Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Next of Kim -A dangerous succession gets under way in North Korea

NORTH KOREA has long been one of the world’s most unpredictable and dangerous states. It now seems to be entering a period in which it could be even more unpredictable and dangerous than usual: the possible handover of power from one generation to the next.

On September 28th, after an unexplained postponement, the ruling Korean Workers’ Party is due to assemble for its first large gathering in 30 years. Its purpose is to “elect the supreme leadership body” of the party. At the last congress in 1980, the current boss, Kim Jong Il, was elevated to the position from which he eventually succeeded his father. This time, rumour has it, Mr Kim’s third son, Kim Jong Un, will be given a job in the public eye, in preparation for taking over in due course.

With relations between the two Koreas fraught after the sinking of a South Korean ship in March, with outside parties keen to persuade a nuclear-armed North to rejoin six-party talks on disarmament and with China apparently still backing the North (economically, at least), the neighbours are watching the opaque proceedings with nervousness.

At least the conference’s postponement is susceptible of an innocent explanation. Months of torrential rain have caused flooding and landslides all over the country. Though the delay was also put down to Kim Jong Il’s poor health, and even to stories of unresolved factional in-fighting, the simplest explanation, says a South Korean former government adviser on North Korea, is that the government could not ensure all delegates would reach Pyongyang on time, so chose to postpone the start.

The bigger question is what the conference might mean for the future of the reclusive state. North Korea is unique among communist countries in having what amounts to a royal family. The current dictator, Kim Jong Il, inherited power from his father, Kim Il Sung. The personality cult extends not only to them, but to Kim senior’s mother, Kang Ban Suk (“mother of Korea”), to his first wife, Kim Chong Suk (“mother of revolution”), and to his brother, Kim Chol Ju (“the revolutionary fighter”). The picture above shows the two dictators and the mother of revolution.

It would suit the bizarre logic of this communist monarchy that a son of the “Dear Leader” should take control one day. Kim Jong Il is said to be seriously ill. There have been repeated stories of strokes and pancreatic cancer. He would seem to have an interest in planning now to hand over to an anointed successor. (It should however be admitted that according to a former American president, Jimmy Carter, who recently met China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, Kim Jong Il told Mr Wen that the idea that a succession is under way was a “false rumour from the West”.)

The difficulty Kim Jong Un would face—if he were anointed dictator-in-waiting—is that at 27 (or 28, depending on whom you believe), he is too young to have real influence over the two institutions that matter, the party and the army. Kim Jong Il had 14 years in which to build up loyalties between his anointment and eventual succession. But if his health is as bad as it seems, his Swiss-educated, basketball-playing son would probably have a lot less. Much would therefore depend on those around him, and especially on Chang Sung Taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law and the second most powerful man in the country.

The young Un

In June Mr Chang was promoted to the post of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission, the country’s decision-making body. He himself has been considered a possible successor to Mr Kim but his recent promotion has been interpreted as a manoeuvre to bolster Kim Jong Un. The idea is that Mr Chang will act as a kind of regent. But it is also possible that Kim Jong Un is being groomed as successor in name only. He is thought to have been picked ahead of his two older brothers solely because he is the least bad of a bad lot. It is possible that Kim Jong Il may expect the regent to govern indefinitely.

Whether North Korea can manage a successful transition depends not only on events inside the country, but also on China, without whose help the North would quickly collapse. Privately, many Chinese pour scorn on the Kim dynasty. But the government would probably be content with any arrangement that has a reasonable chance of keeping the country stable and on good terms with Beijing.

Mr Kim’s recent visits to China made clear that, notwithstanding Chinese support for UN sanctions against the North, he accepts that friendly ties with the regional giant remain crucial to his country’s survival. China is unlikely to push Mr Kim or his successor into reforming the North’s political system, though some observers of North Korea think China may want Mr Kim to boost the role of the party at the expense of the army to make the regime less unpredictable. But China will continue trying to prod the North Koreans into reforming the economy and opening the country more to the outside world. It hopes a transformation like the one that China itself has achieved since the death of Mao Zedong might avert a sudden collapse. When Kim Il Sung wanted to build up Kim Jong Il’s authority in the 1980s, the North could still play China off against its rival, the Soviet Union, to ensure the support of both. Now North Korea has only China to turn to if the political transition that seems to be starting goes awry. The Economist

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