Kim Jong Eun and Military-first Politics

Evidence of the past few days suggests that Kim Jong Eun’s public persona will be as the “rightful successor to the Military-first policy,” raising concerns over the possibility of a prolonged military dictatorship.

Kim Jong Il bestowed the rank of four-star general on Kim Jong Eun on Monday. The KCNA reported early Tuesday, “Comrade Kim Jong Il has handed down decree No. 0051 ordering the promotion of the leaders of the Korean People’s Army”, and added that “six, including Kim Kyung Hee, Kim Jong Eun and Choi Ryong Hae are to be given the rank of four-star general.” It was the first time that the North Korean public media had mentioned Kim Jong Eun by name.

Then he was handed two key positions, in the Central Committee of the Party and as Vice Chairman of its Central Military Commission, at the Delegates’ Conference on Tuesday.

Setting the pretext for Kim Jong Eun’s succession and fitting it in with legitimate procedures were deemed crucial factors in North Korea’s smooth transition of power. Not only is Kim Jong Eun young, inexperienced and a virtual unknown to outsiders, but other external factors, such as Kim Jong Il’s health problems, the public’s disillusionment with the authorities after last year’s botched currency reform, not to mention sanctions from South Korea and the international community at large, are working to his disadvantage. Rules and procedures that were made during the last succession of power between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il also have to be adhered to.

All of these reasons added weight to the argument that the only “slogan of choice” left for Kim Jong Il was for him to continue with the “Military-first policy.”

The Military-first policy was first conceived during times of economic hardship in the early stages of Kim Jong Il’s rule, as part of a plan to control the economy and people’s lives through military authority by falsely exaggerating the dangers of an American or South Korean invasion. As a result of this policy, Kim Jong Il has retained a firm grip on power since the mid-90s. In the period leading up to the Delegates’ Conference, North Korean news outlets have been trying to justify the Military-first policy and have vociferously called for its continuation.

The bestowal of the “four-star general” rank on Kim Jong Eun strongly implies that the Military-first ideology will factor heavily into the justification and legitimization process of the succession to power. Kim Jong Eun’s military rank is estimated to be a mere title rather than one of practical implication, but it nevertheless was more than enough to provide a platform for entry into the Central Military Commission.

Calculations that should Kim Jong Eun succeed in reining in the Central Military Commission then stable dual control would be established by father and son over the country’s military with Kim Jong Il controlling the National Defense Commission might also have been reasons for the appointment.

Furthermore, internal power struggles between the ruling members of the National Defense Commission which, operating outside the Chosun Workers’ Party’s control, have risen to the top of the administrative hierarchy, and those of the military commission of the Workers’ Party can be better moderated through direct communication between father and son.

The elevation of Kim’s own sister, Kim Kyung Hee, to the post of four-star general is seen by experts in similar terms. Kim Kyung Hee has been selected to look after Kim Jong Eun, who will serve an apprenticeship within the military, and in the future she herself could also be appointed to key positions in its leadership. Looking back upon her husband Jang Sung Taek’s promotion last April from director of the Ministry of Administration to a Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, a future scenario in which Kim Jong Il’s family members, as caretakers of Kim Jong Eun, occupy all of the key posts in the Party, military and National Defense Commission is not beyond the realms of possibility.

If Kim Jong Eun’s apprenticeship starts with the continuation of the Military-first policy, short-term instability stemming from the succession of power is most likely to be limited. However, if the stubbornness of the Military-first policy and Kim Jong Eun’s inexperience combine to produce a negative effect, North Korea’s domestic struggles and relations with the international community could deteriorate even further.