North Korea After Kim Jong Il

December 22nd, 2011
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On Sunday night (Monday morning Pyongyang time), North Korean media announced that an important message would be released shortly. Most believed that it would be something related to the nuclear program, where it had been earlier reported that progress was made on some sort of food-aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal. Yet, as soon as the North Korean broadcast started it was clear what had actually happened. The broadcaster, dressed all in black, spoke in a slow, mournful tone, and it appeared that at any moment she would burst into tears. The Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, was dead.

The death of Kim Jong Il, even with all of his past health problems, came at a rather shocking time. Kim has been more active in recent months than usual – by my count, he had made 48 appearances since October and 156 appearances on the year (compared to 149 in 2010). There were even reports earlier in the year that the pace of the succession was slowing down as his health improved.

Now that he is gone, however, a multitude of questions present themselves. While it is clear that Kim Jong Un is now, officially, the successor, what sort of power will he actually have? What role will Jang Song Thaek (Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law), Kim Kyong Hui (Kim Jong Il’s sister and Jang Song Thaek’s wife), and various military figures play? What institutions will be most important?

Very few things are clear at this point, but I think there is one thing we know for sure. Kim Jong Un will not actually be in charge of running North Korea for at least a little while, and there’s a chance that he never actually takes over. For one thing, he simply has not had time to build a power base independent from those around him. Kim Il Sung began grooming Kim Jong Il in the early 1970s; by the time he took over, he had been involved in governing for two decades and was in charge of the military. Kim Jong Un’s succession, on the other hand, only began in 2009 (at the earliest). He doesn’t have the experience necessary to run a country without a significant amount of help from those around him. Plus Kim Jong Un will observe some sort of mourning period (his father observed one for three years) during which he will necessarily work behind the scenes.

In addition, whereas someone like Jang Song Thaek has developed a patronage network over a number of years (reportedly the reason he got into trouble in the earlier part of this decade), Kim Jong Un will only command loyalty from a very limited amount of people. Furthermore, as everyone else has pointed out, he’s a young kid trying to rule in a country that places a premium on age. His age, whether it’s 28 or 29 (it is not known for sure), makes him half as old as most North Korean elites. As Scott Snyder points out, it is difficult to see the military taking him seriously no matter what his supposed accomplishments are.

The one clue as to how the leadership might shake out that North Korea has provided is the funeral committee ranking. In the past, these have provided insight into where elites stand in relation to each other. Of course, one can’t take these things too far – for example, Jang Song Thaek is ranked 19th when he is clearly more powerful than that. But as the only official insight we have into the North Korean regime, it still serves as an important marker. Keeping in mind all the usual caveats, let’s look at what the rankings have to say.

Just looking at Kim Jong Il’s funeral committee is useful, but a comparison with the last major funeral, Jo Myong Rok’s in November 2010, provides for more interesting observations. First off, there has been almost no movement among the top twenty elites within North Korea in the past year. Ju Sang Song and Hong Sok Hyong are both gone, having been removed from their posts previously, but the rest remains unchanged. After that, however, there are some huge gains and drops. Multiple members of the Cabinet, as well as other department directors, have moved up more than 80 spots compared to where they were previously ranked. Provincial officials have also had a huge boost, with each moving up over 90 spots. (see below)

Table 1(click to expand)

 On the flip side, a number of military officials who I had expected to be ranked higher, guys like Ri Myong Su (Minister of People’s Security and a General in the KPA), Kim Won Hong (General, Member of the Central Military Commission) and Kim Myong Guk (General, Member of the CMC, Director of Strategy on the KPA General Staff) all fell by over 20 spots. (see below)

Remove featured image(click to expand)

A better graphical representation of the difference in rankings from Jo Myong Rok’s funeral committee and Kim Jong Il’s is below. As can be seen, there is a major improvement in the median rankings of Cabinet members, and a major drop in the median ranking of CMC members. 

 If I may engage in wild speculation, it does seem possible that this is a signal the regime will focus more on economic growth in the upcoming year. Consider the following: the Cabinet is generally considered the most technocratic and reform-minded (by North Korean standards) body within the government; provincial officials were key to China’s own reforms, which is obviously well known to North Korean officials (for more on this aspect check out Susan Shirk talking about “playing to the provinces”); and finally, Pak Pong Ju, one of the more reform-minded officials (and former Premier) reappeared in July and accompanied Kim Jong Il on a number of appearances. Given that North Korea promises to become a “great and prosperous” nation in the year 2012, it would make sense to shift focus from the military to the economy. The obvious problem is that this would generate pushback from the military – is the new regime strong enough to withstand that? We have had plenty of cases where there seemed to be some glimmer of hope for economic reform, most notably in 2002, which ended in failure. Basically, even if the regime is signaling they’d like to reform, that doesn’t mean they will actually follow through. (See this Andrei Lankov article for reasons why reform is likely to fail.)

In any case, I am making public the spreadsheet I created which compares the Kim Jong Il funeral committee list and the Jo Myong Rok funeral committee list. There is also a breakdown of elites who appeared with Kim Jong Il in the past year – not surprisingly, Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un and Kim Kyong Hui are the top three. There is also an institutional comparison, which compares the median ranking for elites who are part of the Central Military Commission, National Defense Commission, Politburo, Cabinet and Secretariat. This chart does a nice job of showing the stark change in median rankings for Cabinet members and CMC members in the two funeral committee rankings.

To download the Excel data file, please click here.

Picture: KCTV