There are few things more unsettling for democratic leaders than the unfolding of a leadership transition within an authoritarian “rogue state.” When the transition is taking place in the most secretive and militarized country in the world, it is no wonder that no one in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington and even Beijing can rest easy.
No one knows what the passing of Kim Jong-il and the emergence of his son Kim Jong-un supreme leader means for North Korea and the region. But if things can hardly get worse for the country’s 23 million citizens, there is a small chance that they may eventually get better.
Fears that the next few months might trigger instability are not unreasonable. In a system like North Korea’s, recklessness, ruthlessness and cruelty are often more respected “qualities” in leaders than those of engagement and restraint.
The surprise sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in March 2010 was allegedly ordered by Kim Jong-un two months after he was appointed vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the country’s top military body.
Not even 30 years old and appointed a four-star general by his father despite having had no military experience of any note, the younger Kim might find it necessary to demonstrate that he has what it takes to lead one of the world’s most brutal countries.
These concerns are especially acute given the common wisdom that Kim Jong-un has a personality as hard and uncompromising as that of his father.
If the region can get through the next few months unscathed, the problem of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will nevertheless remain. It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will give up its only significant strategic bargaining chip with the United States and the region.
But the death of the “Dear Leader” could mean a small chance of better times for the country’s impoverished citizens. The key to progress and reform will be to dismantle the feudal-like Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its founding in 1948.
As the recent histories of China and the former Soviet Union affirm, arbitrary rule by one man (or a small coterie of leaders) is the worst of all possible alternatives. The horrors of the Mao and Stalin years were possible due to the combination of pertinacious ideology and the concentration of immense power in few hands. One could say the same about the famines that killed over one million North Koreans in the 1990s.
Although still far from the democratic ideal, the relative diffusion of power in modern-day China and Russia places limitations and restraints on the inner circles of government in Beijing and Moscow. Since tragedies and farce in autocratic polities tend to occur when leaders attempt to control too much rather than too little, the paralyzing effect of compromise between different personalities and interests within a larger authoritarian tent is not a bad thing.
Although North Korea under Kim Jong-il developed a relatively complex network of civilian and military institutions to rule the country, the majority of these were led by relatives and associates loyal to the “Dear Leader.”
For example, Kim Jong-il stacked key Korean Worker’s Party organs like the Politburo and Central Military Commission with extended family members and trusted inner-circle bureaucrats. Influential military generals like Ri Yong-ho, who became chief of general staff of the Korean People’s Army in 2009 and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2010 were allegedly close to the “Dear Leader.” In other words, the considerable authority of Kim Jong-il over civilian and military institutions was largely personal.
By contrast, it is not conceivable that Kim Jong-un will have as much sway and authority as his father or grandfather, given his youth and inexperience. Since succession plans have only been in place since 2008, Kim Jong-il’s death has almost certainly occurred too early for the former leader to entrench his son’s rule.
While Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policies from the turn of this century onward confirm that political power in North Korea still comes from the barrel of a gun, as Mao believed, there was little evidence of open disagreement by generals with the “Dear Leader.” Given that all the leading civilian and military institutions have vastly expanded in number over the past decade, Kim Jong-un will have enormous difficulty imposing his will within the regime.
North Korea’s disastrous economic policies over six decades will not have escaped the attention of many senior civilian and even military leaders. Until now, criticizing existing policies even behind closed doors would have appeared disloyal to the leader, ideological cause and party. And Kim Jong-il consistently threatened to freeze small pockets of openness and experimentation, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex free-trade zone with South Korean companies, whenever political problems arose with Seoul.
Political reform is not a realistic hope for North Korea for now. Instead, the best outcome would be to cobble together a poor-man’s version of China’s authoritarian model. It is incumbent upon Beijing to help push Pyongyang in that direction.
For this to occur, Pyongyang needs the voice of technocrats to be heard in its highest political bodies—and not be silenced by a familial dynasty that relies on closing the country to the world in order to remain in power.
The emergence of a relatively weak “Brilliant Comrade” in Kim Jong-un, as he has been called by official state media, is one step toward the possibility of a better future for the North Korean people.