The Boy Who Would Be King
Can Kim III Last?

Interview with Sung-Yoon Lee
December 28, 2011

Following the death of Kim Jong-il, attention is now on his youngest son and heir Kim Jong-un. Can the third Kim in this dynastic succession control the fragile country? Will he continue his predecessor’s bellicose behavior? Sung-Yoon Lee considers these questions and what a leadership change in Pyongyang would mean for the region.

The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on December 17 has the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. In Julius Caesar, Cassius, one of the conspirators in the assassination of the man once known as “dictator in perpetuity,” declares upon Caesar’s fall, “Why, he that cuts off twenty years of his life/ Cuts off so many years of fearing death.” That the North Korean “Caesar” succumbed to his own mortality long before he was able to fully groom his son and heir, Jong-un, may be an omen for the boy who would be king: a premature encounter—by twenty years or more—with death and, as a result, a merciful respite from prolonged paranoia about mutiny.

What likely comes next in the surreal kingdom of the Kims will not resemble the real world of Caesar, but will be a series of aggressive measures, both internal and external, in an attempt to consolidate Kim Jong-un’s flimsy credentials. Today’s stakeholders in the Kim regime have a strong incentive to retain the same privileges tomorrow. Hence, they will likely support Kim Jong-il’s chosen one in the short run and advocate for what has worked well in the past—repression at home and extortion from abroad. This means reinforced control over the basic freedoms of the North Korean people and military provocations against South Korea and the United States in the coming year.

2012 is long claimed to be an annus mirabilis for North Korea. The impoverished country will suddenly transform into a “powerful and prosperous state” by the sole virtue that it is dynasty founder Kim Il-sung’s centenary birth year. North Korea has compelling reasons to resume its “provoke and get paid” strategy during the year. Kim Jong-un will be anxious to bid farewell to 2011, a veritable annus horibilis, when the regime gained no substantial aid from South Korea or the U.S. and lost its chieftain. He will be strongly motivated to establish himself as a leader in his own right, and history suggests the best way to bolster hereditary legitimacy and military prowess is to resort to calculated provocations against risk-averse neighbors.

The real question is whether the new Kim has the cruelty and cunning, qualities that his father and grandfather Kim Il-sung possessed in plenty, to preserve in the long run the essential engine of the destitute dynasty he inherits. As his powerful supporters at present, such as Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-taek and army chief of general staff Ri Yong-ho, fade from the political stage 10–15 years from now, will North Korea’s third generation Great Leader have the guile to maintain the steadfast loyalty of the new generation of power elites, with their thin personal ties to the halcyon days of Great Leader I, or even Great Leader II? With the North Korean economy long in decay, and under present conditions, enduring prospects for the young Kim are grim.

Admittedly, it is within the realm of possibility that Kim Jong-un may yet prove to be a shrewd leader and stay in power for the next half century. But what stands in the way of a long reign by Kim III is the basic internal dynamic of the Korean peninsula: two Korean states facing each other in a relatively small geographical arena, vying for pan-Korean legitimacy. It has been painfully clear to North Korea since at least the mid-1970s who the winner of this rivalry is, and the glaring gap between the North and the South in all conventional indices of state power will only grow in the coming years. The acute economic disparity alone—per capita income in the South more than 40 times that in the North—gives the North Korean leadership cause for permanent neurosis.

Within the next decade or, at most, two, history will come to record North Korea under Kim Jong-un as a brief interregnum, followed by, most likely, the rise of a constitutional, free, Korean republic encompassing the entire Korean peninsula.

But, for now, North Korea will go on as it has for the past six decades, content to be the world’s most cultish, repressive state, employing the same old tactics at home and abroad of solipsistic isolation and strategic provocation, and rallying around he who was thrust upon them—”Great Successor” Kim Jong-un.

“Military-Second” Politics

Among the more pervasive misperceptions about North Korea to emerge in recent years is the notion of “collective leadership” after Kim Jong-il and that the military will be the locus of power in the Kim Jong-un regime. Related to the latter is the notion that internal division between the hawkish, nationalistic military and the dovish, internationalist reformists will be a key factor to watch out for. Each misperception is the result of misplaced conventions and norms that have little relevance to the “uniquely unique” North Korean system.

North Korea—or Korea, for that matter—has no history of collective leadership or power-sharing. This preference for deliberation and consensus-seeking is a tendency quite prominent in Japan’s past, but is one entirely alien to the unitary power structure of Korean politics, which resembles, to use a term popularized by Gregory Henderson, a vortex. While the Korean monarchs of the past may not have enjoyed absolute power, they did have the final say on essential state affairs. In the modern era, the model of “imperial presidency” has been deeply entrenched in South Korea, as well. In fact, it is evident even in the democratic South today.

North Korea has taken this unitary actor model to an extreme and virtually perfected it. No other state in human history comes close to the Kim dynasty in its degree of totalitarian control and monopolization of power. Kim Jong-il, like his father before him, was the state. Kim Jong-un, as long as his decrepit state still maintains basic function, also will have the final word on matters of absolute priority like nuclear politics and strategy vis-à-vis Washington and Seoul. He will, out of necessity, rely on his regents and confidantes for advice. But the locus of power will be firmly placed in the sole individual sanctioned to bear the mantle of the Kim family cult. In sum, a “collective leadership” or a “military clique” that exercises influence over the new Kim and at times challenges him is highly unlikely in the short term.

Admittedly, since the 1990s, Kim Jong-il gave the military a more visible political role. What’s more, North Korea is the most militarized country in the world in terms of the rate of population participation in military service and defense spending as a share of the national budget. However, the North Korean military has always remained under the control of the Kim family line and the Workers’ Party of Korea. For example, personnel matters, like promotions and new appointments within North Korea’s top brass, are made by the party instead of within the military. While the military will continue to play a critical role in Kim Jong-un’s strategy of brinkmanship vis-a-vis Seoul and Washington as a crucial source of economic and political dividends, in the short term, it is very unlikely to challenge or subvert the Kim Jong-un regime.

The Case for Status Quo?

Seoul has long grown averse to escalating tension with Pyongyang. South Korea’s tremendous accretion of wealth over the past generation and nearly six decades of de facto peace since the end of the Korean War make a North-South stand-off a most unattractive political prospect. Hence, the Lee Myung-bak administration likely will take a wait-and-see posture and do its best to avoid confrontation with Kim III as it braces for a general election in April 2012 and a presidential election in December.

While the South Korean public may have taken umbrage with North Korea for its two attacks against the South in 2010, it hardly supports an open flare-up with Pyongyang. Quite to the contrary, the younger generation of South Koreans blame the Lee government for perceived deterioration in North-South relations and, in almost any circumstance, will not support military operation against the North or even non-military efforts to destabilize the North Korean regime. Kim Jong-un, intensively tutored by Dear Daddy, knows this vulnerability well. He will likely play on such fears and employ a strategy of limited attacks/provocations and peace offensives to extract as much as possible.

Commonsense might dictate that the new, untested Kim would avoid confrontation with his neighbors and would be unlikely to resort to provocations as he braces for major celebrations commemorating the birthdays of his late father on February 16 and grandfather on April 15. However, North Korea is no conventional state. It is bankrupt, with little means outside the sales of weapons technology and counterfeits to generate revenue. Once again, as North Korea muddles through its second decade of severe food shortage, the considerably richer and freer Korea across its southern border increasingly beckons its own citizens.

Quo Vadis, Kim III?

Over the past twenty years, provocations in the form of ballistic missile tests and nuclear brinkmanship have proven the steadiest means of receiving much needed economic aid from South Korea, the United States, and China. Each supports the status quo in the Korean peninsula—the prevention of regime collapse in Pyongyang—and is keen on not provoking the Kim leadership. Their preference has been to play defense against Pyongyang’s offense and forgo the right to play offense. Therefore, it is more than likely that Kim III will follow in Kim II’s footsteps and provoke Seoul and Washington with another ballistic missile or nuclear test early next year. In the past, Pyongyang has faced no negative repercussion for such acts. In fact, on the contrary, the repercussions have rather been remarkably positive—positive in terms of new and bigger concessions streaming into Pyongyang’s palace economy.

Et Tu, Xi Jinping?

Change in the aftermath of the death of a dominant leader is possible in democracies and dictatorships alike. The death of Stalin and Mao brought new opportunities and a move away from menacing cultish solipsism and, in the case of China, toward reform and opening. However, North Korea is built on the foundation of the cult of personality. By its geographic location, the Kim kingdom is also fated to engage in an ever-losing competition with South Korea, one of the world’s fifteen largest economies. For Kim Jong-un, opening his borders would likely be a death sentence as long as South Korea, with its promise of freedom and material wealth, exists as an alternative Korea to his citizens. Moreover, for Kim to embark on a Deng Xiaoping-like economic policy would effectively repudiate the state ideology he inherits and the genealogic legacy he needs for survival. Reform and opening along Chinese lines are therefore not apt as long as the leadership in Pyongyang is represented by Kim III or—as unlikely a prospect as it is—Kim IV, or, for that matter, Kim∞.

The low probability of North Korean regime collapse from a military coup in the short-term ironically increases the possibility of North Korean state collapse in the long-term. If an insurrection were to occur, it would probably be put down with relative ease by forces loyal to Kim Jong-un. However, the shock waves of such an unprecedented breach of regime loyalty in a hitherto rebellion-free country would reverberate throughout the entire political architecture. The forces of disequilibrium thus unleashed would have ramifications far surpassing the immediate impact of the event.

For one, the Kim clan’s burden of regime preservation would become even greater and would require more precious human and economic resources to prevent the recurrence of such an event. While the chief means to enforce this would be through a combination of tightened terror and reinforced allurements for the enforcers, the regime’s resources are already strained in extremis. In recent years, the regime’s ability to control the population through fear has eroded at accelerated pace. Its once enviable ability to retain the loyalty of its stakeholders has noticeably declined, as more and more North Korean elites have joined the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who have fled the country.

Breaking this taboo would also affect China’s interests in North Korea’s leadership. China does not favor a chronic unstable environment or the recurrence of mutiny in Pyongyang. Even if Kim Jong-un were to stay in power, the new generation of Chinese leadership represented by Xi Jinping would likely view that China’s geostrategic interests in Northeast Asia lie in the Korean peninsula rather than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Sixty years ago, the DPRK’s preservation was of vital national interest for the revolutionary Mao leadership. Today, and increasingly tomorrow, what matters most is to preserve peace and stability in the region to allow for continued economic growth. The surest conditions to protect such interests over the long term is to pursue a one-Korea policy; that is, maintaining an amicable relationship with a unified Korea with its official seat of government in Seoul that will remain pro-trade, pro-U.S., and, of necessity, pro-China.

The legacy of the state that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have built is a uniquely repressive, isolationist state that has armed itself with nuclear weapons while its people starve. South of the border lies a uniquely successful state in the post-World War II era that remains open, free, and rich. Under such conditions, the odds weigh heavily against Kim Jong-un joining his father and grandfather, embalmed and reposing side-by-side in Kumsusan Mausoleum, 50 or 60 years from now upon natural death or voluntary retirement. Death will have his day, no matter how “Great” or “Dear” a dictator-for-life can be or how repressive a regime can be. That day no one can predict; but it is possible that the unexpected death of Kim Jong-il in mid-December just may have accelerated that eventuality by no less than twenty years.

Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a 2010–11 National Asia Research Fellow.