Proving Kim Jong-un wrongAfter Kim Il Sung died, Kim Jong-il was in no hurry. He became the general secretary of the Workers’ Party in October 1997, three years and three months after the death of his father. The post of general secretary marks the pinnacle of power in North Korea, and the person who holds the post is concurrently the chairman of the National Defense Commission. It was at the first session of the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly in September 1998 that Kim took the highest position of the state. Through a constitutional revision, the chairman of the National Defense Commission was given hugely significant powers that Kim Jong-il was quick to use. Notably, though, he did not take on the title of president, a symbolic position associated with Kim Il Sung. Instead, Kim Il Sung was declared the “eternal president of the Republic.”
And at the assembly, Kim Jong-il did not give a speech to accept the new powers delegated to him. Instead, he had the assembly listen to a speech given by Kim Il Sung in 1990. He took the power transition slowly and deliberately, refraining from explicitly taking over his father’s symbolically significant role. He was confident that he would take over power eventually, but didn’t rush. He established power as a successor for 20 years. And with all this work, Kim Jong-il proved the Western world wrong, as politicians had expected North Korea to fall after Kim Il Sung’s death.
This week, Kim Jong-un will go through a similar, highly-planned power succession. On Wednesday, the fourth Workers’ Party Conference will be held. The Supreme People’s Assembly will meet on Friday. The much talked-about long-range rocket will be launched sometime between Thursday and April 16. April 15 marks the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth. If all goes according to plan, Kim Jong-un will be named general secretary at the Workers’ Party conference, just like his father was so many years ago. This series of events involves the three generations of North Korean leaders as it hopes to cement succession to the third generation, a key part of which is taking over the party leadership. Once designated, Kim Jong-un’s position is permanent. He will be following the path of his father, Kim Jong-il.
It is uncertain whether there has been a constitutional revision to create a new post for the new leader, but once Kim Jong-un officially becomes the general secretary of the Workers’ Party and the chairman of the National Defense Commission, the interim emergency system will end, at least on the surface. Kim Jong-un will take over the party, the government and the military, which will mark the birth of a new leader just four months after the death of Kim Jong-il. In a way, the speedy succession suggests a sense of crisis and anxiety over the transition, one that did not exist after Kim Il Sung’s death.
So with these worries in mind, Kim Jong-un’s planned launch of a long-range missile is a test for the international community. While the satellite attached to the top of the rocket seems intended to impress the North Korean people, the purpose of the rocket is to intimidate the world — and perhaps prove that Kim Jong-un is a serious leader. In some ways, the planned launch can be seen as a sequel to Kim Jong-il’s rocket project in 1998. The rocket launch sums up the North Korean system entrusted to the young leader. With the launch, Kim Jong-un may hope to emphasize his descendence from Kim Il Sung or simply follow in the footsteps of Kim Jong-il. The historical connections are especially relevant as the event coincides with Kim Il Sung’s birth. But there is an even darker side to the launch. Kim Jong-un has chosen to become a nuclear power, against resistance from just about every other country in the world. A nuclear warhead that cannot be loaded onto a missile is an empty threat. So a successful launch would help to conclude the nuclear project pursued by the Kim family for three generations. Perhaps this is the path North Korea sees to becoming a “strong and prosperous nation” this year, a promise it has long made.
The rocket launch is not an easy path to cementing power for Kim Jong-un, though, and it carries many risks. A technical failure or diplomatic mistake in the aftermath of the launch could be just the pretext for a power struggle designed to oust the Kim dynasty. The psychological pressure on Kim Jong-un must be tremendous, but still, the country goes ahead. North Korea’s leaders much be basing their decision on the following assumptions: First, China won’t abandon North Korea, but will simply wag its finger. The stability of Kim Jong-un is directly related to the stability of China. Second, the presidential election is coming up in the United States, and therefore, Washington will postpone hard-line measures against North Korea to avoid rocking the boat. A third nuclear test would hurt President Barack Obama’s chance of re-election. Third, Koreans will debate over whether the North launched a missile or a rocket, dividing political opinions and delaying any political moves that could be taken in the South.
In the end, it is just a matter of time until the launch. But we cannot sit back with our arms crossed. We must not let United Nations Security Council resolution 1874 go in vain. To enforce the international ruling, more sophisticated sanctions may be needed. And it is about time we brought up the unification issue with China directly. Today’s North Korea is a strategic liability for China, while a unified Korea means a window of opportunities for a prosperous Northeast Asia. A shift in Chinese policy on that issue would bring many changes. More frequent Korea-U.S. military exercises could also play a role in maintaining our hard line. North Korea is a military regime that will not forgo further confrontation if left alone. We must prove to Kim Jong-un that the world does not revolve around his country’s plans.