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North Korea's Power Transfer

15 March 2012: When Kim Jong-il died in December 2011, he left the leadership of North Korea to his son, Kim Jong-un. While some observers predicted that the transfer of power would destabilize the regime, the transition has apparently proceeded with no major upsets. Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group’s Deputy Project Director for North East Asia, parses the succession and what it means for regional security. 5:55

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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Kimberly Abbott.

When Kim Jong-il died in December, he left the leadership of North Korea to his 29-year-old son and heir, Kim Jong-un. Some North Korea watchers predicted that the transfer of power would destabilise the regime, but the transfer of power has apparently proceeded with no major upsets. I’m speaking today with Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group’s Deputy Project Director for North East Asia, about what’s been going on behind the scenes of the succession and what it means for regional security.

So, despite international speculation, it seems that Kim Jong-un will continue business as usual. What’s the likelihood that the status quo will continue under the Kim family?

I think we’ve seen that the succession has been going very smoothly, much more smoothly than many people had expected. This is only the second time it has happened in North Korea. I think we won’t see any policy changes, at least significant policy changes, because there are a number of constraints upon Kim.

What are the constraints?

As far as his legitimacy, he is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the country, and the son of Kim Jong-il. I think he really has to continue their policies because, if he were to move in a different direction, then that would undermine his legitimacy. He would have to reject all their ideologies and policy positions. So I think, at least in the short term, intermediate term, probably the long term, they will continue, and that’s what we’ve seen out of Pyongyang. All of the statements regarding policy are pretty much the status quo.

Is there an internal tension in the higher echelons of the country that threaten Kim Jong-un’s power base?

Some people have speculated that, because of his youth and inexperience, that the senior elite, the generals, would not follow orders from such a young guy—he just turned 29. But that’s based on the premise that they have divergent interests. I would argue that they converge, they have similar interests, they align. So this is the guy they would want. He is continuing this military first policy, and I don’t see any signs of instability. It appears that everyone is coalescing around this transition.
 
What do you know about him personally?
 
He did study abroad in Switzerland in middle school, which has led to speculation that he might be reform minded, and so forth. We don’t know that, and even if he were reform minded, I would argue that he’s very constrained and will continue the same policy line, at least for some time. Other assessments that I’ve seen have referenced that he is smart or intelligent and he is capable, and so he should not be underestimated. I think that’s probably why his father selected him. He has older brothers. Kim Jong-il could have selected anyone. Secondly, I’ve heard that he is somewhat ruthless, which serves you well in that kind of system. You have to have no qualms about purging people or signing death warrants and so forth. Supposedly, he has those types of personal qualities as well.
 
In 2009, the government made several constitutional changes that increased the power of the leader and the National Defense Commission by adding four additional members. How successful have these changes been in maintaining stability in this handover of power?
 
There have been a number of changes and preparations for succession. Those are significant ones you just mentioned. They have revitalized the party as well. Kim Jong-il had a very personalistic type of management and authority that he used. The Korean Workers Party, the ruling party, had not had any major meetings. The party congress, which is supposed to held every five years, was last held in 1980. There had only been two party conferences, which is a smaller, slightly different type of meeting. They held one in September 2010, and that was only the third one since the country was founded in 1948. Now they’re going to have another one in April of this year. That conference in 2010 and the conference that’s coming up, they’ve used that to move new people in, to build a coalition of support for Kim Jong-un. So this is bringing in fresh blood, new people, people that are in their 30s and 40s, who will be beholden to Kim Jong-un and will support the regime.
 
What role has China played in securing the Kim family succession?
 
That’s very interesting and it’s very important. China has been quite supportive. That frustrates some people, but you could make a very strong argument that it serves their national interest. They’re very concerned about instability on their borders and in North Korea in particular—even though China’s very frustrated with a lot of North Korean behavior: some of the WMD development, missile launches, nuclear tests and so forth. China would like to see North Korea open and reform their economy. But, even though North Korea has not been very cooperative in those areas, China still would like to see the regime remain stable, so they are supporting the regime. There have been a number of food deliveries recently, statements of political support, and so forth. So I think they buy in to this succession.
 
Edited for print.
 
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