The ascension of Kim Jong Eun as successor to Kim Jong Il has moved forward for the last year, seemingly without any great difficulty. However, the job is far from complete, and whether he succeeds or fails still depends in large part on whether he can exercise control over the so-called ‘power elite’.
In the words of one South Korean expert, “Kim Jong Eun has established a system of leadership through the military and security forces, but that has all been done under the protection of Kim Jong Il, so as yet the establishment of his independent status is still some way off.”
From Kim’s own perspective, his lack of experience also makes it a priority to show he has the ability to influence the elite group which controls the Party, military and administrative organs of state. Given the circumstances, it is seen as likely that Kim will initially use force, rather than trying to engender genuine loyalty.
▲ Like Father, Like Son
Some spectators have even raised the possibility that if something were to happen to Kim Jong Il in the near term, Kim Jong Eun could move to purge the core members of the existing system and replace them with his own trusted aides, just as Kim Jong Il purged his father’s close associates when rising to power himself.
According to another Seoul-based source, “The purging of those senior cadres who are becoming obstacles to the establishment of the succession system of Kim Jong Eun is already underway.”
Jeon Hyun Joon, a researcher with the Korean Institute of National Unification, believes that “Kim Jong Eun will actively employ the prestige of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung to strengthen his own power. At the same time as he extends favoritism to the military and old revolutionaries, he will thoroughly eliminate 3 generations of the family of anyone who opposes him.”
Another researcher, Oh Gyeong Seob of the Sejong Institute, agreed, saying, “Kim Jong Eun will most likely dominate the elite using his authority and force. He will try to keep his rule stable by repressing internal discord.”
On top of this, it is inevitable that Kim will follow his father in another way, by installing loyal figures in key positions.
According to sources in Seoul, Kim Jong Eun is effectively wielding command over the Chosun People’s Army through Chief of Staff Lee Young Ho and First Vice-director of the General Political Bureau Kim Jong Gak. Kim is also believed to be widening his support base lower down the ranks by moving 30 to 40 of his most loyal comrades into command posts.
▲ Speed Is of The Essence
However, while the plan seems clear, a lingering issue is how quickly the work can be completed, given Kim Jong Il’s potential for relapses into ill health, while an added stress is caused by the fact that Kim has already been announced as the successor ahead of more senior figures, including the entire membership of the Politburo.
Nevertheless, Cheong Seong Chang of the Sejong Institute foresees it as likely that a full meeting of the Party Central Committee will be called for the fait accompli of electing Kim Jong Eun to the Politburo, maybe even as early as Party Foundation Day on October 10th.
The process of promoting Kim’s achievements in order to win over the support of ordinary people and the elite will also continue over the next year, since there is a limit to the status Kim can secure using brute force alone.
One suggestion is that he could be looking to briefly improve foreign relations in order to create economic achievements at home. Using economic aid from the international community to extend his benevolence may go some way to reducing widespread displeasure at the Kim Jong Il-Kim Jong Eun system.
“Given there are not even 7 months left until the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, the government will have to rely heavily on a policy of appeasement to extract aid from the international community,” suggests Cheong.
▲ The Successor to The Military-First State
Others believe the opposite, that the current situation will drive North Korea to implement even more confrontational policies towards the outside world. In the past, North Korea has frequently shifted blame for systemic failures onto the outside world via military provocations such as missile launches and nuclear tests.
“If at some point in the future Kim Jong Eun’s succession is looking shaky,” one source commented, “he will fire up tensions with South Korea. He could choose to provoke South Korea in order to destabilize the government and provoke internal discord in the South ahead of the general election next year.”