Monday, September 06, 2010

Setting the Stage for a Successor

Here's another nominee for "most under-reported story" during the month of August. It received scant attention in the U.S. press, but it has vast implications for our defense policies and diplomatic efforts in northeast Asia.

In case you haven't guessed, the event we refer to is Kim Jong-il's recent visit to China. The reclusive North Korean leader rarely leaves his homeland, fearing a possible coup in his absence. When he travels abroad, it's typically a short trip to the PRC, always by train. The Dear Leader apparently figures its harder to blow up a train than shoot down a plane, although there was a major blast at a rail crossing near the DPRK-China border in 2004, just hours after Mr. Kim passed through the area.

So, it was big news when Kim Jong-il traveled to Beijing earlier this year, and arguably, an even bigger story when he returned to China late last month. The reason? To discuss plans for transferring power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. From the Australian paper The Age:

The senior Kim's visit to northeast China late last month was seen partly as a preparation for change.

During a meeting with President Hu Jintao, Kim stressed the need to prepare for the "rising generation". He visited a series of sites linked to his late father, a guerrilla fighter against Japan's 20th-century colonisation of Korea and northeast China.

Analysts saw this as a bid to confer legitimacy on another father-to-son power transfer.

But public scepticism is growing about the prospect, according to a South Korean welfare group with cross-border contacts.

"Ordinary people in the country are not interested in the father-to-son transfer of power," Lee Seung-Yong, director of the Good Friends group, told AFP last week.

"They think their living standards will not improve even if the son inherits power."

Many senior party officials are also sceptical about Jong-Un given his youth and inexperience, Lee said.

There are also rumors that the younger Kim accompanied his father on the latest China trip, but those claims have not been confirmed. Kim Jong-il's attempt to transfer legitimacy (and power) to his son may also provide clues regarding the health of the North Korean leader. He suffered a serious stroke in August 2008, and remained out of public view for months. Putting Kim Jong-un on the "fast track" for leadership may indicate that his father's health is worsening and Kim Jong-il wants to prepare his son for leadership before he dies or becomes incapacitated.

But it will take more than public proclamations and a nod from Beijing to complete the transfer of power. By the time Kim Jong-il assumed power in 1994, he had been groomed for the job for more than two decades by his father, Kim Il-sung. Sixteen years later, Kim Jong-un has yet to hold a key post in the DPRK power structure, although that may be changing as well.

State-run media in Pyongyang have reported that the elder Kim will convene a meeting of communist party delegates in the near future. While no dates have been given, U.S. and South Korean experts believe the delegates convention may begin as early as this week. Such meetings are rare in the DPRK (the last was held in 1966), and they have been used in the past to rework the ruling hierarchy.

As with all matters relating to North Korea, the upcoming conference is shrouded in secrecy. Analysts are split as to whether Kim Jong-un will be given a key position at the meeting, and if the appointment will be announced publicly.

This much is certain: the younger Kim's path to power is more complex than the one faced by his father. Kim Jong-il's powerful brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, is expected to gain more power at the delegates meeting, a sign that he may act as a regent in the leadership transfer process. Senior generals are expected to assume greater roles as well, raising questions about Kim Jong-un's ability to gain the trust and support of that important clique in assuming the mantle of power.

Believed to be in his late 20s, Kim Jong-un is roughly 25 years younger than his father was when he took control of the DPRK. And, while North Korea's economy was hardly robust in the 1990s, conditions today are far worse. Thousands of refugees have fled across the border to China, risking death if they are caught and sent back to the North Korea. Anti-regime graffiti also appeared in Pyongyang last year, a remarkable development in a police state where all media is state-controlled and individual citizens have virtually no access to the outside world.

The early betting line suggests the younger Kim may preside over the collapse of the Stalinist government--one reason (perhaps) that he was educated in Switzerland and still has lots of cash squirreled away in that country. But it would also be a mistake to under-estimate the DPRK's ability to muddle through.

During a tour as a U.S. military intelligence officer in the Far East almost 20 years ago, I remember reading an analysis of a ROK "White Paper" on expected threats facing Seoul in the year 2010. At the top of that list were Japan and China. North Korea wasn't even mentioned. It was the consensus of South Korean experts that the DPRK would cease to exist within two decades--a view widely shared in the U.S. intelligence community.

Clearly we were wrong about Pyongyang's gift for survival. Still, it will be much more difficult for Kim Jong-un to defy the odds this time around.

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