Soon after the death of Kim Jong-il was announced, U.S. television audiences were treated to many clips of North Koreans keening and wailing over the passing of The Dear Leader. Since he had died (on a train) two days before the announcement, there was plenty of time to stage-manage the grief.
Kim was a master of keeping leaks about the poverty and repression of his people to a minimum. Ever since his father, Kim Il-sung, founder of the Kim dynasty, had turned the country into the Hermit Kingdom, news for the outside world was carefully rationed. He was concentrating power in the military and security forces and keeping most of the population under very tight control, while bestowing privileges on an elite few who danced and sang in praise of him.
Beginning in summer 2010, Kim Jong-il, then still recovering from what is believed to have been a 2008 stroke, anointed his third son Kim Jong-un as potential successor. This young man, now 28, supplanted his eldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, who had fallen from favor and decamped to Macau to lead the good life. The second son, Kim Jong-chol, apparently has a position in the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Organization and Guidance Departments.
Despite no military schooling or background, Kim Jong-un in August last year was made a four-star general by his father and promptly dubbed, “The Dear General.” Some of his schooling was in Switzerland, prompting some observers to guess that his exposure to Western standards might lead him to lean toward reform. This is wishful thinking, for the country is tightly managed by the army and state security apparatus and The Dear General can be expected to closely follow its wishes.
He will have as his mentor and guide his uncle by marriage, Chong Song-taek who is married to Kim Jong-il’s only sister. In 2009, Chong was elected to the powerful National Defense Commission. On that commission, he is the director of the bland-sounding Administration Department. His duties are anything but bland. In fact, the job title means he oversees the Ministry of Public Security and the State Security Department, both pivotal power levers.
Just prior to Kim Jong-il’s death, at age 69, is was expected that the frequently fruitless Six Party Talks would soon be resumed, aimed at reducing a North Korean nuclear threat. This is not likely to happen any time soon. Nor is it likely, as some observers speculate, that young Kim Jong-un will carry out some daring and aggressive move against South Korea or Japan as a means of proving his mettle to his military regents. He has had nearly 17 months to build relationships with them and, with the guidance — and protection — of Mr. Chong, he is likely to spend his early months in office working behind the scenes to further consolidate support.
More than anything else, the military elite members want to protect the status quo. They may set diplomats to talking with representatives of the other five members of the Six Party group, but this is all it will be, talk. As for military action, it can come later, once the elite is comfortably settled in with The Dear General. Provocative action is a staple of North Korea’s strategy, for it has almost always brought concessions from the other parties, either in the form of food for starving peasants or commodities to run the economy. It will come in due course.
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