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North Korea's Power Transfer Moving Smoothly

Dec 28, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:10 am

Capping more than a week of public mourning, North Korea staged a dramatic state funeral for its late leader, Kim Jong Il. Leading the ceremonies was Kim's third son and apparent successor, Kim Jong Un.

North Korean media reports portray the younger Kim, who is reportedly in his late 20s, in full control of the impoverished, nuclear-armed country. But while consolidating his political power may be easy, establishing his legitimacy will be tougher.

Flanked by army jeeps, Kim walked at the head of a black limousine bearing his father's casket. Another limousine followed bearing a portrait of Kim Jong Il, smiling in his trademark khaki jumpsuit.

The cortege went on, rolling through the snow-covered streets of Pyongyang, which were lined with weeping, chest-beating soldiers and civilians.

While the displays of emotion appeared genuine for some, at times they also seemed ritualistic and histrionic.

"The Dear Leader worked only for the people's happiness," a state television announcer lamented. "And now those people are bursting into tears at the sight of his body being taken to his father's mausoleum."

Since Kim's death on Dec. 17, his son has moved quickly to take charge of the ruling Worker's Party, the state and the military. But analysts believe the real power behind the young Kim is his uncle and mentor, Jang Song Taek, who once served as Kim Jong Il's chief adviser.

Chung Min Lee, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Seoul's Yonsei University, explains: "Jang Song Taek is the most senior member of the Kim family and as a result, he has a critical role to play. Whether he will be able to rule behind the throne, as it were, nobody really knows. But the key message here is the army and the party and the Kim family are one."

While the power transition appears to be growing smoothly now, North Korea's leaders have had some difficulties grooming the young Kim for power, in the nearly three years since his father suffered a stroke.

Two armed attacks on South Korea and a domestic currency change were all supposed to build up the young Kim's resume. But Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at the Korean Institute of National Unification in Seoul, says they turned out to be liabilities instead of assets.

"They have nothing to show to give credit to Kim Jong Un, so that's why North Korea is trying to find legitimacy based on his family background," he says.

Experts say North Korean elites generally buy into the Kim royal bloodline and a militarized, nuclear-armed state as sources of legitimacy.

North Korea expert Brian Myers of Dongseo University in Busan says that North Korea can't pin hopes for legitimacy on economic performance, because its neighbors to the South are doing it so much better.

"I can't see who inside the elite would have an interest in converting North Korea from a military-first state, from a very successful far-right state, into a poor man's version of South Korea," Myers says.

Per capita incomes in South Korea are at least 13 times higher than those in the North; were the North to open up, experts predict, its government could not meet expectations of higher living standards.

This is why, says Yonsei's Chung Min Lee, North Korea works only as a closed system. And its generals are not wrong in fearing that they could lose power if they try the same market reforms that have worked for China and Vietnam.

"As long as they maintain that closed system, that regime will survive. But the moment they begin to pry open their doors, the moment that technology and capital and other kinds of news comes in, that is the beginning of the end of the Kim Dynasty."

The problem with hereditary dynasties, of course, is that each ruler tends to have less power than the previous generation, and justifying the regime's existence gets harder and harder.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

North Korean's staged a dramatic goodbye for their late leader Kim Jong Il today with a state funeral after a week of public mourning. Leading the ceremonies was Kim's third son and apparent successor, Kim Jong Un.

North Korean media portray the young Kim in full control of the impoverished, nuclear-armed country. NPR Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul that while consolidating his political power may be easy, establishing his legitimacy will be tougher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Flanked by army jeeps, heir-apparent Kim Jong Un walked at the head of a black limousine bearing his father's casket. Another limousine followed, carrying a giant portrait of Kim Jong Il smiling in his trademark khaki jumpsuit.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KUHN: The cortege went on, rolling through the snow-covered streets of Pyongyang, which were lined with weeping, chest-beating soldiers and civilians. The displays of emotion sometimes appeared genuine, sometimes just ritualistic and histrionic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The Dear Leader worked only for the people's happiness, a state television announcer lamented. And now those people are bursting into tears at the sight of his body being taken to his father's mausoleum.

Since Kim's death on December 17th, his son has quickly moved to the top of the ruling party, the state and the military. But analysts believe the real power behind the young Kim is his uncle and mentor Chang Sung Taek.

Chung Min Lee, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Seoul's Yonsei University explains.

CHUNG MIN LEE: Chang Sung Taek is the most senior member of the Kim family and as a result, he has a critical role to play. Whether he will be able to rule behind the throne, as it were, nobody really knows. But the key message here is the army and the party and the Kim family are one.

KUHN: The succession appears to be going smoothly for now. But in the nearly three years since Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, his son's grooming has suffered some setbacks. Two armed attacks on South Korea and a domestic currency reform were all supposed to build up the young Kim's resume. But Chai Jin Wook, a North Korea expert at the Korean Institute of National Unification in Seoul, says they all turned out to be costly blunders.

CHAI JIN WOOK: They have nothing to show to give credit to Kim Jong Un, so that's why North Korea is trying to find legitimacy based on his family background.

KUHN: Experts say North Korean elites generally buy into the Kim royal bloodline and a militarized, nuclear-armed state as sources of legitimacy. North Korea expert Bryan Myers of Dongseo University in Busan says that North Korea can't pin its hopes for legitimacy on economic performance, because its neighbors to the South are doing it so much better.

BRYAN MYERS: I can't see who inside the elite would have an interest in converting North Korea from a military-first state - from a very successful far-right state - into a kind of poor man's version of South Korea.

KUHN: Per capita incomes in South Korea are at least 13 times higher than those in the North. And were the North to open up, experts predict its government could not meet expectations of higher living standards.

This is why, says Yonsei's Chung Min Lee, North Korea only works as a closed system. And its generals are not wrong in fearing that they could lose power if they try the same market reforms as China and Vietnam.

LEE: As long as they maintain that closed system, that regime will survive. But the moment they begin to pry open their doors, the moment that technology and capital and other types of news comes in, that is the beginning of the end of the Kim Dynasty.

KUHN: But the problem with hereditary dynasties, of course, is that each ruler tends to have less power than the previous generation and justifying the regime's existence just gets harder and harder.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.