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North Korea's 'Grail' Quest By: James Zumwalt
The Washington Times | Thursday, September 18, 2008


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 Leader."

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 power transfer.

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 Pyongyang.

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 program.

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 "appear."


James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.


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