On the Kim Family Succession in North Korea


Kim Jong-Un (right), the now annointed successor to Jong Il (left)

As usual, Scott Snyder and Ruediger Frank have the best commentary on the succession and it importance for all Korea. Start with them before me.

I would just add a few points.

1. Much of the discussion about NK focuses on its supposed irrationality and unpredictability. I remember reading somewhere that Paul Wolfowitz was once asked which country on earth he feared the most, and he answered NK, because it operated so far outside international norms on just about everything – besides its regular asymmetric strikes against SK (like the Cheonan sinking, KAL 1987 bombing, or the bombing of the SK cabinet in 1983), it also engages in proliferation, drug-trafficking, insurance fraud (as a gimmick to raise money), and dollar counterfeiting. And of course, George Bush put NK on the Axis of Evil, even though it has no connection to Islamic radicalism at all, precisely because of the fear of irrationality linked to WMD. Increasingly though, I don’t buy this, and I think the succession demonstrates that NK is in fact somewhat predictable. I argued this a few weeks ago in Seoul, and the recent family succession, I believe, reinforces this.

While it is true that NK is nasty and does seem to cheat on all sorts of norms, they do this so regularly now, that its cheating is in fact predictable. This feels rather strange of course. Cheating is supposed to indicate unpredictability; but what if you cheat all the time? That too is regularity, right? As I argued in the link above, the Cheonan sinking does actually fit a pattern of asymmetric outbursts from NK in past, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, however awful it was. Similarly, the succession happened much as the last one did – from father to son – and lots of analysts, both Asian and Western predicted it, both then and again this time. And then those predications came true. So while it is unfortunate for the long-suffering North Koreans, and its does not bode well for better NK behavior in future, it was not unexpected. I am not fully convinced by this position myself; erratic and weird still seem to be the best words to describe NK. But its also not the case that we can’t make fairly educated guesses about NK’s future.

2. In line with point 1 is the likelihood that Kim III probably won’t change much. Indeed, he sent a huge signal to the whole world by his dress in last week’s coming out party-parade that he is not a Gorbachev. Just about everyone noticed that he looks strikingly like Kim Il Sung (Kim I). Note the hair style, NK lapel pin, Mao outfit, and, quite honestly, the obesity (presumably to signal stolidity and robustness, although it is a good bet too that he is party-boy like his dad). The speculation is endless that he might actually change stuff, but if NK is more predictable than we think (point 1 above), and if he is consciously cloning himself on Kim I, then it is a good bet that business as usual will roll on. In fact, given his youth and, hence, possible longevity, he could give the NK system a new lease on life, just as Bashar al Assad did when he took over Syria. Like NK, Syria is corrupt, isolated and broke, but the sheer energy of a younger dictator has helped hold Syria together and forestall the endless speculation, endemic to any dictatorship, of palace coups and such. If Kim III can hang on through the early years, which will be the toughest, as factions maneuver for influence in the nouveau regime, then we might be looking at a semi-stable NK for another few decades.

3. Finally, I can’t pass up noting the sheer ideological ridiculousness of a communist monarchy. Nothing demonstrates the ideological bankruptcy of NK as much as a family succession. That is a feudal practice, of course, which is exactly the type of thing communism was supposed to eliminate as backward and repressive. Marx and Lenin, we all know, were bitingly harsh in their critiques of feudalism. One of Marx’ most mean-spirited comments was his famous complaint of the ‘idiocy of the peasantry,’ meaning that they stood outside of history as passive, uninformed spectators mired in ignorance. And of course, the primary historical claim of just about every Marxist theorist and leader was that history moved in stages and the communism was the next one after capitalism. When Khrushchev said ‘we will bury you’,’ he meant exactly that these large Marxist-metaphysical forces of History were working against capitalism, no matter what it did to stop, and that communism was the inevitable future. This is why leaders like Stlin and Pol Pot were so harsh on their feudal-agricultural communities; they were ‘behind’ in the marxist historical mechanic. Even Mao had the sense to avoid the ‘familiazation’ of the CCP (his wife didn’t last too long) and famously criticized Confucius as a feudal reactionary. Yet here we have a communist regime openly going back to a pre-capitalist mode, not moving forward into the post-capitalist era as its own ideology says it should. One wonders how in god’s name NK ideologues must work to square this blatant neo-feudalism with regime ideology. It just baffles the mind.

9 thoughts on “On the Kim Family Succession in North Korea

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  3. when i lived in syria, I felt that syr is sooo different with NK , eventhough syrian goverment have many similarities to NK. is this because of capitalism?


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  6. Pingback: North Korea as ‘Kim-Land’: My Op-Ed on NK in the JoongAng Daily | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  7. Pingback: North Korea as ‘Kim-Land’: My Op-Ed on NK in the JoongAng Daily | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  8. Pingback: My National Interest Essay on the Ridiculous Media Hysteria over Kim Jong Un’s Disappearance | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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