38 North: The Party as the Kingmaker: The Death of Kim Jong Il and its Consequences for North Korea by Rudiger Frank


[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Rudiger Frank, Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna. Please follow our links to this article on the 38North site. –CanKor.]

Kim Jong Il is no more. The state news agency KCNA reported that he died on his train on Saturday, December 17, 2011. He was on his way to offer another round of on-the-spot field guidance, working himself to death for his beloved people. This is the official version that we have actually seen under preparation for quite a while, including in works of art that we discussed in a recently published book.

The public was informed rather quickly, less than two days later. Kim might in fact have died much earlier. In a system where the death of a living dictator is a taboo topic, it is questionable that all necessary arrangements had been made in advance. It takes time to agree on a detailed funeral list with 250 names in strict hierarchical order, an obituary praising the right aspects of his rule, and a precise schedule of instructions for the immediate period after the ruler’s demise. Most importantly, a far-reaching decision had to be made on how to proceed—and how to announce the successor.

The matter was complicated by the fact that Kim Jong Il himself had failed to finish the succession process. This was most likely to happen next year, when the country would celebrate the 100th birthday of its founder Kim Il Sung in April 2012. The status of Kim Jong Un would have been elevated at the yet unannounced 7th Party Congress. It is fair to assume that Kim Jong Il’s death at this point in time came as a surprise for the North Korean leadership, too.

In this situation, the Worker’s Party took over. In a highly symbolic move, it acted like the Church in medieval Europe: it crowned the Emperor. The obituary, published in the Party newspaper and signed by the Central Committee, devotes its latter part to the introduction of Kim Jong Un as the next leader—as the “great successor” (widaehan kyesŭngja). This is the first time he has been explicitly named as such. Note also that the complete sentence says he is the great successor to the revolutionary cause of chuch’e—not sŏn’gun. This is an emphasis on ideology, the realm of the Party. The Military First Policy is duly mentioned, but it does not stand at the center.

The resuscitation of the Party’s leading role in society has been visible for a few years. Among the last hints was a group picture taken on December 13, 2011 during one of Kim Jong Il’s last field guidance trips. It shows a banner reading: “Let’s defend the Central Committee with Great Leader Kim Jong Il at its top with our lives!”

This is a remarkable deviation from earlier versions, according to which soldiers were supposed to defend only Kim Jong Il. Now it’s the Central Committee—a collective, symbolizing the Party. The order of institutions signing the official obituary published by the Central News Agency supports this analysis. It lists the Central Committee of the KWP first, followed by the Central Military Commission of the KWP, the National Defense Commission, the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly (the parliament), and the Cabinet of the DPRK. How more obvious can the real power structure be?

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