Suddenly in North Korea pictures of Kim Jong Il, the peoples’ Dear Leader by unchallengeable fiat, have gone missing. Comparative photos taken in a Peoples Cultural Center auditorium in May and August of this year have piqued outside interest in the future of Kim Jong Il. The earlier photo portrays what we have come to think of as the usual adulatory presentation: a portrait of Kim Jong Il side-by-side with one of his father Kim Il Sung, the modestly self-proclaimed Great Leader, dominates the head of the auditorium,. The late summer shot shows the KJI portrait missing so that the late elder Kim’s portrait stands alone. All very mysterious.
It gives some perspective to the secrecy of the North Korean regime that news analysis of the event is done in the past tense. Portraits discovered missing in August are discussed eagerly in December as if they are breaking news. But that is part of the challenge in dealing with North Korea. It reminds of the bad old days when Kreminologists watched the removal and addition of portraits with the same scrutiny gamblers focus on the spinning wheels of the slot machines. Not to be outdone, Old China Hands strove to interpret posters that appeared like poisonous mushrooms overnight on Peijing walls. Which Gang of Four member or emerging figure would dominate the Cultural Revolution? These information-starved analysts sought guidance in the arcane and tried to discover what was going on behind those tall walls from vapors and tea-leaves. The situation is not much different today for those watching Pyongyang.
The portrait change routine became fairly common in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. For awhile, dictators were changing so frequently that then President Ronald Reagan quipped to a reporter when asked why he had not yet met with the Soviet leader that “they keep dying on me.” There was no question that announcements of deaths were delayed while the scramble went on among the ambitious, deciding which would be king of the mountain. However, in the USSR and even in post-Mao China, such machinations were typical, even expected.
Quite the contrary situation exists – or, it may soon be said to have existed – in North Korea for many years: a unique communist monarchy where King Kim the First passed rule to his anointed son King Kim the Second. This was quite a departure for the typical communist state. Not that nepotism was unknown. What surprised many Korea-watchers was the relative ease of the transfer of power, at least so it appeared to the outside world trying to peer through the opacity of first-of-its-kind North Korean regime change. In my recently released book, Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin, I deal at some length with my own admittedly unverified (and at this time unverifiable) theory on how that odd transfer was carried out.
The key to a hereditary succession is that it must be recognized and accepted by the willing, or imposed upon the unwilling, for the transition to be successful. It was well and good while the strong man Kim Il Sung lived for him to designate his son as successor. But what mechanism did he put in place for the continuation of that fiat after his death? After all, the dictator alone cannot rule; he requires a support group that is willing to carry out his demands in return for a share of power, wealth, and position. Without that support group the dictator falls, often like Humpty Dumpty, shattering into pieces. It was necessary therefore for the elder Kim to put a system in place that guaranteed loyalty for his subordinates toward his son.
None of this was accomplished overnight. The younger Kim was groomed for years, making his bones in the intelligence service accomplishing such feats as the Rangoon Bombing, the Korean Air Lines sabotage, kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean citizens, and other acts of terror. He was referred to obliquely in that period as “The Party Center.” His status was fuzzy but clearly rising. The issue for outside observers became one of respect. How, it was often asked, could someone who was a toddler while the old Party stalwarts fought the Korean War be acceptable to them as ultimate leader, particularly an individual who lacked what most thought to be even minimally acceptable qualifications for the task at hand? Kim indisputably is physically unimposing, even dumpy. He is highly eccentric and seemingly more interested in making propaganda films than in running a country. Born in America, he could have been Michael Moore.
While entirely speculative, it is highly possible that some carrot-and-stick arrangement would have to have been made with the old Party apparatchiks in order to persuade them to support Kim Jong Il’s succession and prevent them from substituting a Politburo arrangement similar to China and the Soviet Union. The carrot of course is for them to remain in power, enjoy the privileges and prestige of being part of the Party elite, and accumulate enormous wealth.
The stick would have to be big enough to influence and one that could not be easily removed. One trick that could have been employed is a twist on the medieval Japanese system of taking family hostages. The Shogun, based in Edo (modern Tokyo) required residence by his feudal lords for a time in his palace. After a year or two they were permitted to return to their outlying fiefdoms but their families remained at the Shogun’s palace, their lives hostage to the loyalty of the lord. At the first sign of betrayal, the hostages were abruptly killed. It is easy to imagine some version of this being put in place by Kim Il Sung. It may have acted as the glue to hold the regime together for a time. Perhaps the checks have been circumvented, or the hostages may have been deliberately sacrificed.
Regardless, there are rumblings internally and externally that are coming from the innards of North Korea. Until we learn more we can only watch the portraits of Kim Jong Il, speculate, and wonder.
Read more about the volatile Korean situation in Gordon’s book Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin, a great gift for the veteran, military and international affairs buff on your Christmas list. It’s available from the FrontPage Magazine Bookstore.