Succession, Transition and a New Era: What’s ahead for North Korea’s New Leader

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; DPRK) has its political system based on so-called Juche ideology.  The ideology combines a story of the nation’s history and the traditional Confucian beliefs in social place and succession, with a progressive socialism. It is fiercely loyal to its ethnic and national identity as well as the filial nature of its leadership structure.

To an extent, it could be said that each citizen of the country regards himself or herself as a small but essential cog in the wheels of the overall entity, the nation, which is naturally led by its head.  Therefore the right of the head of the country to filial succession is accepted as a natural process of leadership transition from one generation to the next.

The country was founded by Il-sung Kim whose adroit leadership domestically, as well as in foreign affairs, ensured the establishment of DPRK in northern half of the peninsula with firm international support from Russia (USSR) and China (PRC).

He has done a remarkable job of leadership during the rebuilding of the country following the destruction of the Korean War. He commands an absolute, unanimous and an eternal respect of the people of the country as a founding father and even addressed affectionately as a “Father.”

Upon the death of Il-sung Kim in 1994, his son Jong-il Kim, who had been groomed for the position for more than ten years succeeded the elder Kim.

However, out of deference for his father, he did not formally assume the title of head of the country for three years. Jong-il Kim was a highly intelligent, adroit politician with a clear vision for the future of the country and love for its people.  He traveled and maintained contact with people constantly during his leadership.

During Jong-il Kim’s leadership, the country was plagued by a series of natural disasters and resulting food shortage.  Fellow socialist countries exhibited a lack of support, mainly because of the breakup of the USSR during the same time period.

The U.S. in alliance with South Korea, also imposed a harsh isolation on the country, and maintained a hostile dialogue about North Korea, constantly vilifying Jong-il Kim, erroneously predicting regime collapse, repeatedly conducting dangerous military maneuvers close to its boundaries, and refusing to enter into normalized relationship with North Korea by upgrading the 60-year-old existing armistice treaty between the two countries to a peace treaty.

This activity on the part of the U.S. naturally led Jong-il Kim to place national defense and military preparedness high on the agenda of his regime, thus leading to its “Military First Policy.” 

With 1.2 million citizens serving in the armed forces, the policy placed 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the hands of the military, and helped the country to fund its emergence as an open and proven nuclear power.

Since the successful building this deterrence force, both conventional and nuclear, recently Jong-il Kim  began to turn his policy priority to that of economic development with emphasis on light industry, the energy industry, and other industries improving the general quality of people’s daily lives, under the slogan “Strong Prosperous Country.”

The year 2012 was to mark the stepping stone toward this goal, however, Kim died on December 17, 2011, during one of his routine inspection trips, before he could begin to implement his 2012 economic plan.

Jong-Il Kim’s rule was also marked by efforts toward reconciliation of the two Koreas, and steps toward reunification.

On June 15, 2000, Jong-il Kim met with President Dae-jung Kim of South Korea and signed a historical document known as the “6-15 Joint Declaration between South and North Korea” which was to be used to pave the way to eventual re-unification of the two halves of Korea.

Seven years later, on October 4, 2007, he met with President Moo-hyun Roh of South Korea and produced “10-4 Agreement” which reaffirmed the principle and agreed on many significant and specific cooperative projects.

Irrespective of unfair and rootless vilification of his image in U.S. propaganda, Jong-il Kim was loved by his people who called him “Dear Leader.” They adored him for his constant attention to people’s living condition and food supply, for instance. This was amply evidenced by the emotional and spontaneous outpouring of mourning by people at his funeral in the streets of Pyongyang.

His health condition had been known widely and his sudden demise on December 17 was not entirely unexpected, thus it is natural to assume that a contingency plan for leadership was in place.

Therefore to many North Korea observers, including the author, the smooth succession of leadership power from the 17-year-reign of Jong-il Kim to that of son Jong-un Kim was not surprising but fully expected.

After all, Jong-un had been appointed to the position of vice chairman of the party military committee, which effectively rules the country, a year ago by his father, the committee chair. Indeed, this succession was natural, given the understanding of North Korean ideology, particularly the view of the country as an organism.

Therefore some speculations on possible unrest, discordance among its leadership groups, military provocation in the peninsula to raise the tension to tighten the grasp of the power by the new leader, or even collapse of the country, were entirely baseless, and indicate only ignorance on the part of the speculators about the nature of North Korean society.

Now the new era has begun in North Korea under the leadership of Jong-un Kim, a 29 year old, third son of Jong-il, who went to secondary school in Switzerland, with some military education in Pyongyang, and was made a four-star general.

Under the principle of filial succession, however, we can be sure that the Juche-based ideology of the country, in addition to various policy directions set by his predecessor Jong-il, will be followed faithfully and to the latter. There may even be a will left by his father, which will be followed faithfully.

Initially, Jong-un Kim’s leadership will have to be assisted by a collective leadership of central committees of the party, military, cabinet and youth corps; he chairs all of these committees anyway. In this process, he will benefit by the presence of his aunt (Kyung-hi Kim), her husband (Sung-taik Jang) who are already well positioned at various high levels, and collectively represent a considerable knowledge of the outside world.

A particularly important symbol of military support and liaison will be the presence of Gen. Yong-ho Ri, whom his father specifically appointed, along with Jong-un, as vice-chairman of the party military committee.

The new leader will develop his own style of leadership, although he will need to follow the policy principles laid down by his father, with changes based on his own personal and generational differences and also those of his followers in the power structure. The basic tenets of North Korea, such as the military-first policy, reunification, nuclear deterrence, and the unfinished economic development plan; “Strong, Prosperous Country” campaign, will remain.

However, there are areas in which he might be able to show policy creativity and flexibility. For example, he might express firmly and publicly that he will no longer deal with the conservative unpopular current South Korean regime and will develop new and productive relations with a progressive liberal government that may emerge from this year’s elections there.

Given a regime change in South Korea this year, he will mark the year 2013 as the beginning of a new era in the relationship of the two Koreas, not only as the return of 6-15 and 10-4 accords signifying the reconciliation achieved by his father’s generation, but also as a step forward,  toward economic cooperation and mutual resources exchange.  Such resource exchange could include food, mining products, energy resources, and scientific and engineering knowledge.

Finally, there should be a non-aggression treaty leading to a mutually-acceptable and staged reduction of defense expenditures. He may specifically declare that North Korea’s nuclear weapons posture is aimed at deterrence against a threat from outside the peninsula and that, eventually,  its nuclear system could be placed under the joint control of South and North; as a unified Korea with a firm nuclear deterrence.

In order to achieve the above cooperative plan, he might propose a third summit meeting between the two Koreas, after the emergence of a new progressive and liberal regime in South Korea in 2013, for which he may show, dramatically his willingness to visit Seoul to meet with the new leader of the South.

North Korea’s new leader might also declare policy changes dealing with the noting that the hostility between the two is now beyond his generation, thus a new normalized international relation is in order.

The negotiation for this must begin as soon as possible and it should be based on mutual respect, without any preconditions that might compromise the sovereignty of the country of North Korea.

It must be in cognizance of the fact that North Korea is a full member of the United Nations and also currently has normal diplomatic relations with over 100 countries of the world with 41 embassies each headed by a full ambassador from Pyongyang. His initial proposal for the negotiation may also state that during the process, no military provocations by the U.S. and South Korea in the form of regularly-scheduled joint maneuvers are to be held.

On the other hand, North Korea should be willing to hold any weapons export to other countries, test firings of its missiles, and to postpone more testing of its nuclear weapons system. Jong-un Kim may also state that the successful negotiation does not precondition the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the peninsula, however, U.S. forces could be confined to certain areas or ports in the peninsula.

Upon successful conclusion of the negotiation and the dawn of new era between U.S. and North Korea, Kim Jong-un may propose a personal visit to Washington, DC to hold a first-ever summit meeting between the countries.

The so-called “Young General” Jong-un Kim is only 29 years old. If a generation is to be measured by number of years, they say a 30-year span represents a generation. That means North Korea could be led by a single leader for a generation, potentially with huge changes in every aspect of the country and the whole Korean peninsula.  This could all happen before the new leader is 59 years old! In South Korea during this period there might be seven past presidents, and in the U.S. possibly four or more past presidents during this time.

With the many policy decisions to be made in the near future, and the length of time the new leader could potentially serve, it is apparent that Jong-un Kim has the potential to leave a gigantic mark on the history of the Korean peninsula and the world.


Moon J. Pak is a physician with a specialty in internal medicine, who lives and practices in Rochester, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit.  He is a Senior Vice President of the Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC) which promotes a variety of cultural and scientific exchanges between the U.S. and North Korea. He also chairs the U.S.-DPRK Medical Science Exchange Committee (UDMEDEX) of the KANCC.


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