North Korean Leadership: Kim Jong Il's Intergenerational Balancing Act

By Jeon, Jei Guk | Strategic Forum, December 1998 | Go to article overview

North Korean Leadership: Kim Jong Il's Intergenerational Balancing Act


Jeon, Jei Guk, Strategic Forum


Conclusions

* One key to the unexpected longevity of North Korea--the world's last unreformed Stalinist polity--lies in Kim Jong Il's adroit balancing act between the old and young elites since coming to power in 1994 following his father's death.

* Based on "inclusive politics" and an "honor-power sharing" arrangement, Kim Jong Il's balancing act has effectively reduced factional cleavages that might otherwise have crippled the hereditary succession plan.

* The "honor-power sharing" arrangement--which gives honors to the older elites and real power to younger elites--has secured the loyalty of both the old guard and younger hopefuls.

* As long as Kim Jong Il's balancing act works and internal solidarity remains firm, the new regime could survive for a prolonged period.

* If the balance breaks down, Pyongyang's power circle will slip into a centrifugal spiral, followed by power struggles among rival factions and the eventual collapse of the regime.

The Transition of Power

The death of a totalitarian leader in the communist world, such as Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao in China, can lead to a power struggle. North Korea's Kim Il Sung was a totalitarian ruler no less absolutist than any other socialist leader. Therefore, when Kim Il Sung died in July 1994 outside observers predicted an imminent power struggle. Surprisingly the demise of North Korea's "Great Leader," however, did not result in any particular changes in court politics. To all appearances, Pyongyang's power elite remained calm and stable, without any signs of factional infighting. Herein lies the mystery of contemporary North Korean politics.

Is the Post-Kim Il Sung Power Circle Really Immune to Factional Cleavages?

Looking at the political landscape in 1994, the North Korean power circle was not totally immune to factional cleavages. Rather, upon closer examination, factional rumblings were underway behind the scenes, feeding on the uncertainties surrounding succession politics. For example, Kim's clan appeared far from monolithic--allegedly divided into several intra-clan factions. In addition to Kim Jong Il's faction, prominent others included his uncle Kim Young Ju's line, his step-mother Kim Song Ae's faction, his half-brother Kim Pyong Il's clique, and his father's comrades-in-arms. With the head of the family [Kim Il Sung] gone, the clan itself might have turned into a seedbed of power struggles.

Intra-military cleavages also seemed to exist. Allegedly there were three military factions: the old-generation hardliners; the younger-generation officers mainly composed of Kim Jong Il supporters; and a neutral faction indifferent to the old-young conflicts. Another potential source of intra-military discord was a rift between the Pyongyang garrison command and the field army.

A wider cleavage that developed in the power circle was the intergenerational split that had been forming along the two different leadership lines of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. As part of the father-to-son succession plan, Kim Il Sung had made every effort to create Kim Jong Il's own power base. Based on his father's strong support, Kim Jong Il prepared a solid power base in the ruling troika--the party, the state, and the army. Against this backdrop, however, North Korea's power structure became "dualistic," with two semi-independent hierarchies of authority and two self-sustaining chains of command--one leading to Kim Il Sung and another leading to Kim Jong Il. Whereas Kim Il Sung's power structure was firmly founded on the old-generation revolutionaries, Kim Jong Il's command line was built around the younger elite of the three-revolution squads, and the graduates of Mankyongdae Revolutionary Academy, Namsan School, and Kimil-sung University. The death of Kim Il Sung therefore signaled a dramatic shift of power toward the Kim Jong Il line. A radical power shift could have triggered repercussions from the old guards who had doubts about Kim Jong Il's leadership capacity. …

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