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After Kim Jong Il

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The upcoming party conference will decide who will be Kim Jong Il’s successor and what direction North Korea will take in order to meet its goals for 2012.

Pyongyang has announced it will hold a party conference on September 28, gathering the state's ruling elite to decide two fates: who will be Kim Jong Il’s successor and what direction North Korea will take in order to become a “powerful and prosperous nation” by 2012, Kim Jong Il’s declared goal.

We can expect two things from the conference. First, Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Jong Un, will receive an important post in order to build his credentials and pave the way for him to lead a third generation of family rule. Unlike Kim Jong Il at the time of his succession, Kim Jong Un will most likely not be given a position in the military. It would be a hard sell that the 28-year-old heir apparent would have the credentials to take on a post in the country’s top establishment.

In a country that has nuclear weapons, delivering on the promise to become a strong, self-sustaining nation in under two years’ time would be best achieved by fortifying itself as a nuclear state.

It is surprising that Kim Jong Il waited until he had a stroke to start preparations for his succession (his father Kim Il Sung was in great health at 68 when he started the process). Did Kim Jong Il’s hubris put the family dynasty in jeopardy, or does he have someone else in mind for the post?

After all, Chang Song Taek’s recent appointment to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission in the Supreme People's Assembly and his likely promotion to a top post in the Politburo and the Party Secretariat indicate that Kim Jong Il has better prepared his brother-in-law for the post than his own son. While this opens the possibility that Chang will be the next leader of North Korea, it is more likely that he will jointly rule with Kim Jong Un in the near term, until the apprentice is ready to rule by himself.

To be sure, the Dear Leader has put the succession process on the fast track by circulating photos of him and his son and will use the party conference as a platform to build the cult of personality around the youngest Kim. After all, there is nothing North Korean rulers love more than throwing excessive celebrations to excite the masses about Kim family rule.

This is an important time for the regime to reassert its goals, make changes to the leadership hierarchy, and rebalance power between the military and the Workers' Party.

Second, the party conference will unveil reaffirmations, changes, and updates to North Korean policies. As with past party conferences, this is an important time for the regime to reassert its goals, make changes to the leadership hierarchy, and rebalance power between the military and the Workers' Party. Even more significant, this year’s party conference will lay out a roadmap for how North Korea plans to become a “powerful and prosperous” nation by the year 2012, in honor of the 100th birthday of founding father Kim Il Sung. The conference will show whether the regime chooses economic reform or the continuation of its military-first policy to make this a reality.

Several weeks ago, North Korean Premier Choe Yong Rim suggested that the country turn its focus to developing agriculture, light industry, and infrastructure, marking a possible shift to non-military development. Also in recent weeks, the regime has made a number of conciliatory gestures, such as proposing family reunions and military talks with South Korea, and telling China it is open to returning to the six-party talks.

But it would be premature to think this indicative of a dramatic shift in policy. Last month on his trip to China, Kim failed to receive hard economic support from President Hu Jintao. Pyongyang is turning to Seoul because its economy is in desperate shape and it badly needs aid to deal with damaging floods. There is nothing new to North Korea’s policy of détente to squeeze aid out of its neighbors, only to quickly return to ratcheting up tensions.

There is nothing new to North Korea’s short-lived policy of détente to squeeze aid out of its neighbors, only to quickly return to ratcheting up tensions.

Indeed, at the very time the regime is about to undergo a power transition, it is hard to believe that North Korea would abandon its juche policy of self-reliance that has been at the heart of regime legitimacy from its inception. In a country that has nuclear weapons and has strived to expand its nuclear capabilities for more than 20 years, delivering on the promise to become a strong, self-sustaining nation in under two years’ time would be best achieved by fortifying itself as a nuclear state. To the regime, nuclear capacity defines power and prestige in the international arena and delivers a tangible accomplishment under Kim Jong Il, who has spent his entire leadership driving the country into the ground trying to achieve nuclear statehood. Kim has said there is “no change” in his position on the six-party talks—meaning he’ll return to the negotiating table, but has no intention of actually negotiating away his nuclear card. At next week’s conference, North Korean leadership will have to decide whether simply returning to talks about its nuclear program will help it pursue its 2012 goal.

Leslie Forgach is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: John R. Bolton laments that “Iran and North Korea March On” while Dan Blumenthal applauds “Obama’s Successful North Korea Policy.” Michael Mazza urges that we “Deter Pyongyang through Beijing” and denounces the “Red Menace.”

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