[Outlook]Dynasty dramaAlthough the North Korean authorities deny Kim Jong-il’s incapacitation, the rumors seem to be turning into irreversible fact: Kim has not appeared in public for 40 days.
His absence has the potential to initiate regime change, since the power of the state, the political party and the military is focused on a single person, Kim.
The world is worried about the possibility of a power struggle inside Pyongyang, but for now it seems unlikely that one will occur.
Given what we know, we can assume two possibilities.
The first is that Kim’s health is in such bad condition that he can’t properly govern and there’s now a power vacuum.
The second is that although Kim can’t exercise power as he did before, he continues to direct affairs of state.
If Kim is politically absent, someone or some other force must fill his shoes, otherwise a power struggle between the powerful elites could well ensue.
But if Kim is just temporarily out of action, there is no need for a power transfer, and someone or some group will be entrusted with power.
In this case, a power struggle is unlikely to happen.
Facts are sketchy but the South Korean National Intelligence Service reported to the intelligence committee of the National Assembly that Kim can stand up, with assistance, and brush his teeth.
In addition, Chinese authorities claimed that Kim has no difficulty speaking and that his mind is unaffected by whatever ails him, if any.
If this is the case, the current situation seems more like a temporary absence than a power vacuum.
We also need to observe what North Korea’s powerful elite organizations are doing. Two considerations will dictate their actions.
First, the elite groups want to do anything they can to avoid a complete collapse. They know well enough that a struggle between the elite powers will probably lead to the disintegration of the state.
In this case, North Korea will need to operate a system of checks and balances.
It’s interesting to note that Kim Yong-nam, the North’s nominal head of state, recited a congratulatory message to Great Leader Kim Jong-il from five powerful institutions at the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the founding of North Korea on Sept. 9, a resolution of loyalty to the country’s leader.
Second, the elite groups naturally want to protect their privileges. They have emphasized that the destiny of the country’s leader and that of the core elite are inseparable.
This attitude was instilled by the late Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, who have emphasized that they are all in the same boat. “Without the generals, we can’t exist,” goes the slogan.
The North’s power houses have enjoyed all kinds of privileges and benefits in return for their loyalty and submission to the Kims. They regard a power vacuum as highly dangerous and so sustaining the current regime is the most reasonable choice.
This is why the elite groups probably favor power transfer through the “bloodline of Paektu,” the continuation of the Kim dynasty. They are no doubt sure that the only way to prevent a power struggle and to minimize political shock and unrest is for someone in the Kim family to play a key role in government.
However, there is one problem.
The candidates for succeeding Kim Jong-il are too young and lack leadership to assume total power, although the powerful elites can overcome this by forming a collective leadership.
This would be an entirely new type of government for the North, but a realistic choice.
The country could also try to separate politics and the administration of the country by letting the Kim dynasty continue to control the party and Kim Jong-il’s aides to govern the state.
For sure, North Korea must designate “the new sun” to succeed Kim Il Sung, the “sun of juche,” and Kim Jong-il, the “sun of the military-first policy.”
This process will help change the regime from an absolute system with one leader at the center to a new system with a leader and power elite.
This will be an experiment for North Korea, and we will have to watch carefully to see whatever happens in the post-Kim Jong-il regime.
*The writer is an inter-Korean fellow- researcher at the Institute of National Security Strategy. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Ki-dong