Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

By Selig S. Harrison | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Kim Jong Il and His Successors

PREDICTIONS of a collapse are often based on an either-or dichotomy: Kim Jong Il either proves to be a strong leader and pushes through systematic economic reforms or is so weak that the economy continues to stagnate, discontent grows, and rampant factionalism brings down the entire structure of the North Korean state. But the reality may well lie in a more nuanced assessment.

Kim Jong Il is not a charismatic leader like his father and is not even attempting to emulate the Kim Il Sung leadership model. He has created a new constitutional structure in which the armed forces provide his personal power base and have replaced the Workers Party as the focus of political authority. North Korea has already had a bloodless military coup. Thus, a stable transition from the Kim Jong Il regime to a successor regime could well occur without rampant factionalism, since the armed forces leadership would continue to provide the power base and political anchorage for the new leadership as it does for Kim Jong Il.

It is precisely because he does not have his father's charisma or monolithic personal control that Kim Jong Il is pursuing a cautious course of “reform by stealth.” Pyongyang in 2001 was a jungle of turf fights between contending interest groups and ideological battles between hawks and doves seeking to influence Kim's policy decisions. Nevertheless, his measured reform process is likely to gain momentum during his tenure and set the stage for a more formal doctrinal shift to pragmatic economic policies either under his leadership or that of his successors. For the foreseeable future, regardless of the pace of reform, Kim Jong Il is needed as a legitimizing symbol of continuity with the Kim Il Sung era and is not likely to be replaced.


OUT OF THE SHADOW OF KIM IL SUNG

For the first six years after his father's death in 1994, Kim Jong Il remained a reclusive man of mystery. The Western media, parroting the disinformation disseminated by South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies, depicted him as a flaky, dissolute dimwit, dangerously irrational and

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