[Viewpoint] The struggles of Kim’s successionIt has become known that Kim Jong-il has chosen his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. North Korea sent the message to its embassies abroad on May 28. If it is true that the youngest son has been chosen as the successor, we can see it as a move North Korea has made to officially pass down leadership via family lines for the third generation - and to begin a transition period to the next leader.
Since North Korea’s regime is centered on a single leader, the leader’s health and the succession issue are directly related to the fate of the regime and also have decisive influence on the situation on the Korean Peninsula. If Jong-un has truly been named as the successor, North Korea’s recent attempts to create tension, like rocket launches and a nuclear test, must have some connection with its domestic situation. The North Korean leaders’ nervous feelings due to Kim Jong-il’s bad health seem to have led to a series of moves to raise tension.
North Korea’s successor issue is important because it will decide who will rule half the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea’s regime is in an overall crisis, the attempt to pass down power to the third generation will face many difficulties. In 1974, when Kim Jong-il was named as Kim Il Sung’s successor, North Korea’s economy was quite sound and his father was healthy. But now, Kim Jong-il is ill and the military’s influence has grown because of the military-first policy.
We should pay attention to the fact that since Kim Jong-il’s condition has worsened, North Korea has made unusual moves in its decision-making structure. In inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang has raised tension by declaring an all-out confrontation and has made a series of strong moves, launching rockets and conducting a nuclear test.
Such hard-line policies must be closely watched and prepared for, under the assumption that they are related to naming Jong-un as the successor. North Korea wants to pass down power from father to son despite international society’s strong criticism, because there is no one else for Kim Jong-il to count on besides his own family. The preparations are being made in case Kim Jong-il’s condition worsens or he passes away suddenly.
Since Kim Jong-il reportedly fell ill, South Korea and international society have paid attention to the possibility of sudden changes in North Korea. North Korean leaders’ selection of Jong-un as successor can be understood as the country’s attempt to correct the outside world’s “wrong perception,” which equates the absence of a leader with the collapse of the regime. North Korea’s leaders postponed designating a successor for fear of a power struggle.
But now they have made a decision, probably because they want to prevent speculation about sudden changes due to Kim Jong-il’s condition. By picking a successor and making preparations in case Kim Jong-il falls ill or passes away, North Korean leaders seem to want to deliver a message to the outside world that the regime will survive without problems even after Kim Jong-il.
In North Korea, Kim Hyong-jik, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il are called the three great people of Mankyongdae, and the family has constantly been worshiped. Therefore, passing down power to the third generation will be taken for granted. But if Kim Jong-il fails to resolve a worsening economic crisis and conflict with international society and leaves the difficult homework to his son, that successor will face a crisis of legitimacy and efficiency. Kim Jong-il became impatient after he fell ill and grew hasty to prepare for the right environment to name a successor.
In order to negate negative views on passing down power for three generations in a row and to establish a stable successor system, it is important to restore North Korea’s economy through negotiating with the Western World. Kim Jong-il can let his successor take the status of leader of a nuclear state and focus on sustaining and protecting the regime.
We also need to go beyond responding to the Kim Jong-il regime, drawing on various measures in preparation for many possible scenarios in the course of North Korea establishing a successor to the Dear Leader.
The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Koh Yu-hwan