By Ken E. Gause
Three sets of messages have emerged from the North Korean media in the days since Kim Chong-il’s death on December 17. The first two sets of messages are tied to the leadership configuration that is rising up to take over the reins of power, namely Kim Chong-un supported by a collective group of close aides and regents. The third message is that the regime will continue to adhere to the policy line set down by Kim Chong-il, namely the Songun (Military First) Policy. Together these messages support a regime plan for a smooth transfer of power, which by all indications appears to have taken place. Going forward, what does this mean for the regime and the young man who would be king?
With regard to Kim Chong-un, the regime appears to have launched a blitz campaign to portray him as the legitimate successor to his father, removing any doubt within the mind of the public and elite alike over who is in charge. Particular emphasis has been placed on Kim Chong-un’s bona fides as the leader of the Party and, just as important, the military. On December 24, the 20th anniversary of Kim Chong-il’s assumption of the post of Supreme Commander in 1991, Kim Chong-un visited his father’s funeral bier for a third time. Accompanying the young successor were members of the KWP Central Military Committee (CMC), the National Defense Commission, major commanding officers of the KPA, staff members of the KPA Supreme Command, and commanding officers of the KPA’s large combined units. In other words, it was a ceremonial gathering of the high command. On the same day, the Party daily, Nodong Sinmun, ran a commemorative political essay calling Kim Chong-un the “supreme commander” of the military. Two days later, the same source referred to Kim as leading the KWP CMC, although he only formally holds the title vice chairman.
What seems to be happening is that the regime is using the mourning period to rapidly move through the third phase of the succession, a phase in which the heir apparent would be adorned with the titles of power. In the coming months, if not weeks according to some sources, we can expect that a formal meeting of the Korean Worker’s Party will be convened to convey at least the title of CMC chairman on Kim Chong-un, which, according to the recently revised Party Charter (Article 22), carries with it the title of General Secretary of the Party. On 30 December, the Politburo passed a decree formally transferring the post of Supreme Commander to Kim Chong-un in accordance with his father’s will. Now all military units are required to obey Kim Chong-un’s orders.
The role of Supreme Commander (Choson inmin’gun ch’oego) raises an important question. Will Kim Chong-un be made chairman of the National Defense Commission, a post that is responsible for commanding the armed forces (i.e., the Supreme Commander)? Although the North Korean media called for Kim Chong-un to assume the role of Supreme Commander, it has been mute on the post of NDC chairman. The regime may choose to leave the NDC post vacant. Much as Kim Il-sung became the eternal president, Kim Chong-il might become the eternal head of the NDC, an organization that embodied his leadership era. This scenario might have been tipped by the fact that at least one, if not more, of the funeral events have been handled by Chon Hui-chong, the protocol director for the NDC. This suggests the possibility that the NDC apparatus is already acting in the service of the Party’s CMC. In addition, the key members of the NDC, such as O Kuk-yol and Paek Se-pong (head of the powerful Second Economic Committee), who do not also sit on leading Party bodies, have been integrated into the funeral lists among the government leadership, not singled out, as in the past, as part of the NDC.
These clues aside, Kim Chong-un has already been proclaimed the Supreme Leader (ch’eogo ryo’ngdoja), a title that is currently constitutionally linked to the NDC chairman (Article 100). If Kim Chong-un does not assume this post, the constitution will have to be revised (via the convening of the Supreme People’s Assembly) to separate the posts of Supreme Leader and NDC chairman.
As the funeral ceremonies have played out, the leadership configuration around the Kim Chong-un has come into focus. It is made of several rings and is based in the Party, but largely tied to the high command. The inner core will serve as gatekeepers and most likely be involved in decision-making.
The outer ring of this leadership configuration is centered in the Party’s CMC, which is made up of key second and third generation military and security officials from the across the regime. Kim Chong-il’s reinvigoration of the CMC at the Third Party Conference has placed this body on par with the NDC in terms of reach and influence. Under Kim Chong-un, the CMC will most likely replace the NDC as the command post of Military First Politics. It will be responsible for crafting the “great successor’s” image, gathering loyalty toward the new regime, and running the country. In terms of Kim’s relationship with the military, three CMC members are particularly crucial during the transition period. All accompanied Kim Chong-un as he escorted his father’s hearse through the streets of Pyongyang.
Other individuals with military portfolios bear watching, such as O Il-chong (director of the KWP Military Department), Kim Kyong-ok (first vice director of the OGD for military affairs), and Choe Ryong-hae (KWP Secretary for Military Affairs). They have important roles to play in monitoring the loyalty of the armed forces and ensuring a smooth transition. They will also be critical to creating and facilitating a unified and centralized Party guidance system that invests the “great successor” with the ideological authority he will need to rule. Media coverage, however, does not suggest they will be within Kim Chong-un’s inner circle, at least initially.
The final set of signals being sent by the regime in the days following Kim Chong-il’s death is tied to policy. KCNA proclaimed on 26 December that under Kim Chong-un, Military First Politics “will be given steady continuity at all times.” This was seconded by an editorial in Nodong Sinmun entitled “Korean people will accomplish the cause of Songun (Military First) under leadership of Kim Chong-un.” This adherence to the policy line set down by Kim Chong-il was emphatically reiterated in a NDC statement on 30 December, which ruled out any policy change with regard toSouth Korea as long as the Lee Myong-bok administration is in power. Given the sensitive nature of the inter-Korean relationship, the new regime’s decision to opt for hardline continuity is not surprising since it will give Kim Chong-un a year to consolidate his position before having to take on the entrenched interests within the military that balk at dialog with Seoul.
But is this initial hardline stance a harbinger of a regime that will remain entrenched and unmoving? Currently, it is hard imagine a radical shift. Authoritative statements have no doubt linked Kim Chong-un’s name to a go slow approach toward the South (even before the NDC announcement) and an embrace of the country’s nuclear weapons capability (“a victory through songun politics”). These will likely remain lines in the sand for the regime for the foreseeable future. As noted in numerous articles, Kim Chong-un is “endlessly loyal to the idea and cause of the great general [Kim Chong-il].”
In the coming days, possibly after a 100-day mourning period, Kim will likely receive the formal positions befitting his position as Supreme Leader. As this process plays out, North Korean policymaking will probably remain firmly within the boundaries set down by Kim Chong-il. This was made clear in the Joint Editorial proclaiming the regime’s goals for 2012. For those looking for radical shifts, either on the domestic or international fronts, only time will tell if that is in the cards.
Ken Gause is the director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a research organization located in Alexandria, VA. He is the author of the book North Korea Under Kim Chong-il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change, which was published by Praeger in August 2011. He also authored a paper in November entitled North Korea After Kim Chong-il: Leadership Dynamics and Potential Crisis Scenarios, which can be obtained on CNA’s website. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Zennie62’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.