Foreign and domestic experts tend nowadays to stress the need for plans to counter drastic change within North Korea, given the rapid succession of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Eun, partly caused by the elder Kim’s deteriorating health amid worsening conditions surrounding the regime.
It is certainly true that if Kim Jong Il’s health problems start to affect his grip on power or the smooth transition to his son, a multitude of potential problems could be on the horizon.
Examples of such changes could include a surprise coup led by senior Party or military officials, or a surprise civilian uprising caused, in all likelihood, by economic strife. For their part, the South Korean and U.S. authorities are sufficiently concerned about the risk of surprise to have put in place ‘OPLAN 5029’, a military contingency plan to take effect should sudden changes occur.
Of course, some of the above examples could even occur simultaneously. If Kim Jong Il’s ability to govern weakens irreparably, pressure may build from within, leading to a coup, while if the economic crisis worsens still further, those military figures opposed to the current regime could join with ordinary individuals to launch an anti-regime uprising.
1. The risk of a military coup increasing daily
Kim Jong Il, having graduated from university, received leadership training for 20 years under the wing of the Chosun Workers’ Party. This process stands in stark contrast to the succession of Kim Jong Eun, which is moving at breakneck speed, presumably due to the waning state of Kim Jong Il’s health. The problem is that the more swiftly the succession proceeds, the greater the possibility of instability arising.
Kim Jong Eun is said to have graduated from Kim Il Sung Politics and Military University. The resultant military understanding and network of military men he gained may work to his advantage in taking control of the military structure; however, it is debatable whether the military’s long-standing triple surveillance system will continue to function in the long run, given that various factors have by necessity already weakened central controls.
Kim Jong Il has traditionally kept watch on his highest officials exceedingly thoroughly, and receives regular reports on the whereabouts and activities of key frontline officers via mutual and self-reinforcing surveillance by commanding officers, political commissars and Defense Security Command. If any hint of anti-regime moves is discovered, instant and crushing punishments are inflicted on three generations of the offending individual’s family.
On the carrot side of the coin, North Korea’s elite, to whom the maintenance of a loyal base through the distribution of special interests is crucial, regularly hand out perquisites and other interests to the upcoming elite group. This includes the continual provision of elite-only supplies, top level apartments and a parallel system of medical care, to name but three.
However, if the Chosun Workers’ Party is placed too far ahead of the military during the succession process, the possibility of military discontent spilling over into a coup increases drastically. This is exacerbated by the fact that due to a severe foreign currency supply crisis and shortage of supplies, the benefits of being a loyal, high-ranking military officer are slowly disappearing in any case. If either process reaches the limit of these elite officers’ endurance, a clash will be almost inevitable.
Partly because they know about this risk, Pyongyang is extending the hand of ‘friendship’ to the international community. However, inter-Korean relations are tense and the international community is acting with uncommon resolve on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Therefore, alleviation is hard to come by, and the malnutrition of soldiers remains severe, while the people, from whom hungry soldiers sometimes steal, no longer trust the military. A large number of elite young military officials are said to be observing the current situation with great dissatisfaction, and while sporadic resistance can be crushed at source, if wide-ranging rebellion occurs, the situation will be harder to predict.
“Kim Jong Il induces loyalty from his closest aides with various gifts and favors while making sure that they do not harbor ulterior motives via a thorough surveillance system,” a high ranking North Korean defector agreed. “Kim Jong Il will make Kim Jong Eun follow his methods, and whether or not he will be able to take charge like his father, will depend on his mastery of the craft. If cracks occur in the management of high cadres, the most dangerous group will be the military.”
“In a place like North Korea, where extreme suppression takes place with the power of the security forces in the driving seat, the support of the military is essential for a successful rebellion. There is a higher possibility of younger military officers sympathizing with this than generals,” he concluded.
Park Hyung Jun, a senior research analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), added, “Great conflict over power seems likely during his establishment of a power base, so the current instability will carry on for a while.”
One North Korea specialist, who requested anonymity, pointed out, “If Kim Jong Eun cannot accumulate achievements as the successor then cadres will start to doubt his leadership. If Kim Jong Il dies at the beginning of the succession period, Jang Sung Taek, who is in charge of social controls and security, might not back Kim Jong Eun unconditionally.”
He added, “What Jang Sung Taek and his associates choose when Kim Jong Il dies or his power weakens is important, for then Kim Jong Eun may not be able to completely seize the cadres.”
“When Kim Jong Il dies, the most important element for the security of the regime will be how well Kim Jong Eun can lead cooperation between the military authorities and his associates,” Kim Yeon Su, a professor at Korean National Defense University, concluded. “If Kim Jong Eun cannot do that due to a lack of leadership, he will inevitably face great upheaval in the internal system.”