In the heyday of the Soviet Union, Western Kremlinologists eagerly awaited photos from the annual May Day parade in Moscow to see if the arrangement of Kremlin leaders reviewing the troops from atop Lenin’s Tomb had changed. Like medieval seers reading chicken entrails to divine the future, they figured if “A” had moved from the back rank to the front, he was rising in the hierarchy. The same sort of speculation is attached today to the leadership succession in The Hermit Kingdom, North Korea.
Although Pyongyang likes big military parades, unlike the Lenin’s Tomb photos of yesteryear, North Korea’s leaders aren’t all clustered together for their annual photo. Instead it is a combination of rumors, leaked reports and close readings of press releases that provide the clues as to possible successors to Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader” and son of the founder, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.
In recent months several members of the hierarchy have left the scene, through sudden death or “retirement.” Ascending has been Chang Song-taek, who is married to Kim Jong-il’s only sister.
In February 2009, Chang was elected to the powerful National Defense Commission. At the time, photos of all the members of this group were released publicly, an unusual event.
On the Commission, Chang, 64, is director of the bland sounding Administrative Department. In fact, this means he oversee the Ministry of Public Security and the State Security Department, both pivotal power positions.
The addition of Chang and four other new members of the National Defense Commission last year is seen by Washington’s Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, one of the best informed observers of the Hermit Kingdom, to mean this may be stand-by collective leadership to guide the country if the ailing Kim Jong-il were suddenly to pass from the scene. The group is also strongly supportive of a “military first” policy (which may explain the sinking of South Korea’s navy ship “Cheonan” in March).
Chang Song-taek is beginning to look as if he is “first among equals” in this group. In addition, he is seen as something of a mentor to Kim’s third son, 28-year-old Kim Jong-eun, now referred to as “The Dear General.” (Despite his youth, he is reported to be a four-star general in his father’s Body Guard, in the Army or the State Security Department). Kim’s first son, Kim Jong-nam, 39, who now appears to be out of favor with his father, lives in Macau, which suggests a strong relationship with China. The second son, Kim Jong-chol, 30, is said to have a position in the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department.
The matter of succession is largely speculative, but centers on The Dear General as the putative leader with his uncle, Chang Song-taek, serving as his guiding hand — a quasi regent — backed by allies on the National Defense Commission.
What are we to make of this from a policy point of view? The U.S. should seek agreement from South Korea, China and Russia that international cooperation will be needed to create engagement priorities with North Korea so that it begins to open its society to reform. Hasty reunification with South Korea is not the answer, desirable though this may be down the road. De-emphasis on military spending by North Korea is desirable, as is a new emphasis on building a sustainable civilian economy.
Mr. Hannaford is a member of The Committee on the Present Danger.