Professor of History
University of Chicago
An Interview with Tushar Khadloya
9 May 2007
Bruce Cumings is a professor of history at the University of Chicago and author of North Korea: Another Country.
Brown Journal of World Affairss. North Korea is obviously a country that comes to mind quickly when thinking of countries with authoritarian leaders. You wrote in North Korea: Another Country that Kirn Jong-il's son, Kirn Jong-nam, was his likely successor, but recent reports have claimed that Kirn Jong-nam has fallen out of favor. Right now, it appears that the successor could be any one of Kim Jong-il's three sons-Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-chul, and Kim Jong-woon. Who of these is most likely to succeed Kim Jong-il?
Bruce Cumings: Well, I think that Kim Jong-nam was and still is Kim Jong-il's favorite son. He got into trouble trying to get into Japan-apparently to go to Disneyland-on a false passport. And ever since that happened, people have said he has egg on his face. I still would handicap him first if Kim Jong-il gives off leadership to one of his sons or relatives, but no one can really know this without knowing the inner workings of the North Korean regime-and there isn't anybody outside of North Korea that knows that. What I think is most significant is that the regime has still established no procedure for succession that goes beyond the leader's family, which suggests that trust at the top levels of the regime is not necessarily very strong. What you have in North Korea is kind of a communist monarchy. Consequently, to figure out how Kim Jong-il succeeded his father or who might succeed Kim Jong-il is really to talk about a very old discipline of politics: royal politics-the relationships between the king and the various families and clans that surround him. Those relationships in North Korea will play a role in determining who succeeds Kim Jong-il.
Journal: I've been to that Disneyland-I don't blame him. So who besides Kim Jong-il will determine the successor?
Comings: Because many people in North Korea, especially the top elite, have had their fortunes wrapped up with either Kim Jong-il or his father, Kim Il-sung, they themselves may want one of Kim Jong-il's sons to succeed him so that this elite stays in power.
Kim Jong-il is still the maximum leader, and everything that is important in North Korea has to have his signature. If someone were to decide that there would not be a familial succession, but instead it would be thrown open to the party or to the top levels of government to choose the next leader, then that would have to be a decision that Kim Jong-il would make. No one could make that decision except him, but I can imagine a collegial decision among the top elite families, in figuring out which one of Kim Jong-il's sons might be best to succeed him. Therefore, I am sure there are many discussions-probably often delicate discussions-among the elite families about which of the sons might best succeed Kim Jong-il.
In the case of Kim Jong-il, he went around with his father for 30 years, tagging along even during the Korean War 50 years ago. Even then, that regime took 25 or 30 years to make it known publicly that he was going to be the successor. It wasn't until the 1980 Sixth Party Congress that he was designated as successor, but anyone with half a brain realized that Kim Jong-il was going to succeed his father. So that process was open to the extent that anything is open in North Korea. Today, it's a much more closeted process because he hasn't designated a successor.
I think that one of the real curiosities of North Korea is the geriatric nature of its leadership. Kim Jong-il is one of the younger members of the top leadership at 65 years old. Around 2000, he was the only one of the top 40 leaders who was under 60 years old, and today, of the top 20 leaders, I think the average age is around 75 or 76. …