Special Report

The House of Kim

Who's next in Pyongyang? Kim Jong-Il's possible dynastic succession.

By 11.14.05

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October 10th marked the 60th anniversary of the Korean Workers' Party, an event celebrated by the massive military parades and the synchronized demonstrations so often associated with the Stalinist state of North Korea. The event drew additional outside interest due to the North Korean leadership's habit of announcing major new policy initiatives during the state-sponsored revelry. Perhaps, reasoned observers, Kim Jong-Il would choose the momentous occasion to finally announce a successor, much as his father had done during the birthday events of 1980. Others pointed out that Kim -- now 64 years old -- is around the same age as Kim Il-Sung was when he made the vital, if predictable, announcement. A flurry of news reports and rumors quickly bolstered expectations. Contrary to such hopes, however, the anniversary passed without an announcement, leaving the mystery of North Korea's next leader temporarily unresolved.

Predicting the identity of North Korea's new leader is extremely problematical, even for the most experienced Pyongyang watchers. The leadership structure, already Byzantine, is made even more intractable because so many of its members are simply unknown or unheard of due to the closed nature of North Korean society. Further complicating prognostication is the fact that the identity of North Korea's next leader is incumbent solely on the whim of Kim himself. Therefore, the observer is resigned to wading through cryptic propaganda and often inconsequential government appointments, hoping to find some pattern that would indicate who the current favorite is.

The issue of succession in Pyongyang is somewhat immediate due to the fact that Kim himself is thought to have suffered serious health problems over the past decade, no doubt worsened by his affinity for hard liquor and a probable past drug habit. Aiding his campaign for longevity is a special medical institute which concentrates solely on extending his life, just as it did for his father. The institute's remedies include, reportedly, the cooked genitalia of dogs and blood transfusions from unusually healthy youth.

Much like his father before him, Kim Jong-Il does seem dedicated to the idea of maintaining the dynastic bloodline that will assume the mantle of leadership upon his death. Indeed, in many ways, Kim the younger was the progenitor of this theory, which wedded Confucian provisions on dynasty with Marxist conjecture. In the mid-1970s, as part of his offensive to solidify his position as successor, Kim engineered an extensive propaganda campaign aimed at elevating his father to the status of deity while simultaneously justifying a blatantly anti-Marxist monarchical form of power transferal. Those who objected to the development as an affront to their Marxist scruples were quickly purged by forces under the direct control of Kim Jong-Il. Considering the leading role he played in constructing the ruling dynasty, there is little reason to doubt he will seek its continuation.

THE KIM BLOODLINE IS A HEALTHY and vibrant one, owing to the Supreme Leader's voracious appetite for young women. His massive support apparatus, which includes thousands of servants, bodyguards, and chefs, comes replete with a harem -- known as the "satisfaction corps" -- made up of dozens of women who have been specially trained to administer to the needs of Kim. While he has only acknowledged the existence of four children -- 3 boys, 1 girl -- persistent rumors that have reached the outside world indicate that other, undeclared sons of Kim exist. Often, their mothers -- former actresses or harem recruits-- are married off by Kim to other leading members of the North Korean leadership, their families kept within the orbit of the Supreme Leader. Whether these arrangements may later emerge to create friction among various leading factions is unknown. It is far more likely, however, that only the "respectable" progeny of Kim has any hope of assuming power, due to the extensive work required to position a suitable heir.

The eligible offspring includes Kim Jong-nam, Kim's eldest son, who was long thought to have the inside track in this race for power. Now 34 years old, Jong-nam is the result of an adulterous relationship between Kim and Song Hye-rim, the leading lady of North Korean cinema and the woman who was recognized as a favorite among Kim's many paramours. Like the other favored sons of North Korea, Kim Jong-nam has led a luxurious lifestyle, with private schooling in North Korea and Switzerland. After studying computer science, Kim Jong-nam was put in charge of North Korea's non-existent IT industry, while also assuming a leadership position inside the security agencies. Taken in conjunction with his diplomatic trips to China, his appointment as successor seemed assured.

Kim Jong-nam's path to power was derailed in May 2001, when he was arrested at Narita International Airport in Tokyo for traveling on a forged Dominican passport. The decidedly un-Dominican Kim Jong-nam explained his travels by stating his intention to visit Tokyo Disneyland. This erratic behavior apparently bolstered the positions of anti-Kim Jong-nam forces inside North Korea, especially in the military leadership, who managed to engineer his effective exile to China, where he reportedly still lives.

Kim Jong-nam's fall from favor leaves his younger half-brother, Kim Jong-Chul, as the front-runner. He is 24 years old and has the standard background of a member of the North Korean elite: private school in Switzerland and France, cushy party positions, and unimaginable luxury. His tastes in entertainment lean towards basketball, as he is purported to be a fan of the NBA and has overseen the construction of courts throughout the country. Due to the self-destruction of Kim Jong-nam, his ascension would appear to be a virtual uncertainty. However, there have been reports, notably from Kim Jong-Il's former cook, that Kim feels his son is too weak, often calling him "a little girl."

The only other option for Kim Jong-Il would be his youngest, Kim Jong-Un. Currently 18 years old, his existence was only revealed to the rest of the world in 2001. Consequently, little is known about him, other than he is known by Kim as the "Morning Star King," and is apparently his father's favorite. His young age would complicate his rise to power immensely, due to the years of preparatory work needed to construct a powerful support system for the leadership candidate, such as the one that smoothed Kim Jong-Il's transition in 1994.

The prospects for the two younger sons of Kim were considerably strengthened by the lofty status of their mother. Koh Yong Hee, a former dancer, was considered Kim's closest confidant. Her elevation to the status of "respected mother" was seen by many as the first step in the transfer of power to her sons. However, Koh's death by cancer in 2004 may have altered this dynamic, possibly allowing the disgraced Kim Jong-nam to reestablish his primacy in the chain of candidates.

Mysteriously, little has been done that would indicate that Kim has singled out any one of his sons for the position of Supreme Leader. In the mid-1970s, the favorable trend towards Kim Jong-Il was explicit and unavoidable: rushed biographies celebrating his "natural brilliance" were published while his visage became a fixture in many public squares. He was rapidly promoted, assuming the critically important positions within the defense and security hierarchy, while his father repaid his son's lavish attention with frequent public mentions of Kim Jong-Il's prowess.

Although there is nothing to indicate that Kim has settled on a successor, there are some signs that the regime may be laying the groundwork for the ascension of a Kim family member. In January of this year, an "astonishing" new historical discovery was announced by North Korean government television. Drawing on recently "discovered" evidence, researchers found a new quote of Kim Il-Sung, in which he states: "If I cannot achieve this sacred task [the revolution] in my lifetime, my son will do it. If my son cannot, my grandson will." Of course, this history -- along with almost all of Kim Il-Sung's official biography -- is purely the invention of North Korean propagandists. However, its promotion does point to the possibility that the regime seeks to strengthen the idea of dynastic transfer of power, while not yet ready to promote an actual successor.

WHILE KIM'S POWER WITHIN North Korea is thought to be absolute, there have been significant challenges in the recent past, further complicating any effort at dynastic transition. While these small uprisings are cloaked in official secrecy, some information concerning their scope and intent can be gleaned from the testimony of defectors. One such disturbance arose in the early 1990s, involving more than a dozen generals who had trained together in the Soviet Union. The group of officers evidently planned to execute the Kims and their allies and institute a national policy of crash modernization. However, the plot was discovered before it could progress, and the offending generals were burned at the stake in front of a large military audience. In 1995, the officers of the 6th Army Corps -- the unit in charge of the worst famine areas -- hatched a plan to storm Pyongyang in conjunction with the neighboring 7th Corps. The plot was sabotaged by informers, who were then promoted to top positions within the units. Apparently, the difficulty of organizing an effective plot against Kim Jong-Il has led many North Korea generals -- possibly as many as 130 -- to abandon their nation and seek refuge in China.

The willingness of some army officers to challenge Kim Jong-Il can be traced to the central fact that most North Koreans -- including, apparently, some in the armed forces -- have little respect for him. Kim Il-Sung's manufactured history of anti-colonialist resistance stirs admiration among nationalistic Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, many of whom still espouse an incomprehensible level of devotion to the deceased mass murderer. No such reverence is ever displayed on behalf of Kim, especially following the famine of the mid-1990s, which was blamed erroneously by many North Koreans solely on his leadership, rather than the unworkable economic infrastructure foisted upon the North by the "great leader," Kim Il-Sung. His portentous life of comfort and lack of military experience serve as a catalyst for additional, if subtle, derision. While the reputation of Kim Il-Sung remains above reproach, his pampered heir is afforded no such deference by the martial fanatics in the KPA. This purported schism has led some to believe that Kim must take into consideration the opinion of the army to some extent before choosing the KPA's next commander in chief.

To limit the power of the armed forces, Kim has worked assiduously to co-opt the military leadership, empowering family acolytes while punishing those who exhibit latent signs of disobedience. As Chairman of the National Defense Commission and the Korean People's Army, Kim has overseen a system-wide reorganization of the military leadership over the past five years, an effort that has left him in unmodifiable control of the armed forces. Critical appointments include the installment of Vice Marshal Jang Song-u, a Kim relative by marriage, to command of all forces around the capital of Pyongyang. Other Kim family members control the capital's defense system and the assorted front-line units stationed near the DMZ.

This effort at consolidation has extended into North Korea's extensive internal security services as well. Maintaining their loyalty has always been of the utmost concern to Kim and his father, both of whom were reported to have been traumatized by the 1989 execution of Romanian dictator Ceausescu by trusted officers. In reaction, Kim Jong-Il has only allowed his closest family members to control the massive internal security structure inside North Korea, going so far as to execute and purge his father's loyalists for insufficient personal allegiance.

There is almost no chance that, barring some sort of unexpected rebellion, a member of the Kim family will not be chosen as the next leader of North Korea. The system of absolutist tyranny cannot afford the uncertainty of a genuine search for an effective leader, nor can it withstand the inter-regime fissures sure to result from such a process. The Kims are well aware of the hatred their rule imbues among the populace, cementing their closely held belief that any deviation from the path of consistent and harsh leadership spells the end for them and their closely guarded privilege. They are true adherents to Benjamin Franklin's truism "we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." The next leader of North Korea, whatever Kim it may be, will assuredly follow this policy of perpetual brutality, leading to nothing but disaster for the over 20 million serfs that currently serve at the pleasure of the House of Kim.

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About the Author

Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Email: patrick.devenny@gmail.com