Kim Jong-Un: Will He Last? Will He Change North Korea?


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In a dispatch from Pyongyang, the Capital of North Korea, the Government and Chinese Communist Party controlled Xinhua news agency of China reported on September 29, 2010, that a one-day conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) held on September 28, 2010, had taken the following “significant decisions” regarding the party leadership:

  • Kim Jong Il, who had served as the General Secretary of the Party since October 1997, was re-elected to the post.
  • It elected a 124-member  Central Committee, which included among others, Kim Jong-il himself, his 27-year-old youngest son   Kim Jong Un (pronounced Kim Jong-Woon) and Kim Kyong Hui, the  64-year-old sister of Kim Jong-Il.
  • At a plenary session of the new Central Committee, attended by Kim Jong Il, the party’s innermost leading core, the Presidium of the Politburo of the WPK Central Committee, “came into being”. Beside Kim Jong Il there are four other senior members in the Presidium, known as the Standing Committee of the Politburo, including Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK, and Ri Yong Ho, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Choe Yong Rim and Jo Myong Rok would be the other members of the Presidium. The Politbureau includes these five members of the Presidium plus Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Yong Chun, Choe Thae Bok, Yang Hyong Sop and eight others. The alternate members include Jang Song Thaek, Kim Yong Il and 13 others. Kim Jong-Un has not been elected to the Polibureau, but his aunt Kim Kyong Hui has been.
  • Also at the Central Committee meeting, Kim Jong Un was elected to the 19-member Central Military Commission.
  • Kim Jong Un will serve as one of the two Vice-Chairmen of the powerful commission, headed by his father.  Ri Yong Ho will be the other Vice-Chairman. A day earlier, Kim Jong Il had issued an order in his capacity of the supreme commander of the KPA promoting Ri Yong Ho to the  rank of Vice- Marshal and Kim Jong Un to that of General, a rank  below Vice- Marshal and above Colonel- General.
  • In the amendments made to the WPK Charter, “the duties of a party member and the contents of the work of party organizations at different levels are comprehensively revised and supplemented.” The revision also adds a new charter to the current charter regulating the party’s logo and flag and further stresses the need to strengthen the party’s leadership over the civilians as well as the military. The participants in the conference were convinced that the modifications “will provide a sure guarantee for strengthening and developing the party … and victoriously advance the revolutionary cause.”
  • In a report seemingly indicating that the WPK conference has concluded, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that the conference “was held with success in Pyongyang on Sept 28″ and that “Kim Yong Nam made a closing speech.”

The Xinhua dispatch added: “The historic gathering was the third of its kind in the party’s history and the first in 44 years. Outside the country, the international community is also closely watching the development in the DPRK, as the country is trying to secure a peaceful international environment for its economic development and has recently repeated its intent to resume the Six-Party Talks for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Contributing to the wariness of international players are the high tensions that have clouded the region since the March sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. Seoul accuses Pyongyang of torpedoing the vessel and has since carried out several military drills with the United States off the Korean coast, while the DPRK denies any involvement and has repeatedly warned that the “provocative” exercises would threaten regional security. “

According to the Wikipedia, the Conference also re-constituted the National Defence Commission as follows:

  • Chairman: Marshal of the DPRK Kim Jong-il (1993-)
  • 1st Vice Chairman: Vice Marshal of the KPA Ri Yong-ho, Chief of the KPA General Staff
  • 2nd Vice Chairman: General of the Army Kim Jong-un
  • Assistant Vice Chairmen:

- Chang Sung-taek, Secretary, WPK Administrative Department. He is the husband of Kim Kyong-Hui.
- Vice Marshal of the KPA Kim Yong-Chun, Minister of the People’s Armed Forces
- Vice Marshal of the KPA Ri Yong-mu
- General of the Army O Kuk-ryol, Secretary, WPK Department of Operations

  • Members of the Commission:

- General of the Army Ju Sang-song, Minister of People’s Security
- General of the Army Kim Jong-gak, 1st Deputy Director, KPA.
- Colonel General U Tong-chuk
- Jon Pyong-ho, Secretary of Military Industries
- Ju Kyu-chang, 1st Deputy Secretary, Department of Military Industries
- Paek Se-bong, Chairman, WPK 2nd Economic Committee.
- Pak Myong-chol , Councillor of the Commission.

The Xinhua dispatch, which was based on the press releases issued by the KCNA, did not report the reconstitution of the National Defence Commission. The National Defense Commission (NDC) of the State, which is different from the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the WPK, is defined by the 1998 constitution  as “the highest guiding organ of the military and the managing organ of military matters.” The chairman of the NDC controls the armed forces. It is responsible for the management and direction of all military affairs and defense projects under the commission’s authority. The NDC, though nominally under the Supreme People’s Assembly, is the highest state body, with ultimate executive power (including responsibility for the armed forces) resting with its chairman, Kim Jong-il. It takes all decisions relating to nuclear and missile development.

The Central Military Commission is an organ of the WPK and is responsible for coordinating the Party organizations within the Korean People’s Army. Its full and official name is the Commission for Military Affairs of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Its functions are similar to those of the Communist Party of China’s CMC. In addition to Kim Jong-il and Kom Jong-Un, the Commission has another 16 members, including Kim Yong Chun, Kim Jong Gak, and Jang Song Taek.

The elevation of Kim Jong-un to the rank of a General and his election as a member of the Party Central Committee and as one of the two Vice-Chairmen of the NDC of the State and the CMC of the party clearly places him in a position to succeed his father as the ruler of North Korea. Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in August 2008 and has reportedly been in poor health since then. Since January last year, the South Korean intelligence agency and media have been saying that after the stroke Kim Jong-Il had decided to groom Kim Jong-Un as his successor after superseding his two elder brothers and as the first step towards this, a special party conference would entrust him with important responsibilities relating to the State and the Party.

They have been proved right. However, there are still certain questions to which even the well-informed South Korean Intelligence agency and media do not have answers: Why did Kim Jong-il send Kim Jong-Un to Switzerland for three years of schooling? According to one unconfirmed report, all the three brothers had done part of their schooling in Switzerland. Did Kim Jong-Un study in China too, where Kim Jong-Il was himself educated? What impact his three-year stay in Switzerland have on his thinking? Would his exposure to the Swiss society, political system and economy have any influence on his policies? Would he gradually open up North Korea and take it on the road to economic liberalization and eradicate its image of a “rogue state” and a “state of concern”?

Kim Jong-Un was reportedly in Berne, the capital of Switzerland, from the age of 12 to 15 studying in the local international school where he was, according to some media accounts, enrolled as the son of the chauffeur of the North Korean Embassy in Berne. He returned to North Korea in 1998 and subsequently attended the Kim Il-sung Military University. He was reported to have accompanied his father to China in August 2010. Apart from that, it is not known whether he had ever stayed in China and if so, in what capacity.

The fact that China itself may not be well informed about the happenings in the North Korean Government and Party became evident from two factors. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was earlier this year reported to have dismissed South Korean and Western speculation that Kim Jong-Il had decided that Kim Jong-Un should succeed him. Chinese newspapers such as the “Global Times” have often been reporting on North Korea on the basis of South Korean and Western speculation.

Chinese views over what could happen in North Korea after Kim Jong-il  were reflected in a “Global Times” article of September 28, which said: “Despite varied versions of the successor choice and to which post the figure will be elevated to at the meeting, some analysts are dismissing the possibility of political chaos as a result of such a transition, saying the country won’t undergo any significant policy change that could pose downsides on the security situation of the Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia. A stable North Korea is in China’s national interests, regardless of who will be the next leader, experts say. Some cautious analysts also suggested that Jong-un’s ascendancy could still be undone by political infighting, The New York Times reported. Xu Baokang, an expert on Korean Peninsula issues, told the Global Times that “any major shifts in its existing economic, social or foreign policies look impossible to take place.” “North Korea’s policies will remain to be strictly in line with Kim Il-sung’s ideas. Intensive speculations in Western media that Pyongyang is likely to adjust its policies dramatically are incorrect,” he said, adding that North Korea “can’t endure risks stemming from major reforms.” While predicting that the north will be politically stable, Lü Chao, a researcher of Korean studies at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that “China supports North Korea to be part of the international community, and the Chinese side will actively create favorable conditions so as to help the North get rid of its isolated situation in the world, which also serves China’s national interests.”

Will Kim Jong-un be able to consolidate his position and emerge as the unquestioned leader of North Korea? The answer to this question will depend on how soon his father leaves the political scene—-either due to death or poor health. If his father manages to continue in power for some years, that could enable Kim Jong-Un to consolidate his position in the Army and the Party. If his father leaves earlier than expected, he may find it difficult to deal with his potential adversaries in the army and the party. Among his adversaries will be his two superseded brothers and Chang Song-Taek, the husband of his aunt, who is today reputed to be the second most powerful man in North Korea after Kim Jong-il. Other Army officers may not like working under a 27-year-old person with very little exposure to the army and the world of diplomacy. Any infighting in the party and/or the army could lead to an active Chinese involvement in internal politics to prevent the country coming under the influence of elements not well-disposed towards China.


About the author:

B. Raman

B. Raman was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: [email protected]

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