The Daily Beast
Kim Jong-il’s death
perforce marks a turning point in modern Korean history. Not since
Douglas MacArthur’s push toward the Yalu has the future of the North
Korean regime been as uncertain as it is today.
To be sure: North Korea has
looked to be on the precipice more than once in living memory. Indeed,
North Korea has seemed to be on the verge of war with America and our
allies time and again over the past half century. But we should
understand those episodic crises for what they truly were: manufactured
incidents by which Pyongyang’s rulers methodically extract benefits and
concessions from their international adversaries. North Korea’s leaders
are past masters of brinkmanship: unlike us, they are quite at home in
the diplomatic stratosphere of DEFCON-3, and indeed seem to enjoy a
comparative advantage in these high-tension realms. In reality, these
recurrent dramas have not called into question the future of the North
Korean state. By contrast, Kim Jong-il’s death does.
Why? Because the late patriarch of
this totalitarian dynasty never bothered to make the sorts of
preparations that would have maximized the regime’s odds of a successful
transfer of hereditary power after the Dear Leader’s own departure from
the scene. Unlike his father, DPRK founder Kim Il-sung, who took great
care to engineer the dynastic transition that elevated Kim Jong-il to
absolute rule, Kim Jong-il never troubled himself with the business of
training a successor or helping him consolidate support.
Consider: when Great Leader Kim
Il-sung was 68 years old (1980), princeling Kim Jong- il had been in
training for a decade, had no remaining competitors for claim to the
royal mantle, and would enjoy the next fourteen years of nominal
paternal supervision under which to perfect his mastery of control.
By contrast, when Kim Jong-il
turned 68 (2009), he was not only severely enfeebled (struggling to
recover from a devastating stroke), but had yet officially to tap a
successor, much less make any preparations for seasoning an heir
apparent. It was only the following year that he unveiled his
twenty-something son, Kim Jong-un, as the de facto next in line to his
throne, awarding the military novice a four-star generalship, a seat on
the Party’s Central Committee, and a vice-chairmanship of the Central
Military Commission in a week of public fanfare in the fall of 2010. A
little over a year later, Kim Jong-il was dead and Kim Jong-un was the
country’s third-ever supreme leader—ready or not.
To make matters still more hazardous for Pyongyang’s untested “Young General”, both his aunt (Kim Kyong Hui) and uncle (Jang Song Thaek)
are today stars in their own right within North Korea’s constellation
of power. They may be charged with providing counsel to the Young
General and helping him grow into office—but in Korea’s long history
there is a troubling tendency for regencies to end as regicides.
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