[Viewpoint] The post-Kim Jong-il era

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[Viewpoint] The post-Kim Jong-il era

The so-called “political essays” by Song Mi-ran of North Korea’s official communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun are closely read by North Korean watchers because her writings are primarily on the Kim family and the country’s hereditary succession.

One editorial in 2002, published in the middle of a campaign to glorify Ko Young-hee, mother of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son Kim Jong-un, said the Great Leader Kim Il Sung had expressed a wish that if he could not accomplish victory in the “Chosun (unification) revolution,” his son should. And if his son couldn’t, his grandson should.

Another editorial in November 2008, amid rumors about Kim Jong-il’s health after a suspected stroke, claimed the third and fourth generation members that succeed in completing the revolution should be, on average, 25 years of age. Kim’s heir, Kim Jong-un, is 27 or 28 years old.

In a poetic essay published last month with the rhetorical title, “Who Are We?” Song answered the question by saying, “We are the progeny of Great Leader Kim Il Sung.” On one hand, this is yet another eulogistic addition to the cult personality, but it can also be seen as a carefully choreographed dance to justify a second dynastic succession.

She employed her usual heavy-handed expressions: “Just thinking of the Great Leader’s descendants make my eyes brim with tears,” and “the successors in the same bloodline of the Great Leader.”

The essay was a prelude to Kim Jong-il’s sudden visit to China’s three northeastern provinces five days later. During the visit, Kim paid homage to sites linked to his father and founder of North Korea, exalting him as a guerrilla fighter against Japan during the colonization period.

The Chinese visit was a bid to confer legitimacy on the second father-to-son power succession. Kim is, in fact, following his own experience, using the father’s omnipotent aura to facilitate a hereditary transfer of power. Kim Jong-il was named successor in a party congress in 1980, but his father remained as leader until his sudden death in 1994.

The North Korean Workers’ Party will meet soon - for the first time since the last succession appointment - in the wake of Kim’s Chinese visit. The congress will elect new members to the single party’s central committee. The committee is the party’s powerful “politburo.” A new group of power elite will serve and supplement the young heir.

The party convention also follows the death of the party’s first deputy director, Ri Je-gang, and the rapid rise of Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. The upcoming meeting will likely enhance the party’s role, which has been weakened after Kim Il Sung’s death. The party will likely exercise more influence over the military, which has assumed enormous power in recent years.

The meeting will mark the final stage of the Kim Jong-il era. The personality cult around Kim is at its peak, heralding a new leadership structure that maintains Kim as the figurative head and his son as his successor.

The power transfer will likely bring sweeping changes to North Korea’s external policies, including on South Korea. The new leader, and his supporters, will be eager to build his reputation. Kim laid the foundation for the hereditary succession, and his son will have to do the brickwork to create his regime. The leadership’s goal this year is to “revolutionize living standards of the working people.”

Kim Jong-un reportedly led the “150-day labor campaign” in 2008 to speed up industrialization. Kim Jong-il, before surfacing as the apparent successor in 1974, also led a 70-day battle and a 100-day battle ahead of the last party congress in 1980.

Many suspect that Kim Jong-un ordered the torpedo attack on the South Korean naval ship Cheonan to buttress his credentials as a new leader. It may be difficult to expect an apology until the new leader secures his political control.

Will the third-generation power transfer be smooth? When Kim Jong-il assumed power, North Korea was relatively stable. His father was omnipotent and the economy was in relatively good shape. Yet the hereditary succession was not easy. Many party leaders opposed the succession and later paid for their outspokenness with exile or death.

Kim Jong-il had the Great Leader at his back. Support for Kim Jong-un is relatively weak, but the royal Kim family is everything to North Koreans. The country and people exist primarily to serve the leader.

We must prepare a plan to deal with North Korea in this transitional period. Whether the new leadership experiment will land softly or hard can affect our policy on denuclearizing and opening North Korea. We should have connections with key policy makers in Pyongyang. The new leadership issue is the North Korean issue.

*The writer is editor of foreign and security affairs at JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan
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