All Eyes on Pyongyang


[The following article by CanKor Brain Trust member Jeremy Paltiel, appeared in the CanKor Report #329 and was published on CanKor’s UnCommon Sense on 10 October 2010. – Miranda]

An undated family photo of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il (front L), his youngest son Kim Jong-Un (front R), his fourth wife Kim Ok (second row L), his sister Kim Kyong-hui (second row middle) and her husband Jang Song-Thaek (second row R). (Photo: Newsc)

The succession is the big issue. But Kim Jong Un is not the whole story of the succession. The promotion of KJIls sister Kim Kyong Hui to General, the promotion of KJIIs best friend Choe Ryong Hae and the elevation of vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho are equally significant for the short and medium term. We should note that in the context of a supposed Songjun “Army First” policy three non-military types Kim Jong Un, Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Taek have senior positions on the military commission. The promotion of Ri to marshal is clearly aimed at stifling any bitterness this must provoke. If you know anything about career military people, whether it be General McChrystal or Ri Yong Ho, they chafe at civilians who presume to know better about military affairs. What Kim JII has engineered is a family takeover of the military commission in order to consolidate his sons succession. I am not convinced it will work.

At the same time the signs of moderation are both significant and logical. The DPRK needs a period of relaxed tensions for the succession to work. KJII must appear to appease the Chinese anxiety for stability and to do that he must also improve relations with the South and with the US. Moreover, in order to foist his sons succession on a restive military he must ensure that they are not called in to deal with an emergency, hence to relax tensions helps. This is analogous to the coincident improvement of Chinas relations with the US in the early 1970s coinciding with the demise of Marshal Lin Biao.

The Chinese are eyeing this warily. They do not like the Kim family shop, but the PLA is confident in is relationship with their comrades in arms in the KPA. Hence these arrangements are delicate, and Beijing is counting on KJII to deliver détente if he wants Chinese support.

None of this changes my opinion about the fragility of the régime. Can it deliver détente and opening without imploding? We know already that after the failed currency reform the weary and harried North Korean populace is cynical and apprehensive. What does the perpetuation of the Kim Il Sung bloodline do for them? They will not risk their lives by raising their voices, but given even half a chance, they will vote with their feet. The KPA will ultimately have to choose at whom to point their guns.

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