The Coming North Korean Coup?

by Gordon G. Chang | September 9, 2010

In the next few days—perhaps Thursday—the Korean Workers’ Party will begin its national conference, the first since 1966. The meeting, according to state media, will “mark a meaningful chapter in the history of our party.” Some reports indicate that the gathering already started on Monday, with the registration of participants.

The event, the third in the history of North Korea, is the result of a national mass mobilization. South Korean sources say military units have been converging on Pyongyang, presumably to take part in a show of might. China’s Xinhua News Agency has issued dispatches about rehearsals in the North Korean capital for a grand celebration, with participants waving red and pink plastic flowers.

In all probability, the party conference will coincide with Thursday’s celebration of the sixty-second anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea formally calls itself. As such, the event looks like it has been scheduled to boost the legitimacy of Kim-family rule.

Kim Il-Sung founded the North Korean state, and power passed to his son, Kim Jong-Il, upon his sudden death in 1994. Kim Jong-Il is at this moment readying the succession to his youngest acknowledged son, Kim Jong-Un. We don’t know much about the dictator-in-waiting except that he is in his late twenties, went to private school in Switzerland, loves Eric Clapton’s music, and is as chubby and ruthless as his dad.

This week’s conference looks like the product of a well-prepared succession process, but that is only partly true. Until recently, discussing succession in North Korea was essentially a crime, a one-way ticket to years of hard labor. Kim Jong-Il’s August 2008 stroke, however, changed that. Since then, Pyongyang has been abuzz with talk about the power transition.

Kim Il-Sung took about two decades to arrange succession to his son, the first heredity transfer in a communist state. Now, Kim Jong-Il has been rushing to put succession planning into place, along the way discarding his first two sons as unsuitable. His idea of passing the throne to Jong-Un has not been greeted with universal acceptance. There are signs of power struggle and rumors of palace intrigue. Since this spring, for instance, there has been a series of hard-to-explain deaths of senior officials.

Almost anything can occur at the party conference. Everyone will be watching what happens to the youngest Kim. More interesting, however, will be events surrounding Jang Sung-Taek, widely seen as the regent for young Jong-Un. Jang, Kim Jong-Il’s brother-in-law, has already accumulated substantial authority in the last two years, especially over the security services. In all probability, Kim Jong-Il is uneasy about handing over so much responsibility to a non-Kim, but he has no choice if he wants his not-too-well-prepared son to eventually take over.

So far, Kim has given his son a post inside the National Defense Commission, the most powerful body in North Korea. The army, the regime’s backstop, is generally on board with Jong-Un because most flag officers realize their favored position in society is dependent on the Kim family.

But Jong-Un’s future is by no means assured. China probably wants him out of the way so that there can be a collective leadership. Moreover, ambitious generals and even-more-dangerous colonels could be scheming. Finally, Jang Sung-Taek may not want to relinquish power when Kim Jong-Il has passed from the scene, either naturally or otherwise.

What should we be looking for this week? If Jong-Un is proclaimed successor at the party conference, we know his dad, Kim Jong-Il, is close to death. It’s not his father’s style to cede power quickly. It’s more likely the young son will be given one or more party posts. It’s even possible that the party machinery will be merely reorganized to allow the young Kim to build his power base. The last outcome would indicate continued resistance to Kim’s succession planning.

When Kim Il-Sung died of a heart attack—his son may have hastened death by preventing medical treatment—succession plans had been in place for a long time. Despite the North’s troubles then, the Great Leader was revered throughout the nation. Now, Kim Jong-Il is not nearly as well respected, and his succession planning has been haphazard. That means a smooth transition in this militant nuclear state is the least likely outcome in the years—possibly months—ahead.

Gordon G. Chang is a Forbes.com columnist and the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.

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