28/09/2010 03:08:06
Enigmatic North Korea's succession struggle
The appointment of Kim Jong-un, who is only about 27 years old, as a general of the North Korean army is a fascinating development that could favor the United States and all those hoping for internal changes capable of ending the country’s belligerent isolation from the international community.
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There is speculation that this elevation signals his anointment at a later stage as Kim Jong-il's successor because the dictator's health may be declining after slow recovery from a stroke two years ago. Whether or not that happens, the youngest son's rise is revelatory because he is one of very few top-level North Koreans to have spent time outside the country. He has experienced the benefits of economic development in China and other Asian countries he visited.

In the complex North Korean system, Kim Jong-un's appointment is not necessarily a done deal putting him in line for succession. His father has stern dictatorial power but he rules with the consent of the army's top echelons. They must have agreed to the youngest son's new position but that does not mean that tensions are settled among the top generals about who should rule after Kim Jong-il's demise.

An indication of bets being hedged is the simultaneous elevation of his sister Kyong-hui to the rank of general. Her husband Jang Song-thaek, is vice chairman of the National Defence Commission, which is very powerful in policy making. Its influence permeates upwards through the top decision-making institutions, all of which are opaque domestically as well as to the world.

There is an ongoing tussle between those who want to bring a higher level of economic development to North Korea and those who fear that even slightly more prosperity might erode their near absolute control over the people. It has intensified as doubts grow about the ailing President's grip on life. What happens if he suddenly collapses soon?

This fear might have led to Kim Jong-un being placed under the mentorship of his experienced brother-in-law who is reported to be in the job since 2004. Jang Song-thaek is thought to be influential in fixing policy towards the US, South Korea and China, including the recent saber-rattling over the sinking of a South Korean ship. But he was out of favor for several years and it is still unclear whether he has been restored to the good graces of his father-in-law.

But the placement of Jang Song-thaek's wife as a general alongside the youngest son places all three firmly in the power equations of the army and could indicate rehabilitation and rising influence for the son-in-law. This gives cause for cautious optimism since informed observers in Asia think Jang Song-thaek is a moderate compared to the old-timer generals. He would prefer a start to a guarded rapprochement with the international community even on nuclear issues, partly to improve economic growth through more foreign trade and other changes in governance.

If he coaches and mentors Kim Jong-un like an undeclared regent during the novice's early years, the entire region might be able to breathe more easily. There is too little firm information about Jang Song-thaek's beliefs and his political clout over the National Defence Commission's hardliner members to know how this cookie might crumble. But there are some reasons for hope.


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