The dangers of North Korean nepotism

By Conor Dempsey

For the past year diplomats have suspected that the youngest son of North Korea’s enigmatic dictator, Kim Jong-il, was being prepared to succeed his ailing father at the head of a nuclear-armed state with one of the largest armies in the world. In recent weeks this has become a certainty.

Kim Jong-un is estimated to be only 27 years of age. Kim Jong-il succeeded his own father Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder, who ruled until his death aged 82. Kim Jong-il took over power already aged 53 and having had 14 years of political experience during which he consolidated support within the ruling Korean Worker’s Party, the only party that truly exists in North Korea. In contrast, Kim Jong-un has no political and little military experience. Until recently he had not been mentioned by name in the North Korean media. The heir to the leadership of the only dynastic communist state in the world is said to have been educated at a private Swiss school under a pseudonym.

Kim Jong-un, now known as the Young General, was promoted to four-star general on 27 September. The next day he was appointed to the number two military position in the Worker’s Party. This was the first large party gathering since 1980 when Kim Jong-il was promoted to the position he occupied until his father’s death.

The bizarre business of succession in North Korea would be of little more than esoteric interest to the outside world were it not for the potentially severe threat posed by North Korean instability.

North Korea has the fourth largest standing army in the world and has tested nuclear weapons. Approximately 25 percent of GNP is pumped into the military. It is estimated that as much as 20 percent of the male population between 17 and 54 is in the army.

In October 2006 North Korea became the eighth nation to acquire nuclear arms. The country’s history of nuclear development is a tale of diplomatic failure and brinkmanship. American satellites identified the construction of a nuclear reactor at the start of the 1980s and by the mid-1990s it was suspected that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons.
The Clinton administration’s agreement to halt the nuclear programme never amounted to anything, a pattern diplomats have come to expect in negotiations with North Korea.

In 2002 George Bush named North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” and senior Korean government officials interpreted this as a declaration of war. In 2003 Kim Jong-il threw out the remaining international inspectors of the Yongbyon reactor facility.

Experts estimated that North Korea had enough plutonium to build five or six nuclear weapons. When the first test occurred in 2006 the blast was significantly weaker than expected prompting speculation that the weapon had malfunctioned. Despite its failure the test was condemned by other nations. This aggravated North Korea and it announced its permanent withdrawal from all talks and renewed its nuclear programme.

In May 2009 a second nuclear bomb was tested making it clear that North Korea will do as it pleases in the development of a nuclear arsenal. Thankfully there is some indication that the technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead is not within reach of North Korea at present. On two occasions it has failed to launch a satellite, though on one of these occasions it scared Japan by sending a rocket over it and into the ocean.

Kim Jong-il has led his nation on a course of extreme isolationism so that North Korea has only one, albeit important, ally: China. It is for the most part because of Chinese support that Kim Jong-il has been able to ignore economic sanctions. China is concerned with stability; it does not want hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing its border in the case of an upset.

If the Young General is to take power the outside world will watch in trepidation to see what sort of leadership arrangement emerges. It may be the case that the best outcome in the short term is for Kim Jong-un to seamlessly take power and thus avoid much of an upheaval. That is not necessarily a likely outcome. The massive military is kept in check by the appointment of generals to positions of political power and by appointment of those close to the dictator to positions of high military power. If military leaders consider the young leader easy to displace North Korea could be plunged into a civil conflict. It is possible that China and the US would find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle involving a nuclear-armed country under military rule.

This possibility is just one of many where further instability might be introduced into international relations with North Korea in the event of succession. The world will be keeping a close eye on one of the most secretive and erratic nations.