The tears have been dried, and as Dear Leader enters his casket en route to joining the worldwide communist Valhalla, his survivors prepare to install the new Great Successor, Kim Jong-Un as the last word in North Korea. Probably the biggest unspoken question (not that we can be certain because no one will say it) is whether he will succeed in surviving. No one, of course, would dream of asking if things will get better for them as the official media never tires of repeating that things couldn’t be any better than in the land of the People’s Will.
Kim Jong-Un is the Great Successor, at 28 or 29, an age at which most people are still fumbling for a direction. At his father’s funeral service North Korean President Kim Yong-Nam said: “Respected Comrade Kim Jong-Un is our party, military and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong-Il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage”. He has also been named “Yŏngmyŏng-han Tongji”, which loosely translates as “brilliant comrade”.
But all those in power must be acutely aware that Jong-Un was not the expected successor. It was his older half-brother Kim Jong-Nam who was the heir apparent for a long time, until it became apparent that he wasn’t fit to rule. His crime was indeed serious. It was the ultimate solecism, of such proportions that he had to be ruled out even though Dear Leader had chosen him. Sometime in 2001, Jong-Nam was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a fake Dominican passport in order to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
But the portly Jong-Nam clarifies in an email exchange over seven years with Japanese journalist Yoji Komi of the Tokyo Shimbun daily and published just a few days ago in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo: It was “common” for the North Korean elite at the time to travel abroad with forged passports, and “I went to Japan many times to go to famous hotels and restaurants in Tokyo.”
The true reason for his dismissal, he says in the same exchange, was his insistence on reform. “After I went back to North Korea following my education in Switzerland, I grew further apart from my father because I insisted on reform and market-opening and was eventually viewed with suspicion.”
After the disinheritance, there was a long silence about the heir until, in 2010, Kim Jong-Un, son of Dear Leader’s third wife Ko Young-Hee, was officially named as the successor in late 2010. It was not a great time to take over because his father was seriously ailing and may not have had the kind of control he exercised earlier. Kim Jong-Un was, moreover, extremely young, untried and raw.
Perhaps the reason he was unopposed was similar to the Congress party’s love affair with the Nehru descendants. For some reason, despite all the internal bickering, every Congressman snaps to attention and falls in line in front of a Nehru. It is possible that the same sentiment rules with the Pyongyang power elite. But it is hard to be certain about anything where North Korea is concerned.
Information about Kim Jong-Un is as yet sketchy. Until 2010, when he was named successor, there was only one confirmed photograph of an 11-year-old boy. Only after the announcement did more photographs emerge. Like his half-brother he, too, studied abroad in Bern, Switzerland, at the international school. Some former classmates describe him as a shy child who avoided people he didn’t know (perhaps a carryover from the home environment). But they also speak of his extremely competitive nature, especially when it came to sports.
Confirmation of this trait comes from an unlikely source, Kim Jong-Il’s personal chef Kenji Fujimoto. He says Jong-Un was favoured over his elder brother Kim Jong-Chul because the former “is exactly like his father”.
Fujimoto is also quoted as saying: “If power is to be handed over then Jong-Un is the best for it. He has superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat.” Admittedly, it seems odd listening to a chef’s assessment of Jong-Un’s leadership qualities, but North Korea is a country that “is stranger than fiction”.
The real question is, of course, can he last, will he be able to cope with the realities of the situation? The first point is that he will have to find allies who will back him to the hilt, especially allies in the armed forces who have real influence. That’s where the real power rests at the moment, because the army is the one institution that is immune to the shortages that seem integral to life in North Korea.
It is the army that directed and now controls the pirate nuclear programme that enables Pyongyang to cut such a fearsome figure on the international stage. In terms of economic power and or population, it’s a pygmy, but it has nuclear weapons, a fact that makes every country watch with a wary, fascinated, apprehensive eye. Moreover, the military machine is vastly disproportionate to the country’s size and geostrategic profile.
But the whole military ethos is based on the fiction of a rampant, ravaging capitalist alliance just wanting for an opportunity to invade and enslave North Korea. It’s possible that many citizens wish for just that. Anything might be better than a country where the average rations have been cut, according to reports, to just 700 calories. The truth, of course, is that South Korea is vastly richer, a modern democracy that has repeatedly and generously offered to help its blighted cousin emerge from diplomatic isolation and its Rip van Winkle twilight zone. There was a time when a wary neutrality seemed to be forming, but in 2010 the tone suddenly became intemperate, then outright threatening. Coincidentally, that was when Jong-Un became the heir. His half-brother believes the deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 “was a provocation by North Korea’s military to justify their status and existence and the possession of nuclear weapons.”
About the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, Kim said, “From North Korea’s perspective, there was a need to stress that the area is a war zone. That is how the “songun” (military first) doctrine and the development and possession of nuclear weapons are justified.”
Given this situation, any chances of a real rapprochement with Seoul seems doomed, because that would make the military an unnecessary luxury. For that reason, Jong-Un may be forced to go along with the uniforms.
But what is to stop the military from deposing or even executing the young man who is being anointed to take his father’s place? Logically, nothing, except that they may not wish to be seen as a bunch of thugs.
Still Kim Jong-Un is walking on a razor’s edge, never mind the flattering honorifics that the elite may be bestowing on him at the moment.