How Kim Jong-un will rise to power is the subject of supposition. ‘How’, in the sense that he still has a few hurdles to clear before being secure in his position,- a testy military and/or pitchfork-wielding peasants, and ‘how’, in terms of which ‘catchphrase’ might accompany his rise to power.
Some observers are wondering how Kim Jong-un will build up any sort of credibility in the limited time between now and the demise of his father. Kim Jong-il spent years in the shadow of his father, all the while utilizing the press to the fullest extent to provide coverage of him pointing at things, discussing improvements in agriculture, visiting the military, and otherwise building a legitimate reputation as a gifted individual capable of leading the nation. In contrast, Kim Jong-un has yet to burgeon into the subject of wily propaganda campaigns in the same way as his father. In 2009 he was only a rumor and his existence was made official as of early 2010. But does time in the spotlight even matter?
What Kim Jong-il was meant to be and what he became are conflicting concepts. In the mid eighties, the images produced by the propaganda apparatus for the people of the DPRK were of a man who was subtly more refined than his father. The Juche Idea, a handful of tour guides in Pyongyang will tell you, was founded by the Great Leader and refined by the Dear Leader. Kim Jong-il’s opus, the 1982 treatise On the Juche Idea, an exhausting and poorly-structured monologue, was nevertheless intended to underscore his intellectual prowess. He was a revolutionary at heart, but an intellectual in his actions with a deep understanding of how to build the DPRK’s capacity for the future. In essence Kim Jong-il was meant to be a technocrat.
As such, it seems almost disappointing then that Kim Jong-il’s assumption of power is synonymous with the rise of Seongun Jeongchi (Military-First Politics). Seongun became the catchphrase and justification for policy in the DPRK and its prevalence grew on banners and billboards around the country. The demand for security and stability in the years leading up to the death Kim Il-sung was irresistible and the leadership had no choice but to emphasize Kim Jong-il’s role as a leader of the military. His appointment to the NDC prior to his father’s death and the subsequent 1998 ersatz of communism for Seongun in the DPRK’s constitution are indicative of the shift in priorities.
Kim Jong-il was obliged to stake his own ideological claim. The action of distancing himself from his father was legitimizing in and of itself but the message was clear, “we are now in an arduous march, things are bad, put your heads down and push through it.” Rather than follow China’s model which shifted from a source of ideological legitimacy to a legitimacy based on economic success, the DPRK’s leadership retreated to a bunker mentality that obliged the people to struggle and suffer, blaming many of the hardships on external factors.
Now as Kim Jong-un is groomed for power it will be interesting to see how his image takes shape and, in particular, what slogan he will employ to stake his own ideological claim. His experience indicates his technocratic potential but his rank and title suggest otherwise. He is said to be computer literate and his experience in Switzerland could be used to highlight the idea of a forward-thinking and modern individual, capable of leading the DPRK into real change. On the other hand, the military itself may be unwilling to forfeit any of the privileges it has accumulated over the years, obliging Kim Jong-un to start off in a place similar to that of his father but with the responsibility of building a strong a prosperous nation (Kangseong Taeguk) through Seongun. Any novel ideas on how to build a strong and prosperous nation in a more creative manner may fall victim to the age-old fear of instability, ipso facto leaving the military with the last word. That is, provided Kim Jong-un will enjoy any independence to begin with, any departure from the status quo will risk alienating the most well-developed, and well-armed, sector of the DPRK. Whether or not the military will even put up with the Greenhorn may lead us to an entirely different line of questions.
 For a synopsis of how Military-First Politics is applied to other socio-economic spheres in the DPRK see: Pak Han-shik, “Military-First Politics (Songun): Understanding Kim Jong-il’s North Korea” Korean Economic Institute: Academic Paper Series (2008) pp118-131.