Kim Jong Il, the Don Corleone of North Korea, has Died


Or was it Dr. Strangelove?

Some friends from Reuters asked me to comment on KJI’s death with these questions:

How stable is North Korea today, with the news of Kim’s death?

Pretty stable actually. When Stalin and Mao died the whole show didn’t tip over. Insiders took a bit more power from the now-missing center but more or less followed their previous roles initially. The Kim family network all have an obvious and deep interest – at least now, before the sorting out of the new pecking order – in preventing implosion. They’re all deeply vested in a brutal, human-rights abusing regime, and they would face SK post-unification courts with access to the death penalty if it all came apart. So the chance of civil war or implosion in the coming days is pretty close to zero. The real test will be in the next 6 to 12 months as the factional conflict heats up over the distribution of gains, particularly access to the badly-strapped national budget, in the nouveau regime. I think China after Mao is a good analogue here.

How prepared was the North for this scenario?

Better than we’d think, but still not too well. Highly personalized regimes, by definition, are institutionally poorly prepared for transition at the top, because the ‘sun-king’ has structured the system that way. Like Bismarck, Hitler, or Mao, they keep the underlings jockeying and guessing, but when they go, the hole in the middle is big. It took KJI years to solidify his rule after his father Kim Il Sung,  and even KJI could only do that by leading the army personally, likely to forestall a coup. That said, NK has gone this through before, and familialism of its elite and dynasticity of its succession alleviate some of the factional tension authoritarian successions generate. Ie, because they are all related to each other (like any good mafia), they are less likely to turn one another. That is the whole point of appointing relatives to high positions. But nepotistic grooming didn’t have the full time to play through, because Kim Jong Un hasn’t been the dauphin long enough. NK is much less well-prepared than in 1994 (KIS’ death).

How prepared are Seoul, Washington and Beijing?

Not very. As General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s health declined slowly, the West had time to adjust to rising factionalism and stagnation in the USSR. Brezhnev showed up less and less in public; the faces on the stage at Red Square changed to show who was up or down. This barely happened in NK; KJI was travelling and walking around in Russia just 4 months ago. My sense is that most of us thought KJI had recovered reasonably well from the stroke and might hang on for a few more years. This was a sudden heart attack that caught everyone by surprise.

How ready is the young Kim Jong-un to take over?

Not very. 1) He is young, which cuts against Korean cultural-Confucian standards of age matched to authority. 2) He has no experience in the military, which is now the central institution of the regime. 3) He does not have the years of ‘training’ and experience in Pyongyang backrooms to groom the connections necessary to govern a mafiaosi-like kleptocracy. Indeed, he seems to have no real political, military, educational, scientific, or other training for this role at all. The name is all he’s got, but that is central for the regime’s legitimacy given its hyper-patrimonialism and ideology. So my guess is that he will be kept for continuity and legitimacy but will basically become a figurehead for an emergent soft military junta (like Myanmar).

Who are the real leaders, now Kim Jong-il is dead?

The Korean People’s Army top brass and the National Defense Commission, because KJU is weak and they have the guns.

What role does the military have right now?

Regime Stabilizer. The extended Kim family is like the Corleones in charge of a whole country – shaking down SK, the US, the UN, China, and anyone else for aid and cash, counterfeiting currency, committing insurance fraud, dealing drugs, etc. Try to imagine that Brando’s Godfather character took over a whole state and ran it like a corrupt casino to rip off just about everyone – most obviously the NKs themselves. The nukes are just the biggest gun pointed at the world to force an offer no one can refuse.

But it is the military that keeps the internal peace and wards off the outside world to keep this whole racket running. So long as the KPA gets to keep their constitutionally exalted position (‘military first’), and their generous access to privilege and the budget that it entails, I see no reason to think the KPA will overthrow KJU. Why not keep him as a figurehead, and the Kim family in general as the fall guys in case the whole thing does collapse? Let them face the angry Southern courts and swing from the gallows. That said, I do think the army’s role will increase substantially. We know  that there was some resistance to yet another dynastic succession, and that the Kims seem given to megalomania and a god-complex which the army must know is hugely dangerous. So my thinking leans towards an emergent junta with the Kims as a figleaf.

I have written a lot on NK. Here is the whole list. Here are some of the better ones: post-KJI as a military dictatorship; policy options (all bad) for dealing with NK; Arab Spring and NK; and the parallels between Korea and Germany on unification. For some humor on those famous NK traffic cops, try this.


15 thoughts on “Kim Jong Il, the Don Corleone of North Korea, has Died

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