A week after N. Korean leader’s death, signs of smooth transition

December 25, 2011

In the span of one week, Kim Jong Eun became North Korea’s “great successor” and his political party’s “outstanding leader.” The country’s state-run newspaper, as if introducing the next step, urged him to become the military’s “supreme commander.” And, so far, there is no evidence of opposition to his ascension from within the secretive Stalinist nation.

Since the announcement last Monday of the death of leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea has touted his heir with unequivocal zeal — a sign, experts say, that a tenuous power transfer is passing the first of its many tests. Outside analysts concede that they have limited insight into Pyongyang’s ruling class, but they liken the group to a pack of bulldogs in the room next door: You hear the growling if they start to fight.

“The biggest surprise so far is just how smooth it’s going,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Kim Jong Eun has been accepted almost immediately by the leadership. It’s clear why. It’s not because he is special. It’s because the North Korean elite understands — to use an old phrase — that either they hang together, or they will be hanged separately.”

North Korea’s second father-to-son power transfer has followed much the same pattern as the first one, in 1994, with the country tightening already-rigid social controls to hold itself together.

In the days after Kim Il Sung’s death 17 years ago, U.S. analysts and researchers talked about a worst-case scenario in which factional power struggles would lead the country into chaos; defectors in Seoul said North Koreans knew too much about the outside world to accept another Kim. But North Korea quickly established for Kim Jong Il the same profile that his father had, calling him, first, the “great successor,” then awarding him top ruling positions.

But Kim Jong Eun faces more formidable challenges than his father and grandfather, in large part because he didn’t have much time to prepare. He had been groomed behind the scenes for only a couple of years — not the nearly two decades that his father got. And, in 1994, North Korea had a tighter lockdown on communication. People didn’t carry cellphones, and there were virtually no private markets, mini-pockets of capitalism that sprang up when the state lost its ability to distribute food.

But one thing hasn’t changed: North Korea’s government still imposes on its about 25 million people a system of unequaled surveillance, designed to keep them from gossiping, conspiring or leaking information to outside governments.

The few foreign visitors permitted into the country are tracked by two escorts, not one, so that the escorts can keep watch on each other. Husbands withhold their deepest political thoughts from wives, and many defectors flee for China without telling a soul. Dissenters are imprisoned, often for arbitrary periods, and sometimes tortured, according to think tanks and nongovernmental organizations.

After Kim Jong Il’s death, the country increased its troop presence in border areas and blocked its mobile phone service in areas close to China, Japan’s Kyodo news service reported. That fell in line with earlier attempts this year to seal North Korea from information that could threaten the government: After the death of Moammar Gaddafi, North Korea prevented several hundred of its nationals who were living in Libya from returning home, fearful that they would spread news of the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings.

Experts caution that they will need months, maybe years, to know whether North Korea can successfully promote Kim Jong Eun, thought to be in his late 20s. But Kim Jong Il’s funeral Wednesday could provide the first signs of a new order among the leadership, based on who sits or stands in high-profile positions during the ceremony. North Korea also faces several landmark days next year: Jan. 8, Kim Jong Eun’s birthday, and April 15, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.

So far, though, North Korea seems to be emphasizing the same military-first philosophy that it honed under Kim Jong Il, who built up the country’s nuclear stockpile and funneled one-quarter of the gross domestic product to its 1.2-million-person military force.

On Sunday, state television showed a key regent in the power transfer, Jang Song Thaek, wearing a military uniform as he paid his respects to Kim Jong Il’s body, lying in state in Pyongyang. It was the first time that Jang, Kim Jong Eun’s uncle, had been shown on television in a military suit, Seoul’s Yonhap News Agency said. Jang was installed last year as a caretaker for Kim Jong Eun’s eventual ascension; he could serve as a crucial go-between for the young leader and the nation’s troops.

It’s also true that any new instability might not be immediately apparent. North Korea’s previous leaders proved to be masters in brinksmanship, pushing far enough to worry neighboring countries but never so hard as to trigger their own demise. Now, some foreign analysts worry that Kim Jong Eun could try to prove his worth as a military commander by ordering a nuclear test, a long-range missile test or a strike against South Korea.

“After the first four to six months of getting their internal house in order, I worry there may be a temptation to try a nuclear test or another provocation,” said Peter Beck, the incoming Korea representative at the Seoul-based Asia Foundation. “But what has to make them think twice about it is, no South Korean leader can take that without a strong response. I think North Korea knows a provocation will cost them more. That will be one of the dilemmas.”

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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