Think over the possibility of the Kim Jong Un government remaining in power for more than, let’s say, the next five years. What are the key issues? First, establish whether you are prepared to cast off the historical baggage of Kim’s father and grandfather’s considerable longevity. If the answer is yes, you may also be ready to conclude that the government of North Korea is not long for this world, at least not in its existing form. And once you reach that point, you’re going to need some evidence to support your position.
…since our information is imperfect and our prejudices manifold, it is easy to find reasons to declare the decisions of the North Korean government spontaneous and strategically questionable
First, you might declare that Kim Jong Un is young. What you mean to imply is that he is impetuous and therefore liable to make decisions without sufficient regard for the political consequences. Blithely revealing a few too many truths about regime structures to visiting American basketball players, for instance, or perhaps supporting the frivolous development of a ski resort. In truth, since our information is imperfect and our prejudices manifold, it is easy to find reasons to declare the decisions of the North Korean government spontaneous and strategically questionable. From there it is only a short (albeit entirely fallacious) leap to the conclusion that the cause of the whole mess is the young Marshal.
Not least because Kim is young and precisely because his government has made seemingly outlandish policy choices since he came to power in late 2011, your second conclusion is likely to be that Kim must be inexperienced. Given a limited period in which to learn the ways of North Korean dictatorial rule and having been in short pants the last time a power transfer of a similar nature took place, you imagine that Kim is stranded like a fish out of water, dragging his corpulent self from KPA bases to scientists’ housing development and back again to no obvious effect.
Kim Hyon-hui touched on these interlinked claims in conversation with an Australian news agency in April last year, declaring:
“Kim Jong Un is too young and too inexperienced. He’s struggling to gain complete control over the military and to win their loyalty. That’s why he’s doing so many visits to military bases; to firm up support.”
Kim could well be right about the military base visits and also the need for greater support from the military in general; that is not up for discussion. But upon what basis does she, and so many others, conclude that the North Korean leader is “inexperienced”?
The repentant bomber of Korean Air Flight 858 has evidently forgotten how old Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were when they seized power: 33 (in 1945) for the former, and as early as 25 for the latter – if you are of the revisionist view that ’67 was the main turning point in his life, or 38 if you prefer to believe that he only began working full-time after the 6th Party Congress of 1980 (the truth, as ever, is probably somewhere in between).
In Kim Jong Un’s case, we know that he was officially selected as successor to Kim Jong Il in January 2009. At that time, a written decision on the matter was handed down by Kim, and Organization and Guidance Department 1st Vice-Director Ri Je Gang (now deceased) apparently set the institutional wheels in motion. Frequently, the elder Kim’s choice is described as following a period of cogitation after a sudden stroke in August of the previous year, a shock event that led to him spending two months out of the public eye and incurring noticeable incapacitation down one side. Given that he was also in the midst of a face off against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a wandering civilian taking an early morning stroll beyond the limits of the Mt. Kumgang Tourist Resort, Kim could be forgiven for feeling fragile and in need of ensuring his legacy.
In any case, the terminal point of this version of events is this: That Kim only received three years of on-the-job training (January 2009-December 2011) and possibly a couple of opportunities to burnish his iron-fisted reputation in the military hierarchy in 2010 before Kim Jong Il shuffled ignominiously off this mortal coil. Lo, he was up the creek without a paddle, out of time and very much out of his depth. In other words: inexperienced.
A MOTHER’S EXAMPLE
However, this is not the whole story. It was the summer of 2002, just a year or so after Kim returned from studying abroad, when the North Korean authorities began earnestly building a cult of personality around Ko Young Hee, third wife and mother to three of Kim Jong Il’s children, including Jong Un.
It ought to go without saying that the construction of idols is a costly endeavor, so there must have been a reason behind the project to elevate (Kim Jong Un’s mother)
A returnee Korean born in Osaka, a former dancer, and bearing the Japanese name Takada Hime, Ko was hardly the ideal candidate for “Mother of Military-First Chosun.” Yet that is exactly what Pyongyang sought to make of her; official documentation declared that “we must all follow and learn from” the woman likened to Kim Jong Suk, Kim Il Sung’s wife and, in the mythos at least, an “exemplary partisan fighter whose loyalty and dedication to the leader were absolute” (see Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chun’s North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics for how cultural representations of Kim Jong Suk established her as such). Further hints of the idolization project abound; for instance, in August 2002 documents published by the military cited Kim Jong Il as greatly appreciating Ko’s unparalleled ability to understand and empathize with the difficulties of leading North Korea in difficult times. Ko was present on most of Kim’s onsite inspections in those days and, according to prominent South Korean expert Cheong Seong-chang and others, was working hard to promote the abilities of her sons in the process.
It ought to go without saying that the construction of idols is a costly endeavor, so there must have been a reason behind the project to elevate Ko. The most politically rational of these is that Kim Jong Il was of the view that his successor would be one of her sons; Jong Cheol, the eldest, or Jong Un. And while it appears to be the case that Kim Jong Il ultimately shut down all elite debate over his successor, possibly out of concern for his own influence and/or the potentially decisive power of certain military officials, that is not to say that he also pressed the reset button on the succession debate going on in his own mind.
(As an aside, according to Cheong there is evidence that for much of the early 2000s Jong Un was not in the driving seat; Jong Cheol was. Looking back upon the decade since the death of his father, Kim Jong Il allegedly told key Party Central Committee and National Defense Commission officials in the dying days of 2003 that although the previous 10 years had been arduous, they “taught us of the righteousness of Songun leadership.” He is said to have ended by instructing all present to protect Jong Cheol as they would the leader himself. The documents have not been independently verified.)
As early as 2003, the year of his (Korean- and Japanese-language) book Kim Jong Il’s Chef, Japanese chef Fujimoto Kenji was asking, publicly, “Is the successor the second son, Prince Jong Un?” By 2006 the familial competition was over. Returning to Cheong’s comprehensive historical review of the period in The Contemporary North Korean Politics, we find that Kim Jong Il had become convinced that Jong Un, who was then studying at Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang, was the most impressive of his male children. The young and “inexperienced” one was seemingly in the driving seat.
How do these revisions affect our understanding of Kim as a leader? It should give pause, at least. Quite apart from the fact that Kim is also surrounded, protected, advised, maybe even led by a team of veteran officials with its core in the leading agencies of the Workers’ Party, it means that Jong Un was on his father’s radar from at least the turn of the century. If a week is a long time in politics, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson may or may not once have said, then what about a decade?