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Strategy for Change in North Korean Politics

October 25, 2010

The following is a translation of the prepared text of a presentation at the 2010 International Conference on Human Rights sponsored by NKnet, the Sejong Institute and NED. The conference was held in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 2010.

Possible Directions of the Human Rights and Democracy Movement with Leadership Succession in North Korea: Strategy for Change in North Korean Politics

North Korea has gained the attention around the world, over Kim Jong Il’s ill health and fast succession. The reason for the attention is that North Korea is unique for concentrating power and authority on one person, Kim Jong Il, more than any other dictatorship. Therefore, if Kim Jong Il is incapacitated, North Korean regime itself will be in confusion, and it will lead to disorder of the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.

On Kim Jong Il’s health, based on the information available, there are two opposing opinions; one that he cannot survive for three years, and the other that he can live for more than five years. The information on his health is difficult to get, so we have to get ready for both.

Succession of Kim Jong Un was known to the outside world, as party apparatus was told so last January. But, North Korean and Chinese governments did not recognize it officially, so some doubted it. However, as Kim Jong Un is appointed to vice chairperson of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Military Commission. Some point out that the succession process is too fast. It is faster than Kim Jong Il’s succession, but given worries over Kim Jong Il’s health, this is not that fast. Rather, there were several experts who expected that Kim Jong Un would share the posts of vice chair of the central military commission, standing member of politburo, organization secretary and director of organization and guidance bureau, so this succession process is neither fast nor slow.

Given North Korea’s, especially that of Kim Jong Il’s, situation, this is not a fast succession, but from objective perspective, and given Kim Jong Un’s age and experience, this is very fast. The weak point of North Korean regime and leadership lies here. In other words, despite of Kim Jong Un’s young age and lack of political experience, they have to execute the succession process fast.

International activities for North Korea’s democratization and human rights must attack this weakens and absurdity. Then, let’s take a deeper look at what North Korean regime’s weakness is.

First, fast succession process will shake the existing order of the North Korean leadership, leading to resistance of many officials. Kim Jong Il knows exactly how to respond to such resistance. However, Kim Jong Il’s health is not good, so he might not be able to respond with concentration. Also, there is information about problems of Kim Jong Il’s judgment. Even if Kim Jong Il has no problem with ability to think, he has shown quite smooth control, by depending too much on old officials and missing replacement timing of high-ranking officials. To such Kim Jong Il, it is difficult to expect strong leadership to control young and old officials, like in the past. Moreover, Kim Jong Il may feel that he has transferred much authority and power to Kim Jong Un. If he feels like that, he cannot work with passion. Young and untrained Kim Jong Un is hard to have ability to solve such complicated political issue.

Secondly, there are few people who could advise Kim Jong Un with sincerity, so small problem might get bigger. Old officials know that Kim Jong Un is young and lacks political experience, so they are ready to face problems arising from them. Kim Jong Un might lose some authority as leader, but that cannot be a decisive one. If the problem gets bigger, Kim Jong Il may interfere. But the real problem is that the young Kim Jong Un is the future absolute leader, who might purge the old guard or sons and daughters of them in the future. If the old guard is superior to Kim Jong Un, they might engage with Kim Jong Un and teach him softly, but since Kim Jong Un is the future absolute leader, they would likely to overlook his fault and flatter. So, the problem that could easily be fixed would rather be worsened.

Kim Il or Choi Hyeon, who were at the apex of North Korean power when Kim Jong Il was a successor, taught Kim Jong Il and took care of him as if he is their nephew. They advised, rather than flattered. However, in the political power structure in North Korea now, there is hardly anyone who could treat Kim Jong Un like this. The only candidate is Kim Kyoung Hee, but she lacks political experience. Jang Sung Taek, her husband, may threaten Kim Jong Un’s status, so Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un will check his involvement or advice.

Thirdly, since Kim Jong Un has lived in foreign countries, and been isolated even in North Korea, from the rest of population, he has very weak fondness with other officials and their children, let alone ordinary people. To control the officials completely, he has to have some kind of fondness with them, and must understand their thinking and feeling. Based on what Kim Jong Un reportedly said when he was young, he has no understanding of ordinary people’s lives, and he might have not developed on afterward.

If not direct experience, some indirect experience is necessary, which Kim Jong Un is not likely to have done so. Kim Jong Un has spent his youth overseas, and reportedly went to Kim Il Sung Military University. The school educates mid-career officers, and reeducates high ranking officers. The school is different from regular college, so it is hard to have deep fondness with classmates there. As a prince, and having lived freely in foreign countries, he should have had difficulty to develop deep relationship with military officers, a rigid group, in a rigid country. Moreover, Kim Jong Un is assumed not having broad contact with officers, due to security and other reasons. Now, Kim Jong Un is nominated as successor, so he will only be praised, not having time to develop personal relationship with officials. Kim Jong Il has good talent to control officials, amid praises and flatteries. This is because he had developed contacts and personal relationship with them since he was young. Kim Jong Il may try hard to teach Kim Jong Un on this, but it is questionable whether Kim Jong Un will learn this well. Because of such problem, Kim Jong Un’s grip on officials will not be as strong.

It is impossible to control officials with only fear and manipulated symbol. If tried so, officials will only develop antagonism and contempt on him, thanks to Kim Jong Un’s mistakes.

Fourth, North Korean regime is hereditary absolute monarchy in form, but also it pretends to be communist and people’s republic. Such absurdity might not be a big problem, temporarily, but it cannot disappear entirely. Some officials may feel Kim Jong Un regime as sharing destiny with them, but others may question its legitimacy. Young, college students might have stronger question. If rumors on Kim Jong Un’s mistakes and faults are spread, especially among young elites, North Korea’s young generation may not just obey. Their loyalty will be weakened.

Also, Chinese people criticize the hereditary succession when talking with North Korean people. In North Korea, succession is regarded as given, but when talking to Chinese people while staying abroad, North Korean people will realize that it is wrong. They cannot talk about this back in North Korea, openly, but the atmosphere may spread.

Fifthly, there will be conflict between Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Since Kim Jong Un is the son of Kim Jong Il, they can exchange frank opinions, and one will try to protect the other. However, power’s character is monopoly-oriented and complex. In succession process, Kim Jong Il will have to share much power with Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un will be cautious at first, but might abuse power or use it contrary to Kim Jong Il’s will, later. Kim Jong Un is young, so the possibility is high. If conflict occurs between them, it cannot be easy to heal it.

Sixthly, there could be a conflict between Kim Jong Un and other ambitious people. It is uncertain whether such people in North Korean leadership exist now. There might not be such person. But, even if there is no ambitious person, such person can emerge if Kim Jong Un shows weak leadership and fails to get trust from other officials. Such person may wait until Kim Jong Il’s death, hiding one’s intention, and strikes after Kim Jong Il’s death, or tries to widen the gap between Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Or, the person can form a friendly relationship with Kim Jong Un, and strikes after Kim Jong Il dies. Kim Jong Il is cautious and his style is to have detailed plan to prevent such behavior, but Kim Jong Un is young and inexperienced to prevent it.

Various activities for North Korea’s democratization and human rights must focus on striking North Korean dictatorship’s weak point, exploiting such condition.

Striking the weak point means:

  • First, it is to emphasize that hereditary succession is wrong with communist or Juche ideology, as well as the modern society’s general trend, among North Korean, Chinese and worldwide people.
  • Second, it is necessary to inform the North Koreans that the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un is not eligible to become the leader. Detailed information on Kim Jong Un must be gathered and included in this.
  • Third, it is important to emphasize that succession of North Korea is irrational among politicians,
    journalists, scholars and other opinion leaders of the countries, which have close relationship with North Korea.
  • Fourth, among North Korea’s mid-high level officials and military officers, injustice of hereditary
    succession of North Korea and how it is received in the international society must be known. Contact method should be developed, rather than using radio or leaflet.
  • Fifth, there will be much violation of human right while building succession regime in North Korea. The information about this should be collected and the international society should put pressure. There might be a purge on those who are suspicious during the succession, or those who leak the information about Kim Jong Un. And information flow with the outside world will be severely restricted.

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