[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-un’s first challengesWe all appreciate the material and social legacy our parents have given us, even as family has less meaning today. We think of our parents every time we have emotional troubles or confront challenges in life. We miss our mother’s warm embrace, and we look up to our father’s steadiness. We don’t realize how our lives have been shaped by the compassion of our parents until we age.
At age 50, North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong-il saw his father, Kim Il Sung, die. Though obviously upset, he had been trained for succession for years, ruling the hermetic country for two decades alongside his father. But North Korea’s third ruler from the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-un, lost his mother seven years ago at much younger age, and now, his father has died.
His chubby cheeks shook as he repressed the gush of warmth in his throat and eyes that emerged as he saw the body of his father lying in a glass coffin. Of course he is upset that his father died, but he is also now a leader who must oversee a country with a ravaged economy and an unpredictable future. His tears may also be from confusion and fear, especially as the young Kim had little time to learn leadership skills from his father.
The young Kim has been made up to resemble his grandfather, who is still worshipped as a kind of deity. And so he has big shoes to fill and may be self-conscious about what is expected of him. Questionable legitimacy of his succession puts the young heir on shaky grounds.
Just as important is the fact that Kim Jong-un spent his youth away from home. Schooled in Switzerland, he may have felt alienated and unfamiliar with the crude realities of North Korea. During rigid military training over the last six years since his return to home, the young Kim may have grown attached to his motherland, but he may still not have fully adjusted.
Kim Jong-un would have learned about democracy and Western life during his time in Switzerland. So, he may not have had have sufficient time to comprehend and absorb the extreme gap between democracy of the Western world and the autocracy of his father’s world.
To Jong-un, his father’s legacy and responsibilities may be too much to bear. A year’s training has been insufficient for the younger Kim to learn how to handle the enormous burden of various political risks. Very few leaders in the historical record have faced so many crises at one time. Today, North Korea faces extreme food shortages, an economy in dire straits and a shaky political transition.
Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, who came to power at age 27, and Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, who took over his country at 33, could have set precedents for Kim Jong-un. But these notorious leaders attained power through their own force and built their own dynasties. The youngest Kim is only inheriting one. So it will most certainly not be easy for the young man, who is not well known among North Korean citizens, to quickly gain control of the rigid ruling class or cement the same kind of loyalty from his citizens as was held by his predecessors.
Experts forecast that North Korea’s leadership under Kim Jong-un will inevitably stabilize because the North Korean elites have no other choice but to pledge allegiance to Kim to avoid a collapse of the regime. But North Korea could take an unexpected turn if belief in the country’s revolutionary ideology wanes.
In order for the third hereditary power succession to succeed, the new leader must build symbolic power. In consolidating his own personality cult and juche ideology, Kim Jong-il drew consensus from the revolutionary old guard of his father’s generation. But he thrust his own son into the throne at a perilous period when reality has become more important in politics than emotional attachment.
If he wants to uphold the legacy of his predecessors, Kim Jong-un must face reality and examine the needs of his people. Qaddafi won over his citizens with petroleum-funded comforts, and Castro kept his people busy and fed with bananas and sugar cane. But in contrast, North Koreans suffer from the most basic of tragedies. More than six million are hungry, and many of their fields are barren.
Kim Jong-un and his patrons must solve this conundrum and others - including the nuclear weapons issue - before they are swept into a bloody power struggle. We watch with a heavy heart as the young leader begins a risky journey of no return.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun