As the Kim Jong Un (KJU) regime completes its tenth month in power following KJI’s death in December 2011, key differences between how this succession is being carried out and how it was carried out in 1994 are becoming ever clearer.
Using new data highlighted by the NK Leadership Tracker,, it is clear that the KJU succession process has proceeded at a much more rapid pace than it did for Kim Jong Il (KJI). Excluding the December 2011 appearances when KJU visited KJI’s bier, the new North Korean leader has now made 118 appearances in nine and a half months. By comparison, as KJI spearheaded a three-year national mourning period, he made just 88 appearances total between July 1994 – December 1996.
Using data from the NK Leadership Tracker,, this report describes other differences between the successions, possible reasons for them, and prospects going forward. This report details the background of each succession process, examines which elites were most important to the two leaders (using on-the-spot guidance inspection data), and looks at which individuals rose and fell (and who died) during the respective periods.
In addition, the report takes a close look at the reemergence of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) under KJU, the growing visibility of the security services, and what both might mean going forward.
- KJI only made 88 appearances in the first three years after Kim Il Sung’s death, while KJU has already made (as of October 15th) 118 appearances.
- Though most analysts expected KJU’s succession to be trickier than KJI’s due to the significantly lower time window for preparations (KJI had nearly twenty years vs. KJU’s two or three), the succession environment appears to have been much friendlier to KJU.
- The numbers seem to confirm reports in recent months that talked a lot about a resurgent Workers’ Party of Korea, with Party officials much more frequently accompanying KJU than military officials.
- The security forces have taken on a much greater public role during KJU’s succession than during KJI’s, likely to snuff out any potential dissent within the military and general public.
The KJI Succession (1994-1996)
The groundwork for the KJI (KJI) succession was laid for nearly twenty years before he formally took power. KJI was first mentioned in the North Korean press in the 1970s, but was referred to ominously as the “party center.” However, his first true public introduction was in 1980 when he appeared at the Sixth Party Congress and was given a number of important party positions. Eventually, as Kim Il Sung (KIS) aged and declined in health, KJI began to take over the day-to-day affairs of running North Korea, and became Supreme Commander of the armed forces in 1992.
Despite all of the preparations, the regime was not fully prepared for Kim Il Sung’s sudden death on July 8, 1994. There were eleven days between the death and actual funeral, supposedly to allow for the public to fully express their grief, but possibly also because the regime needed to establish exactly what message they wanted to convey.
As Ken Gause discusses in North Korea under Kim Chong-il, there were two major (but related) splits that KJI had to overcome as he took power: 1) a generational split between the old revolutionaries that fought alongside KIS in the early days and the newer army officials who KJI had grown close to, and 2) a hierarchical split that had existed for a number of years due to both figures having their own lines of communication and power.
Failure to adequately deal with either hurdle could have doomed KJI’s succession process before it even started. As such, he approached both points cautiously, keeping in place much of the old guard while consolidating his own rule through appointments of loyalists at lower levels. After the death of O Jin U, who had been Minister of the People’s Armed Forces for almost two decades, KJI replaced him with Choe Kwang (at that time Chief of the KPA General Staff), another old timer. However, he replaced Choe with a relative unknown, Kim Yong Chun, who had risen through the ranks rapidly (reportedly after putting down a coup attempt by the VI Corps).
Compounding problems for KJI, his succession also came at a particularly difficult time for North Korea. Though the first nuclear crisis had been peacefully settled with the Agreed Framework, the famine (also called the “Arduous March” in North Korea) was just beginning.
In this period, the Party and State institutions that were responsible for economic decision-making and food distribution essentially stopped functioning effectively. KJI, who preferred to rule through informal networks in any case, therefore turned to the only body that seemed capable of responding – the military. Along with the nuclear crisis, the famine was a major catalyst for the songun (military-first) policy that would eventually take hold.
The KJU Succession
The KJU succession began in earnest following KJI’s reported stroke in August 2008. It was after this point that a large number of reshuffles were carried out and when the younger Kim reportedly started accompanying his father on inspection tours (though he was not publicly identified for some time).
KJU’s formal introduction to the public came in September 2010 at the Third Party Conference, which was the first major party meeting in 30 years. Though his only party post was Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), at this event he was also named a four-star General and was reported to be working closely with the Ministry of State Security.
After this point he appeared frequently with KJI until the latter’s death last December. There was an eleven-day period between his death and the funeral, the same as with Kim Il Sung, and (as many remarked at the time) the funeral ceremony was remarkably similar in style to the KIS funeral.
There are two major differences in how the successions have unfolded. First, the KJU succession is moving at a much more advanced pace compared to his father’s. As mentioned before, KJU has already made far more public appearances in eight months than his father made in his first two and a half years. Additionally, the mourning period was officially one hundred days as opposed to three years. Finally, KJU acquired the functional equivalent of his father’s titles four months after KJI’s death, and did so through formal means at the Fourth Party Conference and meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly in April of this year. KJI, on the other hand, became General Secretary of the WPK in October 1997 by Central Committee and Central Military Committee decree.
Second, and likely related, the regime is facing nothing like the crises that racked the country from 1994-1996. Harsh sanctions remain in place, but the country has adapted and actually experienced modest growth last year. Relations with China are much improved since the mid-1990s and give the regime a buffer against something like the famine reoccurring. Furthermore, the security situation has improved since the regime built a nuclear deterrent to complement its conventional deterrent.
This section will detail the elites who appeared with both KJI and KJU most frequently (over 20% of the time) during the two post-succession periods. It gives one a good, though by no means complete, idea of who was being featured prominently at the time, as well as their positions (and any promotions that they received during this time).
–> indicates the elite was promoted from lower rank to higher during this time
KPA = Korean People’s Army
GPB = General Political Bureau
GSD = General Staff Department
CMC = Central Military Commission
NDC = National Defense Commission
KJI (July 1994-December 1996) – Elites Who Appeared Over 20%
|Kim Ki Nam||Party||Secretary (Propaganda); Director (Unknown Department)||47||53%|
|Kye Ung Thae||Party||Secretary (Security); Politburo (Alternate)||40||45%|
|Choe Thae Bok||Party||Secretary (Education); Director (Education); Politburo (Alternate)||40||45%|
|Pak Jae Gyong||Mil.||KPA Col. General; KPA GPB Propaganda Chief||40||45%|
|Jo Myong Rok||Mil.||KPA General–> Vice Marshal; Air Force Commander –> KPA GPB Director||36||41%|
|Kim Yong Sun||Party||Secretary (International); SPA Unification Committee Chair||36||41%|
|Kim Kuk Thae||Party||Secretary (Cadre); Director (Cadre)||34||39%|
|Ri Ha Il||Mil.||KPA General –> Vice Marshal; CMC Member; NDC Member||32||36%|
|Kim Ha Gyu||Mil.||KPA Col. General –> General; Artillery commander||30||34%|
|Choe Kwang||Mil.||KPA Marshal; Chief of the KPA General Staff–> Minister of People’s Armed Forces||28||32%|
|Kim Myong Guk||Mil.||KPA General; KPA Deputy Chief of General Staff (Operations Division Chief); CMC Member||26||30%|
|Hyon Chol Hae||Mil.||KPA Col. General –> General; KPA GPB Director (Organization)||24||27%|
|Kim Kwang Jin||Mil.||KPA Vice Marshal; First Vice Minister of People’s Armed Forces; NDC Member||23||26%|
|Ri Ul Sol||Mil.||KPA Vice Marshal –> Marshal; NDC Member; CMC Member; Guard Commander||22||25%|
|Kim Jung Rin||Party||Secretary (Worker’s Orgs)||20||23%|
|Kim Yong Chun||Mil.||KPA General –> Vice Marshal; KPA GS Director (Logistics)–> KPA GS Chief||20||23%|
|Total: Party (6), Military (10)|
Out of the 16 most frequent accompaniers, 10 were military and the rest held high-level positions within the WPK. Three things are notable from the table:
1) The beginning of a shift towards the military is visible (and notably a shift towards the next generation military, as opposed to the old revolutionaries). Though KJI was cautious in appointing 1.5 / 2nd / 3rd generation military men to the high level positions, nine of his most frequent accompaniers were from this own group, while two (Choe Kwang and Ri Ul Sol) were first generation revolutionaries.
2) The two most frequent accompaniers during this period were the WPK members responsible for propaganda (Kim Ki Nam) and security (Kye Ung Thae), two areas that were critical to a successful succession.
3) There are no state officials at the top of this list (the first one who is classified as such is Yang Hyong Sop at 19th most frequent). State officials and institutions, not counting the NDC, were simply not a priority at this point.
KJU (January 2012 – July 2012) – Elites Who Appeared over 20%
|Jang Song Thaek||Party||Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Full); NDC Vice Chairman; CMC Member; Director (Administration)||73||62%|
|Choe Ryong Hae||Party||Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Presidium); NDC Member; CMC Member –> CMC Vice Chairman; KPA GPD Director; KPA General –> Vice Marshal; Secretary||62||53%|
|Kim Ki Nam||Party||Politburo (Full); Secretary (Propaganda); Director (Propaganda)||38||32%|
|Ri Yong Ho||Mil.||Former Politburo (Presidium); Former KPA GSD Chief; Former CMC Vice Chairman; Former Vice Marshal||35||30%|
|Kim Jong Gak||Mil.||KPA GPB First Vice Director –> Minister of People’s Armed Forces; KPA General –> Vice Marshal; NDC Member; CMC Member; Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Full)||34||29%|
|Pak To Chun||Party||KPA Col. General –> General; NDC Member; Politburo (Full); Secretary (Military Industry)||34||29%|
|Hyon Chol Hae||Mil.||KPA General –> Vice Marshal; Politburo (Full); First Vice Minister and concurrently Director of the General Logistics Bureau of the People’s Armed Forces; CMC Member||32||27%|
|Kim Won Hong||Mil.||Politburo (Full); NDC Member; CMC Member; MSS Director; KPA General||28||24%|
|Kim Yong Chun||Mil.||Vice Marshal; MPAF –> Director (Civil Defense Department); Politburo (Full); NDC Vice Chairman; CMC Member||28||24%|
|Kim Kyong Hui||Party||KPA General; Politburo (Full); Director (Light Industry) –> Director (Unknown); Secretary (Organization)||27||23%|
|Choe Yong Rim||State||Politburo (Presidium); Premier||26||22%|
|Kim Yang Gon||Party||Politburo (Alternate); Secretary; Director (United Front)||24||20%|
|Pak Jae Gyong||Mil.||KPA General; MPAF Deputy Director||24||20%|
|Total: Party (6), Military (6), State (1)|
As one would expect, the variety of those accompanying KJU are more balanced than under his father. Two notable observations:
- These numbers certainly lend more credence to the theory that there is a Jang Song Thaek – Choe Ryong Hae alliance. Choe has also made a number of his own visits since being named Director of the KPA General Political Bureau.
- Two of the top military accompaniers – Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chun –have respectively been removed and demoted. As is well known, Ri was removed in July from all his positions for “illness,” though it is more likely he was purged. Kim Yong Chun was removed from his position as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces and instead became director of the WPK Civil Defense Department – an indication that his stock has dropped significantly. The numbers show a definite shift occurring since May began– before May Ri appeared with KJU 31 times, while Kim appeared 23 times (out of 57 total appearances). The story is drastically different once May began – 4 times for Ri and 5 for Kim Yong Chun (out of 61). By contrast, the splits for Jang and Choe are 32/41 and 24/38 respectively.
Promotions, Purges and Deaths
There were a few promotions during the early KJI years, but none were related to party or state institutions; instead, they were all related to the military or security apparatuses. The most important promotion emerged due to O Jin U’s death in February 1995.
As mentioned, KJI promoted Choe Kwang from Chief of the KPA General Staff to Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, while Kim Yong Chun went from being a director of logistics in the General Staff Department to Chief of the KPA General Staff. Jo Myong Rok, who would play a major role going forward, was then promoted from Commander of the KPA Air Force to Director of the General Political Bureau. Pak Ki So became commander of the important Pyongyang Defense Command. Jang Song U, brother of Jang Song Thaek, became a Deputy Director in the Guards Command (and may have essentially run the Command in place of Ri Ul Sol.) Furthermore, there were a number of promotions in the military ranks handed out by KJI.
By contrast, the promotions under KJU have also included party and state institutions. Thirteen elites were either added to the Politburo or promoted from alternate to full member or alternate to presidium member. Four were added to the NDC and five added or promoted on the CMC. There were also significant promotions in the military / security apparatuses. Kim Won Hong became Minister of State Security, Kim Jong Gak Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, Hyon Yong Chol Chief of the KPA General Staff and Choe Ryong Hae Director of the KPA General Political Bureau. There were also obligatory orders raising military rank for a number of elites.
Again, the main takeaway here is that the state and party institutions that languished for many years under KJI have been revitalized since his stroke, and received an additional shot in the arm under KJU.
Purges / Deaths
The first three years of KJI’s rule were relatively free of purges at the top level, though some occurred at lower levels in the security agencies. The only major events along these lines were the death of O Jin U in February 1995 and the deaths of Choe Kwang and Kim Kwang Jin in February 1997, as well as the defection of Hwang Jang Yop in the same month.
The same cannot be said for the first few months of KJU’s tenure. There have been no major deaths within the regime as faced by KJI; however, quite a few members have been publicly and privately removed. Most important was the aforementioned Ri Yong Ho, but April also saw the removal of a number of Politburo members (both full and alternate). This includes: Jon Pyong Ho (Secretary of the Politburo), Pyon Yong Rip (SPA Chairman), Ri Thae Nam (Vice Premier), and Kim Rak Hui (Vice Premier). Thae Jong Su, who was previously a member of the Secretariat and Director of the General Affairs Department was demoted to Chief Secretary of the South Hamgyong Province. (Note: some of these moves were due to age and should not strictly be thought of as purges.
In addition, there has been a large turnover of ministry and provincial officials including Pak Myong Chol (Minister of Physical Sports, who was reportedly close to KJI), Han Kwang Bok (Minister of Electronics Industry) and Ri Kyong Sik (Minister of Agriculture). U Tong Chuk, who was First Vice Director of State Security was also removed from the Politburo, NDC and CMC; however, it remains unclear if he was purged, fell ill or is still in power but had his institutional roles taken over by Kim Wong Hong who is now head of MSS.
The Rise of the WPK
The major story of KJU’s first eight months in power is the re-emergence of the WPK. Below is a comparison of elite appearances made during the periods under examination (for KJI July 12, 1994 – December 31, 1996, for KJU January 1, 2012 until October 15, 2012.) The numbers below were created by making a list of every elite who appeared with KJI and KJU during their respective periods, assigning them to a particular primary category (party, military / security, state or provincial), and then tallying the total number of appearances each elite in that particular category made. The percentage is derived from dividing the category number by the total number.
The numbers below show that military figures appeared 42% and 54% of the time with KJI and KJU respectively. However, as Stephan Haggard and this author have pointed out, classifying elites under KJU is not quite as simple as it used to be, especially when it comes to the military. There are a number of elites given military rankings – up to Vice Marshal – who have no real military background, but are essentially civilians in military clothing. As can be seen in the figure below, there is a major difference in the story the data tells based on how one classifies. If one classifies based purely on holding a military ranking, it seems like the military has actually gained prominence under KJU. But if one classifies more accurately, it is clear that party members – based on public appearances – are appearing much more frequently with KJU.
The evidence gets stronger once the KJU numbers are broken down by month, as shown in Figure 2. Here the party and military actually track fairly closely, right up until the beginning of May, at which point a huge divergence becomes apparent.
Following the April 2012 Party Conference, Aidan Foster-Carter wrote that Choe Ryong Hae’s appointment as Director of the KPA General Political Bureau was “a bid to reassert Party control over a military which under KJI rather ruled the roost.” This data gives credence to that hypothesis. Paired with the fact that two of the most influential military men, Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chun, were either removed or demoted as well, and there is a clear pattern emerging.
For comparison purposes, one can look at a breakdown of KJI’s appearances, although due to the more spread out nature of his appearances, these are done by half-years instead of months. This breakdown also fits in well with what is now known about the military’s rise, though admittedly it bounces around much more.
Emergence of the Security Services
Another thing that differentiates the KJI and KJU successions is the greater public prominence of the security services, namely the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Minister of People’s Security (MPS), Guard Command (GC) and Military Security Command (MSC) (the Korean People’s Internal Security Force, which is a part of the MPS, has also been fairly prominent). For a great overview of the history and mission of each of these agencies see Ken Gause’s piece at HRNK.
The below graph compares security members based on the percentage they appeared (out of total elite appearances). It also shows what percentage of the military / security category figure they made up. (KJI’s numbers are in blue, KJU’s in red)
The heads of these security organizations have also been well-placed in the relevant party and state institutions.
Politburo (29 members)
CMC (19 members)
NDC (12 members)
|Kim Won Hong (MSS)||Kim Won Hong (MSS)||Kim Won Hong (MSS)|
|Ri Myong Su (MPS)||Yun Jong Rin (GC)||Ri Myong Su (MPS)|
|Kim Chang Sop(MSS – Political Bureau)||Ri Myong Su (MPS)|
|Ri Pyong Sam (KPISF – Political Bureau)|
Total = 14%
Total = 16%
Total = 17%
It should also be pointed out that Jang Song Thaek, who oversees party control of these organizations through his position as Director of the Administration Department, sits on all three institutions.
How does this fit into a shift towards greater party control and a shift away from the military-first policy? Because the security organizations will all play an essential role in ensuring the military does not become a source of dissent. They may also see a chance to increase their own stature, especially as money that was once allocated specifically to the military is freed up. In addition, a Yonhap article from October quoted an unnamed source in Seoul who speculated that the security forces would be called upon in case there was unrest when economic reforms were ultimately implemented.
It is fairly clear that the KJU succession has been undertaken in a far different way from his father’s. While most analysts were skeptical that an untested 28 (or 29) year old could successfully take control, from the outside (an important qualifier when talking about North Korea) it seems like he has successfully begun the process of consolidating power. He was aided in this process greatly by the security and economic situation, both of which were not nearly as tumultuous as when his father took over. Another overlooked aspect is that many of the same people running this succession were around for the last one, including Kim Ki Nam (propaganda), Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek, It seems likely that they learned a great deal from their previous experience and have used that to their advantage in carrying out this succession. The result has been far smoother than anyone expected. However, whether or not this “smoothness” can translate into meaningful change within the country is anyone’s guess.
Gause, Kenneth E. Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State. Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012.
Gause, Kenneth E. . North Korea under Kim Chong-Il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International 2011.
Kim, Insoo, and Min Yong Lee. “Predictors of Kim Jong-Il’s on-the-Spot Guidance under Military-First Politics.” North Korean Review 8, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 93-104.
North Korea Leadership Watch. www.nkleadershipwatch.com
Korean Institute for National Unification. KJI Hyunjijido Donghyang 1994-2011
(Analysis of KJI’s Appearances)
Ministry of Unification. http://unibook.unikorea.go.kr/?sub_num=54&sty=I&ste=%A4%A1.