Kim Jong-il’s death perforce marks a turning point in modern Korean history. Not since Douglas MacArthur’s push toward the Yalu has the future of the North Korean regime been as uncertain as it is today.
To be sure: North Korea has looked to be on the precipice more than once in living memory. Indeed, North Korea has seemed to be on the verge of war with America and our allies time and again over the past half century. But we should understand those episodic crises for what they truly were: manufactured incidents by which Pyongyang’s rulers methodically extract benefits and concessions from their international adversaries. North Korea’s leaders are past masters of brinkmanship: unlike us, they are quite at home in the diplomatic stratosphere of DEFCON-3, and indeed seem to enjoy a comparative advantage in these high-tension realms. In reality, these recurrent dramas have not called into question the future of the North Korean state. By contrast, Kim Jong-il’s death does.
Why? Because the late patriarch of this totalitarian dynasty never bothered to make the sorts of preparations that would have maximized the regime’s odds of a successful transfer of hereditary power after the Dear Leader’s own departure from the scene. Unlike his father, DPRK founder Kim Il-sung, who took great care to engineer the dynastic transition that elevated Kim Jong-il to absolute rule, Kim Jong-il never troubled himself with the business of training a successor or helping him consolidate support.
Consider: when Great Leader Kim Il-sung was 68 years old (1980), princeling Kim Jong- il had been in training for a decade, had no remaining competitors for claim to the royal mantle, and would enjoy the next fourteen years of nominal paternal supervision under which to perfect his mastery of control.
By contrast, when Kim Jong-il turned 68 (2009), he was not only severely enfeebled (struggling to recover from a devastating stroke), but had yet officially to tap a successor, much less make any preparations for seasoning an heir apparent. It was only the following year that he unveiled his twenty-something son, Kim Jong-un, as the de facto next in line to his throne, awarding the military novice a four-star generalship, a seat on the Party’s Central Committee, and a vice-chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in a week of public fanfare in the fall of 2010. A little over a year later, Kim Jong-il was dead and Kim Jong-un was the country’s third-ever supreme leader—ready or not.
To make matters still more hazardous for Pyongyang’s untested “Young General”, both his aunt (Kim Kyong Hui) and uncle (Jang Song Thaek) are today stars in their own right within North Korea’s constellation of power. They may be charged with providing counsel to the Young General and helping him grow into office—but in Korea’s long history there is a troubling tendency for regencies to end as regicides.
Bear in mind as well that the Young General’s first grand act of state (after presiding over his father’s funeral committee) is guaranteed to be a colossal failure. This will be officiating over the long-planned 2012 celebrations (coinciding with his grandfather’s 100th birthday), at which North Korea will formally accede to the soi disant status of a “powerful and prosperous state”. It will be hard for even the most enthusiastic revelers at this affair not to notice that the country is impoverished, hungry and wretched—in fact, far worse off by many benchmarks than in Grandfather’s time. And also immeasurably worse off than citizens in neighboring countries: given the increasing penetration of information from abroad, North Korea’s subjects are increasingly in a position to draw just those sorts of comparisons.
Traditional dynasties in Asia, Europe and elsewhere have sometimes lasted for centuries. In the modern world, by contrast, there is as yet no example of a dictatorship that has lasted three generations. North Korea’s seems unlikely to emerge as the first.