North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Habemus Successor? Or Thaek it to the Limit?


Surely there must be a better photo of Kim Jong-un than this age progression shot of how may look today.

Another report has surfaced in the South Korean press that Kim Jong-un is undergoing a “grooming process” (what Medieval Europe royalty would term a “prince’s education”) to succeed his father.  The Korea Herald reports that Mr. Kim is currently involved in middle-level personnel decisions within the Korean Workers’ Party with Ri Je-gang, Senior Deputy Director of the Organization and Guidance Department. Previous reports found Kim Jong-un gainfully employed in middle management of the National Defense Commission, but he did not seem to have any KWP affiliations.  This could indicate that Kim Jong-un has a position or at least conditional admission within the OGD.   Despite the supreme power the DPRK Constitution endows the NDC, the KWP still retains supreme influence over the policy process in the DPRK.  The KWP Central Military Committee vets military promotions and the CCKWP Administration Department controls the internal security apparatus.  The Korea Herald report does not completely discard Nam Sung-wook’s contention that Kim Jong-un was (or has been) briefly sidelined.  Mr. Nam’s contention is predicated on Mr. Kim having involved himself in personnel matters affecting the Guard Command, which is directly subordinate to Kim Jong-il.  Muting any propaganda campaigns to boost Kim Jong-un, particularly in advance of negotiations with the US and a potential return to the Six Party Talks, is also in the DPRK’s strategic interest.  It presents the impression that Kim Jong-il is the actual power in Pyongyang, and assuages US or Chinese concerns that any deals to which General-Secretary Kim assents will not be nullified by a succeeding regime (be it a hereditary successor or collective leadership).

But Kim Jong-un will not be able to take his place in the big chair without the proper organization and guidance.  Yonhap News reports on a Brookings Institution event where the guest of honor was Kim Kwang-jin, a former Third Floor employee and arguably one of the high level North Korean migrant.  Kim Kwang-jin places the burden of succession squarely on the back of a collective power system and


Jang Song-thaek in December 2008

Jang Song-thaek (whom your humble servant thinks is the actual successor) and the political patronage network Mr. Jang and his wife Kim Kyong-hui long cultivated  Furthermore, according to a Reuters report of the same Brookings event, Kim Kwang-jin has doubts as to whether the hereditary succession will actually be a binding power arrangement.

Kim Kwang-jin proposes Kim Jong-nam as one possible successor-in-exile due to Kim Jong-nam’s contacts in China.  But Kim Jong-nam’s succession would be off-set by Mr. Jang and Ms. Kim in two ways: one is that Jang Song-thaek has his own contacts in Beijing, and; Kim Jong-nam is known to have a close relationship with his aunt and uncle.  As I have previously written with regard to DPRK succession, power will not actually reside with Kim Jong-un, or another hereditary designate.  It will reside with a small coterie of the North Korean elite–Party powers such as Ri Je-gang and Kim Kyong-hui, KPA powers such as Generals Ri Myong-su, O Kuk-ryol and Kim Jong-gak lined up with Jang Song-thaek who manages the internal security apparatus which is a conjunction of the Party and Army.


Kim Kyong-hui

So, the question remains, do we march to the footsteps of the Morningstar General?  Or Thaek it to the limit?

An affiliate of 38 North