Dispatch: Kim Jong Il's Death and North Korea's Transition
Vice President of Strategic Analysis Rodger Baker examines the prospects for political stability in North Korea following the death of Kim Jong Il.
North Korea kept the information about Kim Jong Il's death a secret for more than 48 hours. This suggests that the North Korean elite is holding together fairly steadily during this time of transition.
The current leadership, despite having differences of personal interest or factional interest, has one thing in common and that is maintaining the current political system. At the same time that South Korea, the United States, Japan and China — as well as other countries — are fretting over a potential collapse scenario in North Korea, so are the North Korean elite.
North Korea is ruled primarily by the second-generation leadership. These are the peers of Kim Jong Il, the sons of revolutionaries liked Kim Il Sung. While North Korea's first generation of leadership claimed authority from its role as anti-Japanese fighters and as fighters in the Korean War, the second-generation leadership really stems from simply being the children of the first generation. Trained primarily in North Korea, in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern Bloc countries, this generation really has little to offer — either in economically changing North Korea or, in particular, a unified Korea.
Maintaining their elite status, then, in many ways is the most important thing that they have going. They are really not necessarily interested in a fundamental alteration of the North Korean economic structure because that could ultimately undermine their positions.
The third-generation leadership — those represented by Kim Jong Un — really do not have the strength yet to assert themselves within the North Korean leadership structure. Their interest right now is in biding their time and allowing this smooth leadership transition so that over time they can more firmly establish themselves within the elite structure.
Many of this third generation have been trained abroad, particularly in Western Europe, and some perhaps even in the United States. Their views of economics, of global interdependencies, really are far different than those of any of their predecessors in North Korea. Unlike the second-generation or first-generation North Koreans, most of this third generation also is untainted by North Korea's former activities in infiltration into South Korea or in terrorists' activities.
They ultimately have the best chance of retaining their elite status — even in an economically changing North Korea or in a unified Korea — but not until they reach a critical mass within the government.
Thus, despite factional and generational differences, there really is a commonality amongst the North Korean elite to maintain the current political structure to ensure that this transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un goes relatively smoothly. This doesn't guarantee that everything will go smoothly. As we saw with Kim Jong Il's transition into power, he had more than two decades where everyone knew he was going to be the successor to Kim Il Sung, and it still took him more than three years to firmly establish himself. But at least in the short term what we're seeing in North Korea is all of the various elements of the elite trying to pull together to maintain the current political system and to maintain their elite status.