Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on June 3, 2009
Since 1998 when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il finally took over the official mantle of his father, Kim Il Sung, four years after the death of the senior Kim, the unprecedented communist dynasty has been a popular subject of mockery for many North Korea watchers. Now in the face of weakening health of the 67-year-old dictator, speculation is rife that his third son, Kim Jong Un, has been anointed as the latest heir to the dynasty.
The South Korean equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency in the U.S. has touched off a flurry of news reports on the succession issue this week. On June 1 Seoul’s National Intelligence Service informed lawmakers that Pyongyang had told its embassies abroad to pledge their loyalty to the youngest of Kim’s three sons. Jong Un is still in his mid-20s and he needs to build up a lot of credit before he emerges as a leader in the reclusive communist nation.
Intelligence officials in Seoul have said Jong Un, educated in Switzerland, appears to be the most capable of Kim’s three sons. North Korea watchers also took his reported appointment to the powerful National Defense Commission this year as a possible signal that he was being groomed as a future leader. The commission is North Korea’s most powerful government body headed by Kim Jong Il himself.
The Seoul government’s stance is that it can’t confirm the North has chosen Jong Un as the political heir to his father. But the consensus among North Korea specialists, including many researchers at government-funded think tanks in Seoul, is that North Korea’s recent saber-rattling is linked to the succession issue.
By creating an external crisis, Pyongyang wants North Koreans to rally around the military, which is the power base of the North Korean leader. If the crisis is successfully resolved, the credit could go to the heir and help build up his reputation. Some analysts say Kim Jong Il wants his heir to inherit nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as the strongest defense of the North’s repressive regime.
Such theories explain recent military posturing by the North. And if the North is determined to build up a case justifying the ruling family’s dynasty before the ailing leader gets incapacitated (Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke last summer), then the world will have to be prepared to cope with growing tension with the communist country.
Pyongyang’s obsession to achieve political stability through military maneuvering sets the stage for the rollback of any economic liberalization the Stalinist state might have been playing with. With hardline army generals gaining greater influence, bureaucrats supporting experiments with elements of a market economy must be feeling that they need to keep their heads down.
Little wonder a pilot project of inter-Korean economic cooperation at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the border between the two Koreas, has run into problems. A few weeks ago, the North Korean military warned the South that some 100 southern businesses operating at the complex should prepare to withdraw from the project unless the South is willing to respect new terms and rules the North is setting.