For only the second time in the country’s history, North Korea is having to cope with the death of its leader. Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack on Saturday while on his special train, apparently (you know, the special train he was almost killed on in 2004 with that mysterious explosion).
Honestly, if I was a despotic dictator, what with all my friends having gone the way of the dodo recently, I would be a little concerned. Or at least ronery, as this Nando’s advert suggests:
Let’s take a step back from the hysteria and look at the situation. First, the succession is already far more advanced this time round than in 1994 when Kim Il-sung died, partially because Kim Jong-il’s health has steadily deteriorated in recent years. In the 1990s, it took four years for Kim Jong-il to consolidate his position as the new leader. Now, it was done within two days, with Kim Jong-un already dubbed the ‘great successor’ who is ‘standing in the van of the revolution’ in the first KCNA releases about the death this morning (check out the notice to all party members here). This is mostly because the idea of a familial succession in the Stalinist state is no longer so taboo; when Kim Il-sung died, the prospect of his son taking the reins was anathema to some of the country’s earlier rhetoric of socialism sweeping away class systems.
This planning adds stability to the transition, something also aided by the position of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and recently promoted stalwart of the Kim family. Given Jang’s recent elevation to vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission, the highest decision-making body in the land, it is likely that he will act as a form of regent during Jong-un’s early years.
What’s more, one of Kim’s main policies was that of songun (military first), which elevated the military to the unquestionably most powerful institution in the country, militarised society and ensured enduring loyalty from the Korean People’s Army to the Kim family. Songun was in effect a method by which Jong-il could buy the military’s fealty and prevent any kind of coup during the turbulent early years of his reign, but it also has the effect of promoting stability in times of transition such as now.
Much of the media commentary is also focusing on the ‘tearful’ reactions to Kim’s death within the country. This is a story both the domestic media in North Korea and the international media are keen to spin, the latter presumably in an attempt to reinforce the idea of the cult of personality formed around the Kim family and how the Korean people are totally sold on it. This is only partially true; sure, it’s difficult not to get caught up in a cult of personality that means 24-hour coverage and reverence of an individual and his government. But the North Koreans aren’t stupid, in much the same way as the Eastern Europeans weren’t stupid when they were forced to revere their Moscow-approved Cold War leaders. Criticisms of and jokes about the Kim family still circulate unofficially in the DPRK, and Kim Jong-il is a very polarising figure. He may be seen to have prevented a South Korea/US invasion of the country and overseen the nuclear programme that has nearly brought North Korea into the exclusive, eight-country club of nuclear powers, but he also presided over the famines of the late 1990s that saw hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions die, while his playboy lifestyle has done little to endear him to his long-suffering population. The increase in the number of defectors in recent years, and their testimonies, highlight that substantial discontent with the Kim Jong-il regime exists in North Korea.
What does this mean? Well, it might be that the Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un can cast himself as a more populist, forward-thinking leader, able to gather support for his policies and casting himself to some extent as a software update for the regime: Kim v3.0. He isn’t tainted by the famines in the same way as his father, and he has a fairly clean slate for the moment. Supported by the military, as he clearly is, Kim Jong-un could enjoy a honeymoon period in the country, not because of the reverence for the Kim regime but because of the dissatisfaction with his father.
Don’t get us wrong: we know there are instabilities in North Korea, and occasional signs erupt into protest. Kim Jong-un could be tainted by his father’s image, and his slightly, erm, corpulent stature gives the impression of a man living off the fat of the land rather than dedicating himself to the glorious Korean revolution. But given the loyalty of the military, an experienced Kim-family regent, a dedicated propaganda machine, a swiftly announced succession and the possibility that Jong-un might be seen in a more favourable light than Jong-il, an Arab spring seems like a long shot right now. In which case, he’ll probably last long enough for us to see a Kim Jong-un Looking At Things blog.