Whither North Korea?

SEOUL – According to North Korean state television, the heart attack that killed Kim Jong-il on December 17 was “due to severe mental and physical stress from overwork.” That report instantly raised a question in my mind: if we accept the regime’s diagnosis, why did Kim need to work so hard, despite his frail health? In some sense, his sudden death seems to symbolize the helplessness of a desperate leader confronting overwhelming challenges.

Seen in this light, the more important question is whether or not Kim’s inexperienced son, the twenty-something “Great Successor” Kim Jong-un, will be able to consolidate power and somehow steer the country out of its deep malaise. So far, the succession in Pyongyang seems to be proceeding in an orderly fashion. But, despite appearances, few totalitarian regimes, save those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, have ever maintained a monolithic inner circle of power. North Korea is unlikely to be an exception to this rule.

The legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s claim to power is weak, despite his blood tie to his father and grandfather, the dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its inception. The “Great Successor” has had barely two years of on-the-job training, compared to the 14 years his father spent studying directly under Kim Il-sung. Of course, Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyung-hee, and his sister-in-law, Jang Seong-taek, will assume something of a regency role, acting both as patron to the Great Successor and as a force to mobilize the military to close ranks behind the Kim dynasty.

But it is not clear how faithfully, and for how long, Kim Kyung-hee and Jang will remain supportive of Kim Jong-un. They might even try to supplant Kim by claiming power for themselves.