed messages, and elite defections.
  • Will Kim defer the post of general secretary until the end of the mourning period? Kim Jong-il deferred taking the post until the end of a three-year mourning period. Initial indications are that his son will not wait that long.
  • When will Kim Jong-un visit China? Critical to any new North Korean leader is his visit toPyongyang's major benefactor. Kim Jong-il made his first trip as heir apparent in the early 1980s. Recent speculation was that Kim Jong-un was not ready to make such a trip unaccompanied. When this trip eventually occurs, it will reveal a lot about his ability to control the regime and interact with the outside world.
  • When will Kim Jong-un's personal secretariat emerge? The personal secretariat played a central role in running the regime under Kim Jong-il. At the funeral, important figures from this personal secretariat paid public homage, including Kim Ok, Chon Il-chun (Office 39), and Yi Chol (head of the Kim family's finances). It remains to be seen who will emerge as members of Kim Jong-un's personal retinue.
  • Will the collective leadership around Kim Jong-un hold together? The real question about the stability of the regime will play out not in the coming days but in the coming weeks and months, as North Korea moves through the important year of 2012 and fulfill the promise of becoming "a strong and prosperous nation." It is during this period when fissures, if they are going to occur, might manifest themselves within the leadership configuration that surrounds Kim Jong-un. Early indicators that things are not going smoothly could include erratic policymaking, mixed messages, and elite defections.

As a young man, Kim Jong-un faces many hurdles to assuming the mantle of his father. He will likely try to maintain the leadership style of Kim Jong-il, brooking no challenge to his political birthright. His skills, temperament, perseverance, and the time necessary to carry off this feat will not only dictate the future of the regime, but may well affect the future security of the region.

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