By Nicholas Hamisevicz
After Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008, the transition process appeared to quicken the pace to prepare for a North Korea after the Dear Leader. Now that Kim Jong-il has died, the world will see if the pieces were put into the correct spots for a successful transition of power, especially the moves after the 2010 Party Conference. The spotlight will be on Kim Jong-un, and along with him, here are some key people to watch and understand in North Korea’s transition:
1.) Kim Jong-un
The spotlight is now on Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third and youngest son, the second son of his wife Ko Yong Hui. The 28 year old has been listed first on the funeral committee for Kim Jong-il. KCNA has said that the North Korean people will be working hard to “accomplish the cause of building a prosperous and powerful country under the leadership of General Kim Jong Un.” The transition had already suggested he would be the successor to his father. On the first day of the Party Conference in 2010, Kim Jong-un was promoted to a four star general. Subsequently during the conference, he was made a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Committee and a member of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Commission.
Kim Jong-un had recently been traveling with Kim Jong-il and attending events with him as well. Another symbolic aspect of his status as successor has been pictures of officials bowing to Kim Jong-un during his visits around the country and when officials returned with his father from China. Lastly, some propaganda had been arranged to imply his role as successor to Kim Jong-il.
A lot has likely been thrown at Kim Jong-un in an attempt to get him up to speed in running the country. Now, we will see if he has learned anything and if he will be able as a 28 year old to truly lead veteran military and political elite inside the North Korean government. He reportedly has had people like Jang Song Taek and Ri Yong Ho to help prepare him for this moment. It will just remain to be seen if they and others are really trying to help him, rule by controlling Kim Jong-un from behind the scenes, or set him up for failure.
2.) Jang Song Taek
Jang Song Taek is Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law through his marriage to Kim Kyong-hui. After apparently falling out of favor for three years from 2003 to 2006, Jang is now back as a Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission and an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee. Jang was recently seen signing an agreement over power at the Rason special economic zone with China’s Commerce Minister Chen Deming. Jang is apparently involved in large scale economic projects for North Korea. He is also the Director of the Korean Workers Party Administrative Department, giving him oversight over internal security offices. Lastly, he is thought to be helping groom Kim Jong-un by providing him information as well as some political protection from any possible threats.
There were rumors that Jang Song Taek was temporarily removed from the public leadership scene because he had too much power. Yet it is likely that he has his own power base within the government. Moreover, some reports suggest the Chinese would have preferred him to succeed Kim Jong-il rather than Kim Jong-un. These factors, including his involvement in economic projects and directing internal security matters, leave a possibility for Jang Song Taek to attempt to seize power himself. The movements of Jang Song Taek, listed 19th on the Kim Jong-il funeral committee, will critical for the transition and the future of North Korea.
3.) Kim Kyong Hui
Kim Kyong Hui is the sister of Kim Jong-il and the wife of Jang Song Taek. Like Kim Jong-un, she was also made a four-star general on the first day of the Party Conference last year. She was also elected as a member of the Political Bureau during the party conference. Kim is in charge of the light industry in North Korea.
The promotion of Kim Kyong Hui appeared to be to put more family support around Kim Jong-un. She is an important connection to Kim Jong-il. It will be important to see if Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Taek work to support Kim Jong-un or use him to enhance their own power.
4.) Ri Yong Ho
Ri Yong Ho is currently a Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission and fourth on the funeral committee list. A military leader, he was promoted to Vice Marshal in September 2010. He also previously led the Pyongyang Defense Command, an important Korean People’s Army unit tasked with guarding Pyongyang and its surround districts. This experience will be helpful in understanding the key security elements for an attack on Pyongyang or a move to challenge the leadership of the country.
Usually seated and listed near Kim Jong-un on trips with Kim Jong-il, it is believed that Ri Yong Ho is a key military leader and ally for Kim Jong-un. Brent Choi and Mi Jeong Hibbitts point out that Ri is at the axis of 3 important power bases: the military, the Party’s Central Military Commission, and the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau. Ri’s close ties to Kim Jong Il and Jang Song Taek suggest an important connection to the Kim family power base as well. If true, Ri Yong Ho will be instrumental in consolidating military support for Kim Jong-un as well as providing protection for him as a new leader.
5.) Kim Yong Chun
Kim Yong Chun has been in the Korean People’s Army since 1956, and he is currently a Vice Chairman on the National Defense Commission and a member of the Central Committee Political Bureau. Listed fifth on the funeral committee, he is also the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces. This position, along with his experience of supervising the disbanding of the VI Army Corps in 1995 after they had been accused of corruption and treason, will be important for determining the direction of the military under Kim Jong-un.
Kim Yong Chun’s movements have been watched closely, especially compared to the younger Ri Yong ho. Despite having been picked by some analysts as an outsider who could succeed Kim Jong-il, some reports suggest Kim Yong Chun has less influence with Kim Jong-un, and that the heir apparent favors Ri Yong Ho more. However, Kim Jong Chun’s age might imply he is moving toward retirement. Thus, Kim Yong Chun’s movements will be important to understand in the transition. Whether he moves peacefully to support of Kim Jong-un or toward some other military led system in North Korea will remain a key question.
6.) Ri Myong Su
Listed 75th on the funeral committee, Ri Myong Su will likely have more influence on the transition than that number suggests. Ri is the new Minister of People’s Security and a general in the Korean People’s Army. He had previously been the Director of the Operations Bureau of the KPA General Staff, managing operations for the KPA’s naval, air, and ground commands. Thus, Ri has experience dealing with both the internal and external security threats to North Korea. A close associate to Kim Jong-il, his support and guidance to Kim Jong-un will be important during his transition.
7.) Kim Kyok-sik
Kim Kyok-sik is seen as a hardliner general that supervised the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Recent reports have him as the deputy chief of the General Staff. General Kim has been in charge of the Fourth Corps, which is responsible for the areas around Hwangae Province and the Northern Limit Line.
General Kim does have some experiences, along with his age, that suggest he is on the way out. He was fired as chief of the General Staff and had his Central Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party membership downgraded to alternate member. Yet his success in leading the military, supervising attacks on South Korea, and his believed loyalty to Kim Jong-il indicate he could be an important person for the transition in North Korea.
8.) Kim Yong Nam
Kim Yong Nam is the current president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly in North Korea. Second on the Kim Jong-il funeral committee, Kim Yong Nam is a veteran North Korean leader. He has a wealth of experience in foreign policy, serving in the International Affairs Department of the Korean Workers’ Party and as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. This experience will be important in reassuring a concerned outside world, especially China, about the succession and future of North Korea after Kim Jong-il. His leadership in the Supreme People’s Assembly will also be important in maintaining support among the North Korean elites for Kim Jong-un.
9.) Choe Yong Rim
Choe Yong Rim is the Premier of North Korea. Listed third on the funeral committee, Choe has the important family background of being a son of a former anti-Japanese fighter who fought under Kim Il Sung. Choe has worked for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il and is believed to have the trust of Kim Jong-il. Choe’s experience working in the North Korean government and with the Kim family could be crucial for determining the success of the transition.
10.) Kim Yong Il
Kim Yong Il is the director of the International Affairs Department in the Korean Workers’ Party. Listed 16th on the funeral committee, Kim Yong Il is also a secretary in the Party’s Central Committee. Leading the International Affairs Department will be important for ensuring good relations and communications with the Chinese Communist Party. North Korea and China have a lot of party-to-party contacts and relations. These connections are important avenues for information; thus, Kim Yong Il is in an important position for delivering news on the transition to China, but also for receiving any indication that some in China might be concerned about Kim Jong-un’s ability to lead the country.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.
Photo by NOS Nieuws