About the Author
View more articles by Luke Herman
In the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death, many analysts wondered how the next few months would play out. What signals would the regime send? Would Kim Jong Un follow in Kim Jong Il’s footsteps and go through some sort of mourning period? Would any signs of leadership struggle emerge?
Six weeks into the second leadership transition in North Korea’s history, observers seem to have a few answers, or at least as many as we can hope to get from such a closed system. Kim Jong Un’s status was made clear early on, as he was referred to as the “supreme leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea, state and army of the DPRK.” Behind the scenes, it is highly unlikely that the 28 or 29 year old Kim is truly in charge of everything, but outward signs suggest enough buy-in on the part of regime insiders that things have proceeded quite smoothly. In some ways this should not be too surprising. Merely having a Kim around, even one who is so young and inexperienced, obviates the need for a messy leadership battle that could potentially rip the regime apart. In addition, opponents of the succession were likely weeded out and eliminated before Kim took over.[i]
There are a few major differences between this succession and the last one. Most obvious is the fact that, whatever mourning period there was, it didn’t last long. Thus far, including events that Kim Jong Un attended for Kim Jong Il’s funeral, the young Kim has made 22 separate appearances. Of these, nine were either visits to military units or art shows related to the military, seven were related specifically to Kim Jong Il, and the only one that could reasonably be classified as economic was a visit to a machine plant – and even that was likely military in nature, given the other attendees. Below is the full list:
|Visits bier of Kim Jong Il|
|Visits bier of Kim Jong Il|
|Visits bier of Kim Jong Il|
|Visits bier of Kim Jong Il|
|Visits bier of Kim Jong Il|
|Funeral march for KJI|
|Pays Tribute to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on New Year|
|Visited the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division of the KPA honored with the title of the O Jung Hup-led Seventh Regiment|
|Enjoys New Year’s Concert Given by Unhasu Orchestra|
|Inspects Pyongyang Folk Park|
|Music and Dance Performance “We Will Hold Our Supreme Commander in High Esteem for All Ages”|
|Inspected KPA Unit 169 honored with the title of the O Jung Hup-led Seventh Regiment|
|Inspected KPA Unit 3870 honored with the title of the O Jung Hup-led Seventh Regiment|
|Inspected KPA Air Force Unit 354 honored with the title of O Jung Hup-led Seventh Regiment before guiding a flight training|
|Inspected the Command of Large Combined Unit 671 of the KPA|
|Provided field guidance to the Machine Plant managed by Ho Chol Yong|
|State reception at the Mokran house|
|Visited the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School and congratulated its teachers and students on the lunar New Year|
|Watched a demonstration by players of the Western Area Aviation Club|
|Guided a flight training of KPA Air Force Unit 378 honored with the title of O Jung Hup-led 7th Regiment|
|Appreciated a concert given by the Military Band of the KPA|
|Inspected Unit 1017 of the KPA Air Force honored with the title of O Jung Hup-led 7th Regiment and guided its flight training|
By comparison, Kim Jong Il hardly made any visits in the year after his father died. In fact, at the equivalent point in his succession, he had only made appearances related to Kim Il Sung’s funeral, and did not make one unrelated to that funeral until November 2, a full four months after his father had died. One reason for this is likely due to a greater sense of insecurity on the part of North Korea’s elite – Kim Jong Il had practically been running the country already when his father died, and had been ensconced within the party for nearly thirty years at that point. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, has not had the benefit of time to create a solid independent base of support. The regime needs to get him out front and center to announce to the people, and more importantly any one of the elites who has a sliver of doubt about his ability, that the succession has taken place and things are picking up right where they left off.
Another interesting difference is how Kim Jong Un is conducting these appearances. As the Associated Press points out, he is far more hands on than his father ever was. Clearly the regime has been trying to draw parallels between Kim Jong Un and Kim Il Sung based on his hair style and (ahem) weight, and this seems like the logical next step. The following pictures are perhaps the most interesting examples thus far.
The picture on the left, reminiscent of propaganda discussed in B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race (p.106), shows the young Kim consoling two soldiers who are grieving over the loss of his father.[ii] We have also seen the younger Kim show his own emotion at the loss of his father, with pictures of him in tears while standing near his father’s bier.
The pictures below also evoke images from propaganda past (see Myers, p. 123). They essentially state – here is Kim Jong Un, arm and arm with various people, advancing the revolution as his father and grandfather did before him.
While Kim Jong Il may have been featured in this exact pose in propaganda posters, it differs greatly from how he actually performed inspections. Especially near the end of his life he was quite aloof, and he certainly never got this close to others on his inspection tours. This may be the regime’s attempt to show a more personal, and dare I say, warm face of the regime that was lacking during Kim Jong Il’s time.
For this section I will omit the appearances that revolved around Kim Jong Il (i.e. his funeral or tribute to him.) That brings the total number of appearances to fifteen, of these the people who have appeared with Kim Jong Un more than once are the following:
January Visits (No KJI) (15)
|Jang Song Thaek||Vice-chairman of National Defense Commission, Alt. member Politburo, director of Administration Department; Member, CMC; General, KPA|
|Kim Myong Guk||General, KPA; Director of Operation Bureau, KPA General Staff; Member, CMC; Member, CC; Representative, 12th SPA|
|Kim Won Hong||Member of Central Military Commission, Member of Central Committee, General; Commander, Military Security Command|
|Pak Jae Gyong||Vice Minister, Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces; General, KPA; Member, CC; Representative, 12th SPA|
|Kim Yong Chun||Minister of People’s Armed Forces, Vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, Vice-Marshal in KPA, Member of Politburo, member of CMC|
|Pak To Chun||Member of National Defense Commission, Alternate member of Politburo, Secretary of Central Committee, Secretary of Military Industry, Member of Secretariat|
|Ri Yong Ho||Chief of General Staff of KPA, Vice-Marshal of KPA, Member of Presidium of Politburo, Vice-chairman of Central Military Commission|
|Ri Tu Song||KPA Lieutenant General|
|Choe Thae Bok||Chairman of 12th SPA, Member of Politburo, Secretary of Central Committee, Member of Secretariat|
|Kim Jong Gak||Member of the Central Military Commission, Alternate member of Politburo, Member of NDC, KPA General|
|Kim Ki Nam||Member of Politburo, Secretary and Director of Information and Publicity Department, Member of Secretariat|
|Choe Yong Rim||Premier of DPRK, Member of Presidium of Politburo|
|Kang Sok Ju||Vice-Premier of the Cabinet, Member of Politburo|
|Kim Yong Nam||President of Presidium of SPA, Member of Presidium of Politburo|
|U Tong Chuk||First Vice-Minister of State Security Department, Member of National Defense Commission, Alternate member of Politburo, Member of Central Military Commission, KPA Col. General|
|Yang Hyong Sop||Vice-President of the Presidium of 12th SPA, Member of Politburo|
|Hwang Pyong So||Colonel General, Alternate member of the Central Committee, Vice-Department Director of the CC|
|Hyon Chol Hae||Director of National Defense Commission’s Standing Bureau, Deputy to 12th SPA, General in KPA, Member of Central Committee, Vice-Director of Organization Guidance Department|
Jang Song Thaek, unsurprisingly, leads the pack, although his wife, Kim Jong Un’s aunt, is conspicuous by her absence.[iii] Also at the top of the list is Gen. Kim Myong Guk, who was a close ally of Kim Jong Il and Director of the Operations Bureau of the General Staff Department. The bureau is responsible for all operational aspects of the KPA and previously reported directly to Kim Jong Il. Gen. Kim Won Hong, the Director of the Military Security Command, frequently accompanied Kim Jong Il at military events after the September 2010 conference. It is important to note that the Military Security Command is “tasked with monitoring the activities and political loyalties of DPRK military commanders and other KPA officers” and previously also reported directly to Kim Jong Il (notice a theme?).[iv] Gen. Pak Jae Gyong is a Vice Minister within the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, and may have been close with Kim if his history of advancement is any indication. His first known position was in 1980 as Director of the Propaganda Department in the General Political Department (the year Kim Jong Il was formally introduced): he received promotions in 1993, 1994 and 1997, and in 2100 he visited Seoul as a surrogate for Kim and the NDC. Vice Marshal Kim Yong Chun and Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho are self-evidently important, as has been discussed elsewhere. Pak To Chun holds a number of key positions – member of the NDC, member of the Secretariat, alternate member of the Politburo, and Secretary of Military Industry. Perhaps the most interesting going forward is the appearance of Lt. Gen. Ri Tu Song. Ri had previously appeared twice with Kim Jong Il, both times in October of last year. What makes him interesting is that he was promoted to lieutenant general, and mentioned by name, on the same day that Kim Jong Un became a general. That fact, combined with his recent appearances, may be an indication that Ri will play a more important role going forward.
The obvious similarity to Kim Jong Il’s succession is that there has been a clear decision to surround Kim Jong Un with major figures in the regime to signal continuity and acceptance. Where Kim Jong Il was seen with and endorsed by first generation revolutionaries like O Jin U (Minister of People’s Armed Forces) and Choe Gwang (Chief of the KPA General Staff), Kim Yong Chun and Ri Yong Ho have been featured prominently in this succession. The major difference is that Kim Jong Il was seemingly able to bring some of his own men up with him, with Kim Myong Guk and Kim Yong Chun getting promotions at the time, while it may be some period before Kim Jong Un has the same ability.
None of this really sheds a great deal of light on what Kim Jong Un’s or the current regime’s (if they ever felt the need to replace him) chances of survival are. More important is likely to be events outside of the regime’s control – many of which seem to be heading in a more favorable direction. China recently shipped a large amount of aid, apparently to show its support for the new regime.[v] Elections in South Korea will, at the very least, send someone to the Blue House who is more open to engagement, and if the DUP candidate wins you could see a return to the “Sunshine” policy of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. An Obama win in November would also increase the chances of US engagement with the regime as well, especially if that win was accompanied by Democratic gains in the House and Senate. The huge caveat is that, outside of Chinese aid, all of this assumes that the North Koreans don’t engage in provocations which could submarine engagement before it starts. The U.S. and ROK, while remaining appropriately skeptical, will likely take tentative steps towards engagement with the KJU regime when they are ready to negotiate – whether or not North Korea reciprocates will largely determine how 2012 on the Korean peninsula turns out.
[ii] Curtis Melvin also delved into this aspect at the North Korea Economy Watch blog http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2012/01/31/kim-jong-uns-january-2011/
[iii] It is likely that Kim Kyong Hui is observing a mourning period for her brother.
[iv] It is unclear who these organizations report directly too now that Kim Jong Il is gone – the likeliest candidate is Jang Song Thaek.
[v] An important note to this is that it stands in stark contrast to what China did the last time a succession occurred, which also happened to be at the beginning of the Great Famine.