THE STUDY DECEMBER 19, 2011
Shock at the news of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s death is giving way to nervousness about what might come next for the already-unstable Korean peninsula. The initial signs are that Kim Jong-un, the deceased leader’s youngest son, will succeed his father. But will the country’s elites accept Kim Jong-un as a leader? What are the chances of internal opposition, or even a coup against the Kim dynasty?
Because North Korea is so isolated, predicting its future is notoriously difficult. But a 2010 paper in the journal International Security suggests that the regime may not be fully prepared for this transition. The authors, Daniel Byman of Georgetown and Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth, noted that while “Kim Jong-il is likely to leave power not because of mutinous cadres or angry masses, but because he dies in office,” his regime had still “not laid the groundwork for a smooth transition.” Kim Jong-il himself had been named as his father’s successor nearly a decade and a half before he actually took power. During that time, the authors note, he was able to consolidate power and build up his own cult of personality. But by the time this article was published, Kim Jong-il had still not named his own successor—his son Kim Jong-un was merely rumored to be next in line. “In the absence of such preparations—for example, in the event of Kim Jong-il’s abrupt death,” the authors warn, “contested succession is more likely, the selectorate [the regime elite] may be divided, and the security forces may not know whom to turn to for orders, making regime collapse a possibility.”