North Korea’s Samurai Rules

TOKYO – On December 17, North Korea announced that its supreme “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, had died in a train carrying him on one of the many inspection tours that he had taken since suffering a stroke in 2008 – evidently part of the regime’s effort to eliminate concerns about his health. The Dear Leader’s death triggered a hereditary transfer of power, with the world’s attention focused not only on Kim Jong-il’s son and chosen successor, Kim Jong-un, but also on who will actually turn out to be the country’s true leader.

Although Kim Jong-il received his reign from his own father, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, history suggests that a clean transfer from father to son is the exception rather than the rule. In the thirteenth century, Minamoto Sanetomo became the third Shogun of Japan of the Kamakura Period, thus placing him at the top of samurai society at the age of 12. Actual power, however, was wielded by Hojo Masako, the first Shogun’s daughter-in-law, and other members of the Hojo clan, including her father, Hojo Tokimasa. Sanetomo was simply too young and inexperienced to lead the samurai.

For the samurai, combat experience and age were decisive legitimating factors. Professional samurai would be disgruntled if given orders by a young person with no actual combat experience. It was this value system that created an opening for the Hojo clan.

Chinese history tells us something similar. The regent of the Guangxu Emperor, who became the eleventh emperor of the Qing Dynasty at the age of three, was the Empress Dowager Cixi. Until he died in 1908, the emperor was Cixi’s puppet.