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North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
Report 230 / Asia

North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability

Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.

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Executive Summary

Transitions often present risks to authoritarian regimes, but the succession in North Korea has apparently passed with few problems. With no opposition from the military and China’s clear support, there are no signs to suggest that Kim Jŏng-ŭn, the young leader who replaced his father, Kim Jong-il, following his death in December 2011, is anything but in charge in his own right. Far from creating a regency of older family members or generals, the North Korean system has maintained its focus on a single leader and projected an image of stability and unity as it celebrates the centenary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il-sung. While that image appears to be accurate, there is nothing to suggest that the new leader is or will become inclined to take measures that would either improve the lot of the country’s citizens or reduce the regional frictions that Pyongyang is at the centre of.

Kim Il-sung invested considerable time and effort to ensure the transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong-il. The regime had two decades to prepare after Kim was anointed successor in 1974. In contrast, the second dynastic succession appeared to be rushed, leading many analysts to believe it would fail. However, though Kim Jong-il did not devote as much attention to succession as his father had, most North Korea watchers failed to recognise that the regime began internal preparations about a decade before his death. Many surmised that a committee of powerful figures, probably from the military, would step in and either oust Kim Jŏng-ŭn in a coup d’état or prop him up as a figurehead and rule behind the scenes.

Most of this analysis was based on flawed assumptions and misunderstandings of North Korean ideology and political institutions. Only a small number of individuals would have the capacity to conspire and execute a coup against the Kim family. Many analysts simply assumed the interests of the senior ruling elite and Kim Jŏng-ŭn diverge, but there are no clear signs that they do, despite the dismissal of Vice Marshal Ri Yŏng-ho, the former chief of the General Staff, on 15 July 2012. Arguably, the interests of senior party and military officials remain almost perfectly aligned.

Kim’s youth and inexperience often have been cited as reasons necessitating a regency of senior officials to rule until he is up to the task. Some have argued that he could not wield the extraordinary powers of his father, and therefore power would devolve in an unavoidable decentralisation process. Whether the regime continues as a personalised dictatorship or assumes a decentralised leadership structure matters, because it could affect several important policy decisions, including the possibility of economic reform and the development or abandonment of nuclear weapons.

Despite widespread speculation, several factors support the continuation of an extremely concentrated, one-man dictatorship. Chronic insecurity, a command economy, a strong tradition of democratic centralism, a complex structure of political institutions and a well-developed indigenous ideology all reinforce the Kim family cult and concentration of power. The apparent result is a smooth succession with little prospect for reform in the near future.

Although the succession is complete, the leadership faces difficult dilemmas. The poor economy remains the greatest long-term threat to the regime. Simple reforms could improve resource allocation, efficiency and productivity but would require repudiation of a decades-old system and ideology that form the foundation of Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s political legitimacy. Renouncing his grandfather’s and father’s legacies would not be rational if he wishes to remain in power.

Kim’s youth and relatively charismatic personality suggest he could be in power for decades. But if the regime fails to reform, the costs in terms of human insecurity and food insecurity will remain high. Continued isolation and “military first” orientation would predispose the regime to maintain its confrontational posture. Without the resources to sustain a conventional arms race with its adversaries, however, it would need increasingly to rely upon asymmetric capabilities, including nuclear weapons, for its security.

This indicates a period of uncertainty just as several key countries – China, Russia and the U.S. – face leadership changes or elections. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leadership seems to be feeling international pressure aimed at dissuading it from another nuclear test. However, as others increasingly focus on domestic politics, Pyongyang might feel there is little risk in testing more long-range missiles or another nuclear device. If it is strongly motivated to do so, there is probably little that could dissuade it. The only realistic strategy would be robust deterrence and containment.

North Korea under Kim Jŏng-ŭn is stable. There is no sign of any opposition to the dynastic succession, and the barriers to change are tremendous. However, the system is not sustainable forever, and it is difficult to imagine a gradual transformation and peaceful integration with South Korea. Meanwhile, reinforcing the status quo will not bring prosperity, only more backwardness and oppression for millions of North Koreans.

Seoul/Beijing/Brussels, 25 July 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula

Originally published in The Interpreter

The report that Korean People's Army General Hyon Yong-ch'ol, Minister of the People's Armed Forces, has been shot for insubordination – by an anti-aircraft gun and before a crowd of officials, no less – raises troubling questions about both halves of the divided Korean Peninsula.

While there still is no confirmation regarding the purge from Pyongyang, South Korean National Assemblyman Sin Kyong-min, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that Seoul's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has multiple sources for its claims.

The scepticism of many analysts is less about the reported execution than the timing and motivation behind its sudden revelation. Though Hyon is supposed to have been executed on 30 April, the news emerged only on 13 May, a fortnight in which NIS appears to have suffered two intelligence embarrassments. 

On 29 April, the NIS told National Assembly members the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, 'was highly likely to visit Moscow' for the 9 May World War II Victory Day celebrations, only to be proved wrong the following day. Then Pyongyang appeared to take Seoul by surprise by testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on 8 May. Although North Korean state media suggested the SLBM is operational, it appears to have been an ejection test from a submerged barge and the missile only flew a short distance.

South Korean President Park called the test a 'serious security challenge' at the National Security Council meeting she convened on 12 May, and she probably then approved the NIS leak to the National Assembly about Hyon's execution as part of an effort to alleviate public concerns.

For sceptics, releasing the news about a spectacular purge in the North looks like an NIS attempt to rehabilitate its reputation. It could also be intended to shock the international community in order to garner support at the UN and elsewhere in case Seoul decides to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang.

But if Hyon has indeed been executed, what are the implications?

Some analysts say the recent increase in purges is a sign of instability in the North. Others argue that Kim remains in firm control because the problems of planning collective action against him are insurmountable. Another group suggest improvements in the economy indicate the regime is becoming stronger.

I see no signs of any rebellion against Kim and I'm sceptical about internal instability at this time. I believe the leader has several advantages in managing the dictatorship in order to remain in power: his vast, established institutions of repression; the difficulties of organising collective action against him; and the array of dilemmas someone in the elite faces in trying to persuade anyone to join a rebel faction.

Hyon was probably more vulnerable than many realised. A career soldier, he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the military, which he joined in 1966. He was elected to the Supreme People's Assembly in 2009, and the next year was promoted to four-star general and elected to the party's Central Committee. He was advanced to vice marshal and Chief of the General Staff in July 2012, the same day his predecessor, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was stripped of his positions and disappeared. About a week and a half later, Hyon became a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, only to lose one of his general's stars after three months. In March 2013, he was back on track as a candidate member of the Politburo, but two months later he again lost a star and was reassigned to Kangwon Province, far from the seat of power. 

Hyon appeared to have redeemed himself when he regained the star and was appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces in June 2014. Rehabilitation seemed complete in September with his election to the National Defence Commission. As recently as April, he was in Moscow for an international security conference.

Kim needs professionals to run his military, and Hyon was a survivor with proven ability to 'reform' and play the North's brutal political game of redemption and rehabilitation. That his career may have ended with him paying the ultimate price demonstrates that even a senior leader can miscalculate. 

It is also worth considering the implications of the way Hyon's reported execution was made public by an NIS leak. The information was provided to the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee during a 'closed hearing' with the expectation it would soon reach the media. This common South Korean practice is indicative of the dysfunctional relationship between the NIS and the legislature.

South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).

For the international community, and South Korea in particular, the recent shadow boxing could have grave consequences. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are now based solely on deterrence, yet in the South, intelligence has sometimes proved flawed, and in the North, a key player may have made the ultimate miscalculation.