Saturday, September 11, 2010

Talk of succession in North Korea

An heir-raising event in Pyongyang

DELEGATES from across North Korea gathered in Pyongyang for a special conference—probably the most significant official meeting held by the Stalinist state in 30 years. Posters were said to have appeared around the capital hailing the occasion as “shining forever in the history of our party and country”. South Korean officials suggested that tanks and missiles had been spied in the city, preparing for a giant military parade to mark the occasion.

Such conferences are rare: only two others have been held since the country was created after the second world war, and this is the first convened by Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader. In an extremely centralised country, where the armed forces and the Communist party hold sway, the Dear Leader had previously deemed such a conference unnecessary (though he has allowed slightly more showy party congresses to take place). So the fact that he has called one, shortly after making two trips to the country’s one big ally, China, is taken by most observers to indicate that political change is under way.

Most obvious is the possibility that the meeting may arrange for a change of leadership. The previous two such conferences, held in 1958 and 1966, saw the election (in Soviet style) of many senior officials in the wake of purges against “anti-party enemies”. This one may serve to anoint Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir apparent.

If so, the most likely scenario will be for the dictator-in-waiting, a Swiss-educated, untested man still in his 20s, to get an important post on the central committee of the Korean Workers’ Party. A huge propaganda exercise is also expected: Open Radio for North Korea, a short-wave radio station, reports that 10m portraits of the young man have been ordered, for distribution after the conference.

Kim Jong Il was similarly elevated in and after the 1980 party congress. Over the next 14 years leading to the death of his father, Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader), he gradually assumed more responsibility, and became the de facto ruler while Kim père was still alive.

His own successor may have less time to settle into the family job. The elder Kim is thought to be in poor health, so the new leader would need to gain experience and generate loyalty quickly to avoid being deposed. And the younger Kim, unlike his father in 1980, has little experience, if any, in political or military affairs. His authority, for the moment, seems to derive entirely from being his father’s favourite.

Much will depend on the position of Chang Sung Taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law and the second most powerful man in the country. He is considered one of the architects of the succession, and Kim Jong Un would rely on his support to ensure the compliance of the party and the armed forces. It would help, too, if China is seen to be sympathetic. Even so, there is no certainty that a factionalised elite would accept rule by the 27-year-old basketball fan with his uncle acting as regent.

In fact there is little certainty whatsoever. Even if the delegates do address the possible elevation of Kim Jong Un, analysts argue that the conference may need to produce even more than that. With North Korea’s economy in dire straits and the country increasingly dependent on China, reform, some believe, may be on the cards. Although nobody expects a Deng Xiaoping-style liberalisation, a slow opening up, at least towards China, is a possibility. A younger man may be the one to attempt that.
The Economist

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