Lankov on DPRK succession

Andrei Lankov writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Kim Jong Il’s apparent trip to China last week has excited more speculation over succession planning for the ailing North Korean dictator. That trip was widely interpreted as a way to introduce Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, to the leadership of Pyongyang’s most important ally. But that is not necessarily the most important step in this process. Far more interesting may be the move afoot within Pyongyang to establish the younger Kim as the unquestioned next in line.

A few weeks ago the North Korean authorities announced that in September the ruling Korean Workers Party will hold a conference—essentially, a simplified version of the Party Congress. Such conferences are few and far between. The last Party conference took place in 1966 and the last Party congress met in 1980. These serve solely as rubber stamps for decisions that have already been made, whether on policies or appointments to key posts. In a Leninist state, Party gatherings are chiefly venues where such decisions are announced with the greatest possible pomp.

An extraordinary gathering generally is convened only to announce an extraordinary decision—after all, the last Party Congress was convened in 1980 to announce the anointment of Kim Jong Il as heir-apparent to his father. Few doubt that this time this decision will be about the succession. The world will probably “learn” that Korea has been lucky to acquire another genius of leadership who, of course, was born into the ruling Kim family.

This will be a high-stakes moment for the regime. A change of leader is bound to produce expectations of other changes. Indeed some major news outlets already speculate that Swiss-educated Kim Jong Eun might initiate some Chinese-style reforms. He is young, merely 27 or 28 years old, and has spent much of his time outside the country—all factors that could suggest a greater willingness to reform. But do not hold your breath. The young man appears to be favored by many within the regime precisely because he is the least likely person to change anything—in the short term, at least.

His apparent weaknesses are his greatest selling point so far as other leaders within the regime are concerned. As a candidate he perfectly fits the old guard, those people who now run the country together with Kim Jong Il. If Kim Jong Il is going to die soon, his youngest son, being weak, embarrassingly young and lacking a power base of his own, is almost certain to become a puppet. Whatever he secretly thinks about his country’s future, for the first few years of his reign he will have no choice but to obediently sign the policy papers drafted by the same people who have prepared such papers for his father.

Indeed, there are signs as the succession process unfolds that those currently in the upper echelons of the regime are taking steps to protect their positions. A car crash recently killed Ri Che Kang, Kim Jong Il’s deputy for Party affairs (North Korea has almost no traffic, but a surprising number of high-level officials die in car accidents). If this was an assassination, it could have been a result of jockeying for positions within the elite.

In a more clear-cut sign of power positioning, a North Korean rubber-stamping parliament held an unusual emergency session where Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, was promoted to become the deputy chairman of the National Defense Commission, essentially making him a vice-president.

The contours of a new power system are emerging. The old guard, probably presided over by Mr. Chang, will supervise a young and obedient prince. What that old guard wants is simply more of the same. They believe that North Korea, facing a rich and powerful South, cannot survive Chinese-style reform. The existence of the “dirty rich neighbor” whose population speaks the same language makes North Korea’s situation very different from that of China. In the peculiar case of North Korea, an attempted reform is likely to lead not to China-style economic boom but to an East German-style collapse. The top elite also understand that in such a case they will loose everything, including, perhaps, their freedom. Hence their strong drive to keep things unchanged.

This does not mean that these efforts to preserve the status quo will succeed. Internecine hatreds and rivalries might surface, with power struggles destabilizing the regime from the top down. The young dictator might become annoyed with the old guard, or vice versa. The probability of dramatic events happening in Pyongyang is certainly increasing.

The major goal of the North Korean elite now is to drive this probability down. The new power structure is being designed to keep things unchanged, and on balance it is likely, but by no means certain, to work. Alas, for the outside world it means more years of nuclear brinksmanship, and for the North Korean people more years of abject poverty.

Read the full story here:
Pyongyang’s New Leader for the Old Guard
Wall Street Journal
Andrei Lankov
8/29/2010

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