[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is by Charles Armstrong. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. --CanKor]
North Korea’s transition to third-generation Kim leadership appears to be going smoothly, indeed much more smoothly than many outside observers had expected. This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the DPRK, which ceased to be a “normal” communist dictatorship decades ago, and instead became a regime of hereditary leadership, firmly centred on the Kim family. The question was never whether or not a son of Kim Jong Il would become leader after Kim’s death, but which son it would be. As Kim Jong Il’s own rise to power shows us, leadership succession in the DPRK is not based on hereditary privilege alone. Kim Jong Il had to prove his ability and his loyalty, and to compete with other contenders for the throne from within the Kim family. Kim Jong Il’s most serious competitor appears to have been his uncle, Kim Il Sung’s younger brother Kim Yŏng Ju. Ultimately Kim Jong Il won out in this intra-familial power struggle and gained the support of his father for succession in the early 1970s, when he was around 30 years old, roughly the same age Kim Il Sung was when he became North Korea’s leader in 1945 and that Kim Jong Un is now.
By the 1970s, North Korea had become a family state unlike any other in the communist world. The DPRK in this respect was more like Saudi Arabia or a Gulf Emirate state than East Germany or Vietnam. Closer to home geographically if not ideologically, Taiwan and Singapore both saw transfers of power from their founding leaders to their sons in the 1980s and 1990s. But among communist states, which generally decried hereditary succession as “feudal” (as did North Korea itself until hereditary succession became official policy), the Kim family’s inter-generational power transfer was unique. Perhaps the Ceausescu family of Romania came close to such a monopoly of power toward the end of the communist regime there—Elena Ceausescu was allegedly slated to succeed her husband before their execution in 1989—but Nikolai Ceausescu had long been inspired by Kim Il Sung’s leadership style, not excluding familial rule. Read the rest of this entry »