SEOUL — In the aftermath of leader Kim Jong Il’s death, North Korea is likely to shift for the first time to a collective leadership model, with a small circle of older caretakers advising — and sharing power with — untested successor Kim Jong Eun, Seoul’s intelligence agency said this week.
The move, widely expected by analysts, provides a clue about how North Korea will adjust to perhaps its biggest test in six decades — the absence of an unquestioned authoritarian figure. A power-sharing model would allow Kim, who is in his late 20s, to grow into his role, provided none of the caretakers try to claim the job themselves.
Seoul’s National Intelligence Service made its forecast Tuesday to parliament, and lawmakers later discussed the briefing with reporters, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Wednesday. Reuters, citing an unnamed source with close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing, reported Wednesday that Kim’s support team would include his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and military leaders.
Analysts in Seoul and Washington caution that North Korea’s major decisions about the new leadership system — and any conflicts that result because of it — probably will emerge only in the weeks and months to come. But many say they expect Kim to be shown to the outside world as Pyongyang’s leader — even if, initially, he’s only a symbolic one. The Kim family has ruled North Korea for 63 years, and its personality cult underpins the government’s legitimacy.
During North Korea’s only previous leadership transition, after the 1994 death of founder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il needed three years to consolidate his power and become the nation’s official ruler. And in that case, he had been building power behind the scenes for almost two decades before his father’s death.
When Kim Jong Il died Saturday, North Korea was only in the beginning stages of a father-to-son power transfer it had hoped would take a decade — not just a year or two. Kim Jong Eun had emerged as a public figure in North Korea only 15 months earlier. Even now, with several positions in the Workers’ Party, he has nowhere near the number of job titles his father did. And he still doesn’t have a position on the National Defense Commission, the country’s powerful military body. Kim Jong Il was chairman of that commission, controlling the country’s 1.2-million-man armed forces.
“I think this is a critical fault line” between Kim Jong Eun and the military, Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Tuesday in Washington. “In what we have seen so far in this admittedly incomplete transition, all of Kim Jong Eun’s positions are really based in the party. He’s not engaged in the defense commission, which was really at the core of Kim Jong Il’s leadership base.”
As North Korea scrambles to ensure a smooth transition, other countries have reached out to Pyongyang. Several senior Chinese officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao, visited the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday to offer condolences. Beijing in recent years has become Pyongyang’s primary benefactor, delivering aid and providing foreign investment. China’s embrace of North Korea reflects its primary goal of keeping the Korean Peninsula stable.
Wen said that North Koreans, “under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea and comrade Kim Jong Eun, will definitely turn their grief into strength,” Beijing’s Xinhua News Agency reported.
“I don’t think there is any uncertainty” about China’s relationship with North Korea, said Hajime Izumi, a North Korea expert at Shizuoka University in Japan. “China sees it’s important to have a very stable regime in North Korea under Kim Jong Eun.”
The Obama administration, meanwhile, played down reports of diplomatic progress with North Korea since Kim Jong Il’s death. Reacting to published accounts about U.S. and South Korean outreach to Pyongyang, one senior U.S. official said that the only efforts so far have been “technical” and limited.
“There has been nothing consequential. It’s ‘let’s-stay-in-touch’-type stuff,’ ” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomacy. “There is no policy content.”
The official, who is privy to high-level policy discussions on North Korea, said efforts to negotiate a food-aid package for the communist country appeared essentially on hold, at least until North Korean leaders complete the ceremonial mourning period for their dead leader. Even before Kim Jong Il’s death, negotiators had been awaiting a response from the North Korean side, said the official, who disputed assertions that U.S. negotiators had taken proposals off the table until new leaders were firmly in place.
“There are some first-order strategic things that have to be worked out by their side,” the official said. “They know we’re standing by.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that there had been a “telephone contact” Monday but that the North Korean interlocutors “were not newly instructed” or authorized to negotiate.
“From our perspective, we want to be respectful of the period of mourning, but the ball’s in North Korea’s court,” she said.
Special correspondent Ayako Mie in Tokyo and staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.