At the time Kim Jong-eun, third son of Kim Jong-il, was made a four-star general in North Korea last month, the only photo the world had of him was a mug shot of a pleasant-looking school boy. Now that the Korean Workers Party has had its first Congress in 30 years, all of its officials have posed for a photo and there is Kim Jong-eun in the front row. He wears a plain tunic, is pudgy and full-faced, about 27 years old, and has the blank look apparently required of all North Korean officials when group photos are taken. Then yesterday we saw him appear live on state television for the first time.
It was in 1980 when Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader” and current dictator of the isolated country, was introduced by Kim Il-Sung, “The Great Leader,” as his heir. As it turned out, that gave him 14 years of on-the-job training before his father’s death put him in the top position.
Kim Jong-eun may have less time, considering the uncertainty of Kim Jong-il’s health. It appears that an accelerated on-the-job-training period has been devised for the young man. The Kims have long followed a doctrine called songun, or military first, putting the needs of generals over those of party officials. Making Kim Jong-eun and Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, four-star generals in the Korean People’s Army is a tip of the hat to military leaders. In addition, it solidifies family ties for a transition, for Kim Kyong Hui’s husband, Chang Song-taek, was steadily elevated last year until he was elected to the country’s most powerful body, the National Defense Commission. There, he oversees the Ministry of Public Security and the State Security Department, very powerful positions.
It doesn’t take much speculation to see Chang and his wife as mentors to young Kim. The party Congress also made Kim Jong-eun a member of the party’s Central Committee and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. The latter, despite the high-sounding name, is several notches down the ladder from the National Defense Commission. Thus, it appears that these initial appointments are intended to give young Kim working-level experience under the tutelage of his uncle, aunt, and senior generals.
That these developments have been long in the planning stage seems to be substantiated by the circumstances of Chang Song-taek’s rise. In the months leading to his election to the National Defense Commission, several senior members of the hierarchy suddenly died or retired. We cannot know, but it is possible they had been balking at the plan to pave the way for dynastic succession and had to be removed.
If and when the “The Young General” is handed the reins of government, what will they be worth? Famine is an ever-present specter and increased international sanctions can cripple the country’s revenue stream. If they are fully effective they could stop its main revenue sources: weapons sales to third world countries and currency counterfeiting. Its nuclear weapons program, intended to pressure the U.S. and its allies into making periodic gifts of food and energy supplies, is not expected to slow down during the transition. Pak Kil-yon, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, told the UN General Assembly the other day, “As long as nuclear aircraft carrier sail around the seas of our country, our nuclear deterrent can never be abandoned, but should be strengthened further.” In due course, expect this to be followed by calls for talks, talks, then some sort of agreement (later to be broken by North Korea) and the food will flow. Meanwhile, the pudgy “Young General” enjoys the beginning of his climb to the top.
Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.