The North Korean system, its power and autonomy rely on and converge in Kim Jong Il. This fact has actually been a key reason why North Korea has been able to maintain its system while surrounded by domestic and international complexities for so long, but at the same time could turn out to be its biggest weak point during the succession period. If the power shift does not progress smoothly, or the successor harbors a decisive flaw, the regime will face potentially fatal problems.
Now, Kim Jong Il’s health is presumed to be rapidly deteriorating, and the pace of the succession appears to have been quickened accordingly. It is hard to believe that organizing a succession in this hurried fashion will produce no problems.
Therefore, we must ask what kind of difficulties might be encountered during the power shift from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Woon, or in the following period.
1) If Kim Jong Woon makes a significant mistake during the pre-succession training period or high officials feel compelled to speak out against him for some reason, Jong Woon and Kim Jong Il, who is lacking perspicacity or patience due to his ill health, could easily grow apart.
2) Kim Jong Woon is young, has little experience in politics and no network, so he is likely to have at least one guardian. There will inevitably be gaps between them in generational thought, political taste or work style.
If Kim Jong Woon were to have trouble with his guardians, it would be a problem even if Kim Jong Il were still alive. If such a situation were to occur after Kim Jong Il’s death, it could grow far more serious.
In addition, a power struggle between Kim Jong Woon and his guardian, who presumably possesses an excellent political pedigree, would risk giving rise to a great storm in North Korea.
3) If Kim Jong Il dies or falls into a coma, Kim Jong Woon will officially be running the state. Then, there is the possibility of his enthusiastically pursuing new policies, which could arouse the antipathy of officials in the Party or the military. If so, and if a few influential figures were to encourage dissent, the system itself could be at stake.
However, despite these difficulties, the totalitarian dictatorship, which has been continuously refined by both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il over the last half century, is solid. Therefore, in the absence of influence from China or South Korea, the risks will stay low.
The Question of Kim Jong Woon’s Ability
If Kim Jong Woon simply has an average, adequate degree of political ability, and no outside influences were to play on the system, it would be possible for him to stay in power and maintain the family system for a long time. However, the existence of South Korea and China is so overpowering that it is already impossible to completely exclude information flowing in from the two countries, and that is a problem.
If Kim Jong Woon has excellent political sense, then, he might be able to maintain the system for a few decades more, even in its current parlous state.
North Korean people do not give loyalty to their leader from the bottom of their hearts any more. In the 1980s, when Kim Jong Il went through the power transition period, the people tended to idolize the leader, so there were not any difficulties for Kim Jong Il.
But now, there is none of that left. The system of terror is still working, so there is a faint hope for Kim Jong Woon. However, once the terror system starts to collapse, it might all be over surprisingly quickly.
The Question of the Ruling Elite
Some point out that although symptoms of systemic collapse are appearing, they will not cause much damage because the ruling elite will move to prevent collapse in order to maintain their privileges.
However, North Korea’s ruling elite do not have a strong sense of personal responsibility for the state, but merely a sense of being followers of Kim Jong Il. At the beginning of the collapse when signs are just appearing, they will show their loyalty by doing their best, but when the signs of collapse are distinct, they will inevitably try to find the best way to survive while abandoning their responsibilities.
It has been said that the ruling powers will create a cooperative leadership system excluding Kim Jong Woon to overcome such risks. However, the elite is accustomed to a vertical relationship with Kim Jong Il for the last few decades, so they don’t have any experience or awareness of how to manage a horizontal, cooperative system. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a leading group would be able to clear away the successor and substitute for him because the totalitarian ruling infrastructure is solidly rooted.
The North Korean people are not ready for a popular uprising, either. That being said, if insecurity were to occur in the leading group, the people would feel serious unease, and in that case there would be a higher possibility that the final encouragement for the collapse of the system could come from the people themselves. On the other side of the coin, popular discomfort could provide the momentum the leading class needs to change the system.
The Role of China
Although China does not want the collapse of North Korean system, there is no likelihood that they will actively seek to prevent it as long as it does not look to be heading in a catastrophic direction.
During the future confusion in North Korea, dispatching a Chinese military adventure would do more harm to China than good, so it is not what the Chinese government wants. However, were the chaos to be getting out of hand, China would doubtless be prepared to send in the military in order to prevent extreme instability in the wider region.
In any other situation, however, China can be relied upon to ignore the North’s internal situation. Only catastrophe matters in Beijing.
For the time being, then, Chinese influence on North Korea is limited, but in the period of change it will grow, and such a Chinese influence may provide a prop by which to prevent complete collapse.
In the end, though, even if North Korea were to completely collapse, the North Korean elite and people would prefer the Chinese way to the South Korean system because the differences between theirs and the Chinese system are much the smaller.