Next year was always going to be big for north-east Asia. The death of Kim Jong-il has merely ensured that the political manoeuvring will begin a little earlier than expected — and will start right inside the region’s most reclusive nation.
Simultaneously sudden and inevitable, the “dear leader’s” death again has turned the world’s attention to the tenuous peace on the Korean peninsula.
His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was expected to take power in an official leadership transition next year, timed to coincide with 100th birthday of the nation’s founder and “eternal leader” Kim Il-Sung — Kim Jong-il’s father. Instead, The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) — the regime’s official mouthpiece — was quick to announce the rise of Kim Jong-un as the “great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche and outstanding leader of our party, army and people”.
This transition, KCNA assures the world through a series of news articles reporting the great sorrow of the North Korean people and their determination to continue his work, has the full support of the two most important constituencies: “The army and people of the DPRK will weather the present difficulties by overcoming sorrow and displaying fresh strength and courage and struggle more staunchly for the great victory of the Juche revolution under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.”
This show of solidarity is without a doubt engineered — at least to a point. Anything less than a show of terrible grief is not an option for the people of North Korea, and most particularly those who live in the show capital of Pyongyang.
At this time of great uncertainty, a plethora of questions emerge. Among these, two hold the key to understanding the impact that this transition will have on the country’s internal stability: Will the military stand behind Kim Jong-un? Will the new leader manage to gain the same level of support from the North Korean population as his predecessors were able to establish?
If the new leader is not able to solidify his own political support base at the elite level, the consequences are potentially devastating.
The smooth handling of Kim Jong-il’s death by the North Koreans — despite the enormous resources dedicated to monitoring succession issues in North Korea, the first the rest of the world heard of the death was via the North’s own news sources — and reports by South Korea that there had been no change in North Korea’s alertness levels, indicates that the military is prepared to support the young general. At least for now. It seems that all those at the elite level have a vested interest in continued stability — and that they have calculated that their interests will be best served by a smooth leadership transition.
If the situation holds, and any attempts at internal wrangles for power are extinguished before they emerge, the new leader’s attention will turn to shoring up his support in the rest of the country.
Hereditary power transitions are historically difficult to continue — there is a good chance that North Korea will be no exception.
Kim Il-Sung was genuinely revered as a god-like figure. Entering the mausoleum in Pyongyang, an audio recording tells you that he was “sent down to the North Korean people to bring us our salvation”. With the revolution a work-in-progress, he then offered up his son — to continue the work of his great father, who remains the eternal leader of the DPRK.
The undertones are obvious — the love that the North Korean people had for their founder was genuine. The support they then showed his son, Kim Jong-il, was a mix of respect and fear. Kim Jong-il was groomed by his father for 15 years and most analysts agree that it was this careful succession strategy that allowed him to retain his tight grip over the country through devastating floods and famine.
Kim Jong-un, in contrast, has had just 14 months in the limelight. The reasons behind this are unclear — was it pure hubris, on the part of his father, or a sign that he was simply a puppet, with those pulling the strings less than motivated to find a successor until Kim Jong-il’s health became demonstrably worse?
Social control is the regime’s most important instrument. For as long as the North Korean leadership is able to convince its people — through a combination of propaganda and fear — that its isolation and impoverishment is for the greater good of the country, which moves inevitably towards a great revolution, it will continue to survive. As the Arab Spring has reminded us, change happens from within. For now, there is little to indicate that an Arab Spring is imminent inside the “hermit kingdom” — total control of information and people movements have ensured that. Any change will happen slowly, perhaps quietly.
Whatever the case, it will be predicated by a gradual breakdown of faith as the North Korean people stop believing that the leadership does indeed have their best interests at heart.
For now, fear will prevail, and the North Korean regime will assure the rest of the world that the entire country supports the new leader. In the longer term, however, whether a regime can continue to rule by fear alone is the greatest test Kim Jong-un will face.
*Dr Danielle Chubb was a noted North Korea expert at ANU before accepting a Vasey Research Fellowship at the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.