Following the death of Kim Jong Il, there is understandable fear over the leadership transition about to take place in North Korea. The Dear Leader’s youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, is the country’s recognized heir apparent, despite his mere 27 years of age. He has not had the 20 years of preparation for the role that his father had working at the side of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. And in a society that values seniority and relationships, his relative inexperience is sure to work against him.
But while his youth and relative lack of preparation are disadvantages, what may very well work against him most is the uncertainty that’s likely to occur in the transition period at hand. When his father took over, he observed a three-year mourning period before officially assuming authority. That’s a long time during which leaders from the country’s vast army or even high-ranking officials from within his own family could try to assert their power.
For instance, Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, were anointed as leaders of the “great successor’s” inner circle to guide him through the transition, ward off potential threats to his power, and provide reassurances to a society that values age. If Kim Jong Un also takes a multi-year wait-and-see approach to learn the ropes and build relationships, a power struggle could result while it’s unclear who’s really in charge. Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea, predicted to the Associated Press that “tension will arise between Jang and Kim Jong Eun, because Kim will have no choice but to share some power with Jang.” And they aren’t the only family members who could vie for authority: Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea analyst at Leeds University, writes that Kim Jong Eun's elder half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was passed over for the succession but is known as a reformer who could still come into play if his younger brother is not cut out for the job.
Then there is the military. In a political ideology that puts the military first, the country has some 1.2 million people in the army and another 7.7 million in reserve, and a group of powerful generals could “decide enough is enough after two generations of Kims,” an author of a book on the North Korean dynasty told Bloomberg News. Given that Kim Jong Eun is not immediately awarded power and has “no profile in the military,” Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Associated Press, “things could really come apart.”
And finally, of course, there are the people of North Korea themselves. If the revolts in the Arab world have reminded us of anything, it’s that brutal human conditions can bring about remarkable collective human change. North Korea is more shut off and isolated than the Arab world, of course. But as Foster-Carter opines, “this untried youth must now run a country both at odds with most of the world and oppressive of its long-suffering people - who may not obey forever, despite the remarkable scenes of publicly orchestrated grief which we are now witnessing.”
North Korea’s leaders have created a multitude of problems for its citizens—an economy destroyed by extreme isolationism, vast poverty and hunger among its citizens, and strained relationships with the world over its nuclear program. Kim Jong Eun will have enough of a struggle dealing with these massive issues, especially with his inexperience and lack of “demigod” status like his father. But without a leadership transition that happens with immediacy and clarity, his chances of success are even slighter. Power, just like nature, abhors a vacuum.
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