North Korean state television announced the death of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il on Monday and labeled his son, Kim Jong-un, “the great successor.”
The third and youngest son of North Korea’s former dictator is untested and relatively unknown. He came into the public spotlight in September of last year when his father appointed him vice chairman of the country’s Central Military Commission, one among a myriad of commissions and committees that helm the Stalinist hermit state.
Behind the scenes, the dead leader’s brother in law, Jang Sung-taek, has apparently assumed de facto control of the government since Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008. A technocrat educated in Russia during Soviet times, he is vice chairman of the National Defense Commission which commands the armed forces and could emerge as a regent while the younger Kim consolidates power.
The third Kim in a dynasty of Korean leaders inherits control of one of the poorest places on Earth. His people are undernourished, ever on the brink of starvation. Energy shortages are a common occurrence. North Korea maintains almost no trade relations with the rest of the world. Its regime is a pariah among nations, surrounded by adversaries in Japan and South Korea, both economic powerhouses and allied to the United States.
By keeping North Korea on a perpetual war footing, Pyongyang justifies spending a gargantuan share of its budget on the military — 25 percent of annual economic output compared to just 4 percent in the South.
The alleged threat posed by America, Japan and their brethren in the South is artificially exacerbated every so many years by the North when it invents a crisis to affirm the legitimacy of the regime.
According to analysis from the geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat, recent acts of aggression, including the torpedoing of a South Korean corvette and the artillery barrage of a disputed island last year, suggested a determined effort to speedily credentialize Kim Jong-un among the military leadership that controls much of the government, economy, and, most importantly, mineral exports to, and humanitarian aid from, patron China.
Internationally, however, these crisis coupled with the North’s renegade nuclear program, make it increasingly difficult for its one erstwhile ally to shield the regime from repercussions.
There is mounting discord among the Chinese leadership over how to cope with North Korea’s erratic behavior. On the one hand are hardliners who occupy prominent posts in the military and at Communist Party schools. They suspect that the United States are conniving to deceive China and keep it poor and see in the North a necessary buffer to prevent American troops, permanently stationed along the demilitarized zone, from reaching China’s border.
On the other side, internationally-oriented bureaucrats, including many in the Foreign Ministry and banking sector, argue for peaceful ties with the West and have expressed growing puzzlement and anger about the North’s posturing.
The change of leadership that is expected to take place in China over the next couple of years could enhance or complicate Kim Jong-un’s ability to consolidate power. In an effort to bolster his credentials with the military and stave off the possibility of a coup, the new Kim could instigate crises or organize shows of force which could be interpreted by South Korea and Western powers as provocations, necessitating retaliation.
“Everybody,” Wikistrat predicts, “especially an incoming fifth generation of leadership in Beijing, will want to appear decisive because of the perceived precedent setting nature of the moment — namely, what it says about the future of American military hegemony in the region versus China’s potential for the same.”
China’s incoming leaders may well observe that an offensive on the part of the younger Kim serves their interests as it would force the United States to divert resources from other efforts in the region that limit China’s rise.
If rather they decide that it’s time for China to become the “responsible stakeholder” in international relations that the United States would like it to be, they could rein in the regime’s ability to stir crises but risk ultimately undermining its legitimacy if China suspends food and military aid.
This article also appeared in The Seoul Times, December 20, 2011.