When the only leader the North Korean people had ever known - Kim
Il-sung - died in July 1994, they had been prepared for years for the
tyrant's son, Kim Jong-il, to accede to power.
While no other communist country had made the transition of power from
father to son, the propaganda effort to prepare North Koreans for this
evolution was carefully planned. Having taken the reins of power in
1948, the father's cult figure persona was force-fed to the people.
Thus, Kim Il-sung's wishes became the people's will - and Kim Il-Sung's
wish, made clear in the 1970s, was for his son to succeed him.
Among other efforts to engrain acceptance by the people for a single
family's birth right to control a nation, photographs of the son were
posted in buildings directly alongside those of the father. The father
was known as "the Great Leader" and, obviously, since there can only be
one such leader in a dictatorship, his son was dubbed "the Dear
Immediately after the father's sudden passing, a "Holy Grail" of
authority mysteriously "appeared" - a document by which the father,
allegedly before his death (but doubtfully so), had quietly transferred
various powers to his son.
It was against this backdrop then, during a December 1994 trip to
Pyongyang, I asked a senior level North Korean official what steps were
being taken to prepare the people for a transition of power in the
event of the sudden demise of Kim Jong-il. In typical fashion in a
country where an official's political and physical life could end
prematurely for saying the wrong things, this official simply responded
Kim Jong-il's health was fine so the succession matter was a non-issue.
Even at that time, however, U.S. intelligence knew Kim Jong-il, only 52
when his father died, had some health issues. And, in the 14 years
since, Kim Jong-il has done nothing to prepare his people for a future
Various media reports now surmise, due to Kim Jong-il's absence from
recent public appearances, he has suffered a stroke. While this is not
the first time the playboy dictator's low public profile has generated
such speculation, this time it may be true. (Chinese military doctors
attending him report he is experiencing convulsions.) If so, this event
could not occur at a worse time.
The United States and North Korea had worked out an agreement, or at
least U.S. officials believed so, to stop Pyongyang's nuclear weapons
program. It is now understood part of that agreement was unwritten,
thus generating contrary views (a ploy Pyongyang uses even when
agreements are written). Thus, we have a situation in which the North
is awaiting its removal from the U.S. State Department's terrorist list
as a condition precedent while we wait, before doing so, for the North
first to fully disclose all its nuclear programs. How, or even whether,
this issue is resolved will be telling as to who is in control in
To date, it appears North Korea's position on this issue has not
changed from that last promulgated by Kim Jong-il. This strongly
suggests one of two possibilities.
One possibility is Kim Jong-il, currently incapacitated, will
return. Thus, no Pyongyang official dares cross the line to espouse a
position contrary to his as that official may rue the day he did so
after the recovering despot returns to power. Independent leadership
traits are not viewed fondly in the North - even when just perceived as
such by outside sources.
In 1998, a young North Korean economic minister, noted in the
Western press for his leadership qualities, was executed - ostensibly
for corruption - after being touted as a potential successor to the
older Kim Jong-il.
Another possibility is that Kim Jong-il's condition is more serious
and potential rivals are "jockeying" for position - with no single
rival yet emerging. There are three groups from which that rival will
come - the military, the party or the Kim Jong-il family (i.e., one of
his three sons). Contrary to his own father's promotion of his son to
accede to power, Kim Jong-il has done nothing to promote his own sons.
And, had his own father not promoted Kim Jong-il's succession, there
would have been an equal chance for a successor to emerge from among
either of the two remaining groups as the father always kept the army
and the party power bases in balance. Not so for Kim Jong-il.
Feeling disrespected by the party after his father's death, Kim
Jong-il strongly came to favor the military, from which power base his
replacement would most likely come.
With Kim Jong-il's favoritism of the military leaving it with more
generals than ever before, there may be a bit of a logjam for a top
rival to emerge. But, when he does, we should bank on the fact his
emergence will be tenuous if he shows any signs of weakness in
knuckling under to U.S. pressure concerning Pyongyang's nuclear weapons
Thus, the loss of Kim Jong-il will do little to improve conditions for a verifiable nuclear-free North Korea.
One certainty about North Korea's leadership succession is that only
after the winning rival emerges will the "Holy Grail" document by which
Kim Jong-il quietly bestows authority upon that successor once again