[Viewpoint] A clear successor system is the keyNorth Korea is swinging between extremes in its relationship with South Korea. On the morning of Jan. 15, it said it would accept corn from South Korea, but by that same evening it announced an extreme confrontation through the National Defense Commission.
North Korea has had a confrontational policy since the start of President Lee Myung-bak’s administration, but by August of last year it had turned to a smoother policy. But recently the country has returned to its original attitude.
It’s not the first time North Korea has rapidly changed its position, but this time there are points that need to be examined with special care.
Of special importance is the need to establish a successor system to replace Kim Jong-il when he steps down.
In the early stages of any succession, two people will have actual power and the orders of both will be absolute, as was the case in the process when Kim Jong-il first took charge.
Yet there must be a clear system that establishes a prenegotiation and adjustment process for the orders of both rulers, to ensure that their policies follow a single line.
Needless to say, there are no fundamental conflicts when the people in power are father and son, and the successor is obliged to respect and follow the ideology and ruling methods of earlier generations.
However, the early stage of a transfer of power is the time when the successor shows “creativity” and “distinguished wisdom.” In other words, there could be a difference of opinion.
When there is, the Party Central Commission and National Defense Commission simply become the messengers between the two rulers.
The frequent changes of exchange limit during last year’s currency reform was evidence that the orders of the two rulers are in conflict. The recent statement of the National Defense Commission can also be understood in a similar context.
The question is whether prenegotiations between the National Defense Commission, the highest-ruling body of North Korea, and its subsidiary ruling bodies operate without problems.
Last year, North Korea enacted legislation to make the National Defense Commission the top-ruling institution by revising the constitution.
However, it is uncertain whether the committee has a specific system that can actually rule on all matters of state, including politics and economics. Perhaps it is simply receiving reports from each of the subsidiary power bodies, relaying them to the ruler and handing down orders.
The situation can also be analyzed from the point of view of whether the North Korean party and political institutions will survive.
Over the years, North Korea has frequently threatened South Korea with extreme words while at the same time pursuing benefits. However, in order to survive, it cannot stand still when there is an “unacceptable provocation of South Korea,” such as the destruction of the North Korean system.
Not even the National Defense Commission is an exception. The first duty of any powerful institution is the stability of the system. Each such institution knows that even the slightest concession is not acceptable, and thus they end up pursuing loyalty rather than actual benefits.
So who decides what the actual benefits are?
This is not a matter for institutions to decide, but for the absolute leaders. When “tangible benefits” and “uncompromising insistence” become a institution’s main purpose, it talks about its “strong insistence.” However, a leader can freely choose any point and show off his “distinguished wisdom” and “greatness.”
This is the structure of absolute one-man rule in North Korea.
The government needs to understand the complex policy-making structure of North Korea and devise strategic counteractive solutions. This time, it needs to properly understand which side North Korea will emphasize through the confrontational measures.
*The writer is a director at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Myung-chul